It's probably appropriate that New Candlelight Dinner Theatre is staging its current production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's
right around Tony Awards time. Its songs are such cultural landmarks - "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "People Will Say We're in Love" - that it's easy to forget how innovative the show was when it opened in 1943.
A quick look at the current crop of off-kilter Broadway musicals provides the evidence. Next to Normal explores psychological darkness with its bipolar mother, Diana, but Oklahoma! dipped even darker with Jud, the homicidally psychopathic farmhand. Billy Elliot might have an interpretive dance number, but 65 years earlier, Oklahoma! had Agnes DeMille choreographing its Freudian "Dream Ballet." And long before Rock of Ages' sullied angels were hooking up in bathrooms, Ado Annie chirped her way through the glories of being the girl who cain't say no. Anyone want to guess whether we'll still be singing Quarterflash in 2073?
Of course, New Candlelight is a dinner theater in a barn, which, come to think of it, isn't the worst setting for a Western hoedown, though not the best for evoking golden-age Broadway grandeur. Yet New Candlelight, relying on both canned music and vegetables (just an educated guess about the vegetables), somehow rides off into the sunset with a success.
Perhaps director Paul Goodman's sheer commitment to going big keeps Oklahoma! rolling along so smoothly; lassoing a cast of 30 on this little stage and getting them all to two-step without knocking anything over poses enough of a challenge.
But there's more to the show's ebullience than just good blocking. John Baccaro's long, tall, romance-minded Curly is a classic cowpoke cutie, with a voice that charms its way to the back of the barn. Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly's plucky Ado Annie and her lunkheaded lover, Brian Peeke's Will Parker, have a great time fussing, fighting, and rattling the rafters. And if Dale Martin isn't as powerful an actor as he is a vocalist, wielding a baritone that seasons the wood in Jud's lament "Lonely Room," well, he sure is creepy. Though Erica Scanlon Harr doesn't assert herself as Curly's and Jud's conflicted love interest, Laurey, she's adequate and earthy, a pleasant-enough stagemate for the cast's standouts.
You could also credit choreographer Dan Dunn for facing DeMille's first-act balletic challenge head-on when he could have cut it entirely or focused instead on more square dancing. Or give the thumbs up to Chris Alberts' high-school-musical set design, which, with its cardboard-cutout and poster-painted hills and fields, sets just the right tone of simple country cheer.
Mostly, though, the credit for New Candlelight's victory parallels its subject: those strong-willed souls who populated the early Oklahoma Territory. Here, good material paired with a can-do spirit and a cast and crew who dedicate themselves completely to the task at hand make Oklahoma! much more than OK.
Through July 25 at New Candlelight Dinner Theatre, 2208 Millers Rd., Ardentown, Del. Tickets: $32 to $55. 302-475-2313 or www.ncp.art.officelive.com.