Review | Black Swan delivers an energetic and rousing ‘Oklahoma!’

Oklahoma! | State Theatre Centre | til Dec 20 | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

Seventy-seven years ago Rogers and Hammerstein created a Pulitzer Prize winning musical that broke all the records on Broadway. Based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, Oklahoma! is one of the most loved musicals of the 20th century and at first glance might seem an unexpected choice for a progressive company such as the Black Swan State Theatre Company.

In recent years a number of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musicals have been revived on a local, national and global level, and whether it’s South Pacific, The Sound of Music or Carousel, they’re often problematic to contemporary audiences, or simply knee-deep in nostalgia with nothing to add to current public discourse.

Black Swan’s bold re-telling of this tale of cowboys, farmhands, courtship and choice brilliantly updates the story, delivering a theatrical experience that is filled with passion, excitement and grit.

The action is set on a small farming community on the edges of what was previously the wild frontier. It’s 1906, a year before Oklahoma becomes the 46th state of America, and just as the region is moving on from its wild and carefree youth, our characters are facing a similar transition in life.

Cowboy Curly who heads over to the farm where Laurey lives with her Aunt Eller. Curly and Laurey have been flirting for years, but maybe he’s left it too late to make his move. He tells Laurey he’d like to take her to town’s social dance, boasting he’ll hire the best carriage to transport her there, a surrey with the fringe on top. Laurey turns him down, choosing to attend the event with farm hand Jud Fry, setting up a battle of love rivals trying to win the girl’s heart.

At the same time Will Parker returns from the Kansas State Fair with $50 in his pocket. He wants to ask for the hand of his sweetheart Ado Annie, her father Andrew has declared he won’t even consider a proposal unless Will has at least $50 to his name. When Will returns home though he spends the money on gifts and to make matters worse Annie appears to have become besotted with travelling salesman Ali Hakim.

Staged in the round, the audience and action is all on the Health Ledger Theatre stage. You are close to the action and a band filled with banjos, fiddles and an accordion creates a soundtrack that is distinctly different to the swelling orchestral arrangements usually associated with this musical. Using a variety of theatrical techniques Director Richard Carroll creates a lively and rambunctious world.

Staging choices, along with subtle adaptations to the script, allow this work to be catapulted into the discourse of the new century. Touching on themes of domestic violence, empowerment, and responsibility Oklahoma!  has the ability to trigger many important discussions. The characters in this undertaking are also infused with sexuality and desire.

Adding another layer to the work is the casting of Emily Havea as Curly, the character is male but is portrayed by a woman. Havea delivers a gripping performance and takes on the songs with aplomb. Stefanie Caccamo, who Perth audiences may remember from her appearance in Hair, is captivating as Laurey.

Stealing the show is WAAPA graduate Axel Duffy as Will Parker. He shows off his skills in physical comedy and is a delight. Veteran actor Caroline McKenzie is delightful as Aunt Eller and looks like she’s having a whale of time playing her part.

Rounding out the impressive cast is Laila Bano-Rind as Ado Annie, Black Swan stalwart Luke Hewitt as Andrew Sullivan, Sara Reed as Gertie, and the hilarious Cameron Taylor as Ali Hakim. Andy Cook delivers a wonderful performance as Jud Fry, taking us on a journey from eager suitor to disturbed and aggressive stalker.

The show has many highlights, including the opening of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning which gives Curly the greatest stage entrance of recent times, the ambitious staging of Surrey with the Fringe on Top, the rambunctious The Farmer and the Cowman and the crescendo of the title tune Oklahoma! which lifts ones spirits to the heavens.

As is often the case with work from this period, it is long. The first half runs for 1 hour 40 minutes, and after an interval the second half is also an hour long. It’s a big story from a time when a night at the theatre was the whole night, there’s probably no time for dinner before hand and drinks afterwards. Audiences accustomed to 45 minute short plays should be prepared for a longer sitting.

Was there a chance for this work to be tightened to make it a little shorter? Maybe, but it’s engaging all the way through. It also has the odd structure of reaching the climax, and then continuing on for 15 minutes – such is the way it is written.

When this was first performed on the Broadway stage, it would have had a large cast which would have made their combined voices have powerhouse effect when singing about the wind sweeping down the plain. While this cast are lesser in number, they more than make up for it with enthusiasm, but there were a few moments during musical numbers where I wished they had been a little louder.

Oklahoma! sees Black Swan State Theatre Company make a triumphant return to the stage with a work that is bold, relevant and so full of life it’ll have you breaking out into song.

Catch Oklahoma! at the State Theatre Centre until 20th December. Grab tickets from Black Swan State Theatre Company.

Graeme Watson, image: Daniel James Grant

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