Oklahoma! Way More Than OK

Arizona Rep's superlative rendition restores glory to a classic musical

Supposin' you have a hankerin' to stage the 70-year-old Oklahoma! at a major university. But the dang show is piled high with outdated references and old-fashioned mating rituals.

How do you get your cast of millennials to believe in and demonstrate the almost unbearable excitement of riding in a surrey with the fringe on top when they surely don't know a surrey from Shinola?

You could attempt a reboot, setting the 1943 musical in modern-day Oklahoma City, tossing in sly references to domestic terrorism and fracking and gun control. Maybe Curly could don a Kevin Durant jersey.

But audiences will see none of that at Arizona Repertory Theatre, where director Danny Gurwin dares not to be "daring," delivering instead an Oklahoma! that works wonders by remaining absolutely true to itself.

This is not a reimagining of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical set in 1906 in territorial Oklahoma. It's a revelation.

When the overture is over and the curtain goes up, we see Aunt Eller (Kylie Arnold) churning butter under a vivid sky of many colors. So far, so pretty, but then a lanky, dark-haired fellow named Curley starts singing about the glory of the morning, and oh, what a beautiful voice!

The voice (rich and nuanced and dramatic) belongs to Michael Calvoni, a senior who makes us sink into our seats, confident that we are in good hands. Soon enough we meet the object of Curly's desire, the virginal farm girl Laurey (Silvia Vannoy, just as good), whose job it is to resist his obvious charm.

Ryan Kleinman (sensational as Will Parker) kicks the show into an even higher gear when he bounds onstage to extol the modern wonders of Kansas City. Just back from winning a rodeo there, he can't get over the city's gas buggies, burlesque houses and seven-story skyscrapers. He and his boot-wearing buddies, singing and dancing with joyful abandon, agree that "everything's up to date in Kansas City—they've gone about as far as they can go."

Will Parker has his eye on another lovely sight back home: Ado Annie (Lindsey Mony), a gal in perpetual battle with her own free spirit. Unable to deny herself the pleasure of any man who talks pretty to her, she's currently on the arm of Ali Hakim (Hunter V. Hnat, hysterical), a peddler who keeps finding himself at the mercy of fathers with shotguns.

By the time the magnificent Mony hits "I Cain't Say No" out of the park, you'll likely be won over completely. Here's an Oklahoma! that deserves the exclamation mark.

After sitting through a half-dozen half-baked, unevenly sung and somewhat danced productions over the years, I had come to doubt the conventional wisdom about Oklahoma! being such a groundbreaking musical. Nothing this corny could have been a game changer, I thought time and again.

But now I know that Oklahoma! is dull as dirt only if it's not done right.

Speaking of dirt, you won't find a speck of it at the Marroney Theatre, where the action unfolds in a world freshly painted and scrubbed. Everybody wears bright, spotless clothes even before they all get cleaned up for the box social.

Only the misanthropic hired hand Jud, played with welcome intensity by Micah Bond, is rumpled and unkempt. The smudges on his clothes match the dark cloud that hangs over him.

By the time the cast tears into the title song, choreographed by Mark Esposito to emphasize the togetherness within a territory achieving statehood, we are powerless to resist. It's like we're experiencing the song for the first time.

ART, which closes its season next month with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, proves that well-worn musicals don't need to be creaky and irrelevant. When you've got such extravagantly talented singers and dancers and musicians and designers at your disposal, the traditional doesn't equal tired.

But I remain perplexed about one thing: How did Gurwin do it? How did the director get his young cast to convey such sincere enthusiasm for box socials, such intense longing for riding side by side in a surrey?

Maybe it's because he made everyone in the student cast of 32 understand that it's not the surrey, fringe or no fringe, that makes the heart pound. It's the side-by-side stuff.

And is there a subject more timeless and more exciting than the discovery of love and sex? For young people then and now, that's going about as far as you can go.