Kick up your heels with Savoyards’ jovial production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration and classic American musical, Oklahoma!
Set in Western Indian Territory in the United States circa 1906, Oklahoma! seamlessly intertwines stories of romantic rivalry with a lively community competition between the local farmers and cowboys. Handsome cowboy Curly does his best to woo sweet, sensible farm girl Laurey, but finds himself competing for her attention with sullen hired hand Jud Fry. Meanwhile, Laurey’s flirtatious friend Ado Annie must choose between the cowboy she has been promised to and the Persian peddler who has caught her attention; and the community gathers for the box social where emotions and secrets come to a head.
Having never seen the musical before, I was surprised by how many times I laughed out loud – the production featured 42 Brisbane performers as well as a live orchestra, with musical direction by Jacqueline Atherton, and such an array of talents on display from ballet to powerful singing voices and physical comedy. The dream ballet, an iconic part of Oklahoma!, was also a surprise to me but the choreography by Natalie Lennox was performed beautifully by Jessica Boersen (Dream Laurey), whose balletic technique and extensions were a pleasure to watch, and Simon Lyell (Dream Curly), whose contemporary and floorwork was smooth. Kyle Fenwick also executed an impressive series of lifts with Boersen as ‘Dream Laurey’. The feminine, balletic choreography carried through to the female ensemble throughout the rest of the musical as well, contrasted against the wide-legged, stomping choreography of the cowboys and other male performers.
Despite premiering in the 1940’s, the musical’s universal themes and generally light-hearted plotlines ensure that it hardly feels dated (although it seems unlikely that the implications in Pore Jud is Daid would be approved for most modern musicals). “Although set over 100 years ago in a place on the other side of the globe, one of the major themes of this piece, namely the importance of true community, is just as relevant to a modern day audience,” wrote the production’s director Robbie Parkin in his programme note. “Talk about life imitating art.” This is Savoyards’ fifth production of the classic show, with previous productions in 1967, 1975, 1989 and 2005.
Joshua Thia was exuberant and charming as Curly McLain, bow-legged and supremely confident, and Chloe Makiol brought a sweet, ringing voice as well as an undertone of defiance and self-assuredness to winsome farm girl Laurey. The onstage chemistry between the two leads was engrossing as they struggled with their feelings for one another, and this push-pull dynamic made the final outcome of their courtship all the more satisfying.
Kyle Fenwick walked a fine line between intimidatingly aggressive and pitiably lonely in his characterisation of Jud Fry, and his rich, dolorous singing voice was a surprise after his hoarse, harsh way of speaking. Jacqui Cuny commanded respect and attention as no-nonsense matriarch Aunt Eller, and Warryn James was hilarious as Ali Hakim, with spot-on comedic timing and masterful use of body language.
Gemma Hansom was funny and flirtatious as Ado Annie Carnes with powerful vocals and a commanding stage presence that made I Cain’t Say No and her duet with Will, All ‘Er Nothing especially memorable. Tristan Vanyai more than matched her energy as besotted, enthusiastic cowboy Will Parker, bringing heel-clicking charisma to the stage.
Savoyards excel at creating dynamic crowd scenes – the ensemble were not part of the backdrop, but a vital and spirited part of the action across all ages. Innovative set design by Tenille Flower, complemented by the lighting (Allan Nutley) and sound design (David Sowdon, David Longton) painted a vibrant picture of wholesome farm life and a tight-knit community, as well as allowing for quick changes of scenery. Costume design, led by Kim Heslewood, was bright and brilliant with incredible attention to detail, and featured a number of beautifully coiffed wigs!
Savoyards’ Oklahoma! is a funny and frivolous night out, full of all the tension and laughter you could hope for in a musical and excellent performances from the talented Brisbane theatre community.
Savoyards will perform Oklahoma! from 22 June to 6 July at the Iona Performing Arts Centre. Ticketing and further information is available on their website.