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<i>Oklahoma!</i> Returns to Broadway - 2002-03-29

The much-acclaimed London revival of the classic American musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! has opened on Broadway.

It has been called the quintessential American musical, optimistic, exuberant and forward-looking.

When Oklahoma! made its debut on Broadway in 1943, it kicked off a golden age of American musicals. It launched the most successful collaboration in musical theater history, that of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein.

Theater historians say the landmark show was the first musical that fully integrated dancing and singing into the plot.

The legendary Broadway choreographer Agnes de Mille created the dances for the 1943 production, which all subsequent productions have used. Many Broadway stalwarts were shocked when the producers of the current production hired Susan Stroman, the choreographer of such hits as The Producers and Contact, to recreate the dance sequences. But many now agree with New York theater critic Roma Torre that Ms. Stroman's choreography is one of the highlights of the show.

"That splendid choreography of Susan Stroman, from the ballet to the hoedown, certainly lives up to the challenge of matching the great Agnes de Mille," she says.

The show is set in Oklahoma just before it became a U.S. state early in the 20th Century. But the love of land talked about in the show is also a salute to the United States in the midst of World War II.

It is a simple story about young people on the brink of adulthood and the sexual tensions that implies a topic treated with humor in one of the show's best-known songs.

The focus is on the love story of Laurey and Curly. Everyone in town knows the young people are in love, but Laurey plays hard to get.

Laurey makes the mistake of letting a hired hand on the ranch, Jud, think he has a chance to win her. Jud is a deeply disturbed character, lending to the show a dark element not seen in earlier musicals. This new production stresses the dark side of the book. Many Broadway critics, including Roma Torre, say this is the production's chief drawback.

"Director Trevor Nunn's naturalistic restaging has stripped away the old-fashioned sentimentality of past productions and the show certainly feels fresh and new," says Ms. Torre. "But something is missing. The oomph, that thing that gave us goose bumps when those gorgeous songs reach their crescendo, isn't there any more, or at least not nearly as much. And the focus shifts now from the songs to the story. It is an admirable concept, but the problem is that the book of this musical is weak and contrived."

Still, Oklahoma!'s groundbreaking reputation, fabled songs and award-winning dancing are expected to attract big audiences and send them home singing.