Oklahoma!

Harvest Rain Theatre Company at The Concert Hall, QPAC in Brisbane

“Oh what a beautiful Mornin’! Oh what a beautiful day! I got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way”

Cowboy Curly and farm girl Laurey tease each other but are too stubborn to admit their feelings. When farmhand Jud asks Laurey to the box social, she accepts to spite Curly but she later finds Jud is obssessive and determined to make her his own. Meanwhile Laurey’s friend, the empty headed Ado Annie has trouble staying true to her fiancée when the peddler Ali Hakim tries to woo her, she’s “just a girl who cain’t say no.”

This show was ground-breaking in its day as the first fully integrated musical and longest running of its time. 70 years later, the show is considered a classic and still performed around the globe. While people today may not agree with all the ideologies of America’s past, the basic human values and dreams presented in Oklahoma! are eternal. The characters have such depth and three-dimensionality, even the villain and the comedic subplot characters are given poignant moments.

I could not possibly be critical of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s book or score for Oklahoma! As a critic I have no hesitations in being pernickety over the works of many talented artists and wonderful shows, but even I draw the line at fault-finding in a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. That stuff is critic kryptonite. I could cavil the show for its choices in casting, costumes, set design, choreography… at least I could if the show wasn’t produced by Harvest Rain Theatre Company, one of (if not the) finest musical theatre companies in Brisbane.

Making their professional debut, Harvest Rain has excelled itself in casting. At first glance Ian Stenlake appears a tad too old to play Curly, especially opposite a young Laurey. But his natural charm and great chemistry with Angela Harding made the role his. With such a sweet voice, Harding is definitely an actress to watch out for. Andy Conaghan is equally impressive with a deep soulful voice that made Jud Fry’s ‘Lonely Room’ such a show-stopping number. Even though he’s the villain of the piece the audience constantly felt sympathy for him. ‘Lonely Room’ changes him from a creepy loner to an anguished outcast and even though we want Curly and Laurey to end up together, Conaghan’s desperate portrayal of Jud during the bidding scene sees that we continue to empathise with him a little.

The love triangle between Ali Hakim (Matty Johnston), Will Parker (Glenn Ferguson) and Ado Annie (Erika Naddel) created most of the shows laughs as the actors hammed up their roles. Naddel’s belt during ‘I Can’t Say No’ puts Gloria Grahame’s number in the film version to shame while missing none of the humour. Naddel constantly utilised the accent and various personality traits of character for laughs, especially the frequent exclamations of “pruuurdy!” (translation: pretty). All of the accents seemed over-exaggerated at first but the lyrics demand those inflections and it’s something you get used to.

I found many of the costumes to be gaudy and I’m not just talking about the outfits of gaudy characters like Ali Hakim and Gertie Cummings. The colours were just unnaturally bright, especially against the wonderful rustic set which was also designed by Josh McIntosh in his dual role of costume and set designer. Jud’s smoke house in particular created such a sense of the character; while others sing and dance in sunlit cornfields, he festers away in a dark room surrounded by girlie pictures.

Callum Mansfield’s choreography is always a highlight of Harvest Rain productions which explains the company’s almost constant choice of dance filled shows. Oklahoma! is no exception with ‘Kansas City,’ ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’ and of course ‘Laurey Makes Up Her Mind.’ The dream ballet allows the audience to see into Laurey’s psyche, her hopes and fears displayed in one heavily metaphoric number through the majesty of dance. Most productions use ballet dancers to double as the characters during this sequence but the actors at Harvest Rain proved talented enough to perform it themselves. This landmark number is one of the reasons Oklahoma! is so highly regarded, if I didn’t feel it was up to scratch, this review would surely have begun with a few expletives.

The recent success of South Pacific proved that musical theatre classics are still loved yet there hasn’t been a sudden surge of old gems re-appearing on Brisbane stages. Harvest Rain Theatre Company was better known for more modern musicals and even original productions, so their triumph with Oklahoma! demonstrates just how easily classics are able to fit into any company’s repertoire. Think of all the classics us theatre fans are missing out on because theatre companies are trying to appeal to non-musical people by being new and edgy. Come on Companies! I don’t want to wait years to see the likes of Pal Joey or Lady in the Dark!

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