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Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote their first show together in 1943, and Oklahoma! has proven to be one of the most influential musicals in the history of American theater. With Hammerstein's sentimental yet memorable lyrics and Rodgers's lavishly melodic tunes (nearly impossible to refrain from humming), they built a paean to American rural values. Rodgers and Hammerstein became famous for the careful integration of dance and music into their librettos. And the irrepressible revival of Oklahoma! at the Country Dinner Playhouse, though a bit of a mixed bag, reminds us just how clever these two guys were.

The story, of course, concerns a dashing cowboy's childish courtship of a lovely young farm woman. Their sparring reminds us more of schoolchildren teasing and terrorizing each other than it does of young adults testing the waters of love. But their innocence is the basis of their appeal. Curly and Laurey love each other, and both are just on the brink of discovering that fact the night of the big dance. Unfortunately, their wholesome love is challenged by the presence of Jud Fry, an angry and troubled hired hand at Laurey's who has grown tired of frontier pornography and just wants to be loved. Is that so wrong?

Jud is a lot more interesting than Curly, but then, he's a sociopath. Nobody wastes any sympathy on the poor scoundrel, and once Curly and Laurey tie the knot, Jud tries for revenge. Meanwhile, adorable comic Ado Annie can't decide between handsome cowboy Will Parker and a mysterious Persian peddler named Ali Hakim (who is definitely not in the market for a wife). Naturally, the cowboy lover triumphs--with the help of Ali.

Even after all these years--and television reruns of the 1955 film version--the show still works. It's the perfect piece of Americana for summertime. Amid all of today's revisionist histories and political correctness, this piece celebrates farming and ranching, state citizenship and the myth of the West without apology--and without rancor. There's even something geniunely touching about its sentimental faith in ordinary people.

Then, too, the characters are a bit more interesting than is usual in musicals. Curly tries to talk Jud into killing himself. Laurey loses it when Jud becomes sexually aggressive. Old Aunt Eller is all earthy realism, and Ado Annie, the girl who can't say no, is the most interesting unleashed libido in the bunch.

The singing and dancing is always all-pro at the Country Dinner Playhouse, and the actors appear to really enjoy what they're doing. The CDP's leading music man is Keith Rice as Curly--an elegant, competent actor with a beautiful, highly trained voice. Far less intriguing is leading lady Gina Schuh-Turner, who insinuates whininess for Laurey's clever cat-and-mousery. Her voice is thin, though trained, and she lacks the presence and charm (to say nothing of the timing) that comedy requires. Craig Lundquist as Jud lends a brooding, dark sexuality to the role that makes his "Lonely Room" song truly scary.

Though he has done some fine work for CDP in the past, Paul Dwyer is just dull as Will Parker. But Beth Malone as Ado Annie more than makes up for Dwyer's routine performance with all the comic luster of a gifted comedienne. Even when she overdoes the gestures, she's so cute, you have to love it. And CDP regular Marcus Waterman as Ali Hakim, once again, draws us in. Real sparks fly between Malone and Waterman, so much so that you can't help wishing Annie would take off with the peddler man.

In fact, the night after I saw the show, I watched a few minutes of the movie on American Movie Classics and realized that Waterman gave a much more exciting performance as Ali Hakim than did Eddie Albert. Malone also far outstrips her cinematic counterpart, Gloria Grahame. CDP specializes in sturdy family fare--and this Oklahoma! is O.K.


Oklahoma!, through August 18 at the Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 799-1410.

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