Oklahoma! is Sheer Delight

The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Oklahoma! may not be an opera, but it’s a must-see musical

DAN REST/LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO

The Lyric Opera’s production of Oklahoma! is a sumptuous, old-school theatrical feast for the eyes and ears. Clocking in at a hair under three hours, it is also the rare staging that leaves the entire original score and dream ballet intact. It’s unusual, also because& not many musical theater houses can afford a 37-piece orchestra, an ensemble cast of close to 50 and a set that seems as vast as the Great Plains. Under the helm of director Gary Griffin, the Lyric pulls out all the stops for a show that is joyously elaborate. What Oklahoma! is not, however, is an opera. That might be enough to rankle purists. For the rest of us, this Oklahoma! is easy to love.

The 70-year-old show plot is about as simple as they come: Curley, a cowhand (John Cudia) and Laurey, a farmer’s niece (Ashley Brown) are in love. Mild complications ensue in the form of a troubled hired hand named Jud (David Adam Moore), a malcontent loner whose brooding, anti-social ways set him up in stark contrast to the guileless, cheery Curley. Comic relief is provided by the flirtatious Ado Annie (Tari Kelly) who takes up with a travelling peddler, Ali Hakim, (Usman Alley) before settling down with Will (Curtis Holbrook), a nice, All-American cowpoke. Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Paula Scrofano) is the no-nonsense moral center of the story who doesn’t hesitate to fire off a pistol to bring order at a rambunctious Saturday night social. 

The leads sound wonderful, bringing wistful romance to “People Will Say We’re In Love” (Curly and Laurey), antic humor to “I Cain’t Say No” (Ado Annie) and unmitigated joy to “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” (Curly.) As Laurey, Brown embodies the perky, can-do independence and optimism of her frontier surroundings. Cudia’s Curley radiates the wholesome charm of the cowboy-next-door. As for the outcast Jud, David Adam More smolders with angry charisma. The one misstep that Griffin makes is with the peddler Ali Hakim, played by Ally as a buffoonish stereotype of a foreigner complete with wincingly exaggerated facial expressions and an overly broad attempt at comedy. In a story rich with archetypes, he’s the lone stereotype.

Lyric choreographer Gemze De Lappe closely follows the stunning work of Agnes De Mille’s original dance, making Oklahoma! as much about glorious movement as it is about glorious vocals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dream ballet, a stunning showstopper that delves Laurey’s innermost fears and hopes. Danced by Jenna McClintock and Stephen Hanna, the ballet is a whirling, balletic tour de force of kinetic storytelling.

The Lyric’s Oklahoma! offers audiences a production of scope and depth that not likely to ever be matched by Chicagoland’s musical theater houses.

Oklahoma! continues through May 19 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets range from $42 to $153.

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