Ado Annie Carnes (Jessica Minter, L) and Will Parker (Nick Case) get excited about their possible future together in “Oklahoma!” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Ado Annie Carnes (Jessica Minter, L) and Will Parker (Nick Case) get excited about their possible future together in “Oklahoma!” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Not sure what it is about the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts’ summer theater season this year, but of the three shows so far I’ve found myself almost rooting for the “villains” in the stories.

They not only seem to be the best parts, but the actors playing them have gone above and beyond to really give the “bad guys” life. That’s not saying I condone in any way their choices or actions – or that the actors playing the good guys aren’t good – but the villains this season have made the musicals so much better.

In “Matilda,” it was the Wormwoods. In “Singin’ in the Rain” it was Lina Lamont. Now, in “Oklahoma!,” it’s Jud and his rivalry with Curly.

Anthony Cataldo plays Curly in “Oklahoma!,” opposite Michael Pacholski as Jud Fry. Audiences may remember Cataldo played Mr. Wormwood in “Matilda,” one of my favorite performances in that show.

Pacholski gives such an intimidating, creepy, frightening performance with such dark emotional depth, whenever Jud crosses the stage, even for a brief moment, his shadow looms over the entire scene. The other characters in “Oklahoma!” have every right to fear Pacholski’s take on Jud.

Some might argue that Jud is just a misunderstood guy, but I’d have to disagree with the assessment. Jud is just bad, like the Joker is crazy bad and Hannibal Lecter is a monster. I don’t know where in his life Jud took the first wrong step, but it probably involved a switchblade knife and a puppy.

If there was one possible moment where someone might – might! – convince me Jud isn’t so bad, it’s with the song “Lonely Room.” But even that song comes off a little obsessive.

If it wasn’t for the role of Jud in “Oklahoma!,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical would be just another love story set to music. Jud – especially played by the sensational and brilliant Pacholski – provides the gasoline to keep the musical burning.

Guest director Tony Humrichouser has always gotten his cast on the Wagon Wheel stage to step it up a notch. He keeps that trend going with “Oklahoma!” and especially the rivalry between Curly and Jud.

Curly is the all-American cowboy with a lot of charm and plenty of quips. Cataldo, with his young Jake Gyllenhaal good looks and dashing smile, plays his role perfectly.

But, again, it’s when Curly goes to the dark side that really did it for me. Curly goes to Jud in Jud’s lodging and antagonizes the heck out of him. He suggests to Jud that maybe he should hang himself because at least then people might mourn over him. No one saw Curly do it.

In today’s world, if Curly would have said some of the stuff he said to Jud via text messaging or other social media, Curly could very well face charges for what he suggested to Jud. But in the early 20th century, social media wasn’t born yet and Curly gets away with it. Yeah, he’s not all good either, and Cataldo plays that dark side of Curly just sublime.

The song “Pore Jud is Daid” is all the evidence a court might need to find Curly guilty of inciting a suicide.

Stuck in the middle between Curly and Jud is Laurey, played effectively by Lauren Drewello. Audiences may remember Drewello as Miss Honey in “Matilda” two shows ago. In “Oklahoma!,” Drewello really gets to step out a little more and bring a lot of raw emotion and talent to her performance. We knew Drewello could sing from her numbers in “Matilda,” but in “Oklahoma!,” especially on “Many a New Day” and “People Will Say We’re In Love,” she floors the audience with her voice.

As the show moves along, Laurey’s fear of Jud becomes more and more intense until the point where she breaks down sobbing uncontrollably. Drewello lets all the pain, sadness, anger and fear out and it’s a remarkable performance. Miss Honey was just a hint at what she could do.

There is a secondary love triangle in “Oklahoma!” involving the peddler Ali Hakim (played Friday night by Logan Foster), Will Parker (Nick Case) and Ado Annie Carnes (Jessica Minter). There’s no fear or loathing in this triangle, thus giving the audience moments to relax from all the tension built up from the other threesome.

Will is in love with Ado, who is in love with about any guy who gives her attention. In this particular story time, she’s fallen for Hakim while Will was away at the state fair doing his cowboy stint. When Will returns with the $50 Ado’s father (Andrew Carnes, played by Mike Yocum) said he needs to wed his daughter, Ado is more smitten with Hakim who just wanted to take her to a hotel room. Of course, Andrew Carnes doesn’t like Will and wants Hakim to marry his daughter, but Hakim wants out of that situation.

Hilarity ensues.

I’m not big on stereotypes, but Foster does a phenomenal job with the source material. He delivers every comedic line given to Hakim with perfect timing, and makes deadpan look easy.

The character of Will is one of a dim cowboy who just wants the girl but keeps making all the wrong choices with his money. Case is very good in this show and gives a strong impression that he’s probably good in any comedy role thrown at him.

As for Minter as Ado, she looks like she walked off a box of Little Debbies but acts like she’s the source material for Karen from “Will & Grace.” There’s a situation comedy with Minter’s name on it somewhere.

I believe that the last time Wagon Wheel put on a performance of “Oklahoma!” was in 2006 with Jennie Sophia, John Hickman, Lauren Weisman and Pat Daniels as Aunt Eller. I remember seeing it then, but I don’t recall everything about it.

Playing Eller this time around is Kathy Hawkins, and she plays the role well. Hawkins pops up at the Wagon Wheel in shows from time to time, and she’s fun to watch. The same could be said about Yocum, who has appeared on the Wagon Wheel stage in many productions over many years.

Over all, my rating of “Oklahoma!” (out of four) is 3.5, which includes lots of points for the on-stage chemistry between Cataldo’s Curly and Pacholski’s Jud.

“Oklahoma!” is at the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts through July 13. Tickets can be purchased through the box office; by calling 574-267-8041 or 866-823-2618; or online at www.wagonwheelcenter.org.