Lyric’s ‘Oklahoma!’ is more than OK

It’s hard to imagine a finer performance of “Oklahoma!”

Lyric Opera of Chicago uses its world-class resources to give this production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical a perfect 70th anniversary presentation. It has solo voices that won’t quit, Lyric musicians in the pit and chorus members on the stage, a set that evokes the style of American Regionalist painters, director Gary Griffin of Chicago and Broadway fame, plus the original choreography by Agnes de Mille.

Surprisingly, this 1943 show about life and loves in the Oklahoma Territory passes the test of time with high marks. It doesn’t hurt that several of the songs have become classics in the American Songbook and many others are well known. To hear that score played by 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Tony Award winning conductor James Lowe, is an immeasurable pleasure.

Cowman Curly is sung by John Cudia. Audiences at Marriott Lincolnshire may remember his Jeff Award-winning performance of Jean Valjean, and his appealing voice is matched only by his charm as he courts the lovely Laurey. That’s Ashley Brown, who was Magnolia in Lyric’s production of “Show Boat” last spring. Brown was also the original Mary Poppins on Broadway, and her voice is sunshine itself.

Laurey lives with her Aunt Eller, who is played by Paula Scrofano, one of the Chicago area’s most admired actresses. She can certainly sing, but she also puts gusto into the role of this beloved character.

The show’s secondary couple, Ado Annie and Will Parker, just might be the best comic pair in American musicals. She’s the gal who “Cain’t Say No” and he’s the “All Er Nothin'” guy, and in the hands of Tari Kelly and Curtis Holbrook they just steal our hearts. Kelly has a knockout Broadway-style voice and Holbrook does as much dancing as singing. “Kansas City,” choreographed especially for him by Victor Wisehart, is a winner on both counts.

David Adam Moore has the thankless role of farm hand Jud Fry, but his rich baritone voice is a stand-out. Usman Ally plays the peddler Ali Hakim, who sings very little, but serves up a suitcase full of laughs and received an appreciative burst of applause on opening night.

And then there are the dancers doing the original Agnes de Mille choreography, recreated at Lyric under the expert guidance of Gemze de Lappe, who danced the dream ballet in the first national company of “Oklahoma!” in 1943 and went on to became an associate of de Mille’s. Now 91 years old, she has remained a disciple and has made a career here and aboard of keeping alive the dances of that remarkable choreographer. It is no surprise that the men’s numbers reflect the moves in de Mille’s cowboy ballets “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo” and the influence of de Mille’s teacher and long-time friend Martha Graham is visible throughout the show’s numerous dances.

The deeply emotional dream ballet, in which Laurey explores her love for Curly and her dread of Jud Fry, is danced with passionate perfection by Californian Jenna McClintock and the New York City Ballet’s Stephen Hanna.

Don’t miss this treasure of American musical theater, the first in Lyric’s American Musical Theater Initiative, which includes “The Sound of Music” in 2014, “Carousel” in 2015, “The King and I” in 2016, and “South Pacific” in 2017.

“Oklahoma!” runs at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through May 19 with numerous matinee and evening performances. Tickets range from $32-153. For information, call 312-332-2244 or visit Lyric Opera’s website.

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