Heath Ledger Theatre
REVIEW: Jessie Stoelwinder
Oh, what a beautiful return to the stage for Black Swan Theatre Company after such a challenging year.
It just so happens that the first production post-COVID-19 closures is an innovative re-imagining of Oklahoma!, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that centres on community.
The first of many clever choices by Sydney director Richard Carroll is to present the show in the round, with the audience sitting up on stage on purpose-made seating banks.
It means there is a feeling of intimacy among the crowd, despite the vastly reduced seating capacity, and affords 360-degree views of the action taking place on a central square platform.
That sense of community flows throughout the performance, as the band weaves through the space and actors frequently break the fourth wall to throw a cheeky grin or sly wink.
But the staging isn’t even the most glaring modification to the beloved 1943 Broadway show regularly referred to as the first modern musical.
No. That was casting female actor Emily Havea as the male lead, cowman Curly McLain, which is a world-first and required written consent from Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation.
It is a brilliant decision that entirely flips Oklahoma! on its head.
The story, set in 1906, revolves around a love triangle between farm girl Laurey Williams and her suitors: the laidback Curly and menacing farmhand Jud Fry.
While Curly is still referred to as a man in this version, the queer undertone adds a layer of complexity to the plotline — a criticism of the original is that it’s a pretty simplistic tale.
Havea brings a roguish energy to the role that is utterly mesmerising.
The NIDA-trained actor walks the tightrope between masculine and feminine with impeccable skill, and creates a sizzling-yet-soft chemistry with Stefanie Caccamo, who plays Laury.
The entire casting is on point, with each member adding fresh dimensions to their characters.
A stand-out is Andy Cook as Jud, who adds an element of axe murderer to what is traditionally a role that represents convention.
Jud’s smokehouse is something straight from a horror movie.
Housed backstage, a live camera follows the actors into a red-lit room filled with hanging meat and the interaction is projected onto a screen made from a cube of fringing.
It is so innovative and effective — and the resulting tension among the audience is palpable.
Elsewhere, the show is joyous and hilarious.
Well-known showtunes like Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, I Cain’t Say No! and People Will Say We’re In Love are given a funky bluegrass spin by the small but mighty band, who become cast members in their own right.
And the actors also grab instruments at various points — Jud’s intense piano solo is as unexpected as it is fabulous.
The usual 15-minute ballet dream scene is instead turned into contemporary dance with genre-bending music, further showcasing the cast’s myriad talents.
There is just enough grit to bring Oklahoma! into the 21st century while maintaining the fun and frivolity of the golden era of Broadway.
Welcome back, Black Swan. You were missed.
Oklahoma! runs to December 20.