By Simon Fearn
Trevelyan College Musical Society’s production of Oklahoma! was essentially the theatrical equivalent of an exclamation mark. With a show as old-fashioned and, let’s face it, as corny as this one, a good approach is to give in to the overpowering ridiculousness of it all with shameless glee, and TCMS did this with great gusto. This production was by no means sleek in places, but it had charm and energy, which is often more important.
The highlight of the musical, for me, was Asher Glinsman as Curly, a cowboy and walking Deep South Cliché who falls for Ella Weston’s Laurey. You’d have to look hard to find someone else with such a natural stage presence, and the man was born to star in musical theatre. I’ve never seen anyone sing with such expressive power. In terms of musical and acting ability, he is very closely followed by Weston and Sorrel Brown, the latter of which shone in the relatively minor role of Aunt Eller, a woman you would not want to cross!
As ever with musical theatre, the production team are often forced to prioritise acting talent over vocal abilities or vice versa during casting. This was the case with Hal Lockwood as Curly’s antagonist, Jud Fry. As an actor he was pretty much flawless, gloriously overdoing it as Curly’s rival, whilst showing his character’s vulnerability in songs like ‘Pore Jud Is Daid’ and ‘Lonely Room’. His singing, whilst thoroughly competent, unfortunately fell a little short of Glinsman and Weston.
The cast had the advantage of a brilliant director in the form of Nicola Orrell. Her excellent visual sense resulted in some brilliant tableaux. Hannah Fisher and Helen Bench’s choreography was also for the most part spectacular, helped no doubt by a cast with surprising gymnastic abilities. You did get the sense, however, that some of the dance routines were a little too elaborate for their own good. It seemed like second nature for much of the cast, but occasional dancers were either out of time or looked like they were concentrating too hard.
The performers were also constantly hampered with mic problems, but they coped with this so effortlessly that it did not seriously affect one’s enjoyment of the play. One character had to bumble off the stage with his mic disentangling itself from him at an alarming rate, which only served to add comic value. The lighting also proved to be a bit of a problem, but again this came nowhere near to derailing the production.
The main problem was that the darker elements of the musical struggled to co-exist with the sillier parts. For instance, are we meant to see Jud as some kind of comically pathetic pantomime villain, or should we actually be afraid of him? A few audience members were discussing the intensity of the production during the intermission, but this seems like an odd word to apply to the musical as a whole, even though some scenes were intensely dramatic.
The play ends with a man dead, and his killer walking free after some bizarre kangaroo court, which is a little more problematic than the ending of Grease. Then there’s the complex political background: the failure to turn Oklahoma into a Native American state, and it’s christening as the 46th member of the Union by the end of the musical. For a 1940s play, it also has a raging libido, and it would have been interesting to see the inherent sexism examined in more detail (it fails the Bechdel test if anyone is interested).
In a way, the cast and crew should be applauded for going with their guns and turning Oklahoma! into something close to a parody of musical theatre. To experiment too much with Rodger & Hammerstein’s moral complexity may have confused the overall effect. As it is, their interpretation was as brash and unapologetic as the music, and this is no bad thing.
Photograph: Tom Mack
‘Oklahoma!’ will run until Sat 20th Feb at Trevelyan College. Book your tickets here.