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Lyric Opera not quite the right territory for ‘Oklahoma!”

John Cudias Curly McLaAshley Brown as Laurey Williams perform during official dress rehearsal 'Oklahoma!' Lyric OperChicago Thursday May 2 2013.

John Cudia as Curly McLain and Ashley Brown as Laurey Williams perform during the official dress rehearsal of "Oklahoma!," at Lyric Opera, Chicago, on Thursday, May 2, 2013. | Ting Shen~Sun-Times Media

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‘Oklahoma!’

RECOMMENDED

When: Through May 19

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $32-$153

Info: (312) 332-2244; www.lyricopera.org

Run time: 3 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

VIDEO: Speaking with "Oklahoma!" choreographer Gemze de Lappe

Updated: May 5, 2013 9:20PM



It is easy to make the argument that great Broadway musicals like “Oklahoma!” deserve a significant place in the repertory of American opera houses. After all, these are shows that evolved from European grand opera and operetta, but over time incorporated the many influences of ragtime, vaudeville, jazz, folk music and a slew of other popular entertainment styles that resulted in something closer to the American grain in terms of both sound and story.

Yet there also is the impulse to argue in the opposite direction. With few exceptions (“Show Boat,” “South Pacific,” “Sweeney Todd”), the American musical doesn’t quite rest easy in an opera house, even if you make the case that Puccini spoke to the masses in his time.

Which brings me back to the Lyric Opera’s grand-scale revival of “Oklahoma!” — that 1943 classic by Rodgers and Hammerstein, created in the early years of World War II but tightly focused on 1906, and the exuberant spirit of farmers, cowboys and pioneer women in a territory just a year away from gaining statehood.

Directed by Gary Griffin (who has specialized in Sondheim musicals, but also directed “The Color Purple” on Broadway) and featuring the original choreography of Agnes de Mille (lovingly re-created by her protege, Gemze de Lappe, in association with Victor Wisehart, who has devised a zesty “Kansas City” sequence), this “Oklahoma!” feels caught between two worlds.

It pays serious homage to the original, yet strives for a modern energy. And it attempts to be intimate, but is caught up in opera house scale. Things get lost in the process, though there also is much to admire here. And the use of amplified sound to balance out speaking and singing levels and the mix of operatic and theatrical voices still could use some work.

The easily graceful John Cudia brings a golden voice to the role of Curly, the cowboy whose solid opinion of himself meets continual rebuffs from Laurey, the self-possessed young farm woman played by Ashley Brown (a Broadway name with a beautiful voice and a solid figure who seems awkward when she tries to be girly). The problem is that there isn’t a huge amount of palpable chemistry between these two. And frankly, David Adam Moore, who expertly sings (and dances) the role of Jud Fry — Laurey’s solitary, frustrated farmhand — is so handsome and interesting in his way that you can understand why he invades her dreams.

A slew of gifted Chicago actors shine in several major supporting roles. Usman Ally — tall, beanpole thin and a masterfully agile and expressive physical clown in his flamboyant plaid suit — easily steals every scene as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who is fast with the girls and even faster on his way out of town whenever the word “marriage” comes up. Ally is a hoot.

Hakim is nearly undone by the ever-willing Ado Annie (high energy, clarion-voiced Tari Kelly), but is fully cooked by Gertie Cummings (pretty, giddy Andrea Prestinario).

But it’s the lasso-wielding Will Parker (Curtis Holbrook, a sensational dancer imported from Broadway, backed by an ensemble notable for the excellence of its male contingent) who finally nabs her. Paula Scrofano (a master of perfect diction), is the warm, funny, common-sense voice of reason and pragmatism as Aunt Eller, and Matt DeCaro is just blustery enough as Ado Annie’s dad.

A few of the show’s great scenes (the high-stakes auction and the rapid-fire, ad hoc “homicide” hearing) fail to generate quite the dramatic punch they should.

The staging of the title anthem might have been more imaginative. And the darkness that comes before the happy ending is not dark enough.

As Saturday’s opening approached, I was surprised by how many people told me they’d never seen a production of “Oklahoma!,” so that alone is reason to celebrate this production and its large orchestra under James Lowe. And the use of supertitles spotlights Hammerstein’s marvelous lyrics, which invariably capture something about the deep reserves of the American spirit, with all its competitiveness, violence and moral ambivalence, as well as its generosity of spirit, and sheer pluck and determination.



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