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A lackluster version of Oklahoma! stops at the Hobby

When they got together to create Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein made an unlikely pair of Broadway collaborators. Skeptics and pundits scoffed at the union of the chic, jazzy Rodgers and the operatic, elegant Hammerstein, but the pair reinvented the musical with their landmark Oklahoma!, which opened in March 1943. The show still hasn't closed.

Based on Lynn Riggs's failed 1931 Americana play, Green Grow the Lilacs, Oklahoma!centers around the story of a young woman named Laurey living in the Oklahoma Territory at the beginning of the 20th century. She's in love with a cowboy, Curly, who loves her back. But a hand named Jud Fry -- the show's villain -- also loves Laurey. The play details the two men's rivalry. And let's just say that it ends with a wedding.

But Oklahoma! is more than a love story. Its story about democracy's arrival into the frontier -- i.e., civilization into the wild -- was the culmination of American musical theater. The show changed musicals forever, and its revolutionary influence is still felt today. On Broadway, Oklahoma!ran for an unprecedented five and a half years, and its first road tour lasted for ten. It's now playing at the Hobby Center in an equally famous interpretation: the Royal National Theatre/Cameron Mackintosh 1998 London production.

The Houston version will not make the history books. It looks tired and runs out of steam way before a lackluster rendition of the title song at the end of the show.

National Theatre producers were given permission to alter the original production, so the startling vintage dances by Agnes de Mille were scrapped, and in waltzed Susan Stroman. Her work, awarded all manner of prizes for Contact, Show Boat and, most recently, The Producers, is surprisingly pedestrian, even when judged by the low standards of contemporary show choreography. And the dancers look pained by the choreography's real classical steps. What's required even for Stroman's low-level Ballet 101 routines are professional ballet dancers. Broadway gypsies just don't cut it.

The show does have bright spots, however. The Act II opener, "The Farmer and the Cowhand," is rousing and effective. There, the choreography finally breaks loose from Stroman's strenuously balletic movement, and we're given a realistic hoedown that seamlessly melds into a stylized fight scene between the bickering territory folks. The company comes alive; it's the most fun they have.

An imaginative dance coup de théâtre happens during the two-second surprise that pops out of the cornfield that precedes Laurey's "Dream Ballet." But it's one of the only inspired moments in the entire show, if you exclude the toy train at the beginning, and the toy surrey at its close. That's not much to hang accolades upon.

The London production was blessed by the charisma of Hugh Jackman as Curly and the psychological probing of Schuler Hensley as Jud. In this touring production remounted by Fred Hanson, the same two roles are standouts. Brandon Andrus (Curly) and Tom Lucca (Jud), the very different men of Laurey's life and fantasies, bring astonishing vigor and depth to their characters. Andrus has Jackman's easy theatrical presence and flair, making Curly's braggadocio both boyishly charming and seductively virile. That he sings with sweet passion and utter conviction is an added pleasure.

The London production of Oklahoma! got attention for being "the Jud version," in which care was taken to incorporate this social misfit into the fabric of the story with more believability. Jud's not your typical Broadway musical villain. If Laurey feels conflicted about this surly farm foreman who lives in the smokehouse with his naughty French postcards, there's got to be something compelling about him. Lucca overlays his hulking stature and deep baritone with perceptible vulnerability, giving his brute a touch of humanity. Jud may explode at any moment, but it's just as possible that he'll implode.

The remainder of the touring cast functions largely on autopilot. Amanda Rose's Laurey isn't quite there, although she sings prettily enough and dances her "Dream Ballet" without embarrassment. There's a scene change in Act II in which the house revolves around and reveals Laurey sitting outside. So little presence does Rose command that I didn't realize it was Laurey. Maybe it's the overalls she wears for much of the first act. She's a farm owner -- a middle-class heiress, if you will -- not some tomboy.

There's still plenty to admire in this 60-year old "musical play," as the authors originally subtitled their creation. That everything doesn't "go its way" in this bland revival is not the fault of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

 
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