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'Oklahoma' production makes short shrift of classic score


As a wise wag once put it, the show with as many big-time hits right off the bat as "Oklahoma!" is Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

It's not as frivolous a comparison as it might sound, not with "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin' ", "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," "I Say No," "Many a New Day" and "People Will Say We're in Love" one after the other. And that's just Act I, Scene 1!

Of course the plot (what there is of it) had never measured up to the score, but with songs like these, "Oklahoma!" -- the first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration -- has carved out a legendary niche for itself in the annals of the American musical stage.

"Oklahoma!" is currently on the boards at the Annapolis Dinner Theater in a production that, while somewhat paradoxical, proves enjoyable nonetheless.

It is paradoxical because despite the "no great shakes" plot -- boy and girl flirt, boy and girl fight, boy and girl marry -- the acting is the strongest element of the production. The show's great selling point, its illustrious musical score, lags behind.

The accompanying recorded tape, borrowed from a neighboring dinner theater, makes interpretive hash of these great songs. Many are simply taken much too fast.

"The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" races along at breakneck speed with no tempo differentiation whatsoever between the first two verses, and a third verse that slows not nearly enough. You'd think that "Whoa you team! And just keep a creepin at a slow clip-clop" would be an interpretive clue of some kind, but whoever conducted this tape didn't take the hint.

Terri Stone as Laurey is forced to sprint through "Many a New Day" and "Out of My Dreams," which come off sounding jumpy and breathless. Not only is her bright, breezy soprano voice squandered, but two delightfully contrasting interludes are lost.

"All Er' Nuthin," though gamely sung by the show's terrific comic leads, is similarly composed. You can no more savor Hammerstein's clever lyrics than you can peek through the windows of a passing train.

If crummy tapes like this are the best ADT can do, they ought to start recording their own. Linda Kahl is a fine music director already on the premises; give her a shot.

"Oklahoma!" 's musical problems are compounded by this Curly's propensity for singing off-key and in choppy phrases that sustain none of the phrases with which he's entrusted. "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin' " was frightfully out of tune and intensively syncopated beyond recognition. Intonation problems overturned the surrey and the wonderful melodic lines in "People Will Say We're In Love" were invariably broken at the inopportune moments.

A pity, for the young man acts well, looks great and projects a nice presence on stage.

Terri Stone's soprano voice is appropriately light and flirty for Laurey, but she's harried by the pace of that misbegotten tape.

Stone acts exceptionally well. Her final score with Jud is riveting and effectively suspends the silliness of the plot for a time.

The secondary leads are terrific. Joseph Cronin is sensational as Will Parker, the dumb, high-stepping cowboy who loses his heart to Ado Annie, the fickle floozy who can't say no. Facially, he's magnificent, projecting Will's boyish enthusiasm and indignation with great spirit. He's a pleasant singer and dances as well as he mugs.

Complementing him is Francine Joyce Kent, who makes a delightful Ado Annie -- naughty, perky, energetic, funny, and a fine singer to boot.

David Moore is also very funny as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who can't keep his hands off the frontier gals. He's dressed more like Bluebeard's first mate than a Western peddler man, but his takes and double-takes are expert even if his costuming is bizarre.

David Reynolds is a suitably spooky Jud. His "Lovely Room" is one of the high points of the production.

Sue Loweree was a sympathetic Aunt Eller, and I enjoyed David Meltzer's delightfully deadpan, red-necky Andrew Carnes.

A few dancers still are watching their feet instead of singing with gusto, but on the whole, the ensemble contributes nicely.

"Oklahoma!" is worth seeing for the expert performances offered up by the secondary players, but this is hardly a definitive traversal of one of the great scores ever composed for the musical theater.

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