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Hearty, hardy 'Oklahoma!' opens at Hale

Hale Centre Theatre of Gilbert presents 'Oklahoma!' - 2014
Hale Centre Theatre of Gilbert presents 'Oklahoma!' - 2014
Sam Miller

Amid all the Valentine flurries this weekend, Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert celebrated the opening of their 'Oklahoma!' production with roses and chocolate for the audience last night. Following the full-house opening night performance, a few leading cast members visited with Examiner about the "bright, golden" show that runs through March.

Hale Centre Theatre 'Oklahoma!' leads Rebecca Bryce, Bryan Stewart and Kat E. Cook visit after opening performance - Feb. 2014
Jennifer Haaland

Rodgers and Hammerstein's well loved and ever popular Oklahoma! has been sweepin' down America's plains for decades. Too often, in hopes of filling the huge show's reputed boots, the musical suffers a prideful tarnishing. Turns out, though, a straight-shootin' Arizona Oklahoma can spit-shine any over-exaggerated, tired pretensions the dusty, time-honored script might offer.

Within ten minutes opening night, right there in the fringed surrey, Curley (Bryan N. Stewart) pulled an unwitting Laurey (Rebecca Bryce) along with the rest of us, into his fantasy. When she snapped out of his make-believe "talkin' 'bout the sun swimmin' on the hill and all," the audience never did.

"This is kinda' the way I am all day long. I breathe this character. When I see Curley, I see me," Stewart, who's played many a leading man, confided after the show.

Stewart's fits-like-a-hired-hand's-glove character helped transport us back to the dawn of telephones and the birth of the Two Step. When the newly-citified, carousing cowboy dance corps arrived onstage with a genuinely enthused Will Parker (Skyler Bean) at the lead, their 'Kansas City' rendition was met with cheering applause.

Come to find out, those warm-ups were all a prelude to Ado Annie's (Kate E. Cook's) magnetic entrance. Her guileless, honestly hungry infatuations made Annie neither simpering nor betraying. With natural, perplexed affection, she was just plain lovable. Not to mention, she sang the flirty "purty" pants off of the classic 'I Can't Say No.'

"I tend to play brash, hardened characters a lot," said the seasoned Cook, still in her lime green striped, cherry-dotted dress. "Annie is so bubbly and young and naive. It's really fun to not be rough or so grounded. "

But down home simple at Hale never dreams to sacrifice the hard work involved in their practiced, respected craft or to skimp on the serious demands of pitch perfect solos and deep-timbre, round blends in chorus numbers.

True to that ethic, Ben Mason created a rare (and gorgeously-voiced) Jud Fry. It was a menacing, misunderstood Jud, not a menacing, irredeemably evil Jud.

And it made all the difference. With Curley's pure, playful heart alongside Jud's brooding anguish, the ridiculously macabre 'Poor Jud is Dead,' enjoyed wonderfully comedic moments that have always been in the script, but are seldom effectively relayed. Rightly so, it was at once sweet and creepy, funny and sad.

Another tough element of Oklahoma! (especially without professional dancers employed by original choreographer de Mille) is that weird 'Dream Ballet' sequence. In Hale's version, Curley isn't a dancer, but he doesn't pretend to be. He's just a fluidly-moving man smitten with finally-requited love. Laurie Trygg's instinctive choreography syncs exactly with the level of her dancers, yielding wonderfully authentic musical storytelling.

According to Bryce, that story begs, "What are the moments the audience can fall in love with Laurey? With Laurey and Curley's relationship? With the whole show?" After the show, she mused about rhetorical questions she had posed during her extensive Laurey preparation.

Plain as day, she provided us answers opening night. In vulnerable moments, and with vocal purity. As she accidentally fell into Curley's fantasy. As she listened wide-eyed to Annie's dilemmas. When she honestly shuddered about what lurks in Jud. And especially as she lightly touched with shivering beauty the sky high notes in the 'People Will Say We're in Love' reprise.