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Patrick Wilson in Oklahoma!
(Photo: Michael LePoer Trench)
Many a new day has dawned since Oklahoma! made its first appearance on Broadway in 1943. Fifty-nine years ago, on the show's original opening night, you could have walked up to the box office and bought a ticket. In its latest incarnation, it returns to us at the Gershwin Theatre as a full-blown institution, a Royal National Theatre production brought to these shores through the good offices of Cameron Mackintosh. But this landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical still exudes a strong sense of Americana; no doubt that was, at least, part of its appeal to the Brits. Its timeless appeal, however, is in its hit-laden score.

The new production is an exuberant celebration of splashy, old-fashioned musical theater. Oklahoma! is, fundamentally, an all-singing and all-dancing spectacle, and the Mackintosh production is at its most successful when it's being big. The set-piece numbers in which the huge cast puts forth Susan Stroman's inventive choreography are a joy to behold, and the show is loaded with them. One senses the expansive scope of the production as early as the overture, which is as much a visual treat as an aural one. Be sure not to arrive late: Director Trevor Nunn has his gifted lighting designer David Hersey hard at work from virtually the very first note of this splendid score.

When the curtain finally goes up and the actors go to work, it's immediately obvious that we are in good hands. The first two performers on stage are Andrea Martin as Aunt Eller and Patrick Wilson as Curly. "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" it truly is as Wilson manfully strides into view, singing the show's opening number with a youthful, testosterone-driven vitality; his entire loose-limbed, natural performance is stellar. Martin's commanding comic presence is the bulwark of the show, but she gives Eller dimension, as well, filling out her character with dignity and depth.

We are sorry to report that Josefina Gabrielle, the British import who plays Laurey, is a disaster: Her acting is mediocre and her singing is worse. When Nunn and Stroman cast her because of her skills as a dancer, they were putting the surrey before the horse. This error can be traced to the decision to do away with the dancing doubles "Dream Laurey" and "Dream Curly" and have the singing-acting leads also perform the famous "Out of My Dreams" ballet at the end of Act I. But why cast a performer in a major role on the basis of one number when she diminishes everything else she touches? This is not O.K.

Jessica Boevers and Justin Bohon
in Oklahoma!
(Photo: Michael LePoer Trench)
Also less than ideal is Jessica Boevers' Ado Annie; the actress has good comic timing but lacks the necessary vocal brassiness to keep her character from being shrill. On the other hand, Justin Bohon's Will Parker has an appealing boyishness. More importantly, he's a genuine triple threat as a singer-actor-dancer...and a pretty good roper, too. Bohon stakes his claim to a Tony nomination with his very up-to-date rendition of "Kansas City," but he's going to have serious competition from Shuler Hensley, who plays the dangerously ferocious Jud Fry. The American Hensley won the Olivier Award in that category for his performance of the role in England, and his emotionally wrenching version of "Lonely Room" is one of the show's singular moments.

Because Hensley invests Jud with so much humanity, the character becomes something more than a mere villain; this makes the battle for Laurey's affections between the darkly appealing farmhand and the good-natured, cocky cowboy a complex experience for the audience. Indeed, in this coming-of-age story in which Laurey travels to adulthood and Oklahoma journeys to statehood, the richness of Oscar Hammerstein's libretto is much enhanced by Nunn's incisive stagecraft and given additional life by Stroman's vivid choreography. The scenic and costume designs of Anthony Ward have a winning grittiness, as well.

If this is not the great Oklahoma! that we had expected from all the hype it received in London, it is certainly a welcome show in the aftermath of September 11. The American heartland, its people, and its values are roundly praised in song and dance--and that feels pretty good right now.

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