Lavish, Thoughtful Staging of Oklahoma!

United StatesUnited States Rogers&Hammerstein,Oklahoma!: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, James Lowe, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 4.5.2013 (JLZ)

Curly McLain: John Cudia
Laurey Williams: Ashley Brown
Jud Fry: Paul La Rosa
Ado Annie: Tari Kelly
Will Parker: Curtis Holbrook
Aunt Eller: Paula Scrofano
Ali Hakim: Usman Ally
Andrew Carnes: Matt DeCaro
Gertie Cummings: Andrea Prestinario


Director: Gary Griffin
Conductor: James Lowe
Set Designer: John Lee Beatty
Choreographer: Gemze de Lappe
Associate Choreographer: Victor Wisehart
Costume Designer: Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Designer: Christine Binder
Sound Designer: Mark Grey
Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor: Valerie Maze
English Diction and Dialect Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager

The first in a series of new productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals by Lyric Opera of Chicago (planned for the next five years), Oklahoma! is a stylish revival. Director Gary Griffin has created memorable settings in recent years for Lyric’s The Mikado and The Merry Widow. With Oklahoma! Griffin fills in details to make the somewhat spare narrative come to life, and the traditional sets and costumes pay homage to the original staging, which involved this production’s choreographer, Gemze de Lappe. This is hardly a piece of nostalgia, though, with Lyric engaging modern audiences through a fine integration of staging, musical direction, and choreography.

The cast matches the style Lyric brings to its operas, with strong principals and sturdy secondary roles. John Cudia is a natural as Curly, his “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” showing a strong voice and fine stage presence. Ashley Brown (who portrayed Laurey in Lyric’s Show Boat in the 2011–2012 season) was admirable as Magnolia, her characterizationsuggesting a slightly older individual than the text implies. Working handily with Cudia, Brown’s acting and musical delivery gave luster to the duet “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

Replacing David Adam Moore in the role of Jud Fry, Lyric veteran Paul La Rosa was engaging and made the obsessive character approachable, using his full bass-baritone to great effect in “Poor Jud Is Dead.” Casting was strong in the other principal roles, with the extroverted Tari Kelly as Ado Annie. If at times her voice overbalanced the orchestra, it was the result of the amplification, which sometimes allowed individual voices to expand in ways that do not occur during the regular (unamplified) opera season.

That said, the amplification was important for allowing the extensive dialogue to be heard throughout the large Civic Opera House. (The audience was treated to the original libretto, truncated for the musical’s familiar film version.) Unfortunately the accents used to convey local color were sometimes at odds with the diction, a difference that need not be so prominent. Perhaps Lyric’s dialect coach will help in future productions, like Carousel, where the interplay between speech and song is also crucial. Such transitions are important for the integration of dialogue and music in other works, such as the song cues in The King and I and The Sound of Music—both of which require the seamlessness that is missing in this production of Oklahoma!

Even so, seventy years after its premiere in 1943—in the middle of World War II—Oklahoma! still merits attention, and Lyric’s lavish and thoughtful staging builds a strong case for revisiting this important contribution to the American musical theater. A fresh cast and its enthusiasm only adds to the audience’s enjoyment.

James L. Zychowicz