News Column

'Oklahoma!' comes a-callin'

May 4, 2013


The Lyric Opera of Chicago will see if the "wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet" when it opens its new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's landmark 1943 musical "Oklahoma!" for a 16- performance run starting today.

"'Oklahoma!' will be the first in a series of great American musical theater pieces that we'll present," said general director Anthony Freud, talking about the Lyric's new American Musical Theater Initiative. After "Oklahoma!," the Lyric plans on staging even more Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals with "The Sound of Music" in 2014, "Carousel" in 2015, "The King and I" in 2016 and "South Pacific" in 2017.

But "Oklahoma!" will be the true test case. Though Lyric is no stranger to producing Broadway-originated works like "Porgy and Bess" in 2008, "Sweeney Todd" in 2002 or "Street Scene" in 2001, "Oklahoma!" is being staged outside the Lyric's regular season and doesn't come with its built-in subscription audience.

To make sure musical theater fans turn out, the Lyric is employing plenty of bona fide Broadway talent for "Oklahoma!" Jeff Award-winning Chicago director Gary Griffin, whose Broadway credits include "The Color Purple" and "The Apple Tree," directs the production. And in the leading romantic couple roles of Curley and Laurie, Broadway veterans John Cudia ("The Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables") and Ashley Brown ("Mary Poppins," the Lyric's recent "Show Boat") respectively star.

Tari Kelly, a Broadway and touring veteran who has also starred in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, plays the comic sidekick Ado Annie. Kelly is awed to be accompanied by 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra performing Robert Russell Bennett's full original orchestrations for "Oklahoma!"

"I already know that I'm going to cry," said Kelly before the first full orchestra rehearsal. "We're going to hear the music the way it was meant to be heard and in a way that it seldom is nowadays."

Another original aspect of the Lyric's "Oklahoma!" that should also attract serious dance fans is how choreographer Agnes de Mille's original dances for the 1943 Broadway production are being re-created. Choreographer Gemze de Lappe, now 91, was a dancer who appeared in the 1943 Chicago company of "Oklahoma!" at the long- gone Erlanger Theatre and in the original London company. De Lappe is drawing from her personal memories to bring the iconic dances back to life.

"This company has really worked very hard to try to get it right," said de Lappe. "We're trying to make the transitions from play to dance to singing meaningful and integrated."

"I think it's really smart for opera companies to broaden their horizons," said Kelly about the Lyric's American Musical Theater Initiative and "Oklahoma!" "It's going to be quite a spectacle."

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