The Grand Theatre’s production of “Oklahoma!” (emphasis Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, not mine) is a nostalgic look back — not at 1907 Oklahoma, when the play takes place, but at 1943 Broadway, when the play debuted.
“They don’t make ’em like that anymore” is the sort of thing one says after watching “Oklahoma!” or any of its compatriots (“Brigadoon,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Anything Goes,” etc.). Whether the dearth of such simply written, broadly acted, lightly plotted shows in the year 2000 is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your tastes, but whatever they are, there’s no denying this production of “Oklahoma!” is a faithful, old-fashioned one with exactly the same energy and charm that must have delighted audience 57 years ago.
The plot is actually the same as many teen-oriented films of the ’80s and ’90s: Two stubborn young folks won’t admit they’re in love with each other and wind up going to The Big Dance (a “box social” in this case) with someone else in order to make the other one jealous.
Curly (Daniel Beck) is a cocky, blandly charming cowboy (you sorta like him, but he has no personality) who loves Laurey (Kimberly Allen-Tolman), an equally obstinate farm girl. Laurey is also loved by the oily, pornography-loving, loner farm-hand Jud Fry (David Hunsaker, who is none of those things in real life but does a great job portraying them here), who takes her to the box social despite the fact that she is afraid of being alone with him (and rightfully so). Curly goes with the imbecilic Gertie Cummings (Toni Davis Butler).
Meanwhile, Laurey’s friend Ado Annie (JJ Neward) is a gal who “cain’t say no,” which apparently was a charming attribute in the ’40s. She also cain’t decide between her real love, Will Parker (Darin Hathaway), or traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Andre Hicken). Ali claims to be Persian, and occasionally speaks with an accent. However, he is as Caucasian as people get; the production is unclear on whether he’s actually supposed to be Persian, or whether that’s just what he says to impress women.
The score includes several classics, including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and the peppy title song. Jayne Luke’s choreography is vibrant and fun, and expertly performed, particularly in Laury’s dream sequence (featuring talented dancers Amy Lives and Jake Strait).
If you’re not a fan of old-school musicals, “Oklahoma!” is not likely to appeal to you. It was ground-breaking in its day; now, it seems quaint and inconsequential. But the Grand Theatre’s production is marked by strong singing voices, excellent dancing and an admirable enthusiasm for the source material. Nostalgia — whether for turn-of-the-century frontier society or mid-’40s musical theater — is what makes the show a sentimental pleasure.
My favorite part of "Oklahoma!" is when Curly tries to talk Jud Fry into killing himself. Oh, that wacky Rodgers and Hammerstein! You can tell this was their first collaboration together; the exclamation mark in the title shows just how excited they were.