A good production of Oklahoma, the big beast in the musicals’ jungle, is capable of captivating hearts and souls and happily Cambridge Operatic Society’s production is well able to tame this tuneful tiger, presenting a wonderfully entertaining evening, albeit a very long one.
Now in its 72nd year, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical shows no signs of falling out of favour. A mark of a great production is the engagement of the chorus and last night’s show passed with flying colours. Production values were top notch including costumes, scenery and (most difficult to pull off) the mid-West accents that sounded very authentic. After almost three hours of theatrical pleasure, the final chorus of the eponymous ‘Oklahoma’ brought the audience to whooping and thundering applause. Bravo to Rodgers and Hammerstein, bravo to CaOS and bravo to the septuagenarian big beast.
The first half of Oklahoma, showing at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 29 November, was one and three quarter hours in length – an overture, 11 songs and a dream ballet. In lesser hands, the whole show can easily come unstuck. Fortunately the production directed with bravado and dash by Chris Cuming, held beautifully together.
The tone was set early on with a very fine idea during the well-played overture (a great sounding band led by Lucas Elkin). As the sinewy gorgeous melodies unfolded, we were treated to a series of arty images on the theme of cowboys, farmhands and Wild West saloons. It was an imaginative and striking way to start the show but there were many more treats to come.
The curtain opened to reveal a striking but simple set – an Oklahoma farmstead circa 1906. It is a wonderful morning (cue for the opening song) and Aunt Eller is busy churning butter. Harriet Graves, hardly ever off stage, brought a huge authority to this key role; she is the solid core of this great musical. She greets our hero, Curly, who has come to woo her niece Laurey. But this is no easy relationship. What’s so clever about Oscar Hammerstein’s script is that the basic plot is deceptive simple but thoroughly engaging; boy and girl love each other but can’t admit it – they fight and spat a la Beatrice and Benedict. The ‘will they, won’t they’ question is what drives the plot on to its conclusion. On the way, as in so many of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows, there is an unexpectedly dark heart.
That comes in the figure of Judd Fry, the dishevelled loner who inhabits his dark and sinister smoke house. He has his mind on Curly’s would-be belle and there is violence in the air. The great strength of Oklahoma is its ability to fuse cute and sweet, high drama and low comedy, romance and tragedy. There are set piece scenes where if done well can charm the socks off any audience. Not least is the auction for (in effect) Laurey’s hand – who will succeed? – the handsome beau Curly or the dastardly sleazeball Judd? There is genuine tension here and that comes down not only to the show’s clever structure but also to this production’s multi-talented team.
Many members of this cast will be familiar to those following the recent renaissance in Cambridge’s musicals scene. Keyleigh Orrock and Andrew Ruddick as Curly and Laurey brought a real magic to the troubled lovers – both very strong in the acting department as well as pleasing in musical tone.
Mark McCormack and Emma Vieceli were outstanding as the comic interest: the promiscuous Ado Annie (a girl who can’t say no) and her charmingly dumb suitor, Will. Their duet, ‘All or nothing’ was one of the many highlights of the evening. There was terrific support too from Alan Hay as the put-upon peddler Ali Hakim and Steven Waring as a seriously scary Judd Fry looking like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Quasimodo.
Both the men and women of the chorus sang, danced and acted with total conviction; their energy and precision was a joy to behold as in the long bad-dream sequence and in the great set piece songs such as ‘Kansas City’ and ‘Farmer and the Cowhand’.
Well, I’ve seen a number of Cambridge Operatic Society’s shows in the last ten years or so and this Oklahoma! is definitely the best yet. With a magnificent 25-piece band purring along in the pit (under MD Lucas Elkin) like a musical BMW, a fabulously imaginative set and a whole evening of strong individual performances this is a real foot-tapping winner. Well done director Chris Cuming who has really pulled the stops out this time.
But before I move on to all those excellent performers, a special word of praise for choreographer Emma Olley. There are two distinct skills in choreography. First you need theatrically interesting and appropriate ideas. Second, you have to persuade people, many of whom will not be natural or experienced dancers, to do what you want. The highly gifted Olley has this cast moving so well that, at times, you could easily forget you aren’t in the West End. You’d think they’d been doing it all their lives. The dream sequence at the end of Act 1 and the hoe down at the wedding party after the interval are both of a very high standard indeed.
And so to all those outstanding cast members. Kayleigh Orrock as Laurie is a charismatically convincing actor, getting all that wry anger and uncertainty right before the plot moves on and she gets really frightened and worried. She is also blessed with a singing voice which has an unusual silvery freshness as well as perfect intonation and penetrating strength. Andrew Ruddick, tenor, as Curly plays against her nicely too. He is a pleasing naturalistic actor who gets all the ruefulness right and his scene with Steven Waring as the ugly Jud Fry in the latter’s hut is well controlled and funny in a sinister sort of way. Waring has a fine bass voice and presents a character who is deeply damaged but dangerous and he too is compelling.
Harriet Graves gives us a delightful Aunt Ella – a huge and demanding role. She finds all Ella’s appropriate crustiness and wisdom and is terrific, vibrant and attractive, in the auction scene and at the wedding. She tends to light the stage when she’s there (as she is for much of the time – it’s a huge role) and sings with apparently effortless panache. Emma Vieceli is an entertaining Ado Annie, Alan Hay is fun as Ali Hakim and Mark McCormack gives us a straightforward believable Will.
All in all then a purdy fine show which pulses with energy and talent. Oh what a beautiful show – as it were. Roll on CAOS’s next.