Directed by Alex Lazaridis Ferguson. A Fight With a Stick production, presented as part of the Magnetic North Festival. At the Russian Hall on Saturday, June 1. Continues until June 9
Oh What a Beautiful Morning! is more live art and video installation than traditional theatre experience. This is a smart approach when engaging with something as tried and true and old-fashioned as the iconic musical Oklahoma!. It’s also in keeping with producer Fight With a Stick’s reputation for creating work that’s exploratory and avant-garde.
The 90-minute performance begins with the five actors—Hayley Gawthrop, Logan Rhys Hallwas, Hin Hilary Leung, Sean Marshall Jr., and Makailla Palliyaguru—crowded around a TV, watching a very long trailer for the 1955 film version of Oklahoma!. The audience watches it with the actors, and then the couch and the TV are repositioned and the audience watches the actors watching the trailer and engaging with it. The repositioning and the watching then rewatching happens at least five times. They go from humming along to tapping their feet to acting out dance moves and reciting the film characters’ lines in unison.
From there, the actors disappear and a giant screen becomes the central focus, onto which a short video loop is projected. The supposedly idyllic scene of stalks of corn blowing in the breeze under a bright blue sky takes on a more menacing quality as the score intensifies and the screen moves closer and closer, as do two large wooden walls, until the audience is essentially “trapped”.
Provocative, creative, and immersive moments like this are when Oh What a Beautiful Morning! is at its best. But there are moments when the show is a real struggle. One is a scene in which the actors stand in front of small screens that go up to their waists. The actors’ own arms and hands then match up or double up with other hands and arms projected onto the screens. It’s a neat visual trick at first, but it goes on for far too long, and this is the production’s biggest problem: it’s a bit boring. There are times when Oh What a Beautiful Morning!’s repetition feels less artistic than agonizing, and its pacing goes beyond methodical and deliberate to verge on dull.
The lyric sheets that were on our chairs at the start of the show signalled a musical component, and when Oh What a Beautiful Morning! fully evolves into a concert for its final 15 minutes, it’s a welcome jolt of energy. The best number is a rousing cover of “Sam Hall (Damn Your Eyes)” and though it’s a good ramp up to the sing-along finale, doing karaoke en masse to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” feels a bit like the show itself: it’s a lot and yet not enough.