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USU PERFORMERS GIVE COLLINSTON `OKLAHOMA' VITALITY

The key to a successful show is competent direction. But with Hampton's Ford StageStop Theater, the most important direction may come from the person who tells you how to find the theater. (Take I-15 past Tremonton, then the first Logan exit east, or - for the faint of heart - head up old Highway 89 through Brigham City and out past Honeyville, Fielding and Riverside until you hit Collinston. Look for a large lighted sign on the left side of the road.)

The place isn't impossible to find, however. I know, because more than 100 people showed up to watch the show the night I was there.The Stage Stop Theater itself is a cross between down-home country and rural chic. It's a quaint little place that draws a cross-section of patrons. The theater is in an old barn behind a house; the house serves as the Hampton's Ford Restaurant (specialty: mutton).

But it's the theater that's putting out the home cooking this spring. You don't get more homey than "Oklahoma."

To begin with, I confess I never see this show without remembering a tongue-in-cheek comment made at a theater funding meeting: "What this state really needs is another production of "Oklahoma!" Yet that said, I must also say there's always room for the well-made popular, for a fresh look at the tried and true.

And since the Stage Stop Theater draws so many energetic performers from Utah State University, this version of "Oklahoma" feels fresh. These are young singers and hoofers looking to make a mark in the theater world, and they give this production vitality. For them, "Oklahoma" is as new as the day Rogers and Hammerstein conceived it, and the kids really build an open fire under this old chestnut.

As you might expect, there are some drawbacks. The Stage Stop is a theater in the round (actually a theater in the square), so singers face away from each seat about half the time. And the lofty rafters and black material on the sidewalls tend to eat up the sound. This is not the kind of place where you can hear pins drop.

And in a rural area of Utah where authentic cowboys stand at every crossroads, it's a little odd to see Curly dressed like a 1950s singing cowboy, complete with satin shirt, neckerchief and sporting exotic boots no drugstore cowboy would touch.

But that said, I must say the show itself will win your heart. Kathy Ward's choreography is superb. The dancing, in fact, is the strength of the show, with the men putting on a hoedown that will knock your - and their - socks off. Director Soni Barrus has blocked the show well and keeps the pace churning.

Special kudos should go to JaceSon Parker Barrus, whose mugging version of Will Parker - the gallooty Romeo - steals every scene where he appears. Steve Morgan is a fun, likable Curly, though the wonderful voice of Marianne Caldwell (as Laurey) tends to leave him behind in the duets.

Terry Munns and Denese Tree show spunk as Ali Hakim and Aunt Eller. Shanna Jensen pumps charm into Ado Annie. Chris Niederhauser offers a very menacing Jud Fry.

The accompaniment is provided by dual pianos and drums. The props are very simple - almost barebones - but effective.

So, if you're in the area, don't be afraid to take in the show.

Contrary to popular belief, you can get there from here.