I had seen a production of Oklahoma back in the mid-90s when I was working in Sydney and an aspect I had forgotten is how dark Oscar Hammerstein’s Book is. The journey from optimistic opener Oh What A Beautiful Morning and the infectiously catchy The Surrey With The Fringe On Top (yes, I’ve been humming it all morning!) to the truly disturbing Pore Jud is Dead, Lonely Room and Act One closing Dream Sequence is quite fascinating.
Underneath the froth and delightful Richard Rodgers score you essentially have Curly goading such a wounded character as Jud to hang himself while the object of their mutual affection, Laurey, dreams of what horrible things might happen should she be left alone with Jud. I deliberately say ‘object’ as the gender politics in this 70+ year old story are jarring to modern sensibilities – for $50 you can buy and own the woman of your dreams (Ado Annie) from her father! Then there’s the eventual fate of Jud in Act Two which is really quite ambiguous in its – and his - execution.
I suspect that these swirling undercurrents were more evident due to a terrific performance by Ian Cross as Jud. He embraced the damaged nature of the character and was a menacing presence whenever he was anywhere near Emma Pettemerides’ Laurey. But we also had a sense of the cause of this dysfunction as he played Jud like a wounded animal that when confronted would bite and bite hard.
Of course, on the surface, Oklahoma is a bubbly romantic comedy as Curly pursues Laurey and Will does likewise with the flirtatious Ado Annie. There are charming songs and plenty of laughs as these respective courtships play out with a rousing, happy conclusion. The tonal shifts as all this intersects with the complication of Jud gives Oklahoma an unexpected edginess.
Brendan Hanson is charming and poised as Curly and sang well throughout. Pettemerides undoubtedly has a strong, classically trained voice but it seemed a little out of place here and her Laurey was too brittle for mine. Alinta Carroll was excellent as Aunt Ella giving a feisty performance and providing a strong female character amongst some of the more questionable gender representations. Her Ella stood up for herself and was more than a match for the boys.
Phoebe Jackson was a likeable and flirty Ado Annie and played well off both Igor Sas (as Ali Hakim) and Lauchlan Edward Bain (as Will Parker), her rival suitors. Sas gave a scene stealing, comic performance as Hakim though he perhaps gilded the lily towards the end with his overly enthusiastic “Persian Goodbye”. I really enjoyed Bain as Will with his ‘aw shucks’ charm and accent, giving an endearing naivety to the lovelorn farmhand.
The singing was generally very good with all the classic songs given their due including People Will Say We’re In Love. The show at times felt very static but this picked up in Act Two where there were more ensemble numbers and scenes which allowed for greater energy and vigorous choreography. This might be a function of the musical’s age as I felt the same about The King and I last year in Melbourne. They may be classics but in many ways feel dated and quaint compared to the hyper-kinetic modern musical. The orchestra was excellent under Musical Director Ian Westrip.
One aspect that was a major disappointment, however, was the set. This was basically a whole lot of wood panelling on the back wall and in both wings where two large barns were represented. There was a small, manually operated revolve centre-stage and some obligatory bales of hay. On the back wall was featured a large disc which initially represented the glorious morning sun but then was ever present throughout and constantly changing colours which I initially thought signified differences in time but ultimately became confusing and a distraction. Fair play though for how Jud’s lair-like smokehouse was represented and lit with chains hanging down and an ominous piece of rope.
Overall this is a solid production which will have you humming along to some memorable tunes, laughing at the various antics of especially Will and Ali Hakim, and occasionally bracing yourself as Ian Cross’ Jud threatens to explode into action.
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; Music by Richard Rodgers; Directed by Adam Mitchell; Musical Direction by Ian Westrip; and starring Brendan Hanson, Emma Pettemerides, Alinta Carroll, Phoebe Jackson, Igor Sas, Ian Cross, Lauchlan Edward Bain, Martyn Churcher, Charlotte Westrip and Neil Munyard, Oklahoma! is on at The Regal Theatre in Subiaco until 26 September.