Oklahoma! does justice to musical theatre

A misguided presumption held by many infers that musical theatre exists to provide audiences with a superficial high by creating overly saccharine worlds that artfully skim over life’s moral complexities. The genre, so often dismissed as ‘feel good’ frippery, is denounced for producing simple tales of good prospering over evil that require little real intellectual engagement.

One need look no further than Rachel Kavanaugh’s triumphant rendition of Oklahoma! to illustrate how drastic an over-simplification this is.

Far from shying away from complicated issues, a veritable panoply of themes ranging from adoration and hope to jealousy and sexual violence come together to produce a plot rich with human experience, both good and bad, accompanied by an exquisite score.

Although the performance is guaranteed to have all audience members emerge from it in a jubilant trance, Nic Greenshields’ talents ensure that this production is far from a one dimensional over-indulgence of feel-good schmaltz.

Creating a character at times painfully unsettling, at others heartbreakingly flawed, Greenshields excelled as Judd Fry. Set in a cleverly constructed den of inequity for one, his rendition of ‘Lonely Room’ was mesmerising. Ashley Day’s Curley positively brims with just the right amount of charismatic aplomb to counteract a youthful naïvety, although his singing would have benefitted from a more sensitive microphone. Curley’s headstrong yet doting fiancé Laurey, played by Charlotte Wakefield, is at times cast into the shadows by Lucy May Barker’s excellent portrayal of the exuberant Ado Annie. Barker shone in ‘All Er Nothin’, a punchy duet with James O’Connel playing Will.

However, Wakefield’s performance during the balletic dream scene wholly redeemed her. Accompanied by a superb orchestral performance, the only fault to be found in Drew McOnie’s choreography was that it was not more liberally sprinkled through the production.

PAR cans ensured the lighting was naturalistic, subtly evoking the feel of unending Oklahoman fields. This was echoed by a highly adaptable travelling set that achieved ample quantities of both depth and elevation in structures that varied from pokey smokehouses to vast barns.

Oklahoma! is the perfect expression of post-war zeitgeist. Upon its 1946 debut, Oklahoma! was a departure from previous trends, where musicals were often a vehicle for showcasing individual talent. America emerged post-war and, in theory, promoted a melting pot society that embraced the homogenous whole, united in chasing the American dream. Similarly, Oklahoma! was intended to demonstrate cohesive excellence as opposed to highlighting individual gifts.

Kavanaugh’s production of such an enduring classic deftly typifies this. While not an utterly flawless production, overall Oklahoma! is a superb example of a strong cast, crew and orchestra uniting to produce a musical that is a credit to its genre.

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