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Oh, what a beautiful show: Lyric ‘Oklahoma!’ sweeps the plain with bounty of song, dance

Submitted by on May 6, 2013 – 1:33 pm

Review: “Oklahoma!” with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, at Lyric Opera of Chicago through May 19 ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

There has to be an entry for “Yee-HA!” in the critic’s lexicon, or there’s no adequate word for the stylish, funny, handsomely sung production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Confirming the impression it made a year ago with “Showboat,” its splendid first venture into the American musical, the Lyric Opera again demonstrates a serious commitment of resources and the highest standard of theatrical excellence in the most embracing sense. This high-spirited, downhome “Oklahoma!” is an absolute joy.

It starts, literally, with baritone John Cudia’s virile but vulnerable Curly, the cowboy who pines for pretty neighbor gal Laurey. Cudia opens the show with a walk-on performance of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” that sets the artistic tone and theatrical temperament for everything that follows. And what follows immediately is Cudia’s whimsical but vocally true “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

This strutting, too-proud Curly is wonderfully counterpoised by Ashley Brown’s coy Laurey, who proves soon enough to be the wrangler’s match in voice as well as spunk. Laurey’s declaration of independence, “Many a New Day,” is an air-borne delight that takes wing on Brown’s stunning top register. Are these two a couple? The answer rings from heart to heart in the duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” – “Don’t sigh and gaze at me, your sighs are so like mine.” It’s a veritable mating of voices.

But if “Oklahoma!” is a love story, it’s also a tale of the American spirit, at once epic and of the earth. Based on Lynn Riggs’ play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the 1943 musical is set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, the year before the territory became a state. While there’s an element of tension between ranchers and farmers, the more important need for neighborliness – and pulling together toward the goal of statehood – keeps “Oklahoma!” on the sunny side of  the later, urban likes of “West Side Story.” Everybody, farmer and cowhand, is pulling for Curly the roper and farm girl Laurey. And pushing them together is Laurey’s plain-talking Aunt Eller – played with sweetness, wisdom and cowboy camaraderie by Paula Scrofano.

“Oklahoma!” is an August cornfield of comedy, much of it centered on Ado Annie, the lusty girl who just can’t say no, and the two main men in her life: Will Parker, the free-range cowboy, and traveling salesman Ali Hakim, whose zest for female companionship is exceeded only by his aversion to marriage. In Tari Kelly’s Ado Annie, Curtis Holbrook’s Will Parker and Usman Ally’s Ali, this production enjoys a crazy, appealing triangle that’s constantly recharging the whole affair.

What sets “Oklahoma! apart from mere musical comedy, by raising its dramatic quotient, is the authentically menacing figure of Jud Fry, the creepy hired hand who works on Laurey’s farm and lives like a rat in a smokehouse decorated with naughty pictures. Jud has his fancy set on Laurey. Yet even here, ironically and deliciously, Rodgers and Hammerstein strike a darkly funny vein. Cudia’s Curly and David Adam Moore as Jud make a deadpan screamer of the duet “Pore Jud is Daid,” in which the cowboy suggests this lonely, lowly critter could hang himself and discover the real affection of his mourners.

This big show moves with sure-footed purpose under stage director Gary Griffin and musical director James Lowe. On hand to help re-create Agnes de Mille’s original 1943 choreography was Gemze De Lappe, 91, who performed on the show’s first national tour nearly 70 years ago.  Here, the smartly turned dances are capped by an exquisite dream ballet in which Stephen Hanna and Jenna McClintock take the roles of Laurey and Curly. David Adam Moore shows his remarkable versatility by extending his portrait of Jud Fry into the choreographic dream.

Lyric’s “Oklahoma!” is what all such classic musicals should be – eye-popping to behold, from the charming naturalism of John Lee Beatty’s farm buildings to the splashing colors of Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, all dramatized by Christine Binder’s lighting schemes. Ah, I nearly forgot the surrey. The wheels are, yep – yeller.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Ashley Brown as Laurey, with John Cudia as Curly. Descending: Curly (John Cudia) sings “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Ado Annie (Tari Kelly) explains to Laurey (Ashley Brown) why she can’t say no. Curly (John Cudia) fires home a point to the surly Jud Fry (David Adam Moore). Aunt Eller (Paula Scrofano, standing) and Laurey (Ashley Brown) hear a sales pitch from Ali Hakim (Usman Ally). Below: Will Parker (upper right) tells the boys how everything’s up to date in Kansas City. Dancers Stephen Hanna and Jenna McClintock portray Curly and Laurey in the dream ballet. (Photos by Dan Rest)


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