There are plenty of history books and scholarly articles that will tell you how important "Oklahoma!" is to the development of American musical theater.
At Goodspeed, you just have to see it to know.
The 1943 musical — which famously had a pre-Broadway tryout at the Shubert Theater in New Haven under its original title "Away We Go!" — has a cracking good story, a hit-packed score and a justly renowned dance sequence that fuels the plot and refreshes the whole show midway through.
The Goodspeed Opera House's "Oklahoma!" (extended through Sept. 27) shakes the dust out of the barn and tosses those cowboy hats high.
This is a youthful, frantic, vibrant version of a musical that in the wrong hands can be sappy and operatic. Director Jenn Thompson has found a contemporary edge to a story set in 1906, before Oklahoma was even a state. She pushes the character's ambitions, braggadocio and brazen recklessness to the fore. The reckless risk-taking and one-upmanship shown here could fuel a modern big-business drama as easily as it does this quaint tale of cowpokes and farmers looking for love and security.
After a cheery entrance walking down the aisle of the auditorium while crooning about what a beautiful morning it is, Rhett Guter settles into a chipper yet interestingly moody portrayal of Curly. (Guter rocked the Goodspeed as Conrad Birdie in "Bye Bye Birdie" a year ago). It's as if Guter is channeling James Dean or a young Marlon Brando — not a bad choice, since method acting was all the rage in the early '40s when "Oklahoma!" was created.
As Curly's love interest Laurey, Samantha Bruce is first seen as boyish, bookish and strong-willed. Even when she gets all purtied up for the box social, she's calling her own shots. Bruce has a soaring singing voice that puts everyone else on stage to shame. She also benefits from a freewheeling reworking of the show's famed dream ballet that is firmly told from her perspective.
The choreography, which effectively uses the whole ensemble, is by Katie Spelman, working from new dance arrangements by the formidable David Chase, who worked on the current Broadway productions of "Anastasia" and "Hello, Dolly."
Director Thompson ocassionally shows the serious consequences of some of the characters' actions, rather than overlooking them with a wink or a nudge. Near the end of the show, when the marshal complains that a hastily arranged outdoor court trial isn't following proper procedure, he's not a country bumpkin muttering for comic effect — he's really taking a stand, questioning whether the local government should be so laissez-faire.
There's genuine menace not only in how Jud Fry — the creepy farmworker who pines for Laurey — asserts himself but in how Curly fights back. As Fry, Matt Faucher is plenty sinister, but isn't a convenient villain; he brings empathy and emotional distress to the role.
It's not all haze and trepidation, however. The show's secondary romance, between Will Parker and Ado Annie, may involve no fewer firearms than that of Curly and Laurey, yet is played strictly for laughs. Alex Stewart played Will the night I saw the show — he's the swing player for Jake Swain — with all the wide-eyed confidence and roping skills that are required.
Gizel Jiménez takes the "caint say no" role of Ado Annie and raises it from a one-joke routine into an empowered-woman devil-may-care delight. This Ado Annie would not have been out of place among the flappers in the Goodspeed's previous show, "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
You also see how "Oklahoma!" is now shaped by shows that it originally influenced. The "Kansas City" dance, with cowboys lumbering about happily, is reminiscent of the Goodspeed's 2005 production of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." The cultural competitiveness in "The Farmer and the Cowman" plays like "America" from "West Side Story."
Some warm, human performances guide this show, but some slick design work frames it nicely. There are nice sound-design moments (designed by Jay Hilton), when every time a gun goes off you hear a dog barking in the distance.
The scenic design by Wilson Chin is all glorious brown wooden walls, blue skies, and a corn field. Sets that fill the whole stage glide in swiftly. In fact, the smooth transitions from scene to scene give this "Oklahoma!" much of its momentum.
From Guter's wayward grins as Curly to the coquettish smiles of the female townsfolk (who are more worldly wise than they let on) to those barking dogs in the background, this is an "Oklahoma!" with teeth.
OKLAHOMA! is at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam, through Sept. 27. Performances are Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., with added Sunday evening performances at 6:30 p.m. through Aug. 13 and 2 p.m. Thursday matinees beginning Aug. 17. 860-873-8668, goodspeed.org