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Published: Wednesday, 12/8/2010

Always something new to learn with fan favorite 'Oklahoma!'

Anyone showing up at the traveling production of Oklahoma! Thursday and Friday at the Valentine Theatre likely already knows the story line involving plucky pioneers enmeshed in a fairly typical love story set to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It's safe to say that songs like "Oklahoma!" and especially "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" are ingrained in the musical memories of even the most casual theater-goer. And more than likely those at the show are aware of the musical's wild popularity and the fact that it has been performed literally thousands of times.

But how many people know that one of the lead characters, Laurey Williams was a "strong, independent woman" whose parents died? Or that she possessed an acute sense of intuition and instinct?

Lindsey Bliven knows those things and more. She's the actor (and dancer and singer) who plays one of the musical's central characters and she's done some serious research on the role to flesh out Laurey's backstory. Oklahoma! debuted on Broadway in 1943, but it is based on a 1931 play called Green Grow the Lilacs, which Bliven read closely to understand the character.

"Laurey is definitely the sweet innocent farm girl, but she is actually very, very strong," Bliven, 24, said in a phone interview, noting that any women who survived on the plains in the early 20th century when the play is set had to be iron-willed.

"I want to make sure that I stay true to what the director wants and true to the role itself, but I've done my research and I've read the play ..." Bliven said, adding that she brings her own personality to the role. "I try to bring in some elements of me into it. I'm playing her so that kind of comes with the territory that I would naturally be infused into the part."

The original musical, which marked the first time that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein worked together, was set in the new territory of Oklahoma in the early 1900s. It captures the innocence of the time as Laurey has to decide whether to attend a big social gathering with the charming cowboy Curly McLain or the more sinister Jud Fry. Of course there are plenty of twists and turns as Laurey and Curly eventually find love as much singing and dancing ensues throughout.

The choreographer for the production that will hit Toledo is Norb Joerber, a Broadway veteran who helped trim the plot and dances to fit the relatively truncated cast -- 19 singers, dancers, and actors -- and keep it moving for new audiences that are part of the "MTV generation."

One of the challenges was finding performers like Bliven who are "triple talents" and are adept at acting, singing, and various forms of dance, he said. In larger productions, actors played the lead parts but when it came time to dance, especially the ballets, they were done as dream sequences with professional dancers handling the role.

Joerber said the young talents in this performance bring an exuberance and spirit to their roles and as the production builds to the singing of "Oklahoma!" the energy the audience feels will be palpable.

"The audience kind of goes crazy at the end if we do it right. Everything is kind of anti-climactic" after that, he said.

For Bliven, singing the title song provides the play with a significance beyond the love stories and high jinks that lead up to it.

"It's about finding statehood and really establishing these territories. These people are helping do that and how special is that? When they're singing 'Oklahoma!' it's a state that they are creating right now," she said.

Joerber said the young cast pulls all this off magnificently.

"They bring such an exuberance to the piece it's a joy to watch and they're having as much fun as the audience, which is fun to watch," he said.

Oklahoma! will be performed Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. at the Valentine, 410 Adams St., and tickets are $59, $49, and $39. They can be purchased at the theater box office, online at valentinetheatre.com or by calling 419-242-2787.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.



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