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!

Avenue Q

The Playhouse Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“I can make you feel special when it sucks to be you.”

Princeton leaves college with a useless degree and struggles with life in the real world, luckily the neighbours in Avenue Q befriend him as they all have similar problems.

Brilliant in its simplicity, Avenue Q takes the format from children’s shows like Sesame Street and uses it to teach twenty something’s important life lessons, like how to come out of the closet or tell if a guy likes you. For a generation who learned their ABC’s from puppets, the parody is particularly fitting and piques the interest of people who don’t usually attend musical theatre. You’ll have heard me complain about shows that are made specifically to bring in non-musical fans (such as Fame) but that’s only because they tend to favour flashy exploits over content. Avenue Q doesn’t rely on the audience’s love of puppets for its humour or heart, the characters are hilarious and touching in all the right places.

As someone who is still trying to figure out what to do with my B.A, the show’s opening is very relatable. Princeton is fresh from college, looking for a purpose in life and trying to scrape by on little funds while still having fun with his friends. Who hasn’t been there? The songs are quite informative on how one should get by during this time in one’s life. We should all remember that doing things for others makes you feel better and when it sucks to be you, at least you’re not Gary Coleman. The only lesson I disagree on is ‘The Internet is for Porn.’ I know the internet is bursting with porn but there are other uses for it, a musical theatre website for example.

Older generations may find the humour incredibly crude but there was fair warning on advertisements that the show would contain full puppet nudity so if that’s not your thing: don’t see it. While people may have giggled the first couple of times a puppet swore, the humour never relies upon the fact that they are puppets being rude. When Kate monster says “normal people don’t just sit at home looking up porn on the internet.” there is a long pause and slow hand to face in disbelief before the reply, “you have no idea.” The actors know how to get laughs from theatre audiences and never fight for attention over the puppets.

Each production of Avenue Q has its own little changes to better suit the time and place. The 2003 Broadway version said not to get depressed because George Bush was “only for now” and this production promised the same of Tony Abbot, which I will hold them to. There are also little additions the actors threw in, ‘If You Were Gay’ the line “what does it matter to be what you do in bed with guys?” comes complete with crude hand gestures to specify what he may do in bed with guys.

Even though I am a big Wicked fan, it’s easy to see why this unique little show scooped up the main awards at The Tony’s that year. Even if musical theatre isn’t your thing, you’ll enjoy this show and as small scale productions are popping up across the globe so you have no excuses not to see it.

Next to Normal

Oscar Theatre Company at The Cremorne Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“Intense and very intimate, we do our dance”

Diana is bipolar depressive with delusional episodes which makes family life a bit of a struggle.

Next to Normal lost out on the Tony Award for best musical to Billy Elliot of all shows. Yet it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama which is only acquired by a piece of musical theatre every decade. So was this the well though-out drama the Pulitzer suggests or a show even less mediocre than Billy Elliot?

It’s the first one.

Mental illness is not an easy topic to sell because no one wants to really discuss it; Next to Normal is stunningly original in its attempt to convey the difficulties faced by those affected. South Park, Family Guy or The Simpsons often take a serious film/play or even real life situation and demonstrate how hilarious it would be in musical form (Stop the Planet of the Apes, I want to get off, Oh, Streetcar!, Terri Schiavo: The Musical or Helen keller! The Musical). A musical about mental illness seems like it would fit that criteria and maybe it would if they’d done it in a classic Lloyd Webber style. But musical theatre has a variety of ranges to handle any issue with dignity and good technique, as perfectly demonstrated by Next to Normal. Music is beautifully expressive and is able to communicate the fluctuating moods and sentiments of a mentally ill character better than other mediums. Listen to the song ‘My physcopharmacologist and I.’ The short scenes with Diana and her doctor tell you that she is not happy with the treatment but it’s the music that really expresses how overwhelming taking this medicine is to her.

Of course Diana’s husband and daughter express their feelings of frustration in wonderful songs such as ‘Everything Else’ but these are done in conventional musical theatre style. The exceptional songs are those that involve Diana and/or Gabriel. Gabriel is Diana’s son who died as a baby, which triggered her mental illness. He appears in the show as a teenager, the age he would be if he lived, not just as a delusion of Diana’s but as a manifestation of her mental illness. In the song ‘Superboy and the Invisible Girl,’ Natalie vents her anger at that lack of attention she receives from her mother and imagines Gabriel as this “Superboy.”Natalie’s imaged Gabriel stands behind her and joins in the chorus to further taunt her.

Finding someone to play the role of Gabriel must be a challenge, what with him playing the ideal son/ jealousy inducing brother and generally representing mental illness itself. Hearing that the director picked someone from a band with no previous acting experience was mildly surprising. I was even more surprised when he turned out to be excellent. You couldn’t fault any of the cast for their acting or singing. Though original Diana Alice Ripley is a fan favourite, this actress doesn’t lend too heavily on her interpretation, bringing out more the humorous elements of the character.

If I had to pick a fault with the book, it would be with the character Henry. A teen who takes an interest in Natalie, by all accounts introduces her to smoking pot and getting high. She then abandons her ambition of leaving for Yale early and starts popping her mother’s pills at which point Henry says she’s taken it “too far.” Yet he still continues to pursue this drug-riddled girl as she pushes him away. If you do suspend your disbelief and go along with a teenage boy being that dedicated to a girl, you then get to see him act as a counterpart to Diana’s long-suffering husband David in the song ‘Why stay.’ We’ve seen how miserable David is, do you think we want to see Henry end up like that? Sure the guy’s a bit annoying but he also gives the show a few more humorous lines.

I have talked about how articulately the show increases awareness about mental illness but there is humour in there, I promise. After flushing away the medication that her husband thought made her happy, Diana explains that “we now have the happiest septic tank in the neighbourhood”. Maybe not a big laugh but little lines like that stop the show from becoming too bogged down. Still the show doesn’t attach an artificial happy ending like a movie (*cough* Silver Linings Playbook *cough*). Not that the ending isn’t heart-warming but there is no magical cure and love is not the answer.