Brunton Theatre, Edinburgh – until 13 May 2017
Tender and melodic, Encore’s production of Oklahoma! at the Brunton to Saturday is marked out by some striking vocal performances and clever attention to romantic detail. The local amateur musicals company is taking on the love story of farm girl Laurey and cowboy Curly, set in the early 20th century just as the Oklahoma and Indian Territories were to be brought together to create a new State and join the union.
It was the first musical which Rodgers & Hammerstein created as a partnership and is packed with rather more than the usual quota of great and memorable numbers. Small wonder the hairs sit up on the back of the neck, right from the opening notes, as Curly (Kevin MacConnachie) enters with the refrain of Oh What A Beautiful Morning, to banter with Laurey’s Aunt Ella, churning butter on her front porch.
MacConnachie has the perfect voice for that opening moment. Clear and light, but carrying plenty of reserve, he is able to give the words and tune all the infection you would want. He’s well supported from the pit, with an orchestra which is light on its feet, too.
If the vocal movement is always light, especially when Jennifer Harris as Laurey arrives on stage, the physical movement is rather more static. It’s a difficulty through the whole production. Director Peter Antonelli doesn’t get his cast moving on their feet as they might – which is all the more obvious the fewer people there are on stage.
No such difficulties for choreographer Heather Antonelli who ensures that the dance sequences have a strong dynamic to them and are aimed to work with her dancer’s strengths, so they are stretching to the top of their abilities. Even the notoriously tricky Dream Ballet, in which Laurey has nightmares about the rivals for her attention is strong, focussing in on the storytelling rather than great flights of elegance.
Indeed, the storytelling is nicely done throughout, as capricious Laurey spurns Curly’s invitation to accompany him to the box social. Cutting of her nose to spite her face, she accepts the invitation from creepy farm hand Jud Fry.
Gillian Hunter puts in another great performance as Ado Annie – the farm girl who Cain’t Say No! and is having trouble deciding between the attentions of dim but faithful cowboy Will (Steve MacDonald) and romantic Persian pedlar, Ali Hakim (Robert Simpson) whose intentions are far from honourable.
The comic business between Will and Ali is nicely handled, with Simpson’s Hakim particularly well-timed but McDonald putting in a decent show as fall guy Will.
But it is Hunter who stands out, whether she is swooning over one, then the other, or simply in her vocal delivery. She makes the duet with McDonald on All Er Nothin’ a particular highpoint of the whole show on all its levels of perfornance.
Hazel Gray makes a suitably judgemental Aunt Ella. She’s one of the most rounded characters of the piece and Gray makes it clear that she is the one who understands the significance of Curly and Laurey’s romance in its tying together of farmer and cowman, as the Territories transform from cattle ranges to agriculture.
The fly in the ointment of Curly and Laurey’s romance is of course Jed Fry. Alan Taylor has all the necessary vocal equipment to make the role work, but there is a lot space for him to add more malevolence to the role. His confrontation with Curly in the Smokehouse never quite has the tension it might.
The comedy is nicely done. Bob Martin as Ado Annie’s shotgun wielding father Andrew Carnes, is clearly willing to use it to enforce the honesty of the intentions of his daughter’s intended. While Becky Duncan-Skelton adds a great line in hysterical laughter as Curly’s alternate date at the Box Social.
It is also great to see a strong contingent of junior performers on stage, bolstering the vocal line of the chorus and adding little bit of business here and there.
But the real joy in the production remains with that central pairing of Curly and Laurey. Their rendition of People Will Say We’re In Love is the highlight of the first half. With its reprise in Act Two welcome indeed.
A solid production from a company which knows how to utilise the resources at its disposal to their best advantage.