Review Author: Joe Clarke
Following on from their Best Musical win at the District 8 NODA Awards (Guys and Dolls), Centenary Theatre Company have produced another hit! I had the pleasure to watch tonight and it is a pleasure to write this review – I only hope there are enough superlatives to express how good it was!
This is now the third time that Centenary have put on this production and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I’ll be honest – I don’t really like this show. However, the director, Dan Grimes, has left me feeling like a fool. Dan’s traditional version of this show is a tricky one, but I left the theatre, having been taken on a journey with more questions than answers. Oklahoma, done traditionally, can be twee and one dimensional – but not in this version. Watching as a 2018 audience member, I found some of the scenes uncomfortable to watch – particularly when the men were bidding on the women. Women played a background role and were inferior to the men and it was uncomfortable to watch. At one point in the second act, Curly, played by Tom McLoughlin, talks about how “This country is changing, and we need to change along with it”. Thankfully, things have changed since ‘then’. We now have equal rights, and, in the year of the women, it is apparent just how far we have come, and have still to go as a society. Despite this, Oscar Hammerstein 2nd wrote the character of Aunt Eller (Patsy Roberts). A formidable, matriarchal woman who was definitely in charge of her town – perhaps he had the foresight to see that women have really been in charge all along?
The director, Dan Grimes, had a great vision for this show and the audience, including myself, loved it! Whilst the set was sparse, it allowed the focus to be on the character and the plot. The accents were generally strong in their Southern twang, which in turn, at times, allowed the words to be hard to hear. Despite this, the characterisation was there, along with the energy and passion. I loved the ‘feel’ of the show and it was clear that a lot of love and attention went into it. All actors were clear in their intentions. One piece of direction I loved were the scene changes. I am not a fan of scene changes and Dan Grimes did not shy away from them at all. He made them part of the action. The actors themselves made the scene changes swift and seamless without taking the focus away from the action. Well done Dan!
Simon Pickup was the musical director who took the helm in the pit. He was fully in control of his orchestra and kept a great tempo throughout. If I may single out two of the orchestra – the violinist and the flutist were particularly brilliant! The mix between the orchestra, the cast and the audience were great, and Simon was brilliant at being both in charge of the orchestra as well as the cast on stage.
Choreography was by James Gibbons. There isn’t much for me to say, apart from the choreography was excellent. It was sympathetic to both the score and the era, as well as visually stunning. The dream ballet was a visual delight and James (and Dan) should be commended for their vision on this! I loved the fact that they had children playing the roles of the young version of the cast before transitioning in the older cast members. It was THAT good, it needed its own standing ovation!
The costumes were appropriate to the era. Whilst they were not flattering for the women, they were apt and appreciated – even down to the length of the dresses. The costumes reflected the directors traditional vision and were used greatly throughout; swishing during the choreography.
The lighting was excellent! I loved the contrast in the modern bold and brash colours onstage and how they reflected each scene. I loved the dark reds and the bold pinks that contrasted, yet suited. The lighting, including gobo’s, throughout the dream ballet was excellent and very much appreciated.
At times, I find the balance of the sound at The Brindley Theatre difficult, but not in this production. There was a great balance between stage mics, actors’ mics, the pit and the audience and I felt that it added value – especially as the actors were using such strong Southern accents.
Patsy Roberts played Aunt Eller with gusto. It’s clear as to why she won her district NODA nomination. Patsy is a fine actress who commanded the stage in every scene. She played Aunt Eller as a formidable, matriarchal woman who wasn’t scared to mix in with the fella’s when needed. I loved Patsy’s relationship that she had with Tom McLoughlin (Curly).
Laurey was played by Jo Novoa Bradley. This role gives Jo the chance to showcase her fine acting, great voice and excellent dance ability. I truly believed that Laurey was in love with Curly and I loved Jo’s naturalism during her scenes with Jud Fry. Jo was a perfect choice to play this role. She commanded the stage throughout.
Curly was excellently played by Tom McLoughlin. For me, Tom was the star of the show. Woody from Toy Story used to be my favourite Cowboy – not now! Tom’s version of Curly made the audience, including myself, fall in love with him! I loved Tom’s characterisation of this role. He was very likeable and had an appropriate charm, wit and sex appeal. I loved Tom’s accent and it was clear to see why Tom recently won a NODA award for his district. Well done Tom!
Jud Fry was played brilliantly by Kenneth McConaghy. Kenneth is an excellent actor who brings depth of character to this role. I found it very uncomfortable to watch him in every scene whilst feeling sorry for him at the same time. In all the other times that I’ve seen this show – Jud had been played as the ‘crazy guy’. I felt that Kenneth brought a fresh approach to the role. I felt that Jud was misunderstood or had mental health issues – something which is quite prominent in today’s society. Kenneth made me think about this role both during the show, and after. He did an excellent job and was perfect casting!
Ado Annie was played by Sarah Cragg. In all the other versions of this show that I have seen, Ado Annie has been played as a sultry seductress. I loved Sarah’s version of this character. She played Annie as a naïve and lovable character who falls in love with every man she is with – but with honesty and naivety. Sarah has a cracking voice and I loved her version of ‘I can’t say no’! I adored the energy and commitment to her role and she brought a great energy to the stage – which helped the flow of the whole piece.
Will Parker was played by Matt Orrillard. Matt brought a different characterisation to Will that I have never seen before. He played Will as a dumb and naive cowboy who shows a softer side to his character. This was a good contrast to Curly and Jud and added to his lovable rapport with Ado Annie.
Mark Murphy played the role of Ali Hakim. Whilst this role is traditionally from Persia, Mark played it as a strong accented Peddler from the Bronx. For me, this worked. I adored Mark’s characterisation and the commitment he brought to bring his dialogue to life. Mark is an outstanding actor who found the humour in the text. He was suitably funny whilst remaining true to the plot and both myself, and the audience loved him!
Kirsten Dunn played the role of Gertie Cummings. This is Kirsten’s first role with Centenary Theatre Company and I hope not her last. I think that Gertie is often an understated and underwritten role. Kirsten did well in this role and brought humour and commitment in the scenes that she had. I like (and loathed) her laugh; complete with snort. Kirsten was able to show off her excellent dance ability in this show, particularly during the dream ballet.
Mike Hall played the role of Andrew Carnes – the suitably strong father of Ado Annie who would hold a shotgun to the head of any man when they didn’t want to marry his daughter. Mike did well vocally and had a great projection to his voice.
There are far too many other cast members to mention. The large cast of adults and children did very well and stayed in character throughout. Overall, I felt that this was an excellent version of this show. I thought it was visually stunning and vocally very good. The choreography was excellent, and the overall themes of the piece were apparent and very appreciated. I loved the fact that I sympathised with Jud Fry (mentally) something which I have never done before. I also loved the fact that this show made me think about society and women and how far we have come since this musical was written. The audience (and myself) loved it. It was clear from the smiles on the faces of the audience that a good night was had by all and I could still hear a few audience members belting out a few tunes on my way to the carpark! Well done Centenary. Thank you for your hospitality and I cannot wait to watch your next play, Little Women, and your next musical, The Wedding Singer!