Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

April 8, 2024

REVIEW: Theatre Guild of Hampden, "Oklahoma!"

Theatre Guild of Hampden, Wilbraham, MA
Through April 14, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

NOTE: According to the venue website, all performances are sold out.

“Oklahoma!,” the 1943 show that marked both a new level of complexity in the Broadway
musical and the first collaboration by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, has been performed in many ways, but leave it to the innovative Theatre Guild of Hampden to present its exuberant new production as an immersive hoedown in its theater-in-the-round home, the Red Barn at Fountain Park in Wilbraham, MA.

Set in Indian Territory in 1906 (Oklahoma became a state in 1907), it tells the story of farm girl Laurey and her two suitors, cowboy Curly and farmhand Jud, with comic relief from cowboy Will Parker, his fiancée, Ado Annie, and Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Using minimal props (two chairs and a few cloth-covered hay bales) and open space between audience seats (with a small porch at one end) for their stage, co-directors Chris Rojas and Mark Giza wisely put the focus on their resourceful 18-member cast.

Joey Valencourt’s plaintive tenor and skilled guitar-playing make him an appealing and sympathetic Curly. Ally Reardon’s full-bodied, expressive soprano gives her Laurey a thoughtful, yearning poignancy. The chemistry between the two leads is instantly palpable. Nick Adams’ rich baritone finds hidden sensitivity in the morbid Jud. Max Levheim’s hapless Will Parker is an endearing foil for Dominique Libera’s ditsy Ado Annie. Joe Lessard is a nimble Ali Hakim, and Kathy Renaud’s portrayal of Laurey’s Aunt Eller is a hoot, with a spine of steel.

Musical highlights include: Valencourt’s exhilarating “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin;” Levheim’s hyperactive “Kansas City;” Libera’s hilariously over-the-top “I Cain’t Say No;” Reardon’s carefree “Many A New Day;” Adams’ dramatic “Lonely Room;” a soaring “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Valencourt and Reardon; and a stirring title song by the ensemble.

Choreographer Dina Del Buono somehow keeps the full cast in frequent motion across the narrow playing space with no collisions and dances with fluid grace herself as Laurey in the haunting “Dream Ballet” that closes Act I. Instrumental support by music director Bobby Scott on piano, violinist Anne-Marie Messbauer, and percussionist Ray Cole heightens the prevailing mood of festive intimacy.

This inventive production is modest in scale but wide and deep in emotional resonance. Local fans of great musical theater should snap up tickets while they last.