Timeless is the word that immediately comes to mind when thinking of why Oklahoma! still works for a 21st century audience. But what makes it timeless? The answer is easy – it’s the superb score created by Rodgers and Hammerstein that sounds fresh and vibrant in this version of the famous musical from The Production Company, currently running at the State Theatre.
From the time that conductor Guy Simpson (in full cowboy attire, along with his orchestra), picks up his baton, the magic of the music draws the audience in.
As is usual in Production Company shows, the always-excellent orchestra is on stage and the action happens in front of them. There are a few wire structures and props to create 19th century rural America, but in effect the set is simply a big wagon wheel cover.
What is so clever about The Production Company musicals is that they rely on the talent of their performers to create the magic, instead of using complex sets and lots of technology. Therefore, correct casting is absolutely essential for the show’s success, and with Oklahoma!, director Chris Parker gets it just right.
As his leads, he has West End royalty Anna O’Byrne as Laurey and Simon Gleeson as Curly. Many audience members will have enjoyed O’Byrne as Eliza in Dame Julie Andrews’ production of My Fair Lady last year. Currently, O’Byrne resides in London where she has become a favourite leading lady of Andrew Lloyd Webber, so we are fortunate to have her here and she doesn’t disappoint. With a soaring classical voice and a deft characterization, she embodies all the contradictions within free-spirited Laurey in a totally believable way.
Opposite her, Simon Gleeson fits into Curly’s skin perfectly. From the moment we hear his opening lyrics of “O What A Beautiful Morning” off stage, those glorious pipes of his are given full range. Gleeson has a thrilling baritone voice, is exceedingly easy on the eye and an excellent actor. In short, a perfect Curly.
And talking of good actors, veteran Robyn Nevin has a wow of a time as Aunt Eller – her comic timing is always spot on and she delivers her lines with a fine touch of acerbic wit. While Nevin is never likely to take on grand opera, her articulation and vocal style is just fine for the bits of singing Aunt Eller has. You need a strong actor in this role, and Nevin is simply perfect
Grant Piro gives full rein to his comic talent as Ali Akim, while Elise McCann (remember Miss Honey in Matilda?) and Bobby Fox (ex Jersey Boys) make a pleasing couple as Ado Annie and Will Parker.
The dark role of Jud Fry, surely a man with a troubled soul and potential psychopathic tendencies in his character, is given a sensitive reading by Ben Mingay. It’s important to see Oklahoma! as written for its time, as there were some audience shivers at some of the dark thoughts that surround Jud Fry.
Yet both Laurey and Ado Annie come across as confident young women who brook no unwanted interference from the male sex, even at the time this was written.
While the story is engaging, it’s all those fabulous music numbers like the famous title song, plus “Surrey with the Fringe on the Top”, “People Will Say We’re In Love”, “I Cain’t Say No”, that give the musical its power to entrance its audience.
Oh what a beautiful show….