Is there a better time than this to revisit an old-fashioned musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein? Right now, while the movie musical is being redefined by Moulin Rouge, theatres all around Australia, and overseas, are ringing to the sounds of a new wave of old movie musicals revived for the stage.
And the Ignatians’ production of Oklahoma, directed by Carolyn Kinniburgh, is a faithful version of an old favourite, down to the choice of the leading lady. Benita Stubbs, as Laurie, bears an uncanny resemblance to the movie original, Shirley Jones, and is one of a large cast of very capable and enthusiastic performers who offer a lively and enjoyable night’s entertainment. The program notes give no indication of what else the performers have done, but the quality of their performance breathed life into the definition of an amateur as one who cultivates their art for personal pleasure rather than gain. They had clearly cultivated their art and, as they sang and danced up a storm, they were certainly having a good time that reached out to, and included, the audience.
The singers had a justified confidence in the capacity of their voices to deliver full-throated versions of their songs, whether they were singing solo, in duets, or as a finely tuned chorus. The small orchestra supported them ably all the way, without over-riding or losing them at any time; and choreographer Ruth Gabriel must have been extremely satisfied with the sure-footed dancers who cavorted expertly and exuberantly through her steps.
For someone of my vintage, this is a hit-filled show, right from the outset, with a cheerful version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin”’ by Scott Bolland as Curly. Oklahoma was a new type of musical in its day, in its use of songs to advance the plot. It did this through a mix that included romantic songs, narrative songs, and, most of all, funny songs. Humour is an important element in Oklahoma, and several of the musical numbers required that the singers could not only dance, but also make us laugh. And they did. Much of the comic relief fell into the lap of the engaging Michael Corcoran, as Will Parker, who had fun with his contribution to “Kansas City” and “All or Nothin'”. In the latter, he was joined by his sometime betrothed, Ado Annie Carnes (played by Susie Carter), who also had a role and her own song (“I Can’t Say No”) that were played for laughs. To balance them, Jeremy Whitlock gave Jud Fry the requisite menace while Mark Tsang added a brooding sensuousness to the dream ballet sequence Jud (and, therefore, accentuated the perhaps slightly too-youthful freshness of his rival in that sequence, Ronan Lock’s Curly).
Other standouts in the cast of 36 players include Algernon Rowe as Ali Hakim, the peddler who is torn between his love of freedom and his lust for women, Elspeth Sutherland, who starts out looking a tad young to be Aunt Eller but has grown into the part by the end of the show, and the Can-Can Girls, who can can-can.
But Oklahoma isn’t just singing and dancing. Between times, there’s the dialogue. And, especially in the first half, there was a problem with the American accents, particularly Bolland’s. The problem for me was over-kill, to the point where it was often quite difficult to understand what was being said. By comparison, the songs were very clearly enunciated. Fortunately, however, as things got into their stride those who had been overdoing their Western drawl gradually pulled back to a more intelligible level.
The size of the stage at the Schonell Theatre (in the University of Queensland) easily accommodated the vigorous activities of the whole troupe, against scenery that was simple but effective in conveying the wide open spaces and colours of the west of America at a time when it was still a bit wild.
All in all, this is a happy show which will remind those whose memories go back far enough, of the tuneful music of another era. And for those who weren’t around the first time round, this polished production by a youthful cast is a great introduction to a classic musical.