When Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, just months after the horrors of Pearl Harbour, it filled a deep need amongst an American theatre-going public still reeling and desperately seeking anything which offered hope, optimism and escape. All three were in abundance throughout Tony Finnegan`s vibrant production for the Ulster Operatic Company almost seventy years on. It was a production which dispersed with what many consider to be the dated nature of the original, giving us a fresh take on this timeless classic which was both invigorating and thought-provoking in equal measure.
There were so many directorial flourishes in this production. We were treated to superb staging, a wealth of comic business, a beautifully developed love story and an exceptionally realised smoke-house scene. The latter was a stand-alone brilliant piece of theatre, masterfully performed and excellently crafted. The `funeral`, which could have fallen into the dangerous trap of `over-production`, was perfectly judged in its timing and staging and never once distracted from Curly and Jud`s powerful performances.
Community is at the very core of `Oklahoma!` and this ensemble reflected that central theme, giving the impression of being a very tight-knit community indeed. There was a real sense of togetherness and cohesion throughout and an infectious energy and vivacity which swept us along from start to finish.
Wilson Shields was at the musical helm and what a fine job he did too. He presided over an exceptional fifteen-piece orchestra which hit us between the eyes for the rousing title number and had hairs standing on the backs of our necks during the haunting `Lonely Room`. Choral singing was so strong with an excellent stage/pit balance for the most part. The `Dream Ballet` was a tour de force from the orchestra. Superb playing here and some interesting tempi choices combined with excellent onstage action and marvellous lighting to give us a brilliant realisation of this number.
Wendy Mairs is deserved of the reputation which goes before her. Choreography throughout was fresh, energetic and so well performed. The `tap` sequence in `Kansas City`, with over twenty guys on stage, was a joy. Excellent work in the `Dream Ballet`. I was particularly taken with the work of Kyle Dick and Olivia Reid as the young Curly and Laurey. Two very talented children! `The Farmer and the Cowman` was a huge number with over fifty people a-whoopin` and a-hollerin`, giving their all in a hoedown which was breathtaking at times such was the precision, energy, commitment and sheer abandon which radiated from the stage.
Kieran Griffiths gave a most assured and polished performance as Curly. After a few pacing issues in his opening exchanges, he grew in confidence and likeability. His playfulness in `The Surrey with the Fringe on Top` drew the audience in and from that point on we were on his side, willing him to `get it on` with Laurey with whom he had a wonderful chemistry. His contribution to the brilliant smokehouse scene was immense. He had a clear, often effortless, singing voice which was full and large when required and soothing and subtle when called for.
Núala Ní Mhainnín was simply stunning in the role of Laurey. It was an inspirational performance from a most intelligent actress. Ms. Ní Mhainnín captured Laurey`s gentle naivity but left us in no doubt that there was a fiery stubbornness underneath. There was a depth to the character that is all too often missing and her beautiful vocal work was just the icing on the cake. She had the most wonderful, crystal-clear voice with an incredible upper register which was nicely shown-off at the end of the reprise of `People Will Say We`re in Love`.
Karl McGuckin gave a compelling portrayal of Jud Fry which balanced a tormented and angry soul with an underlying sadness and despondency. Mr. McGuckin`s Jud was more troubled than villainous and he displayed a vulnerability which was balanced with a deeply disturbed edge. What a magnificent voice he possessed into the bargain! He combined wonderfully with Mr. Griffiths in `Poor Jud is Dead` and his `Lonely Room` was one of the many musical highlights of the evening.
Alison McCalister as Aunt Eller was a dominant character throughout. She was feisty, funny and warm and her love for Laurey was so palpable. Ms. McCalister single-handedly held the auction scene together, orchestrating and ensuring a cracking pace. Her timing in this scene was impeccable. A remarkably strong performance in what can sometimes be a throwaway role.
What comedienne wouldn`t love a shot at playing the overly-amorous Ado Annie? Karen Hawthorne was obviously relishing the role and hit the stage running with unbridled enthusiasm and energy. At times I felt that she was trying a little too hard and that she could have pulled back a little. However, one thing is for certain – the audience was carried along by her infectious energy and enjoyed her antics no end!
Timothy Bell as Will Parker sang and danced up a storm. His dancing in `Kansas City` along with the large male ensemble was simply exhilarating and he displayed a fine tone to his voice particularly in `All Er Nuthin`. Comedy was very well handled for the most part although on occasion pace dropped and we lost momentum.
Michael McDowell as Andrew Carnes had a few diction issues in his opening `rabbits` scene, possibly due to forcing his southern drawl just a little. This soon settled though and we were treated to a very fine performance. His work in the auction with Ali was excellent, giving rise to much hilarity.
Ross Chambers was an Ali Hakim (Hak-eem!) like I had never seen before. He was an excellent physical comedian and I couldn`t help seeing him as a rather strange mixture of John Cleese and Borat! His timing was impeccable and he certainly knew how to nail a one-liner. The omission of `It`s a Scandal` was disappointing as I`m sure Mr. Chambers and the very strong male ensemble would have had great fun with the number.
Mark McGuire as a self-righteous Cord Elam sang his solo lines with gusto in the title number and he showed great comic reaction to Aunt Eller`s `accusation` of infidelity. Charlotte Elliott`s smug Gertie Cummings was perfectly judged and her laugh managed to elicit the required groans from the audience every time. Shane McCaffery was a strong Ike Skidmore and Jamie Ewing showed great presence throughout whilst being a standout member of the ensemble as required.
A superbly designed set from Scenic Projects was managed with considerable efficiency by Clare Donnelly and her excellent crew. Changes were perfectly choreographed using cast and crew, with plenty of background cheers and business adding to the continuity.
Costumes from Triple C were of a very high standard and thankfully we were spared from wall-to-wall gingham. Ali`s suit was suitably OTT and his hat, (revealing a fez underneath which must have been super-glued to his head!), was a riot. Great choice of costumes for the dream ballet, especially for the showgirls whose costumes looked most appealing indeed!
Props were very well chosen by Norma Spiers and were appropriate to the period.
I was very impressed by the sound design and operation by MK Design. Great work here with no cues missed and a very fine stage/pit balance. There were perhaps some missed opportunities for sound effects but this is a minor point in what was an excellent job all evening.
Paul Hinchcliffe must be in great demand as a lighting designer. If not, he should be! It was quite clear that he understood the show and that he knew just how to complement the dramatic possibilities through his design. Lighting was subtle when necessary with perfectly judged timing of cues fading in and out. The `Dream Ballet` was suitably atmospheric with some striking pictures, marvellous timing by the operator and excellent use of the cyc. Soft focus follow spots were used to great effect throughout.
Hair and make-up by Dawn Sutton and her team were well looked after with good attention to detail.
Rodgers and Hammerstein`s first collaboration will celebrate its seventieth birthday next year. In spite of its OAP status, The Ulster breathed new life into this iconic piece of musical theatre. They have set themselves high standards in recent years and Oklahoma was yet another triumph for the company. Thanks to all for a wonderful night`s entertainment.
OVERVIEW : JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
ULSTER OPERATIC COMPANY
Grand Opera House
5 November 2011
The downside to this job is to remain calm and composed no matter what. Betimes, I might indulge myself in the odd silent tear, but to do so at the end of Ulster Operatic Company’s production of JC Superstar this year, would have been detrimental to my reputation, for the floodgates might have opened. “Keep it together,” I told myself, “you can bawl your eyes out on the way home.” Would that the cast and production team might have done the same! Tear stained elated faces everywhere in the green room; a people who had been touched by the show under the guidance of a director who, in his own words sniffled, “I should never have read the book…” Interestingly, probably the most composed person in the room was the remarkable Jeff Anderson, the actor who played JC. The twenty one year old carried himself like Jesus the man; thirty three and with literally the weight of the world on his shoulders. He did not indulge himself however; rather there was a sort of comfort in watching him develop the character. He looked the part and was charismatic, but blessing of blessings, the man can sing like JC. And how. Hitting his peak with the powerful ‘Gethsemane’ Mr Anderson was magnificent. If you missed this show, I am sorry for you. Let this not put the rest of the cast in the shade though, as Director Tony Finnegan fluently guided a very able and talented group. David Latham brought dignity to the troubled Judas, his simmering anger and fears bubbling away underneath; singing was very good, though possibly at times just a little out of Mr Latham’s comfort zone. Karen Hawthorne as Mary Magdalene pulled at the heartstrings, especially as she warmed into the part; ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ was sensitively sung – Ms Hawthorne has a really beautiful voice. ‘Could We Start Again Please?’ with Simon Cunningham as Peter was a tear jerker, but the reprise while Jesus struggled with the cross, through the auditorium (the side and not the centre aisle) was almost too much to bear. Here was evidence of Tony Finnegan’s respect for the story; it took so long to get that cross onto the stage, it felt wrong to sit there and watch without helping. I know some directors like to point an accusational finger at the audience for this show, but here we were rewarded in the end for our endurance, for feeling, my God, why has everyone forsaken him? After a crucifixion where the music was slowed right down and the whole painful ordeal given an horrific reality, and people actually crying on stage - a lone boy child, perfectly cast with a beautiful face and dressed all in black came from nowhere and hugged the empty cross. I thought I’d die from sheer emotion until JC appeared once more and beckoned the boy, whose face opened into a smile and lit up the theatre, ran and embraced Jesus. Was this black clad child representative of Judas, also dressed head to toe in black? (I wondered whether this was too polar opposite to JC dressed in white) Was he representing us; was the black costume hinting at the sins we might carry? Was the child reminding us that we are still learning and doing our best? I’m not sure, but it was a mighty hopeful ending, and a balance to the earlier ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ which while a great performance (show stopper standard), saw Judas in a red cape with devil girls: was Mr Finnegan suggesting Judas was in hell?! Surely not, when the essence of the show is to see things from his point of view…
Musical Director Wilson Shields and his orchestra delivered exceptional music, I could not fault it. Choreographer Ditanya McKinty was respectful of the original 1970’s musical and dancers were more than capable. Paul Masterson sang really well as Simon and his dance number was well interpreted (Soooo difficult not to get up and join in!)
The apostles were a solid group. They played guitars and tin whistles on stage, which was a nice touch. The women’s chorus/apostles’ wives were given a nice role – even Judas had a wife who tried to comfort him and highlight his angst. The High Priests were stunning as a group – the mix of voices was solid and harmonious. Mark McGuire as Annas and Samuel Moore as Caiaphas really stood out, though all priests were excellent. Karl McGuckin was a charismatic if somewhat camp Pilate and singing was superb. With a show this emotional, one needs a pick-me-up and the humourous scene with Herod was certainly different and a lot of fun: Matthew Cavan’s Freddy Mercury (‘Queen Herod’) was a class touch – it worked because he did it so well, seamlessly moving in and out of Queen numbers. Stage Manager Clare Donnelly did fantastic work with the impressive set from Scenic Projects (lots of hydraulics and such). Paul Hinchcliffe’s lighting design made a genuine impact. Costumes from Triple C and sourced within the group were classier than your average peasant might wear, but then it’s show business and should make a visual impression. Norma Spiers on props didn’t disappoint for the dramatic market in the temple scene.
The pace of the show was good, but I felt we needed a breather between some of the highly emotional scenes – even a few seconds – we’re only human after all. The chorus was mighty strong throughout and the use of children only enhanced the energy already on stage. A wonderful production – this group poured their heart and souls into it. I hope the memories stay with them a long time.
The year is 1959, a pivotal moment in American cultural history, when rock and roll was giving birth to the Sexual Revolution and everything in America culture was about to be turned upside down. Record companies were releasing more than a hundred singles every week and the country was about to explode. Grease, generally considered a trivial little musical about The Fabulous Fifties, is really the story of America’s tumultuous crossing over from the 50s to the 60s, throwing over repression and tradition for freedom and adventure (and a generous helping of cultural chaos), a time when the styles and culture of the disengaged and disenfranchised became overpowering symbols of teenage power and autonomy. Originally a rowdy, dangerous, over-sexed, and insightful piece of alternative theatre, Grease was inspired by the rule-busting success of Hair and shows like it, rejecting the trappings of other Broadway musicals for a more authentic, more visceral, more radical theatre experience that revealed great cultural truths about America. In more recent productions Grease has had a tendency to create a succession of musical numbers rather than a strong sweep of narrative; anxieties and yearnings that are universal. This is a shame!
That being said, it can also be seen as a teen-trivia musical, where broad strokes, big voices and flourishing high energy dances are the order of the day. This is what we got from Ulster Operatic Companies recent production in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. A broad comedy; high energy production full of colour!
The band was placed on a platform upstage centre in what seemed like a miniature radio backdrop. The side portals were decorated with large templates of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and addition scene changes were flown in, trucked on or walked on by the stage crew.
This production was entertaining and exuberant from Director/Choreographer Peter Kennedy. High energy was forthcoming and the comedy moments were broad and crass. The overall production was well delivered by a solid and rehearsed cast. Scene changes could have been faster and tighter and it would have been nice if scene changes had been timed with the interlude and introduction music. We did have some empty gaps during scene changes. Some scenes could have been changed by the cast. Entrances and exits needed more direction; maybe dancing on and off would have helped the overall pace and continuity. The overall production, albeit entertaining, was in need of more nuances pertaining to the overall themes as "Grease" tackling social issues pertinent to 1950s teens and touching on matters of friendship, rebellion, acceptance, class conflict, dreams and love requited. It did lack the kind of magic that is needed between Sandy and Danny and the tension between Kenickie and Betty Rizzo in order to bring this musical to its full conclusion.
Musical Director Chris Tingley brought together a solid tight six piece band for this production. We had some lovely trumpet playing from Alisdair Wallace. We needed to restraint the saxophone and the guitar for some numbers; particularly the saxophone during ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ and the guitar playing for ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ was too finger-picked and spiky. The band was suitably confident and musically explosive. Pit-Stage balance for this type of show is paramount to its success as the musical content is overtly large and broad. Getting appropriate balance when the band is placed upstage of the cast is even a greater challenge; we need the musical director to be very cognisant of pit-stage balance. There were times when the band came across too loud for some solo and chorus numbers; particularly obvious for ‘Magic Changes’ and ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’. Tempi were too fast for ‘Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee’ and ‘Sandy’. Singing from soloists was secure and well rehearsed. Harmonies were good for ‘Freddie My Love’ but needed more attention for the larger chorus numbers. Music was too loud over the dialogue during the start of Act 2. Overall, I would have to say that pit-stage balance and tempi was an issue for this production. This may have been in part due to the large auditorium, the band being placed upstage and behind the cast and the age profile of the cast.
Stage Management under the stewardship of Andrew McKnight was exact and skilful. Scene changes were efficient but could have done with more pace in order to support continuity. It is important to get scene changes tight, but at the same time be mindful of getting the job done quickly. Involving the cast in some setting and striking may have helped continuity, particularly the striking of the car. The set-up into the bedroom scene was particularly slow. The props for this production were basic. Be mindful to have props that are era and time appropriate; the car Cromer’s looked too modern. Lighting design by Paul Hinchliffe was efficient and worked well. Spotlights were a little insecure at times. The sound balance needed more attention. There were times when dialogue and entrances were overpowered by the band. The soloist in Magic Changes could have been louder. The radio voice needed to sound more radio-like and some offstage dialogue was missed.
Costumes from Theatrical Costume Hire were excellent. Congratulations to Meike White in the wardrobe team for excellent shoes and attention to detail. Hair styles and wigs were appropriate from Bill Galloway and Kerry Orr. Make-up was excellent.
Choreographer; Peter Kennedy assisted by Brook Aillen gave us great fast paced and interesting routines throughout the show. The dances were well devised with interesting formations and quirky moments ie; the male ‘CRAB’ walk! The cast worked hard to deliver the routines. Some cast members needed more rehearsal. The high kicking in the Rydell High routine was excellent. ‘Born to Hand Jive’ was a highlight and the final picture was excellent as was the final picture for ‘You’re The One That I Want’. Mathew Blaney was a very alluring Danny Zuko. Singing was secure and intuitively musical. This fine actor had great stage presence keeping his cool macho image in each and every scene. Mr. Blaney was imposing and determined in every scene and had lovely comedy nuances when required. This actor needed to embrace the T-Bird leadership role with a broader personality. This character needs to be the essence of the late 1950’s and the sexual revolution that imploded on the one hand and the struggle of being cool and yet earning Sandy’s affections on the other. We had a very sweet and compassionate performance from Claire Howell as Sandy Dumbrowski. Ms. Howell gave a very secure performance with some lovely singing. This actress was self-assured, calm and demure. The challenge for this character is to be naïve and innocent but at the same time to be ‘interesting’ to Danny. Aaron Butler gave a very energised and forthcoming portrayal of the tough and rude second in command Kenickie. This fine actor and singer was ever present and engaging in every scene. We had a very tough and steadfast performance from Annika Graham as Betty Rizzo. This actress has great potential. Singing was dynamic and hearty. Dialogue was too rushed and diction was an issue at time. This actress needed to slow down her dialogue and stand out more from the rest of the Pink Ladies, principally as the wild one! Ande Gray was solid in the role of gullible Doody. A fine singer and a very imposing actor. Rachael Stewart gave us a very likeable portrayal of Frenchy, the beauty school dropout. This actress captured the friendly and dreamy nature of the character. Singing was delightful. The school mooner ‘Roger’ was in the capable hands of actor Sean Larkin. Mr. Larkin was the perfect prankster. Hannah Dyer gave us a very believable portrayal of Marty, the sailor love-struck pink lady. This actress captured the fun and the energy of this character in every scene. Marc Dallas gave us a very quirky, wise-guy performance as Sonny and Cherelle Hinds was ever present in the role of ever-eating Jan. Chris Pattison gave a great performance in the role of Eugene, the bullied nerd of Rydell. Mr. Pattison was hilarious and gave us a brave and steadfast comedy performance. This actor kept our interest and delivered every moment through to the last beat. We had a nicely measured performance from Joan Grenville as Miss Lynch, the English teacher while Shane McCaffrey was secure in the role of radio DJ and compare of the Prom, Vince Fontaine. We had a stand-out performance from Faith Stevenson as want-to-be pink Lady and cheerleader Patty Simcox. This actress was strong and engaging in every scene. David McCrossan was very imposing as rock star student Johnny Casino. Singing was secure and Ruth Reid had great stage presence as the girl from a different school, Cha Cha. A very confident performance! Mal Hanna was very secure as Teen Angel, our dreamed up guardian angel. Singing was excellent.
This company gave us a great night’s entertainment. They were bold and broad in every scene and they were full of the style that is the 1950’s rock and roll. Energy and commitment was apparent. Singing was secure and forthcoming. Dancing was a flourish of high energy and very well executed. Congratulations to everyone at Ulster Operatic Company. Be mindful to seat the adjudicator in a position where he/she can see the whole stage. Unfortunately, this adjudicator was placed in a seat that made seeing stage right very difficult.