Although “Oklahoma!” has been sweeping through the plains now for well over six decades, when the show is done up well, it can still be as fresh as if it were written yesterday. This was the revolutionary show that created a new kind of musical drama where every song advanced the story and every dance was done in character, and where the line between music and drama was so magnificently blurred that you never knew when dialogue might turn into song, or when action would turn into dance. Rodgers & Hammerstein had developed a uniquely musical-literary style all their own, and “Oklahoma!” was soon not only the talk of Broadway, but of the Western world. The American Theater Company’s first foray into musical theater does this first Rodgers & Hammerstein collaboration up proud and is of such an overall high quality as to serve as a powerful reminder of what a great and innovative show this really is. (It’s easy to forget, given the plethora of bad “Oklahoma!” productions that there have been over the years.) Director and ATC artistic director Damon Kieley has wisely chosen to turn the weakness of not having a huge cast, stage or orchestra into an imaginative strength by scaling back the Robert Russell Bennett pit arrangements and spotlighting a chamber bluegrass band of banjo, acoustic guitar, string bass and fiddle into the very fabric of the show, even having the cast interact with the band and having it perform centerstage during the school social in the second act. Both the music and the acting are terrific in this production, everyone in this gritty and mud-stained cast doing a convincing job approximating an Oklahoma drawl, usually a big shortcoming. And though there are no booming singing voices, everyone can carry a tune, and the songs are performed as credible and intimate extensions of the often dark and feuding characters. (Dennis Polkow)
Theater on the Lake, 2400 N. Lake Shore, (312)742-7994. Opens Aug 1. Wed-Sat 7:30pm. Sun 6:30pm. $17.50. Through Aug 5.