Way back in 1982, my folks took me to see my first ever musical. It was Oklahoma!, presented by the (then named) Ballarat Light Opera Company. I remember two things from that performance - I can still see Aunt Eller sitting at her butter churner as the curtain rose, and I clearly recall that I was utterly petrified of Jud. Thirty years later and in the same theatre, I got to revisit those familiar songs that got me hooked for life on music theatre.
BLOC Music Theatre last presented Oklahoma! in 1999, and it was fabulous to see the company utilising some elements of that production to mount the show this year. As set designer in both 1999 and 2012, Damian Muller has cleverly used key pieces from his original design concept and augmented them with some new additions. Similarly, many of the costumes designed by Fred Fargher for the 1999 season were used as a base for the wardrobe of this year's show, and some additional designs from Peter Tulloch complemented the original garments. I really like the company's approach towards the use of existing assets. Much in the same way the likes of Opera Australia have a host of productions which are presented on a regular basis, why shouldn’t community companies revisit shows for which they already own the main elements of production? New shows are great to see and exciting to do, but in a day and age where some companies struggle with financial stability, not having to build a show from the ground up every single year is a wise choice and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
A veteran of film, television and theatre, Marty Grimwood as Curly had great stage presence. Though the role represents his first venture into music theatre after a twenty-five year break, he certainly appeared at ease to be back on the boards. He took a little time to relax into the role, for during “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’”, Grimwood had occasional issues with pitching. Once he found his level, he sang with a pleasing baritone voice of considerable strength. As Grimwood continues to work on his vocal technique, I expect that he will add more openness and freedom to his tone.
Prudence Bell brought the right blend of sweetness and tenacity to the role of Laurey. Bell has a voice that is clear and light, and she uses it well. I would like to see Bell use more dynamic contrast in her vocal delivery to further add to her characterisation.
My favourite performance of the night came from Maddie Craven. I’ve seen many, many performances of “I Can’t Say No” in my time, but Craven gave Ado Annie Carnes as fresh burst of life. Her Annie had something akin to a naive sass, which was so very gorgeous to watch. Her stylised physicality grew on me and it certainly suited the character’s dizzy demeanour. Craven has a fabulous belt voice which she was in command of at all times.
Will Parker (played by Rob Muirhead) is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Muirhead gave us a very likeable Will who was so charming that if he were someone you actually knew, you would forgive him the lack of speed with which he arrives at the answers to his problems. It was great to see Muirhead actually silently reasoning out his $50 problem in the auction scene – such a lovely change from moments in some shows where dramatic volition is clearly lacking. His singing and dancing rounded out his portrayal beautifully.
I particularly enjoyed the work of Vicki Rowe and Daniel West. As Aunt Eller and Ali Hakim respectively, they both used comic timing to great effect, so that their scenes evoked many a giggle from the audience. Brendan Bawden as Jud Fry could have been a little more surly and angry. Bawden’s singing of the role was secure and a little too lovely to listen to – the use of a nasty, greasy vocal quality would serve the character very well.
In places, I found some of the principals’ dialogue very difficult to understand as diction was lost to raced lines or heavy use of character voices and accent.
Peter Tulloch’s direction was simple, appropriate for the piece and most effective. Some may feel that changing of the set on one side of the stage in dimmed light while a scene plays itself out on the other side is distracting, but I liked the choice as it ensured that the show kept its pace without the being interrupted by blackout after blackout. Tulloch’s detailed work with the cast was evident in everything from the defined relationships between the key characters to the realistic clambering that the male ensemble engaged in just to get a peek at Will’s new ‘toy’. I was left a little jarred when Laurey and Curly left the stage in opposite directions after declaring their love for each other. Perhaps this was done for reasons pertaining to quick wardrobe changes for the actors - perhaps not – and while it did take place in dimmed light, it broke the sentiment created in the previous scene.
Music director Ian Govan led the cast and the orchestra with clarity and confidence. The orchestra played beautifully, and barring a couple of exceptions throughout the performance, the balance between the cast and the orchestra was spot on. This good balance of sound is also a credit to sound designer Jordan Sullivan. Choral director Vicki Rowe has done a great job in training the ensemble – their internal balance of harmonies was secure throughout the night. The ensemble maintained a high energy level in all singing and dancing, but I would like to have heard more volume in their singing of the show’s title number.
Luke Rice’s choreography added to both the drama and fun of the piece, from the shenanigans in “Kansas City” to Laurey’s greatest fears playing out before her in the “Dream Ballet”. I really enjoyed the ‘Oklahoma Hello’ being incorporated into the encore of the title number during the curtain call. The cheeky reference to Les Misérables at the end of “It’s a Scandal, It’s a Outrage” may have been lost on some audience members, but it elicited a loud belly laugh from me.
Scott Snowden’s lighting design complemented the traditional setting of the show. His use of different states clearly showed times of day and heightened the mood of show. The use of a stained glass effect during “Poor Jud” was a nice touch.
BLOC Music Theatre are to be commended on this production of Oklahoma! It was certainly enjoyed by a very appreciative crowd, and I do hope the season continues to be well patronised as this is a piece of theatre for all ages.