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'Oklahoma!' lacks exclamation point

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Oh what a pretty nice mornin'/ oh what a promising day/I got a kinda good feelin'/"Oklahoma!" is sorta OK.

Doesn't quite have the ring of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics, does it? But the lines do sum up the fair-to-middling touring production at the Colonial Theatre.

There isn't anything wrong with the show, particularly. The voices are all strong. The dancers all turn in nice, athletic moves. The set is a decent reproduction of the one in the Royal National Theatre revival that played in London and New York. But this non-Equity version -- although light years better than, say, the non-Equity "Oliver" at the Wang -- is only "based" on the National version, and a lot gets lost in translation.

Just as Hammerstein opened up vistas in Richard Rodgers's songwriting, following the end of the latter's partnership with the more downbeat Lorenz Hart, "Oklahoma!" opened up vistas in musical theater. Here we were in the sprawl of a country's expansion, and Rodgers and Hammerstein captured all the optimism inherent in people whose philosophy was, "We know we belong to the land/and the land we belong to is grand."

As the touring production has reduced the grandness of the National production, the emotions and ideas have similarly been compressed. It feels like we're at a barbecue at the Joad house in "The Grapes of Wrath," rather than sitting in on the birth of part of the nation.

There isn't a bad rendition of any of the superb songs, but there isn't a great version either. The dancing is energetic, but it never feels as if the roof is being raised. Anthony Ward's beautifully lit, stark set seems as if it's hemming in the action rather than opening up possibilities as it did in New York and London.

That said, this is a representative production of "Oklahoma!" The musical launched the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership -- at the Colonial, no less -- and what a thrill it must have been for 1943 audiences when the cast launched into "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " and "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and kept going with one glorious melody after another through "People Will Say We're in Love, "The Farmer and the Cowman," and the title song.

The thrill isn't gone. As Curly, the head man, Brandon Andrus won't make anyone forget the great stars of the past -- including Hugh Jackman in London -- but he sells each song with strength and grace. Amanda Rose and Tom Lucca are less impressive as Laurey and Jud, but they're easy enough on the ears.

In general, "Oklahoma!" plays as if the Broadway cast all came down with the flu and a group of very talented understudies stepped in. You want to cheer them on, but you also know the show could have been a lot better if you had seen it the way it was supposed to be seen.

Musical in two acts. Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by: Fred Hanson. Choreography, Susan Stroman and Ginger Thatcher. Sets and costumes, Anthony Ward. Lights, David Hersey and Ted Mather.
At: the Colonial Theatre, through June 5. 617-931-2787.

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