Oklahoma – Reviewed

This was not a simple show to review and I feel unable to give a sweeping judgement of the whole thing without having to endlessly qualify my words. Some aspects were brilliant, some better than average, but unfortunately some felt underdeveloped and flat.

DULOG Gala Theatre Musical Oklahoma

Oklahoma! Before the curtain even came up on DULOG’s production I had a fair idea of the hand they had been dealt. Justifiably famous music, a good ‘ole fashioned mid-western love story complete with dancing famers, cowboys and their respective belles but also lengthy, meandering dialogue and a running time that puts the Lord of the Rings to shame. The question in my mind was therefore two-fold. Would DULOG be able to make up for the shortcomings in the show while still perfecting the more exciting aspects?

The highlights of this production were, for me, undoubtedly, the orchestra and the singing. Both were as close to flawless as any student production can get; Seth Mialls and Chris Guard deserve huge credit for getting the best out of the cast and orchestra.

Over the entire three hours I found myself able to sit back, relax and enjoy the music rather than trying to constantly evaluate it; a sure sign of class. The singing was also gorgeous and the talent on show enviable for a university theatre group. Nat Goodwin, Elissa Churchill and Alex WIngfield stood out in this regard with voices that effortlessly married technical ability and style.

Emma Cave's choreography confused me a little. Certain songs and dances were stunning. The Dream Ballet was realised gloriously, the dance communicating poignantly a simple yet beautiful love story. At other moments, I was struck by the uncomfortable feeling that although most of the choreography for the larger chorus numbers was great, some was nothing that a good school group wouldn’t be able to tackle and was unable to quite match the music. The brilliance of certain moments of choreography did make me wish for a similar level throughout the entire production.

The direction in the leads-only songs was rather static and the actors found themselves unable to fill the Gala Theatre with small, under energised movements. The chorus split me down the middle. The girls were pretty much perfect, their dancing was dainty, well executed and captivating for nearly all of the show. The boys lacked something, or maybe, several things rolled into one.

A palpable lack of confidence surrounded the cowboys from their first entrance; I never really felt like these booted gentlemen had spent their short lives herding cattle in the sun. Rather, their shyness and costumes made them look more like they were going on a social and had taken a wrong turn. That said, their dancing matched the girls during most of the numbers and I'm sure that following the first night they can only get better.

Turning to the acting I would have to say that it was patchy in the first half but got a lot better towards the end of the show. Some characters however did manage to convince all the way through. Alex Wingfield’s loveable idiot Will Parker was pitched perfectly; balancing a sweet naivety with a freedom of spirit that came closest out of all the cast to capturing the spirit of the age. My companion even asked if we could bring him home with us…

Guy Hughes (Curly) and Elissa Churchill (Laurey) both started off a little underwhelming; awkward blocking and lengthy, meandering dialogue between the two meant the romance never really started sparking off properly until the second half. That said, once the fire started to burn, it did not stop and their union at the end of the show was lovely to watch. Hughes in particular effected an impressive transformation during the show. During the opening number he did not exude confidence and looked stilted and unsure of his ground but by the end, I must admit I believed in him completely.

I thought that perhaps the most touching performance of the evening was Dave Stodel’s Judd Fry. The part was played sensitively by the experienced Stodel who managed to give depth to a character that could easily have been without as much pathetic intensity. Nat Goodwin’s characterisation of the ditsy and easily charmed Ado Annie did not quite match her formidable talent as a singer but was nevertheless entertaining and she played off Wingfield effectively, drawing more than a few laughs from the audience.

Felix Stevenson had more problems with his character of the travelling Gypsy Ali Hakim. Although entertaining in his first scene, Stevenson’s character never got beyond what was essentially an impression of Borat plus the Meerkat from the infamous compare-the-market adverts. He seemed to be enjoying his part a little too much and his pausing and extension of some lines sapped the pace of the production in places where it really needed to pick up.

It was not only Stevenson that had trouble with characterisation however as, frankly speaking, all the characters lurched a little too close to stereotype for my liking. The beauty of Oklahoma! is that that eternal ideas and truths are explored in essentially mundane settings; perhaps the reason why I felt so moved by some of the massed chorus dances. Character is therefore fundamental to present a realistic setting to the audience and this cast didn't quite get there.

Another difficult problem that the Oklahoma! team came up against is the fact that the script is just not exciting enough to justify the incredibly lengthy dialogue. For far too much of the first half the characters felt like talking heads without much direction or motive. Pace, especially during the first half, suffered greatly and the songs and dance started to feel like oases in a desert.

So how on earth can I summarise an epic like DULOG’s Oklahoma!? Going back to my first paragraph, I think that Julia Loveless' team deserve plaudits for getting ‘right’ the parts of the production which made it famous in the first place. As said, the music and singing were almost perfect. Although the choreography was sublime in places it was also disappointingly average in others. The direction was generally a little dull although there were real moments of pathos here and there.

This was not a simple show to review and I feel unable to give a sweeping judgement of the whole thing without having to endlessly qualify my words. Some aspects were brilliant, some better than average, but unfortunately some felt underdeveloped and flat.

I suppose the killer question for your average Durham student is whether the show is worth £11? Well, as much as I enjoyed myself at certain moments, probably not.