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Originally published Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 8:19 AM

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Choreographer recreates 'Oklahoma!' at age 91

Gemze de Lappe first danced in "Oklahoma!" in 1943 as a member of the Broadway hit's first national touring company. Seventy years later, at age 91, she's still with it - choreographing a production of the musical at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Associated Press

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CHICAGO —

Gemze de Lappe first danced in "Oklahoma!" in 1943 as a member of the Broadway hit's first national touring company. Seventy years later, at age 91, she's still with it - choreographing a production of the musical at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

De Lappe has traveled the world over the decades working on the Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers masterpiece in places across Europe, Japan, Canada and the United States. Now she's in Chicago, trying to help director Gary Griffin recreate a version of the original "Oklahoma!" production. It opens on Saturday and runs through May 19.

"If you remain true to the script and to the music it's not old fashioned at all," de Lappe said in an interview in the rehearsal room at the Lyric Opera in downtown Chicago. "It's new. It was new then and it's new now."

Griffin calls de Lappe a link to the original intent of the production, which is often considered a landmark of American musical theater. He encourages her to talk about every number, every idea that she has during rehearsals.

"This show begins and you can see she feels the depth of what's contained in all of it and recall it and gives it to all of us," Griffin said. "Having her being able to fill in those gaps and information is incredible."

The original dances from "Oklahoma!" were crafted by famed choreographer Agnes DeMille, who often used de Lappe as an inspiration. De Lappe, who lives in New York, has actively worked for years to save de Mille's work.

Rodgers, Hammerstein and DeMille would often check up on productions of "Oklahoma!" to see if directors were departing too far from the original show, de Lappe said.

"They'd clean it up again, simplify it, make it ours," de Lappe said. "That's what I've dedicated my life to."

De Lappe, who was awarded the Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre in 2007, knew Rodgers and Hammerstein well, she said, even sitting in on musical sessions with Rodgers in London.

"I really learned what he wanted with all those songs, the pronunciation, the enunciation, the tempos, phrasing," de Lappe said.

Ted Chapin, president of the company that owns the rights to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Rodgers and Hammerstein: An Imagem Company, said the Lyric chose to honor the original choreographic essence of "Oklahoma!" when it hired de Lappe.

"She's very, very straight forward about what she knows and what she demands," Chapin said. "She's not going to sit back and just take notes."

De Lappe's eyes dart from dancer to dancer when she's in those rehearsals, with an intense stare observing each number. She will stop the dancers, directing them about the need to swoop in a certain way or interact with each other differently. At times she will even demonstrate the steps.

"When I hear it with the performers and with the show I'm just as enthusiastic as I was the first time I saw the show," she said.

Modern audiences haven't seen a proper production of "Oklahoma!" for two generations, de Lappe said. She said that's why it's important for Lyric to recreate the show's original concept.

The production is the first of five classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that the Lyric is staging as part of its American Musical Theater Initiative. "The Sound of Music" is planned for next year, followed by "Carousel" in 2015, "The King and I" in 2016 and "South Pacific" in 2017.

The Chicago production of "Oklahoma!" includes 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and a company of nearly 40 actors.

"The minute you walk into the rehearsal hall and you start, the energy is there no matter how tired you are," de Lappe said. "I find it happens to me every day."

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Online: http://www.lyricopera.org/oklahoma

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Follow Caryn Rousseau on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/carynrousseau

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