Every now and then, it seems, the best concept for a show is to have no concept at all. That’s certainly the case with Donna Feore’s tremendously effective “Oklahoma!” for the Stratford Festival. No revisionist staging, no search for hidden meanings — just the original Rodgers and Hammerstein musical performed with high style and even higher spirits by a bright young cast. The production has earned the most universally favorable reviews received by a mainstage musical at the fest in several years, resulting in SRO houses and solid box office advance.
Simplicity is the key to Feore’s approach throughout. Designer Patrick Clark has kept the Festival Theater’s thrust stage almost totally bare, with Aunt Eller’s house dominating the action in most scenes. Alan Brodie has cleverly constructed a horizon of light boxes that stretch all the way across the theater, allowing the sensation of endless prairie dawns and sunsets to fill our consciousness.
And in front of this, Feore goes to work, with a quartet of solid actors anchoring the action.
Twenty-season Shaw Festival veteran Nora McLellan has jumped ship and come to Stratford as Aunt Eller. She’s a warm, generous, life-affirming force that captures the production’s tone from the first time we see her. She’s capable of gravity when necessary, but never gets too heavy.
Dan Chameroy and Blythe Wilson are a winning pair of lovers as Curly and Laurey. Both are just a little gauche, and a touch shy which makes them seem a perfect fit. Each one has the pipes to carry their respective big solos, but it’s in a duet like “People Will Say We’re in Love” that their charm really shines through.
Rounding things off is David W. Keeley as a Jud more handsome than we usually see, able to stir up feelings in Laurey she never knew she had. He’s more of a misunderstood loner than a sociopathic villain and his empathetic rendition of “Lonely Room” brings down the house.
There’s a lot of pleasing comedy from the subplot triangle headed by Ado Annie (Lindsay Thomas), Will Parker (Kyle Blair) and Ali Hakim (Jonathan Ellul).
Thomas has an awesome belt, although she tends to play the perky card a bit too much. Blair has a more naturalistic appeal and pulls off some impressive rope tricks in “Kansas City.” Ellul fully embraces the ethnic humor of Ali Hakim, turning him into a kind of Borat of the West, which makes these potentially dull scenes come to life.
Feore’s musical staging is deft throughout and her decision to let Laurey, Curly and Jud do their own dancing in the dream ballet that closes act one yields rich dramatic rewards.
In the end, the major achievement of this production is that it allows us to recapture the simple feel-good sensation that the show must have first generated for auds back in 1943. It’s not just a musical comedy classic; it’s an entertaining night in the theater.