Music by Richard Rodgers
Oh what a beautiful production!
|Lyric Opera of Chicago presents|
Review by John Olson
Of the four American musicals Lyric Opera of Chicago has presented on its stage over the past ten years, the first three seemed logical choices to be performed by the company. Sweeney Todd (2002-2003) is virtually an opera, Porgy and Bess (2008) is literally an opera and Showboat (2012) is operatic in scale. When Oklahoma! was announced, even as a separate engagement (the others musicals mentioned were included in Lyric regular seasons), it seemed less obvious that this chestnut of community and school theaters, with its homespun corny jokes, was suitable for the cavernous the Civic Opera House and one of the world’s leading opera companies. That prejudice about the piece makes Director Gary Griffin’s grand production by Lyric Opera a joyous revelation, establishing beyond a doubt that Oklahoma! deserves this sort of stature and venue. From the first notes of the Overture, performed by the 39-piece Lyric Opera orchestra as ably conducted by James Lowe, the Richard Rodgers score is rich and lovely in its deceptively simple, thoroughly American-bred melodies. The beauty of the voices singing them is soon foretold when John Cudia as Curley begins “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” in a baritone that one can’t get enough of. He’s the first we hear in a cast of nine principals and an ensemble of 30, all in splendid voice, to deliver Rodgers’ music and Oscar Hammerstein’s poetic lyrics.
Oklahoma! was revived in a literal sense in 1998, when Trevor Nunn’s production for the U.K.’s National Theatre was enthusiastically received and later transferred to Broadway. Nunn gave the piece a grittier, more realistic feel than traditional interpretations, but Griffin is doing something different here. He embraces its classic status and presents it in a style that is presumably quite similar to its original 1943 production. His tone is bright and upbeat and the comedy played broadly, but within boundaries that keep it charming rather than corny. It would probably be impossible to land anything too nuanced or realistic in this 3,563-seat house anyway, but Griffin’s style of tone is regardless a valid creative choice that feels respectful of both the venue and the piece. The original dances of Agnes de Mille are recreated by her longtime nonagenarian associate Gemze de Lappe, with the assistance of Victor Wisehart (who choreographed the “Kansas City” number). Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations are employed as well.
As he has with his productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Griffin’s brought together a superb cast of performers from Broadway and Chicago. Cudia, who fortunately has lots of opportunity to share that golden voice with us, is appropriately cocky and his presentational acting seems just the way his show-offy cowboy character would act. Ashley Brown (of Mary Poppins and Lyric’s Show Boat) is Laurey, the farm girl he is clumsily trying to romance. Ms. Brown pairs her soprano and seemingly limitless range with an interpretation of Laurey as a convincingly feisty and independent young woman. Tari Kelly, Sutton Foster’s understudy for the recent Anything Goes Broadway revival, is sure-voiced and unashamedly horny (“I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No”) as Laurey’s friend Ado Annie. Her boyfriend Will Parker is the boyish Curtis Holbrook, of Broadway’s All Shook Up and Xanadu. He has great fun playing Will as the dullest tool in the box and handles the two-step of “Kansas City” and its vocals with ease. Jeff-nominated Chicago actor Usman Ally plays the itinerant peddler Ali Hakim very amusingly as a middle-eastern accented vaudeville clown. From the opera world is David Adam Moore as Laurey’s mysterious ranch hand Jud Fry. Moore has the pipes for a knockout “Lonely Room,” and provides a nuanced performance as the truly lonely ranch hand. In a departure from tradition, Moore’s Jud is lees dirty and disgusting than we usually in portrayals of the character. Moore himself, from my seat in Row 20, appears to be quite handsome and so here it feels plausible that Laurey could have some level of attraction to him that might explain some of her ambivalence to Curly. On that level, it’s a fascinating choice though it makes the morality of Jud’s death (and the town’s reaction to it) less clear. Chicago actress Paula Scrofano is energetic and witty as Laurey’s Aunt Eller – middle-aged, but here, by no means old. Local actors Matt DeCaro and Andrea Prestinario provide some great comic character work as Ado Annie’s rifle-toting father and Gertie Cummings – the flirt with the exceedingly annoying giggle. The production also boasts two exceptional ballet dancers in Stephen Hanna (older Billy of Billy Elliot on Broadway) and Jenna McClintock.
Sets, by Broadway’s John Lee Beatty, are mostly backdrops providing western tableaus and panoramas in the style of frontier painters Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Beatty does something fascinating for the scenes that occur off in fields away from houses. The backdrops show the houses and the town off in the distance, giving us a greater sense of place and distance between settled areas that helps us to understand the sparsely populated environment of this American western territory circa 1900. The action is beautifully lit by Chicago’s Christine Binder to change moods from more realistic to fantastic and romantic. Mark Grey has designed an amplification system specifically for this production that makes the sung lyrics crystal-clear (though the dialogue and rhythmically spoken lyrics are sometimes muddied). Ironically, the production included supertitles for the sung lyrics only.
These minor quibbles are by far outweighed by the strengths of this production. Oklahoma! feels right at home in one of the world’s great opera houses, showing how the definition of works to be performed here can change even as the institution’s mission remains constant. Oklahoma! is not opera, but it is grand and popular musical theater that has proven to have enduring appeal. This musical just passed its 70th birthday on March 31th, making it even older than La Bohème was when it was performed in Lyric’s inaugural season back in 1954. It’s time to just call Oklahoma! a classic – not just a classic of musical theatre.
Oklahoma! continues through May 19th (see schedule) at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker (map). Tickets are $42-$153, and are available by phone (312-332-2244) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LyricOpera.org. (Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Dan Rest
John Cudia (Curly McLain), Ashley Brown (Laurey Williams), David Adam Moore (Jud Fry), Tari Kelly (Ado Annie), Curtis Holbrook (Will Parker), Paula Scrofano (Aunt Eller), Usman Ally (Ali Hakim), Matt DeCaro (Andrew Carnes), Andrea Prestinario (Gertie Cummings), Hoss Brock (Ike Skidmore, ensemble), Andrew Lupp (Fred, ensemble), Max Clayton (Slim, ensemble), Susan Moniz (Vivian, ensemble), Desirée Hasler (Ellen, ensemble), Rachel Holzhausen (Kate, ensemble), Sheryl Veal (Virginia, ensemble), James Rank (Cord Elam, ensemble), Paul LaRosa (Mike, ensemble), Ronald Watkins (Joe, ensemble), Stephen Hanna (Dream Curley, ensemble), Jenna McClintock (Dream Laurey, ensemble); Ariane Dolan, Hannah Freeman, Ericka Mac, Chadae Nichol, Stephanie Jae Park, Christine Cornish Smith, Maia Surace, Laurie Vassalli, Pamela Williams, Teanna Zarro, Matthew Carroll, Chris Carter, John Concepcion, James Lee Glatz, Jeff Hover, Branden James, Luke Lazzaro, Vince Wallace (ensemble).
behind the scenes
Gary Griffin (director), John Lee Beatty (scenic design), Agnes de Mille (original choreographer), Gemze de Lappe (choreographer), Victor Wisehart (additional choreography), James Lowe (conductor), Christine Binder (lighting design), Mark Grey (sound design), Valerie Maze (chorus master, assistant conductor), Jill Malmsey Sager (English diction and dialect coach), Jennifer Harbor (assistant director), John W. Coleman (stage manager); Peggy Stinger, Amy Thompson, Rachel Tobias (assistant stage managers), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), Sarah Hatten (wigmaster, makeup design), William C. Bellingham, Mara Honigschnabel (musical preparation), Nick Sandys (fight director), Lilly West (sound engineer), Kevin McKillip (western skills consultant), Dan Rest (photos)