Oklahoma! has a unique status among musicals, being the first of its kind in the modern musical genre. Although the “Golden Age” musicals have been overshadowed by newer writing in more recent times, Oklahoma! remains very popular, and it was certainly very popular with me tonight. DULOG’s Gala show is the annual zenith of musical theatre in Durham, making expectations among the audience high.
The band, led by co-MD Matthew Bartlett, uplifted the whole show and were stellar all evening. Right from the overture they brought the iconic Richard Rodgers score to life and had me tapping my toes and singing along until curtain up. They ought to be commended for all their hard work leading to what was a rock-solid first night. This being said, inconsistent diction and projection meant a lot of dialogue and lyrics were lost in the delivery, probably owing to the difficulty of the Oklahoma accent. Additionally, whilst the ensemble blocking in many of the songs was effective, the more numerous dialogue scenes were mostly static and less engaging.
Many opportunities for humour in dialogue were not fully realised, though Rose Galbraith as Ado Annie provided a masterclass in her characterisation and was by far the audience’s favourite. Ali Hakim, played by Tom Cain, is a potentially show-stealing character. Although he showed potential as Ali Hakim and hopefully will settle into his role, Cain missed many opportunities to make his character as funny for the audience it could have been. More attention to detail to delivery and comedic timing overall from the directors would have made for more entertaining scenes.
That being said, there were some other stand-out performances. Kane Taylor as Will Parker brought great youthful energy to his portrayal of Will, alongside his strong vocals and very impressive display of tap-dancing. Both Ralph Skan as Jud Fry and Owen Kennedy as Andrew Carnes made the absolute most of their limited stage time. Skan fully inhabited his character in both the skulking physicality he adopted and the nuance he brought to his singing. The audience were definitely on his side as he was goaded by Curly in the smokehouse. Likewise, Kennedy nailed his impression of the slightly unhinged shotgun-wielding old man and provided a lot of good comedy during his time on stage.
The leading couple of Curly McLain and Laurey Williams were portrayed by Mark Woods and Elysia Boyle. They both showed flashes of good acting in the smokehouse scene and “Many A New Day” respectively, but more could have been done with their scenes together. There were moments where both looked as though they were concentrating on their singing, but I’m sure this won’t be an issue as the week goes on. Whilst both sang and acted reliably throughout the show, they were surpassed in both aspects by cast members in smaller roles. This may be down to first night nerves, and I have no doubt their confidence will climb show on show.
The ensemble deserves very high praise indeed. Co-MD Gina Martin’s hard work with the ensemble resulted that the dense harmonies of “Many a New Day” and “Oklahoma!” were executed with nigh-on professional levels of accuracy. Equally, the execution of the choreography was generally excellent. All ensemble members brought buckets of grace and energy which really lifted the entire show. The choreography by Gabriella Sills and Georgia Mckie spanned a great swathe of genres and was thoroughly inspired. The “fifteen-minute-long beast” that is the Dream Ballet flowed wonderfully from one phase to the next. I particularly appreciated the attention to detail in the Jud and Ballet Laurey (Martha Wrench) segment; the well-choreographed struggle between the two felt very real and was captivating to watch.
Working tirelessly behind the scenes, the technical team and crew led by Emma Stephens ensured that the first night went smoothly. Other than one minor microphone issue in the first act, the sound throughout the show was slick and well-balanced. The opening sunrise and later sunset effects were very atmospheric, as were the lush green of the trees in “All er Nothin” and the red backlighting as the lifeless Dream Curly was carried offstage. The show was made even more visually impressive and immersive thanks to the wonderful costumes and set.
As a piece of musical theatre, Oklahoma! is really starting to show its age. Character tropes that were staples in previous generations of entertainment may leave modern audiences feeling alienated, making Oklahoma! an interesting choice for DULOG’s biggest show of the year. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time watching DULOG’s high-quality production of Oklahoma! and I can highly recommend you grab yourselves a ticket while you can. Best of luck to the cast and crew for the remaining performances!
By Ben Cartwright