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Big boots to fill

It's another opening, another show for actor Patrick Wilson, and this time it's the biggest one yet. Wilson, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area, plays Curly in the ballyhooed revival of Oklahoma! that opens tonight on Broadway.

"People have so many ideas of Oklahoma!, it's such a familiar kind of piece, so they walk in wanting a lot," Wilson said Wednesday. "Every audience has been so different during previews."

Opening night in New York doesn't have quite the weight it used to because most critics attend previews designated for the press.

"The great thing about opening night, for me, is that family and friends will be out there, so it becomes a very personal experience," said Wilson, the youngest son of WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor John Wilson and St. Petersburg voice teacher Mary K. Wilson. "It comes as a great release _ and relief _ after rehearsal and previews. And if you get great reviews, then it's the beginning of something wonderful."

Oklahoma!, the first of a string of musical theater masterpieces by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, premiered in 1943. There hasn't been a full-scale Broadway revival in more than 20 years. This production, directed by Trevor Nunn, originated at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1998. Its transfer to New York was held up because the labor union Actors' Equity Association resisted producer Cameron Mackintosh's desire to present it here with the London cast.

American Shuler Hensley returns as Jud Fry from the London production, but the only British holdover is Josefina Gabrielle, who plays Laurey. A onetime soloist with the National Ballet of Portugal, her dancing is central to Susan Stroman's choreography, which replaces that of Agnes de Mille from the original and all subsequent productions up to now. Gabrielle is the first actor to do her own Dream Ballet at the close of Act One; the piece, portraying a dream Laurey has, usually is performed by a dancer.

Wilson, 28, is stepping into the cowboy boots of legendary actor-singers Alfred Drake, who originated the role, and Gordon McRae, who was Curly in the movie. His previous Broadway roles include a Tony-nominated performance as laid-off steelworker Jerry Lukowski in The Full Monty. He played Billy Bigelow in the national tour of another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Carousel.

"In Carousel, I was compared every week to John Raitt or Gordon McRae and others who did the role a long time ago, and I know that will happen here," he said. "It doesn't matter. My approach is obviously going to be different. I'm just happy and thrilled to put my stamp on it."

Even as Oklahoma! opens, Wilson is in rehearsals for the HBO film of Tony Kushner's prize-winning play Angels in America, starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and directed by Mike Nichols.

Wilson is not the only cast member with Tampa Bay-area ties. Aasif Mandvi, who got his theater training at the University of South Florida, has the principal role of Persian peddler Ali Hakim, the role Eddie Albert had in the 1955 film version. Mandvi, who was born in Bombay, India, and moved to Florida as a teenager, is also an award-winning playwright and has appeared in movies and TV series including Analyze This, Oz and Sex and the City.