Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" has always been a show that thrives on bigness, a staged manifestation of the Oklahoma Territory’s sprawling openness at the turn of the 20th century.
Big ensemble numbers, big pit orchestra, big sky backdrops, an opulent surrey (with the fringe on top, natch) if the budget can handle it. Even high school productions can get rather extravagant.
It’s against this that Gilbert’s Hale Centre Theatre is staging its own modest, smaller-scale summer production. And though the cozy in-the-round playhouse, with its postage-stamp stage and prerecorded soundtrack, may not allow for any lush magnitude, the Hale’s effort is storybook sweet, full of spunky energy and proof that, when it comes to "Oklahoma!," maybe it’s time to reconsider whether size really matters.
Director Michael Bryce, who corralled a titanic "Titanic: The Musical" in east Mesa last season, eschews most props — save for a few hay bales and a hitching post — instead using every available space in the theater for his ensemble. Choreographers Brent Thomas Mills and Mayann Gregg keep full-cast numbers spirited and compact. Their most bombastic effort is a sublime confection of a dream sequence that sets the tone for the musical in notes of sweet and dark chocolate.
(It’s the only shot of darkness you’ll get in this otherwise glossy production, whose Jud Fry — the menacing farmhand, played here by the wonderful Alex Gonzalez — is declawed, strangely, as if on antidepressants.)
Like many "Oklahoma!" stagings, this one has such charming supporting character actors; they threaten to distract from the central romance of farm gal Laurey (Emily Baker) and cowboy Curly (Douglas Opie). I was wooed and wowed less by the couple’s lovely duets ("People Will Say We’re in Love") than by Jack Pauley’s hilarious peddler Ali Hakim and Toni Fioramonti’s hormonally challenged Ado Annie, played with all the wide-eyed comic animation of television’s Amanda Bynes.
Still, the true test of any "Oklahoma!" isn’t in its love story or its comedy. It’s whether that rousing final ensemble number — the title tune, with its crescendo shout, "Ooooo-OAK!-lahoma!" — can deliver the requisite shivers. And the Hale’s show, for all its smallness, delivers big, big goose bumps.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, through Aug. 20 Where: Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Ave., Gilbert Cost: $20-$22 Information: (480) 497-1181 Grade: A-