When "Oklahoma!" arrived on the New York stage in April 1943, it redefined musical theater as an art form.
It was the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the first Broadway musical to use elements of classical ballet (the choreography was by Agnes de Mille) and the first to integrate songs with the plot to move the action ahead. When Laurie asks Curly how they'll get to the party, he sings "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" -- and that fringed surrey carried us into a new era in musical theater.
But can contemporary players find new ground to explore in this familiar territory? They found a lot at Chesapeake Music Hall, where the cast invests such energy in "Oklahoma!" that the actors bounce on stage as boisterous and lively as rodeo champions and heel-kicking fillies.
The opening number, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," is a tune as familiar as any American folk song, but Joe Rose as Curly sings it with a fresh sense of discovery. Later, when Curly and Laurie sing "People Will Say We're in Love," it's a lovely, romantic moment.
Rose plays a very personable Curly with strong acting and singing skills. As Laurie, Cynthia Lasner, who possesses a singing voice of Broadway dimensions, seems even more adept at making old songs new again. She's also a skilled actress, outstanding in a talented cast.
Another standout is Michael Quinn as Will Parker. His dancing and rope-jumping are real show-stoppers. He is joined in his "Kansas City" number by other male cast members in a spirited and intricate dance routine.
Sherry Kay, who was the choreographer, also created her usual magnificent costumes and co-produced the show.
Jud Fry's addiction to French girlie postcards, which may have been racy in 1943, seems tame today. Nevertheless, David Reynolds imbues Jud with creepy brutishness and displayed prodigious acting skill as he metamorphosed from lout to hunk. He didn't just sing "Lonely Room" -- he wrapped himself in the song, as if he'd donned a coat.
Michael Rease has a sure touch and a comic Persian accent as the peddler, Ali Hakim. Katy McAllister as the man-crazy Ado Annie plays well off Rease and exhibits real chemistry with Quinn's Will Parker. Annie is the gal who "cain't say no," a scandal in 1943 but only quaint and somewhat confused today.
"Oklahoma!" continues on weekends through July 6 at the theater on Busch's Frontage Road off U.S. 50. Information: 410-626-7515 or 1-800-406-0306.
Pub Date: 5/15/97