Oklahoma! is a big show with a big heart and Phoenix Musical Society, directed by Trish Ruff, have had a lot of fun putting this much-loved production together. Like many local companies, Phoenix has few men, but it is really good to see such a young cast in many of the principal roles.
There can be few not familiar with this Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece. Indeed, I overheard one audience member say, ‘How do I know all these songs?’ The plot is a simple one: cowboy loves girl, girl loves cowboy, both too stubborn to admit to it, circumstances force them to. Happy ending.
Marion Taylor is a delightfully pragmatic Aunt Eller and really does hold the show together. Curly (played by Matt Tyler) gained vocal confidence throughout the evening and has a great stage presence. Laurie (Catherine Ruff) has an incredibly pretty voice and her naturalistic acting was perhaps initially too understated; more indignation and feistiness in the opening scene would help to set her character early on. She, like many others, came into her own in the second half, proving herself a terrific actor.
Ado Annie is a real treasure. Charlotte James has a great voice and is a super character actor – her modern naturalism gives us fresh interpretations of the much-loved and all too familiar libretto. She and Sam Shipp, playing her love interest, an enthusiastic and exuberant Will Parker, make a sweet pairing. Rob Reynolds plays her father, Andrew Carnes, with some absolutely delightful comic timing. KD Johnson visibly relishes the comedic role of Ali Hakim and it was a highlight of the evening to see his rather sleazy character humbled by Gertie Cummings (Rachel Leggett) with a laugh most won’t forget in a hurry.
The direction was both hit and miss, with additions and subtractions to the regular script. I liked the added libretto with the gift of a dress from Aunt Eller and also the much-reduced ballet sequence, although more could be made of that with careful use of the chorus to give it a more claustrophobic atmosphere – it ultimately lacks real menace. Also, surely her double (beautifully danced by Agnieszka Jurkiewicz) should be blonde like Laurie herself.
There are missed opportunities, too. Curly, at the end of ‘People will say we’re in love’, is aloof and smug, but this should be a moment of pure tenderness and true love between them. Without this, the contention of Jud’s arrival prompting Laurie to remember her earlier promise to him is not clear and there is little justification for Curly’s visit to the smoke-house.
The choreography (by Alice Behling) is clean and simple, never testing the society and in some cases a little too easy. For example, Will Parker’s ‘Kansas City’ needs a climax, but his walk to the front of the stage and raising his hat falls embarrassingly short. Likewise, the ‘Oklahoma hello’ needs much more – it must surpass the ‘Persian goodbye’ or it simply doesn’t work!
There are moments of genius in this production and casting Philip Redgrave is one of them. He captures the tortured soul of Jud Fry with a tour de force of superb acting and singing. Philip is ‘old school’; there are few left who have the musical training required to sing without amplification and project their voice over the orchestra to the back of the auditorium. That training provides a level of vocal control that stands out alongside his less experienced peers, who could learn from his show-stopping performance of ‘Lonely room’.
Lee Redwood, musical director, has done a marvellous job, particularly in compensating for so few male voices. The ladies’ harmonies are delightful and overall the sound is very good.
This society clearly has a relatively limited budget, but really makes the best of it. There is plenty of young, budding talent here, but they need to be properly nurtured. For example, encouraging the relaxing and dropping of the jaw on top notes to avoid dulling the last moments of a moving song could make a significant difference.
I would urge you to see this energetic show – and not just to enjoy Philip’s incredible performance as Jud Fry.
Future performances: 22 September at 7.30, 23 September at 2.30 and 7.30.