Studio 58 ups the ante for their typical high presentation standards by tackling the lengthy and large-scale scope of “Oklahoma” – and they have very much risen to the challenge.
This show was a groundbreaker when it premiered in the 1940’s, and further embedded itself in the popular consciousness thanks to its widescreen 50’s film version. 70 years later, it still has the power to beguile an audience. And the Langara students whose talents are on display here manage to bring out not only the show’s exuberance and innocent charm, but also the shades of darkness that make give “Oklahoma” an unexpectedly sombre side.
The show’s promotional material puts the challenge right on the table, proclaiming it “the big musical on the small stage”. And indeed, clever staging and expert choreography make the most of the available space, such that it never felt cramped.
The set and lighting are excellent, suggesting the wide-open prairie with its weathered but stylized elements that are cleverly rearranged, added and removed to make a dynamic space that keeps things visually interesting. The choreography (by Shelley Stewart Hunt) effortlessly flows from tender duets to rip-roaring group barn dances (and fistfights!). At times the stage virtually explodes with boisterous energy.
A standout is the dream/nightmare sequence that forms the finale of Act 1. It is a thrilling triumph of stagecraft that transports us into a swirling fantasy that is both beautiful and terrifying.
The talented cast does a fine job with the variety of roles. Olivia Hutt brings a knowing, easygoing sassiness and wisdom to the role of spunky matriarch Aunt Eller, managing to easily transcend the fact that her character is more than twice her own age.
The leads, Owen Bishop as Curly and Alexandra Wever as Laurie, have chemistry and charm to spare, and they use it all. As the anchor of a wide-ranging story, there’s a lot on their shoulders, but they carry it with ease.
Vocally, there were times that Bishop seemed to go all quiet when I was yearning for him to soar to a crescendo. Surprising, since as a “preacher” in “Poor Jud is Dead”, he proved his ability to reach the back row with some rousing verbal fireworks. But he certainly exemplified Curly’s earnest charm. And that particular number was a highlight of both comedy and dramatic tension.
At first I was wishing Kamyar Pazandeh brought a little more smouldering menace to Jud Fry, after witnessing Rod Steiger’s take in the film version (unfair though the comparison is). But his edgy, laughing Jud certainly was effective, and his sheer vocal power, when he unleashed it, made a strong impression. His song, “Lonely Room”, cut from the film version, added further shading to this antagonist character.
Then there was Ado Annie. I’m sure I’m not alone in considering her a favourite character, and Adelleh Furseth is perfectly cast as this quirky, sparky gal who just “Cain’t Say No”.
“Oklahoma” may no longer be groundbreaking, but – if you approach it with an appropriately open spirit – its evocation of a more innocent world remains captivating. Certainly its great strength is that it’s packed with an embarrassment of musical riches, with nary a dud among the 13 tunes. From the pure expression of the wonder of a new day, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”, to the sly tenderness of “People Will Say We’re In Love”, to the rollicking rhythm and humour of “The Farmer and the Cowman”, Rogers and Hammerstein’s impeccable craft and genius shine through at all times.
The two songs cut for the film, “Lonely Room” and “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!” (where peddler Ali Hakim glorifies the freedom of the single man), are arguably slightly lesser creations, but even R&H at less than their peak surpass most others. They’re full of witty lyrics that, like all the songs, land perfectly on their target while rigidly, yet with casual perfection that is the hallmark of great songwriting, hewing to their meter and structure.
“Oklahoma” incorporates some dark themes, yet invariably is full of anachronistic social mores (Ado Annie’s $50 price tag, for example). It is so chock-full of whimsical charm, though, that it all works. You just cain’t say no to this “Oklahoma”!