Playwrights: Richard Rodgers (music), Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker Dr. Tickets: 1-312-332-2244; ext. 5600; www.lyricopera.org; $7-$153. Runs through: May 19
In the very best way, Lyric Opera's exuberant "new" Oklahoma! is as close to the original as you will ever get. When the entire company sings the title song directly to the audience, with toes-to-the-footlights, they are recreating an iconic moment in American musical theater and it's every bit as thrilling in 2013 as it was on opening night 70 years ago. Lyric Opera does itself proud in this foray into Broadway's Golden Age (the first of four annual Rodgers and Hammerstein classics), with a 37-piece orchestra and a company of 38.
It's a loving and lavish tribute to the history of the American musical, but it's museum theater, make no mistake, evidenced by the inclusion of every note of music and word penned by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and every step of Agnes de Mille's legendary original choreography, resulting in a three-hour running time. Those familiar only with the 1955 film or a normally-shortened version of Oklahoma! will discover things they didn't know. Even for me, this production marks the first time I've heard "Lonely Room" sung in context, a sad song for the sad villain, Jud Fry (moments after the comedic, familiar "Pore Jud is Dead"). The original choreography is lovingly recreated by Agnes de Mille disciple Gemze de Lappe. It has great charm but is far from state-of-the-art Broadway dance, which emphasizes the museum quality of this production more than any other element.
Director Gary Griffin, the Chicago-based veteran of Broadway and Lyric Opera, has assembled a winning and winsome cast of crossover singers (folks who do opera and musicals) and local theater folk. The odds for a good show are high with the likes of Chicago veterans James Rank, Susan Moniz and Andrew Lupp among the chorus. The four principals are John Cudia as a dashing Curly, Ashley Williams as a raven-haired Laurey, Curtis Holbrook as a boyish Will Parker and Tari Kelly as a snappy Ado Annie. I could listen to them sing all night if I ever grew tired of merely hearing the overture again and again. Griffin made surprising choices in casting Usman Ally as Persian peddler Ali Hakim (who knew Ally had such comedy chops?) and barihunk (that's "baritone hunk" for the uninitiated) David Adam Moore as Jud. Not only can he sing, but his good looksaccentuated rather than disguised by a beardup the sexual tension that bubbles just below the surface of Oklahoma!
Even after 70 years, this first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration is magic. You can hear Rodgers freshly stretching his talents in answer to Hammerstein's home-spun romanticism. I wonder if the irony ever struck them that Curly and Laurey, so youthful and hopeful in early 1900's Oklahoma, would be the middle-aged Oakies of The Grapes of Wrath.