Jo Kerrigan explores the dark side of the much-loved musical, Oklahoma!, in advance of its Irish run.
IN 1931, the American Theatre Guild produced a new Broadway play, Green Grow the Lilacs. A story of settlers in Indian territory, it was mildly successful. Ten years later, one of the guild’s directors saw a summer stock production of it that incorporated traditional square dances. He thought it would make a good musical.
Rodgers & Hammerstein were called in, and the result was musical theatre legend — the two scrapped the working title and wrote a new, showstopping number, which gave the musical its final name, Oklahoma!.
The original Broadway production of Oklahoma! opened in 1943 and was a box-office smash. On stage and in the Oscar-winning 1955 film version, Oklahoma! has remained one of the most popular musicals of all time — it was even awarded a special Pulitzer Prize.
The unforgettable songs (have you never warbled ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ or laughed at ‘I’m Just A Gal Who Can’t Say No?’), love story, and lively dance routines make it a hit everywhere from major theatre to local drama societies and schools; but there is more to Oklahoma! than that.
The strange mix of characters and personalities — cowboys and con-merchants, brooding farm hands and blossoming beauties — in this newly-settled territory in the American west resonates with audiences. In the new production that opens at Dublin’s Bord Gais Theatre next week, these qualities are fully explored by director, Rachel Kavanaugh.
Oklahoma! develops a trend begun by the earlier Show Boat, by integrating the expected songs and dances of a successful musical into a well-crafted story with real characters and difficult questions not answered by the final curtain.
In Show Boat, the racial segregation was frighteningly unresolved, so in Oklahoma! the good-looking, charming and talkative have a far better chance of success than the slow and awkward, and that unfairness remains an eternal problem. Life is loaded against those who don’t conform to the ideal.
But none of that is evident as the curtain rises on a lively scenario — Aunt Eller is alternately berating the over-confident cowboy, Curley, and scolding her niece, Laurey, who is half-tomboy, half beautiful girl.
From the arrival back in town of Will Parker, fresh from his success at steer-roping in Kansas, and the love problems of his girlfriend, Ado Annie, the audience is drawn effortlessly into a happy world of wonderful songs and lively dances.
AN AUDIENCE SING-ALONG
When I saw the show in Wolverhampton recently, the theatre was packed and the audience couldn’t be restrained from singing along with numbers like ‘The Surrey With The Fringe on Top’ and, of course, ‘I Can’t Say No’. No doubt about it, Rodgers & Hammerstein did a good job on this one.
Ashley Day, with a delightfully lyrical and easy singing voice, creates a wonderfully over- confident Curley, to contrast with Charlotte Wakefield’s innocent and hoydenish Laurey, while James O’Connell, as the lively but innocent Will Parker, is by turns bemused and besotted by his rather more awakened girlfriend, Ado Annie. Well-known TV actor, Gary Wilmot, enjoys himself thoroughly as the unscrupulous Persian pedlar, Ali Hakim, and Belinda Lang (2.4 Children, Inspector Alleyn, Second Thoughts), as Aunt Eller, holds the entire community together, while industriously churning butter or putting sheets through the wringer.
Aunt Eller acts as a sort of Greek chorus, wryly observing the problems of the other characters as they arise.
The song she leads in Act 2, ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’, highlights the real issues that concerned settlers at this time — confrontations over water rights, the putting-up of fences, the prices charged or received — and, as such, the show is a history lesson for the observant.
It is Jud Fry, however, who introduces the darker note with his first entrance.
Huge, shambling, slow-witted, he would have been the butt of everyone’s jokes in earlier, crueller times. In the mid 20th century, such attitudes were becoming unacceptable and Jud’s presence raises difficult questions in the mind of the audience. When we see his small, gloomy den, the walls covered with risqué pictures of semi-clad women, we automatically classify him as bad guy.
Then, we hear the heartrending song, ‘Lonely Room’, in which Jud bewails his impoverished existence, without friendship, without love, and we don’t know what to think. Should this great, clumsy bear be allowed to touch the radiant innocence of Laurey?
How can the dark side of human nature intrude on the shining summertime of acceptable young love?
SYMPATHY FOR LONELY JUD
But it’s no accident that director Kavanaugh has emphasised and explored the character of Jud, and Nic Greenshields gives an unforgettable performance in the role.
His rich, bass baritone compels you to listen to every word, so that the burning anguish of one condemned to be forever an outsider hits home and instinctively awakens your sympathy.
The cruel game played by the careless Curley, encouraging the other to imagine his own death and funeral (‘Pore Jud is Daid’) is incomprehensible, even as the musical magic of their duet soars to spectacular heights. How can the accepted lover of Laurey behave in such a vicious way?
And when, at the finale, Curley accidentally causes Jud’s death, isn’t the whole matter rather too easily cleared up, leaving the happy young couple free to jog off on honeymoon in that surrey with the fringe on top? Without regrets, without guilt? This production leaves us with many questions unanswered. Which was undoubtedly the director’s intention. Good drama does that.
When it’s blended into happy songs and toe-tapping dance routines, the medicine goes down all the better (as Mary Poppins, much later on, suggested).
Oh, that final showstoppping number, ‘Oklahoma’? Yes, it really does stop the show. And you will most certainly be singing it all the way home.
It’s just as well Rodgers & Hammerstein added it in at the last minute.
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