As the director of music theatre performance at Western Michigan University, Jay Berkow is well aware of the historical significance of Oklahoma!, which he is currently directing for the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse.
"It is kind of the grandfather, or the progenitor, of the contemporary musical-theatre piece," Berkow says, referencing the work's fame as one of the first "book musicals" in American theatre, wherein songs are fully integrated into the drama, and the lyrics and score are as essential to character understanding as dialogue.
Yet the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is also considered historic for being the first collaboration between the legendary duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. And for running a then-unprecedented 2,212 Broadway performances. And, not least of all, for marking the Broadway debut of famed choreographer Agnes de Mille; as Berkow states, "Everyone talks about the integration of the dance."
Already a noted artist with the American Ballet Theatre and the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, de Mille ended Act I with what is commonly referred to as the "dream ballet," a 15-minute piece that dramatizes the psyche of Oklahoma!'s lead character, Laurey, and a revolutionary theatrical technique. The ballet sequence - in which Laurey must face her conflicting feelings about her sweetheart, Curly, and the brutish farmhand, Jud - is so demanding that it is often excised from productions altogether, yet when Berkow staged Oklahoma! at Vermont's Little Summer Theatre in the early 1990s, he had no intention of cutting it.
Perhaps to his chagrin.
"The first time I directed the show," he says, grinning, "I had this crazy British producer up in Vermont. He was crazy like a fox. And I had this very dance-y ballet. And he watched my ballet rehearsal, and after it," - and here Berkow continues in a parodistically posh British dialect - "he said, 'It's a lovely ballet, Jay. Lovely ballet. And I appreciate all Agnes de Mille has done for Oklahoma! and musical theatre.
"'But,'" Berkow adds, pausing dramatically, "'couldn't you just tell a story?'"
For the past three decades, Berkow has devoted his career to telling stories on stage. Oklahoma!'s director appeared in Broadway productions of A Chorus Line, Evita, and La Cage aux Folles, has directed at regional theatres across the country, and has written four full-length musicals, two straight plays, and what he describes (in what I assume is a slight exaggeration) as "millions of children's shows. Literally millions."
Locally, however, Berkow is probably best-known for his involvement with the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, where he was a much-admired performer, director, and choreographer, and where he served as the summer-stock organization's artistic director from 1998 to 2006 - "nine seasons, 47 shows," he says.
As one might imagine, Berkow's theatrical career has enabled him to be well-acquainted with the Rodgers & Hammerstein oeuvre - their famous collaborations include Carousel, The King & I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music - and the director does consider himself a fan, not just of the duo's scores, but of the stories these musicals tell.
"The librettos are really quite good," says Berkow, "and the characters all have believable reasons for doing everything they need to do. And sometimes, you see these kind of 'museum productions' of R&H musicals, and they [directors] don't take the time to really flesh out the characters and the relationships. ... They just kind of find a way to paste it together, musical number to musical number."
Considering most audiences' acquaintance with Rodgers & Hammerstein's credits, it might be understandable that directors sometimes take such shortcuts. But as Berkow himself proved when directing the Showboat's Sound of Music in 2005 - a deeply re-imagined production that put an unexpectedly fresh spin on the material - familiar works can become wonderfully unfamiliar when approached with empathy, and a grounding in reality.
"You just take a little time with Maria," Berkow says of The Sound of Music's singing-novice character, "and you realize, 'Oh, she's a real person.' She's kind of like this teenager raised by wolves on the mountain - she has no clue, and she's winging it. And all of a sudden that character becomes very real.
"Same with with Laurey and Curly in Oklahoma!," he continues. "They're these very headstrong people who hardly ever see each other. He's a cowboy, he's out on the range, and she sees him once every two, three months, just for a weekend. And then he's back out on the range. So they have a very short time to kind of get their relationship to the next level."
Despite the inarguable tunefulness of Oklahoma!'s score, Berkow states that his fondness for the show truly stems from an understanding of the characters' hardships.
"For me," he says, "what really makes the piece work so beautifully is the original play on which it's based, Lynn Riggs'  play Green Grow the Lilacs. It's a well-written, human straight play about life in Oklahoma territory in 1907. And if you've ever read the play, Oscar Hammerstein really lifted verbatim 75 percent of it.
"I want there to be a reality," Berkow says of his approach to the musical. "That doesn't mean that Ado Annie and Will and Ali Hakim and the comic characters aren't going to be somewhat extreme and funny, but the whole show needs to look like this is really happening to these people. I want the audience to get a sense of what it was like to live in Oklahoma in 1907.
"Like, why is the barn dance so important? The barn dance is important because the women and the men don't see each other very much ... . They don't see each other every day or even every week. They're all very spread out over acres and acres and miles and miles of untamed land. And they're all trying to tame their little part of it."
Berkow adds that the heart of Oklahoma! is "this love story between Laurey and Curly set against this very real, very harsh environment." Yet the audience won't glean that unless they accept these seemingly stereotypical characters as actual people.
"I mean, what's the challenge of Laurey and Curly?" Berkow asks. "They love each other before the show begins, so why does it take them two hours to get together?"
The key to understanding the romantic leads as a couple, Berkow suggests, is understanding them as individuals.
Laurey, says Oklahoma!'s director, is "a very grounded, solid farm woman ... the kind of girl who, if a guy says, 'When I take ya out in the surrey ... !' and starts acting out, she's just gonna laugh at him. She's gonna go, 'This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.'
"You know, it's very much like some guy saying, 'I just got this new Corvette and we're gonna go for a hot ride tonight,' and Laurey saying, 'Okay. Yeah. You rented a Corvette for our date. Terrific.'"
As for Curly, "the reality is he's this cocksure, conceited cowboy," says Berkow. "You know ... 'Come up on my horse and tell me I'm hot and tell me I'm the stud ... !' And she's like, 'Get off the horse and pick up a shovel.'
"Yeah, they love each other, they're sexually attracted to each other," he continues, "but how are they actually gonna be together? How do they work it out? There 's a lot of practicality involved, and so for me, that's what makes the story exciting."
The director insists, though, that the emotional reality he hopes to convey shouldn't frighten off those merely hoping for an entertaining night at the theatre. "It's still gonna be the Oklahoma! that they love," says Berkow. "You know, those people that say, 'Oh, Oklahoma!'s playing? I wanna go see it - I've seen it three times. I love it.' It's not like we're taking Oklahoma! and dissecting it so much that they're gonna be, like, 'This isn't Oklahoma ... !'"
But the chance to direct a more truthful production of this musical warhorse was, for Berkow, its chief selling point. "Luckily for me," he says, "I'm at a point in my career where if it's a show I don't really feel anything for, I don't do it. You know, I'm not a 25-year-old director, and I have a full-time job."
And what of Oklahoma!'s signature dream ballet, the one that - in Berkow's initial stab at the material - found itself in need of a story?
"It's this odd little moment in the show," says Berkow of Laurey's reverie. "It's not like she's trying to decide whether she wants Curly or Jud - she doesn't want Jud. She wants Curly. But does she want Curly the way he is, or does she want him to change?
"And she's got to find a man," adds the director. "This is Oklahoma territory. It's not like, 'Well, I think I'll go to college ... .' No. Her future is set. She owns this land, she owns this farm, she has to find a man to marry her and come work the land with her. And she has to find the right guy; whether she loves Curly or not, if he can't stop being this stud-muffin cowboy and come be a farmer with her, then he's not gonna be the right guy.
"So the story that's being told is kind of her fear of what's gonna happen with Curly - that Jud's gonna get in there and Curly's gonna be macho and it's gonna end up in tragedy."
Berkow smiles, reiterating - sans British accent - the words of his former Vermont producer. "It's really about making sure that story gets told."
Circa '21 will produce Oklahoma! May 30 through July 21. For tickets and more information, visit (http://www.circa21.com).
(Full Disclosure: Circa '21's Jan Schmall and I co-created and scripted the Oklahoma! pre-show entertainment being performed by the theatre's wait staff, the Bootleggers, and the Reader's director of marketing, Lars Rehnberg, produced the instrumental tracks for the pre-show's CD accompaniment. But don't consider this article a de facto endorsement of either the Bootleggers' show or Oklahoma! itself; Lars and I haven't attended any rehearsals, and won't see the results until opening night.)