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A fresh take on Oklahoma! sparkles with fun but doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable issues. Rosalind Appleby reviews Black Swan State Theatre Company’s new production.

The multi-talented cast and musicians in ‘Oklahoma!’ Photo by Daniel J Grant

Oklahoma, Black Swan State Theatre Company – Heath Ledger Theatre, 2 December 2020

“Oh what a beautiful mornin’/Oh what a beautiful day”, the famous Rogers & Hammerstein tune soars over the audience as Curly arrives onstage, strumming a banjo and decked out in fringed pants, cowboy hat and… glitter! It’s the opening moments of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Oklahoma! and the audience begins to chuckle as Emily Havea rolls by on an enormous wooden horse.

Director Richard Carroll has plenty to say in this remake of one of Broadway’s golden era musicals about a girl called Laurey trying to choose between two suitors – Curly the cowboy and Jud the farmhand. Cross-gender casting is just the beginning as lines are blurred by a mix of styles, historical periods and race, shining a glaring spotlight on the uncomfortable whiteness and misogyny of the 1943 original. Impressively, Carroll achieves this without crushing the joy; humour is spread as liberally as the sequins.

Carroll’s immersive style means the audience is swept up in the fun, seated in the round and invited to participate in the dance and wedding. Jonathan Oxlade’s functional chipboard stage and lighting design by Trent Suidgeest and Lucy Birkinshaw allows the costumes to make bold statements: denim, tassels and sequins are everywhere, in a strange mix of Dukes of Hazzard, drag and folk. Grand gestures add to the spectacle: the enormous rolling horse, the tassel backdrop for sinister video projections of Jud’s room and the requisite vehicle for “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” which I promise won’t disappoint.

Emily Havea’s megawatt smile as the charismatic Curly. Photo by Daniel J Grant.

The glue holding it all together is the music, provided by an onstage folk band led by musical director Victoria Falconer. Wayne Freer, Adam Gare and Jarrad Payne play multiple instruments from accordion to slide guitar, with bowed saw and lagerphone thrown in for good measure as they traverse bluegrass, rock, disco and more. The band joins the cast on stage for the large ensemble numbers (although their backing vocals don’t always quite land) which adds to the festive feel.

Cast members also pick up instruments along the way: Laurey’s strumming on the autoharp (a type of lap harp) adds sweetness to “People Will Say We’re in Love”, Jud delivers an angsty piano solo and can’t-say-no Ado Annie makes even a triangle sound erotic. The constant moving of instruments and spread of performers around a four-sided stage created some sound balance issues but the immersive impact paid off in spades.

Carroll asks a lot of his cast, a small, multi-talented team of nine who double as lead and ensemble and apparently have energy to burn. National Institute of Dramatic Art graduate Havea has a megawatt smile, athletic physicality and impressively versatile voice, making her a fabulously charismatic Curly. The patriarchy ingrained in the Wild West is nicely flipped by casting a woman as the heroic lead and Carroll capitalises on Havea’s skin colour to make some unsubtle references to George Floyd in the “Dream Ballet”.

Caroline McKenzie (Aunt Eller), Axel Duffy (Will Parker) and Laila Bano-Rind (Ado Annie) in ‘Kansas City’. Photo by Daniel J Grant.

Stefanie Caccamo’s attractive and malleable soprano makes Laurey instantly likeable, although her accent (and Havea’s) wanders occasionally into Strine. Andy Cook is physically and vocally ominous as Jud Fry, his determination to “get me a woman to call my own” oppressively rigid alongside the freewheeling misfits who have come together to form the Oklahoma community.

Laila Bano-Rind’s smoothly comic Ado Annie, Cameron Taylor’s clowning peddler Ali Hakim and Sara Reed’s Gertie/Dream Laurie bring colour and fun. Caroline McKenzie and Luke Hewitt add their seasoned talent in the roles of Aunt Eller and Andrew Carnes and capping it all off is 2019 WAAPA graduate Axel Duffy whose mix of wide-eyed innocence and sizzling dance moves as Will Parker threatens to steal the show. Talent such as his makes me wonder why more of the cast weren’t drawn from Western Australia?

A final nod to choreographer Bernadette Lewis whose contemporary dance background turns tradition further upside down. “Kansas City” becomes a mashup of iconic songs (kudos to the musical arrangements) as Will demonstrates his new dance moves, referencing everything from Lindy Hop to break dancing, worked seamlessly into a bluegrass line dance. In “Many a New Day” Broadway glamour meets Pride Parade, with complicated choreography and vocal harmonies delivered by the ensemble while Laurey completes a Cinderella costume change. The small touches were equally delightful: the subversive reversal of hand positions in the couple dances, or the mooching horses pulling the surrey.

It’s a giddy mix but the coherence among the creative team and the diverse skillset of the cast brings this show firmly home. If you haven’t got yourself a ticket then now is the time to hire a surrey, grab some glitter and get on down to the Box Social.

Oklahoma continues until 20 December at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

Pictured top: Emily Havea (Curly) in Black Swan Theatre Company’s production of Oklahoma! Credit: Daniel J Grant

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