Theatre Review: Oklahoma!, Heath Ledger Theatre

Come along and slap your thighs and stamp your feet to a musical that will never die!

There’s a three-word cliché that has stood the test of time. It simply states that ‘less is more’.

Richard Carroll, director of musical, Oklahoma!, in Perth’s Black Swan Theatre could, perhaps, have borne this concept in mind when deciding on the time frame for this production which lasted an hour and 45 minutes.

A difficult task! The origin of the musical is a play, Green Grow the Lilacs, written in 1931 by Lynn Riggs. It was a simple story, set in 1906, about two young people who live in a country town on the outskirts of an area considered Indian territory in the United States. They fall in love and experience the dilemmas of indecision, jealousy and violence which involves a rival suitor.

Between 1931 and 1943, however, when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein decided to turn this story into a musical, it was with an eye to changing the form of what had been, basically until that point, song and dance routines. The country had been fractured by its involvement in World War II. Many men were away at war, employment was scarce and the effects of the Great Depression in America had left their mark.

The territory known as Oklahoma had been mainly occupied by various tribes of American Indians but, as the early settlers needed more land, gradually the Indians were forced off and Oklahoma evolved. Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to give the people something to sing and dance about but also to tell their story in the words, ‘We know we belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand!’

Oklahoma! the musical was big, it was different, it was radical in the world of theatre as well as in politics and, today, the introduction of a female playing a male role introduces new questions. Do we want a history or an ethics lesson when we go to the theatre or do we want to sit back and enjoy the unique way the story is told and form our own opinion?

At an early preview, impresario Mike Todd allegedly walked out claiming the musical would be a failure as it had ‘No legs, no jokes, no chance!’. But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration proved all the critics wrong and Oklahoma! ran for over 2000 performances and received a Special Pulitzer Prize.

The singing, dancing and acting in this Black Swan production are all good. The story is still simple as are the settlers – rednecks, some people call characters like these today! Passionate, hard-working, prejudiced, but willing to fight for their rights even if it means a life is lost.

Oklahoma! Photo by Daniel J Grant.

Would young people, today, who might not know the history or the musical, accept it as a good old hoedown and hootenanny of a bygone era or would they equate it with the more immediate questions still being addressed today?

Whatever generation was sitting around the edge of the stage, they were tapping their feet, from start to finish, whenever those memorable songs like ‘Oklahoma’, ‘Kansas City’, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’, were belted out  by Victoria Falconer and her quartet of violin, double bass, drum and accordion, accompanied by an immortal washboard and largerphone (remember those?).

Staged in the round, set designer, Jonathon Oxlade and director Carroll hit the spot with the introduction of Curly McLain (Emily Havea) on the back of a magnificent ‘horse,’ guided slowly around the circuit, while she sang ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’!’ Genius!

Havea played the role of Curly (written for a man) excellently, as a cowboy, not a cowgirl and I think any questioning of that belongs in a different play. In this production the only reason I would suggest a man play the role would be because I felt the songs, in a male register, sometimes stretched Havea’s strong vocal range. Stephanie Caccamo, on the other hand, as Curly’s love interest, Laurey, was able to use her voice to full effect though she could have shown more animation in her role.

For two performers, Laila Bano-Rind as Ado Annie and Axel Duffy as her heart-stopper, Will Parker, it was an opportunity to demonstrate their skills, well-honed through the excellent training of the WA Academy of Performing Arts, Bano-Rind a fetching coquette and Duffy, a winning all-rounder.

The rousing ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ was the show-stopper. A resplendent carriage in gold descended from the ceiling and moved its way around the revolving stage with human replicas of ‘two white horses’ performing in synch. It was unique and brilliant!

But, true to the script, the thorn in the side is a farmhand called Jud (Andy Cook), a big, burly abattoir worker who believes having Laurey as the woman in his life will bring him the happiness that has eluded him. Curly mentally goads and torments Jud to despair as he visualises his funeral to the tune of ‘Poor Jud is dead!’.

Carroll used an interesting technique, above the stage, to dramatise this scene but it is at this point that I’d say ‘less is more!’ The sound system didn’t support the long flow of angry words between the two men and the ambitious visionary effect needed clarity. The rapid change to a group of police I don’t believe would have been missed in order to give this overly long show more coherence instead of leaving Laurey with a rushed dream sequence.

But love will out and the coordination of all the characters to erect props for ‘the wedding’ was to be admired. It was back to the music we loved until… but I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who don’t know the story.

Take the suggestion of a cushion seriously, a welcome glass of champagne at interval and you’ll enjoy the evening; the cast work very hard, and the music is wonderful.

3½ stars out of 5 ★★★☆

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA!
Director: Richard Carroll
Heath Ledger Theatre, Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA
28 November – 20 December 2020

Barbara Booth
About the Author
Barbara Booth has been a Freelance Journalist for 27 years, published nationally in newspapers and magazines including The Age, The Canberra Times, The West Australian, Qantas Club magazine, Home Beautiful, Paspaley magazine, Limelight magazine and 50 Something. She is based in Perth.