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.