first night

Oklahoma!

Saddle up for the show of the year. Ben Weaver-Hincks reviews...

Durham University Light Opera Group

 

When I first heard that DULOG was doing Oklahoma! for this year’s Gala show, my immediate reaction was one of disappointment. There was a time when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical was ground-breaking, fresh and socially relevant, but that was nearly seventy years ago, and the show has since then enjoyed more revivals than Kerry Katona’s career. Oklahoma! is a musical-lover’s musical; it is gleeful, moralistic, and almost twice as long as an average Hollywood blockbuster. So perhaps it seems an odd choice for a modern audience accustomed to seeing sex, drugs and violence, all wrapped up in under an hour. But anybody who has reservations about the show can rest assured: everything about DULOG’s production is superb and the enormous cast and crew demonstrate that this is a script worth revisiting again and again.

It is not often that one sees a student theatre production with no identifiable weak links, but Oklahoma! gets pretty close. The set is beautifully designed, simple and colourful, offering a comfortable balance between visual variety and the opportunity for mercifully quick scene changes. Emily Cohen’s costumes are also a success, though pedants may note that the men’s jeans jump out as being somewhat anachronistic. But it is really testament to the talents of the production and technical teams, headed by producers Alys Drake and Marium Zaidi, that the set, whilst impressive, is merely a backdrop. The same is so with the music: an immensely talented orchestra delivers a faultless performance, but at times we almost forget their presence, so captivating is the action on stage.

Elissa Churchill is enchanting as Laurey. With a voice that makes every note sound effortless, and an apparent ability to pull off any conceivable facial expression, she is the perfect leading lady. Guy Hughes’ Curly was an ideal match to Churchill, with likeable charisma, strong comic timing and a voice that fills the auditorium.

But the talent stretches far beyond the leads. David Stodel as Jud manages to create a character who both repels and demands sympathy, whilst Alex Wingfield demonstrates an impressively powerful voice and a natural confidence in his bearing. A particular strength of this production was its comedy. Felix Stevenson’s Ali Hakim is so well realised, that by his third appearance on the stage, the audience was laughing spontaneously before he had spoken a word. Other audience favourites were Kate Hunter and Nat Goodwin, whose feisty females are more than a match for testosterone of the cowboys and farmers. Though the actors demonstrated varied abilities at the turn-of-the-century accent of the American South, all were comprehensible and fairly convincing, if not always consistent.

Credit is undoubtedly due to the chorus, who pull off challenging routines in near-perfect synchronisation. Chorus moments in Rodgers and Hammerstein can seem contrived and overly-engineered, but all members here find an ease and naturalism in their parts, never dropping character. The show maintains its energy throughout, and this is thanks largely to the intelligent and dynamic choreography of Emma Cave. Drawing on styles from ballet to barn dance, the movement was enlivening and at times highly evocative. This is typified by the dream sequence at the end of Act 1, which becomes one of the most powerful moments of the performance.

As this scene demonstrates, despite its almost unceasing liveliness, Oklahoma! nevertheless offers moments of great dramatic tension. The fight scenes, in particular, are commendable; and the famous auction brought the entire auditorium to silence, such was the depth of the audience’s involvement in the drama. Julia Loveless’ direction has breathed air into what could have been stale or overly laboured. Those of us who have seen Oklahoma! in countless amateur and school student productions perhaps do the musical a disservice by associating it with a less nuanced and more clichéd style of theatre. But Loveless proves that it is anything but staid; it is, by turns, funny, exciting and genuinely moving.

It was easy to forget that this was the first night of a seven-show run, and the cast and crew alike adapted admirably to the demands of the Gala theatre. There were a few minor hiccups in delivery, and the microphone levels were not always optimal, but I am confident that all will be ironed out for the upcoming performances. Ultimately, Oklahoma! did what a good musical should: three hours passed in what felt like twenty minutes, and the smiles on the faces of the audience were constant.

If you can’t stand musicals, are an inherently cynical person, or have been medically forbidden to sit still for long periods, you might want to think twice before booking your ticket to Oklahoma!. If none of the above applies, I suggest you get down to the Gala theatre at the earliest opportunity for what promises to be one of the highlights of Durham’s theatrical calendar.

**** ...and a half 

Ben Weaver-Hincks

18 January 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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