PITTSFIELD — Legend has it that as the producer Mike Todd walked out at intermission during a 1943 New Haven tryout of a show called “Away We Go!,’’ later to be retitled “Oklahoma!,’’ he offered a wisecracking verdict: “No legs, no jokes, no chance.’’
Oops. As everyone knows, the target of that barb went on to become one of the most colossally successful musicals in Broadway history. However, 70 years later, “Oklahoma!’’ has a problem that can be boiled down to this: no surprises.
That fact hinders Berkshire Theatre Group’s serviceable but very seldom exhilarating production of “Oklahoma!,’’ now at the Colonial Theatre under the direction of Eric Hill.
Having seen Hill’s shadowy, mesmerizing version of “The Who’s Tommy’’ in the same theater two summers ago, I hoped his powers of invention might energize the too-familiar Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. But this production often feels like it’s going through the motions, stylish though those motions may be, especially during the Act 1 “Dream Ballet.’’ (The show’s choreography is a blend of the original dances by Agnes de Mille and new dances by Gerry McIntyre.)
Though “Oklahoma!’’ did not pioneer the blending of song, story, and dance, the successful fusion of those elements into a blockbuster did help reshape the American musical. Yet after umpteen professional and community theater and high school performances, a new production of “Oklahoma!’’ really ought to provide a compelling reason for its existence. This one doesn’t, apart from an apparent desire to please the crowd with safe, predictable summertime fare.
For an example of how to resurrect a warhorse and make it gallop, Berkshire Theatre Group need look no further than its own production of “The Lion in Winter,’’ now playing at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge. “Oklahoma!,’’ by contrast, remains earthbound, seemingly content to ride the undeniable charm built into the score (lovely music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II), and unable to overcome the creakiness of Hammerstein’s book. There are too few genuinely distinctive performances and too few moments when you feel truly transported.
Part of the problem lies with the romantic leads: Jarid Faubel as Curly, and Diane Phelan as Laurey. Faubel has a certain roguish charm, and Phelan possesses a pure, crystalline voice, but together they are lamentably short on chemistry. We don’t sense the sizzle of attraction that should underlie the early bickering between Curly and Laurey, and even when they eventually get together, few sparks fly. Their duet on “People Will Say We’re in Love,’’ which should be a high point of the show, registers as just another song.
What juice the production does generate is largely supplied by Chasten Harmon, who’s an absolute hoot as Ado Annie. Also an asset is Austin Durant, who brings a slow-burning menace to his portrayal of Jud Fry, the hired hand who is competing with Curly for Laurey — and is prepared to resort to violence.
A cowboy named Will Parker (Matt Gibson) wants to marry Ado Annie, but she seems more interested, at least for the moment, in a Persian traveling salesman named Ali Hakim (an amusing Christopher Gurr). During her performance of “I Cain’t Say No,’’ a confession/celebration of Ado Annie’s sensuality, Harmon first rocks back and forth in a rocking chair, then bounds across the stage and kneels on a hay bale opposite Phelan to spell out her dilemma, though Harmon’s impish demeanor makes clear the character does not see it as such: “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no/ I’m in a terrible fix/ I always say ‘Come on, let’s go!’/ Just when I oughta say ‘Nix.’ ” It’s a fresh, vivid scene in a show that could use more of them.
Of course, nothing can diminish the place in history “Oklahoma!’’ enjoys — and it’s a history with a local chapter. After New Haven, the show’s next pre-Broadway stop in 1943 was Boston. In “Somewhere for Me,’’ her biography of Richard Rodgers, Meryle Secrest wrote that “The tryout in Boston was so satisfying that Rodgers would invariably remark in future that he would not open a can of tomatoes without taking it to Boston.’’