Chicago Theatre Review
Oh, What a Beautiful Production
To avid theatre goers, there’s nothing in the world quite so thrilling as hearing a beautiful, carefully-crafted piece of music being played to perfection by a full orchestra. Hearing those first strains of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s lush overture reminds audiences of what they’ve missed in lesser productions of this show. It’s as if we’ve taken a trip back to 1943 when this groundbreaking classic of the musical stage first opened on Broadway, and oh, what a beautiful moment, that must’ve been.
Gary Griffin, the production’s multi-Jeff Award-winning director, is a master noted for such stunning local productions as CST’s “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Follies,” as well as several Broadway productions, including “The Color Purple.” Here he breathes new life into a play that’s credited with reinventing the modern musical. In Griffin’s skilled hands, the Lyric’s production both looks and sounds as if it were brand new while still carefully recreating the magic audiences experienced 70 years ago when the American theatrical musical was born.
When Richard Rodgers first teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein III to musicalize Lynn Riggs’ dramatic homage to her home state, the result was a better-crafted play featuring a score of gorgeous, memorable songs that were not only entertaining but actually furthered the plot. Until this time, musicals were mostly offshoots of burlesque and vaudeville, light entertainments, filled with big song-and-dance production numbers and cheap jokes. “Oklahoma” centered around two pairs of young lovers whose stories are told against the background of Oklahoma’s impending statehood. Plenty of comedy still prevailed, but there was also drama that evoked real emotional response. The songs became musical extensions of the play’s dialogue (“People Will Say We’re in Love,” “All or Nothin’”) or provided melodic monologues (“Out of My Dreams,” “Lonely Room”) for a character. Even the show’s choreography, especially Agnes De Mille’s famous “Dream Ballet,” contributed to the story instead of merely showcasing a performer’s talents.
An oft-heard criticism is that this production’s leading actors are older than the adolescent characters they play, but this is, after all, a Chicago Lyric Opera production. Its season ticket holders would expect nothing less than actors who are able to sing this score the way it was written. To achieve such musical, dramatic and choreographic perfection Griffin employed only the very best. Ashley Brown, Broadway’s original Mary Poppins (and who starred as Magnolia in the Lyric’s 2012 production of “Showboat”) absolutely sparkles as Laurie. Her musical precision is matched only by her perfect diction and star quality. She’s superbly matched by John Cudia as Curly (Jean Valjean in Marriott Lincolnshire’s “Les Miserables” and the title role in the National Tour of “Phantom of the Opera”), whose glorious voice opens the show with his “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.’” Brown and Cudia team up perfectly with “People Will Say We’re in Love,” while Cudia’s splendid voice soars in such numbers as “Pore Jud is Dead” and, backed by the entire ensemble, the rousing title song.
DePaul University graduate Tari Kelly returns from Broadway to bring high humor and smooth vocals to Ado Annie. Songs like “I Cain’t Say No” and “All Er Nothin’” (sung with comic romantic partner Curtis Holbrook as Will Parker), along with her scenes with both Holbrook, Brown and Usman Ally (as the comically conniving Persian peddler Ali Hakim) make Ms. Kelly one of the show’s standouts.
Agnes De Mille’s cutting edge choreography from the 1943 production is faithfully recreated here by associate, Gemze De Lappe, assisted by Victor Wisehart. The show’s 15-minute “Dream Ballet” that closes Act I is gorgeous and every bit as moving as when it first premiered in New York. Mr. Wisehart’s choreography for “Kansas City,” as performed by Mr. Holbrook and the men’s ensemble, and Ms. De Lappe’s “Many a New Day” for the ladies‘ ensemble, as well as her Act II opener, “The Farmer and the Cowhand,” are showstoppers.
John Lee Beatty’s beautiful earth-toned sets and lavishly painted backdrops are matched only by Mara Blumenfeld’s multitude of brightly colored gingham and dirndl costumes. But the real reason not to miss to this wonderful production is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear James Lowe’s unmatched orchestra accompanying this talented cast performing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s glorious score the way it was originally intended.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 4-19 by The Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago.
Tickets may be purchased at 312-332-2244 or go to www.lyricopera.org
Further information about this and other productions is available at www.theatreinchicago.com.