Rodgers and Hammerstein’s quintessential 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” thoroughly entertains at Wright State University with an impressive balance of lighthearted exuberance and darkly disturbing menace.
This splendidly tuneful musical is often treated with a one-dimensional, overly optimistic slant, but director Greg Hellems, borrowing a page from Trevor Nunn’s masterfully character-driven 2002 Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!,” avoids pigeonholing the colorful yet flawed characters. Deception, longing and despair also factor into their evolution as they anticipate statehood not long after the dawn of the 20th century. Thankfully, Hellems’ fine cast, attractively clothed in period attire by Lisa Loen, creates three-dimensional characterizations radiating with authenticity and purpose.
Based on Lynn Riggs’ 1930 play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” “Oklahoma!” concerns the emotionally stubborn romance between farm girl Laurey Williams and cowboy Curly McLain. Laurey and Curly are practically made for each other, but they’re reticent to admit it. However, their relationship is put to the test when surly hired hand Jud Fry sets his eyes on Laurey.
Pleasant tenor Jon Hacker, notably featured last season as Henry in the Human Race Theatre Company and Victoria Theatre Association’s local premiere of “Next to Normal,” portrays Curly with charming bravado and a genuine zest for life. He also instills an appealing sense of security into the role, giving credence to Laurey’s need to view Curly as a protector. Kate Mueller, who delivered a breakthrough performance last season as Helen Keller in WSU’s “The Miracle Worker,” delightfully embraces Laurey’s tomboy sensibilities and has palpable chemistry with Hacker. The score doesn’t rest comfortably in her range (which particularly reduces the passion within “People Will Say We’re in Love”), but she’s great in the book scenes, especially the eye-opening moment Laurey reveals her desires in life. An outstanding Andrew Quiett, whose WSU credits include “Grand Hotel,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Spring Awakening,” completes the central love triangle with a deeply obsessive and intimidating portrayal of the pornography-addicted Jud. I’ve never seen a rancher look as clean as Quiett does here, but he’s absolutely grounded in his complex role adding bouts of frightening anger for good measure. In fact, his superbly compelling rendition of “Lonely Room,” a marvelously ominous ballad and one of the most underrated tunes in the R&H canon, is a truly chilling display heightened by a sky of flaming red courtesy of lighting designer Matthew P. Benjamin.
Excellent turns extend to Caroline Gruber (a caring, strong Aunt Eller), Cooper Taggard (a spirited triple threat who turns the jubilant “Kansas City” into an early winner as dim-witted Will Parker), Kaitlyn Sage (an adorable, hilarious Ado Annie particularly delivering “I Cain’t Say No” as if it were written for her), Sean Jones (sly and funny as Ali Hakim), Drew Bowen (a naturally folksy Cord Elam), Ian Benjamin (enjoyably firm as Andrew Carnes), and Bailey Rose (scoring appropriate laughs as Gertie Cummings). The iconic “Dream Ballet,” strikingly choreographed by Teressa Wyle McWiliams, features fluid partnering by Hannah Aicholtz and Kyle Adam.
In addition to the “Dream Ballet,” McWilliams, paying homage to original choreographer Agnes de Mille while retaining her own distinct vision, pulls out the stops with the aforementioned “Kansas City” (featuring a dance break that would make Kathleen Marshall and Susan Stroman proud) and a wonderfully lively “Farmer and the Cowman.” In an inspired move, scenic designer Pam Knauert Lavarnway primarily sets the show within a large barn, allowing various locales to be viewed with a new perspective. Musical director Scot Woolley conducts another terrific orchestra.
“Oklahoma!” continues through Nov. 10 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. The production is performed in three hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 for seniors and students. The remainder of the run is reportedly sold- out, but call the box office at (937) 775-2500 in the event there is availability.