Oklahoma! (Beenleigh Theatre Group)
Crete Street Theatre
November 16 – December 1
If there is one thing people know about Rodgers and Hammerstein, it is that they wrote incredibly catchy songs. This was the case from the musical theatre writing team’s first collaboration “Oklahoma!” and the enduring popularity the show is certainly evident in the capacity audience at Beenleigh Theatre Company’s 40th Anniversary production.
Under Conductor Julie Whiting, the 13-strong orchestra soars the audience through the musical’s memorable melodies in its lush and full overture, as its strings glide us into the opening scene of a golden hazed meadow with corn as high as an elephant’s eye. Even with the buoyancy of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’ and ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, however, it takes a little while for the show to find its feet and natural dialogue rhythm of pace and pause to move the story along.
The ground-breaking musical presents a classic narrative: in 1906, in the Native American Territory that wouldn’t become the state of Oklahoma until later that same year, two men, cowboy Curly McLain (Connor Hawkins) and farmhand Jud Fry (Lachlan Clark), fight for the affections of farm girl Laurey Williams (Samantha Paterson).
The book musical evokes a range of audience emotions, including laughter. Allison Pattinson’s comic timing as the no-nonsense, respected community leader Aunt Eller sets this tone alongside Josh Cathcart’s simple, sprightly Will Parker who, having just returned from Kansas City, is full of happy-go lucky youthful exuberance in his quest to keep 50 dollars in his pocket to be allowed to marry the ‘Can’t Say No’ young Ado Annie (Terri Woodfine). Woodfine herself has perhaps the most fun on stage as the flighty, feisty Ado Annie who is in the terrible fix of trying to decide between cowboy Parker and a Persian traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Mike Zarate).
The significance of “Oklahoma!” as a musical milestone in its integration of songs and dances into the story often leads to consideration of only its quaint numbers, however, it is a show full of dark undertones. Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Oklahoma” touches on this, through presentation of ranch hand Jud as more menacing outsider than misunderstood loner. Despite his fearful character, however, Clark allows his voice to shine through. Equally excellent, Hawkins brings a naturalness to his moments as the affable and charming cowboy Curly. His rich and resonant vocals are reminiscent of matinee-idol Howard Keel himself and they provide a solid base for blend with Paterson’s accomplished sound in the romantic duo’s playful duet, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’.
Ultimately, “Oklahoma” is all about the music and some songs work better than others and are rightly reprised. While ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ sets the sunny tone that sweeps the audience into the score, ‘Poor Jud is Dead’, where Curly goes to the squalid shack where Jud lives to talk with him, is despicable in content, with Curly’s suggestion that since Jud does not feel appreciated, he could hang himself. Not only does the scene potentially stand in direct contradiction to any unknowing audience expectations of lightweight entertainment, but it drags an already-long Act One out even more.
Act Two emerges as a livelier affair, uplifting, warm and full of infectious energy. While its fight scenes sometimes fail to connect (#literally), there is much wit to its rousing, brass-filled opening chorus number, ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’. Indeed, the second act zings with humour and song, including the titular celebration of the territory’s impending statehood, which stands as a show highlight thanks to Hawkin’s gusto lead vocals.
Although lighting evokes the varied emotions of the end-of-Act-One dream becoming nightmare sequence that sees a confused Laurey imagining a life with Curly and then Jud, its leisurely choreography is now more nostalgic than innovative. Though not a choreographic highlight like the social dance inspired ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’, the dance still tells a story, so remains necessary for the narrative’s progression.
Although the show is longer than the usual musical length, at over three hours duration, Act Two’s action at least zips along under Mardi Schon’s direction. As such, the tribute to the American frontier seems very much like a show of two distinct halves, dark and torrid subtext and folksy romanticism and optimism of community spirit. The poise between respect and irreverence may not convey a precisely defined vision, but the show’s stylish orchestrations provide a fitting homage, contagiously celebratory in its special anniversary conclusion which, in matinee performance, saw many of the Group’s 1978 cast members joining on stage with the large cast of contemporary counterparts.