BEVERLY — By inadvertently coinciding with the Tony Award win for best musical revival by a polarizing, darkly revisionist interpretation of “Oklahoma!,’’ the terrific North Shore Music Theatre production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic offers a reminder of two salient points.
First, there remain certain unbeatable strengths in a straightforward, well-executed “Oklahoma!,’’ which revolutionized the form of the American musical by integrating its songs and dances with its story line when it premiered on Broadway in 1943 after a tryout at Boston’s Colonial Theatre (where it was titled “Away We Go!’’).
Second, its sunny-side-up reputation notwithstanding, a not-inconsiderable amount of darkness shadows even the most determinedly non-revisionist “Oklahoma!’’ Sure, the NSMT production has plenty of heart and plenty of hope, to borrow a phrase, and the corn is as high as . . . Well, you know. But you condescend to this musical at your peril.
Inventively directed by Charles Repole, with dynamic original choreography by Mara Newbery Greer (jettisoning Agnes de Mille’s legendary dance sequences) and crisp musical direction by Mark Hartman, NSMT’s “Oklahoma!’’ disarms you from the startling staging of its opening number. No spoilers here, but let’s just say it’s not likely you’ve ever seen Curly sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” quite like this, at least onstage.
As a theater in the round, NSMT’s sets are typically pretty rudimentary, and that’s the case again with Kyle Dixon’s scenic design, which establishes the time (1906, one year before the Indian Territory was joined with the Oklahoma Territory to become the state of Oklahoma) and place (a farm ) with a few basics: butter churn, gazebo, carriage, a couple of sections of fence).
The aforementioned crooning cowhand is played by Blake Price, and he’s as good a Curly as I’ve ever seen. Possessed of a clear and richly expressive tenor voice, Price makes for a dashing leading man (he somewhat resembles Matthew Morrison of “Glee’’ and Broadway fame), but he also captures Curly’s bantering jocularity and, crucially, his pugnacity. As the elusive object of his affections, farm girl Laurey, Madison Claire Parks does not inhabit the role quite as effortlessly as Price does that of Curly. But with her soaring, crystalline soprano, she does eventually emerge as a good match for Price, especially on the double-layered “People Will Say We’re in Love,’’ where they bring both playfulness and warmth to some of the deftest lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II ever wrote.
Director Repole wisely clears out plenty of time and space for Price, Parks, and Susan Cella (as Laurey’s Aunt Eller) in “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,’’ giving the song the breathing room it needs to shift among its several moods (larky, dreamlike, wistful).
The villain of “Oklahoma!’’ (in traditional productions like this one, anyway) is Jud Fry, a hired hand who is determined to take Laurey to the box social and to do whatever it takes to win her heart. Alex Levin is superb as Jud, conjuring an aura of genuine menace as he broods in his smokehouse, along with a hint of pathos. Levin’s searing performance of “Lonely Room’’ is a showstopper that opens a chilling window onto Jud’s inner torment, a compound of isolation, longing, fury, and lethal resolve.
As the fickle, man-crazy Ado Annie, self-described in song as “a girl who cain’t say no,’’ Melissa Carlile-Price provides the requisite comic relief but doesn’t really delve beyond the cartoonish dimensions that have typically defined the character (at least until Ali Stroker played her on Broadway and became the first performer using a wheelchair ever to win a Tony). Cooper Grodin excels as Ali Hakim, a peddler in checked jacket and pants who is desperately trying to escape Annie’s clutches, and Sean Bell is also an asset as cowhand Will Parker, intent on marrying Annie but dismayed by her wayward ways.
At the opposite end of the atmospheric spectrum from their comic sequences is the famous dream ballet, in which Laurey takes a psychological journey, first joyful, then terrifying, that involves both Curly and Jud. In the otherwise admirable current Broadway production of “Oklahoma!,’’ that ballet was reconceived as a solo piece. It doesn’t work. The classic approach taken by NSMT’s “Oklahoma!,’’ devised by choreographer Greer, is far more emotionally powerful than the one in New York.
You may well disagree. That’s the thing about “Oklahoma!’’ Even after all these years, it’s still capable of starting arguments.
Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Charles Repole. Choreography by Mara Newbery Greer. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through June 16. Tickets $61-$86, 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org