Review by Jess Zintschenko.
I know there are plenty of Rodgers & Hammerstein haters out there who simply don’t appreciate the classics, but if the almost capacity Frankston Arts Centre audience last night who spontaneously began clapping along with the opening strains of ‘The Farmer & the Cowman’ during the Overture to Oklahoma! are anything to go by, there are still plenty of Rodgers & Hammerstein fans out there. At the very least, it shows the loyalty & support the local community have for PLOS Musical Productions.
Director David Crawshaw & musical director John Clancy are new additions to the PLOS family, but along with choreographer Steve Rostron, the three have created as smooth & polished a production as you would expect from a creative team who have worked together for years.
Oklahoma! is a long show, three hours including interval, but it sometimes seems longer. I think this is due to the pace of the songs towards the end of Act One, which are slower & more sombre, & the conclusion of the act with Laurey’s ‘Dream Ballet’. Despite enjoying ballet, & studying it for 12 years, I still always found myself fast forwarding the ‘Dream Ballet’ scene whenever I watched the movie of Oklahoma! in my youth, & I guess not much has changed. While I appreciate the skill of the dancers in the scene, & Steve Rostron did (as usual) a brilliant job with the choreography, I just don’t see how the scene adds to the story, as we all know Laurey would choose Curly over Jud (and bad things are bound to happen with Jud around), but that’s something for me to take up with Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Don’t let the length deter you though, as the evening show begins at 7.30pm, & with matinee performances, there are sufficient opportunities for the much older &/or the much younger musical theatre fans to see the show. Whilst the show explores some darker moments & themes, I’d still say it is appropriate for younger kids, and there is plenty of singing, dancing, with “hootin’ & hollerin’” to keep them entertained. The audience is warned at the beginning of ‘live’ gun shots being used in the performance, but you can easily tell when they are coming so kids (or jumpy adults) shouldn’t be too scared by them.
Once again, the PLOS team has assembled a very strong cast, with an incredibly hard working ensemble, & plenty of scene stealing character actors in the lead roles, but Lindy Yeates as Aunt Eller is my surprise favourite. She sings, she dances, she totes a gun, & meddles with lives, but is ultimately the voice of reason. Yeates’ performance mixes the heart, understanding, & patience of Alice from The Brady Bunch, with the no nonsense feisty ability to hold her own nd put people in their place, the way Granny from The Beverley Hillbillies does
Matthew Clayton & Tara Kabalan are perfectly cast as Curly & Laurey, & you can tell they enjoy getting to play out the love-hate relationship on stage. Kabalan does what she does best & adds a little extra sass to Laurey – necessary, since Laurey refuses to be the ‘damsel in distress’ type, until the end when she finally expresses her feelings for Curly. Clayton as Curly is an adorable wide-eyed optimistic cowboy with a voice you just have to hear for yourself to fully appreciate
One of the absolute highlights of the show is Curly & Jud (Robert Clark) singing ‘Poor Jud Is Daid’. I’ve never been a huge fan of the song before, but I’ve also never heard it sung by such incredible voices. I had that moment when you sit there stunned after the song has ended before slowly turning to the person next to you simply mouthing “WHAT?”
The opening of Act Two, ‘The Farmer & the Cowman’ is absolutely brilliant, it is that perfect mixture of dancing & brawling which musical theatre audiences love. The sheer amount of energy exerted onstage by the entire cast is actually exhausting to watch, but in the best way. One must assume the cast all down a bunch of Red Bull/frogs during interval to renew their energy after an already epic first act.
The problem with a show which relies so heavily on a very specific accent (especially when song titles are written the way they are pronounced) is sometimes the accents falter a bit, or that when perfecting the accent clear articulation is lost or dialogue is rushed, but for the most part the cast handle the accents really well.
The set designed by the “Grumpy Old Men” team (or “GOM” as they are affectionately known by the company) of John Burrett, Brenton Staples, and John Shelbourn reminded me of last year’s Fiddler On The Roof from MDMS, with the muted tones, half under construction buildings & dead tree. I like to think they based their design around what was happening to Oklahoma when the show was set – it was a state under construction, still a territory, not completely stable yet (which also reflects the relationship of Laurey & Curly, when you think about it). There are a few large set pieces which are layered & cleverly manipulated to create the main settings of Aunt Eller’s farmhouse, Jud’s smoke house, and the Skidmore ranch. Some of the exits and entrances from Aunt Eller’s farmhouse look a bit awkward, but the scene transitions are smooth, and the clever manipulation of the fence into a windmill during the ‘Dream Ballet’ is perfect. The projected images of the changing sky complement the set well, and while the idea of the projection of Laurey in the rocking chair during the ‘Dream Ballet’ is good, I found it to be a little distracting and, quite frankly, a little creepy.
The costumes designed by Brett Wingfield look wonderfully authentic. I definitely feel for the girls having to dance in long full skirts & blouses with high necks & long sleeves, but it is very effective. Curly’s hat is a little too clean for a poor cowman who sleeps outdoors, but hey, this is musical theatre not real life, so I’ll suspend my disbelief.
Brad Alcock’s lighting design creates warmth on stage which really transports you to the wide open ranges of the country, however in the darker moments of the show, particularly in Jud’s smokehouse & the ‘Dream Ballet’, the lighting aptly reflects the mood change.
The subdued tones of the sets, costumes, and lighting work incredibly well to give off an old fashioned ‘sepia’ feel. All the elements of the show come together and create a really great atmosphere. Bizarrely, it gives you a good feeling of nostalgia, if it is even possible to be nostalgic for a time you haven’t actually experienced.
Once again, PLOS have created a very professional production for the local theatre community to be proud of. Their hard work deserves to be rewarded and enjoyed by audiences. Since “territory folks should stick together”, you should probably mosey on down to the Frankston Arts Centre & support ongoing excellence in community theatre by catching one of the few remaining shows before PLOS’ Oklahoma! rides off into the sunset for the final time.