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March 18, 2005

"Oklahoma!" Gives Baltimore Back-to-Back Boffos

Roy Meachum

Before Entertainment Tonight and a seemingly endless array of imitations, including channels devoted entirely to the wondrous ways of the movie, music, television and theatrical industries, there was Variety.

The headline above this column borrows from the language created by the weekly journal celebrated as the Bible of show biz, for at least the last 100 years. Translated from Variety argot, it means Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre has another smash hit to follow the recently departed "Say Good-night Gracie."

No tears in my eyes this time, as happened when the curtain rang down on Frank Gorshin's amazing capture of legendary George Burns. The production of the fabled musical, "Oklahoma!" left me - and the rest of the opening night audience - stuck with big grins and a warm and wonderful feeling.

Younger readers should know this was the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein show that launched the American musical as we know it. Previously, Broadway's romance with melodies came in two flavors: light operettas (Hammerstein's "Showboat") and expanded vaudeville acts (Rodgers' "Babes in Arms").

Let me put this straight out: You've got a chance to see a production of what the New York Drama League voted "The Best Musical of the (20th) Century."

Based on an imported London recreation that wowed New York critics, this version knocked my socks off. And I have lived with the score for literally six decades. Since my junior high school year, I have sung along with "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "People Will Say We're in Love," and, of course, "Oklahoma."

This powerhouse production sweeps away familiarity by staging and chorography that make every note and nuance seem brand new. Then there's the matter of talent. Behind the curtain, Susan Stroman's dances register the same kind of strength that made Agnes DeMille's a household name on the Great White Way, beginning with the original "Oklahoma!"

Even the best concept needs the best talent before it can come to life. Ms. Stroman's choreography enjoys Ginger Thatcher's recreation that explodes gloriously on stage with a slew of absolutely splendid performers. Daniel Robinson makes Will Parker a dancin' fool, which takes nothing away from Jeremiah James' Curly. Pat Sibley's Aunt Eller and Julie Burdick as her niece, Laurey, lead the ladies. To give credit where credit is really due, I should really print the entire program, including the orchestra's Andy Figa, who plays drums.

When I began this business of reviewing, on Washington's TV 9 when Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House, the standard was established that allows every show to lay out its tale with no tipping from me. In this case, I couldn't imagine there's anyone who didn't know about "Oklahoma!" Pat told me I was wrong; she heard comments from the opening night crowd that conveyed various people's confusion.

In the event, the musical lays out a story and incidents that take place in what was then Indian Territory at the time my father was born in Chickasha. As the last century dawned, Oklahoma was still frontier, and up for grabs. Having gone that far, let me stop with the footnote: in his lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein created rustic sophistication, smooth roughness and civilized violence that give his masterwork all the elements of classical literature, which Dick Rodgers set to melodies that rivals the very best music devised by man's ingenuity.

In other words, I lack the words to adequately celebrate the recreation of the most enduring musical masterwork of all time. "Oklahoma!" endures on stage at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre until Easter Sunday and then its bus-and-truck company hops on to the next stop. You don't want to be left with egg on your face. So get there!

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