You win some and you lose some when you produce a Broadway musical like Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 landmark "Oklahoma!" in Chicago's 3,600-seat Civic Opera House. Fortunately for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the first outing of its multiyear American Musical Theater Initiative is a big and beautiful success.
Showing off "Oklahoma!" in full grandeur, the Lyric's 70th anniversary production pays great homage to the show's legacy as a storied Broadway musical.
Unlike so many Broadway and regional productions that alter the sound of classic shows with reduced or synthesized orchestral parts, the 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, under the fine baton of conductor James Lowe, gloriously play Robert Russell Bennett's full original orchestrations for "Oklahoma!" Just experiencing the vibrancy of a full string section filling out a lush Rodgers waltz tune like "Out of My Dreams" is something to truly cherish.
Also of historical import in the Lyric's "Oklahoma!" is the recreation of choreographer Agnes de Mille's original 1943 dances by 91-year-old Gemze de Lappe, an original dancer in the 1940s Chicago and London companies of the show. Serious fans of American modern dance can see just how important de Mille's choreographic contributions were to the integrated storytelling of "Oklahoma!" -- complete with balletic and folksy high-stepping (and the infamous "girl who falls" in the number "Many a New Day"). Now the quibbles: The Lyric's "Oklahoma!" lacks the intimacy you would get at a smaller suburban theater like the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. The Lyric's decision to use amplification also causes an odd echolike sound dynamic, since it's clear many of the performers can be heard just fine singing without their wireless microphones (though the wide stretches of dialogue probably would get lost without electronic enhancement).
Director Gary Griffin has assembled a hardworking and highly engaging ensemble mixed with Broadway veterans, opera stalwarts and local lights from Chicago's diverse theater scene who all have great vocal and acting chops.
John Cudia and Ashley Brown pair nicely as the playfully sparring lovers Curly and Laurie, only to be threatened by the misunderstood Jud Fry of opera baritone David Adam Moore (a good-looking, brooding foil to Cudia's sunny Curly, if not as violently menacing as he could be).
As for the comic love triangle of rodeo champ Will Parker, the excitable farmer's daughter Ado Annie and the wily traveling salesman Ali Hakim, the Lyric is blessed with great comics in the scrappy and acrobatic Curtis Holbrook, the elastic-limbed and exaggerated expressions of Tari Kelly and the exacting and limber Usman Ally.
Set designer John Lee Beatty's Oklahoma Territory production design is beautifully vivid like an agricultural carpet of patchwork quilts lit with sunny brilliance by lighting designer Christine Binder. Mara Blumenfeld's rustic period costumes also provide lovely pastel bursts of color.
Though some audiences might write off "Oklahoma!" as comically corny and homespun, you can't deny how Rodgers' glorious score and Hammerstein's integrated plot had so much influence on the history of American musical theater. The Lyric's opera-sized treatment only emphasizes the impact of this musical and why it retains its status as an American cultural landmark.
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