'Oklahoma!' leaps back on stage

But everything's up to date in this delightful Broadway revival

Oh, what a beautiful revival!

"Oklahoma!," the landmark 1943 musical masterwork by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (the first of their nine collaborations), is back on Broadway in a historic and overwhelmingly delightful new production.

Brilliantly staged by British director Trevor Nunn ("Cats," "Les Misérables"), the mammoth show opened last night at the Gershwin Theater, Broadway's biggest playhouse. (The new staging was first done in London four years ago.)

Debuting six decades ago, "Oklahoma!" made musical theater history by mixing songs, story, and a ballet sequence into one show, with the ballet revealing the hidden aspirations and fears of the lead characters.

Now, "everything's up to date" (to borrow a line from the song "Kansas City") in the new revival. Choreographer Susan Stroman ("The Producers," "The Music Man," "Contact") expands upon Agnes de Mille's original dance sequences in a marriage of rowdy foot-stomping and patriotic celebrations of the American West with sophisticated lyrical ballet.

At the same time, director Nunn never lets the show's plot – whether good-guy cowboy Curley or menacing farmhand Jud will take Laurey to the dance – become hokey or old-fashioned in these later Broadway days when musicals with the slick, worldly-wise sophistication of "Chicago" and the brash, explosively funny humor of "The Producers" seem to be the most successful.

Anthony Ward's beautifully realistic sets – entire barns, houses, and even a football field-sized cornfield – are vast. And the show is as good as it is big.

A lot of this is because of its top-drawer cast, led by the beguiling Patrick Wilson as Curley, the luminous Josifina Gabrielle as Laurey, Andrea Martin as Aunt Eller, and Shuler Hensley as Jud.

Ms. Gabrielle makes musical history of her own by being the first actress to play Laurey on Broadway and also dance in the dream ballet scene, instead of having another dancer step into the sequence.

Mr. Hensley's Jud has the added attraction of his big, deep baritone voice, reminiscent of stars Alfred Drake and Howard Keel, both of whom played Curley in the original Broadway run.

For his earlier work in "Oklahoma!" in London, Hensley received the 1998 Olivier Award, Britain's version of a Tony Award, as outstanding feature actor in a musical. Hensley undoubtedly will be high in the running of potential Tony nominees in this category this Broadway season.

Mr. Wilson, who won a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical last year in "The Full Monty," lacks Mr. Hensley's vocal magnificence, but he brings to the role of Curley just the right balance of youthful enthusiasm and soulful pathos that is sometimes lacking in actors with bigger voices.

His Curley is simultaneously boastful and oddly self-effacing, more akin to Alan Ladd in "Shane" than Gordon MacRae in the 1955 big-screen Technicolor movie version of "Oklahoma!"

Besides Ms. Martin as Aunt Eller, the show's major comic roles are played with great gusto and impeccable timing by Jessica Boevers as Ado Annie Carnes, Will Parker as Justin Bohon (the cowboy homebody who wants to marry Annie), and Aasif Mandvi as Turkish peddler Ali Hakim, who flirts with Annie and narrowly escapes getting her hand in a shotgun marriage.

"Oklahoma!" was first presented during the patriotic fervor of World War II. Today, the Hammerstein lyrics and the Rodgers music gain added poignancy as America carries on a war against terrorism. From the opening number "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," through the title song, "Oklahoma!" – the show celebrates America with its tale of life in the Oklahoma Territory on the verge of statehood.

Tears streamed down the cheeks of some audience members when they were eloquently reminded of the qualities of freedom, beauty, and basic human decency that are sometimes taken for granted. In the end, this new production of "Oklahoma!" on Broadway is as much an inspiration as it is a piece of classic musical theater.

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