Early in "Oklahoma!" the 1943 masterpiece by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the traveling peddler Ali Hakim asks the naive young farm girl Laurey Williams if she wants something. He means trinkets from his valise. But that simple question is enough for an ecstatic cascade of desires to tumble from the young woman's mouth. Some of them are sweet — a dress with lace, perfume to make her innocent self "purty." But with this gentlest of prompts, she also unleashes passions for that which you cannot hold in your hand, things she dare not say out loud, experiences so intense that, if they actually came her way, "yer heart 'ud quit beatin'."
It's not hard to figure out what Hammerstein, adapting Lynn Riggs' "Green Grow the Lilacs," was writing about. And for those unable to decode the words, the incomparable Agnes De Mille was on hand in 1943 to turn those passions and fears into the dream ballet of a young woman almost ripped apart by her competing desires for a genial beau, Curly McLain, and the sultry dangers of the broiling farmhand Jud Fry. Far from a stirring musical buggy ride with cowboy hats and gingham dresses, "Oklahoma!" is a restless musical about characters caught in the maelstrom of late adolescence, frantically trying to beat back urges they fear and embrace adulthood just as this insecure territory, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, was replacing cowboy justice with federal marshals and embracing an impending statehood that would be the responsibility of its youth.
Everything that roils this nation still is worried over in "Oklahoma!": guns, sexual freedom, morality, feminism, money, freedom, racial difference.
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One need only ponder Hammerstein's deceptively simple lyrics to "The Farmer and the Cowman," which seems to say so little but actually encapsulates so much. Sitting in the Civic Opera House on Saturday night — listening to the increasingly rare treat of a full-sized orchestra playing the original orchestrations and watching a production that could afford to carry an ensemble of top-tier dancers who don't sing much, and formidable singers who don't dance much — it was impossible not to ponder anew the brilliance of these two masters of the musical-theater form. Here, Rodgers and Hammerstein succeeded in making a simple Plains love triangle a subversive metaphor for America itself.
Does one get enough of that sense from the narrative of Gary Griffin's new Lyric production? No, not sufficiently, partly because the lead roles have been cast with older performers, an established convention in the opera world but more problematic, I'd submit, when an opera company is doing "Oklahoma!" Ashley Brown, who sings Laurey with the same precise mastery she brought to Mary Poppins on Broadway, has a beautifully clear soprano and, here as always, formidable acting chops (you can see them working in "People Will Say We're in Love"). But the evident sophistication of the wry performer is at odds with the total naivete of the character. She's a huge talent, but not well cast. John Cudia, whose musically stirring Curly sounds neither too heavy or too milquetoast, does not have that issue — indeed, he's guileless and charming throughout, even though he seems to leave much within him unexplained. David Adam Moore, who plays Jud Fry, offers a very sophisticated treatment of "Pore Jud is Daid," replete with both comedy and potency, but his overly gentle remove misses the requisite menace of the role. Given Moore's charm and good looks, one was given to think Laurey would be well-advised, while still young, to take a few pleasurable turns with Jud in that surrey with the fringe on top. That's not quite where the show wants us to go.
I've seen "Oklahoma!" work in the past with more mature performers — after all, Laurey might have been waiting on that farm for a while — but that needs a more definitive set of choices (such as an air of desperation in that line about the heartbeat quoted above) than one finds here. Speaking more generally, this production also needs more fluidity, more temporal fragility, more of the tremulous motion of "waivin' wheat," and, above all, more dramatic tension among characters unsure of what to let in and what to keep out. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma is a place, barely yet civilized, where there still is wide-open space wherein a man could perish or rise up to raise a family and build a new nation.
John Lee Beatty's set is richly impressionistic, features some gorgeously painted backdrops and, along with Mara Blumenfeld's costumes, a rustic color scheme that seems to bring the colors of the very walls of the Civic Opera House to life. Yet the one thing this overly bulky design on this huge stage fails to convey is one of the most crucial: space. In the rushed climax of the show, the wedding buggy seems constrained, when surely it could ride the insecure-but-willing newlyweds any darn place they wanted to set up their shop.
Aside from the superb ensemble singing (which is not chicken feed) under the baton of James Lowe, Griffin's production, warmly received at Saturday night's opening, has two great assets. One is the striking collective strength of the crucial comic scenes — which occupy a good percentage of the stage time. The well cast team of Curtis Holbrook (who plays Will Parker) and Tari Kelly (Ado Annie) is funny, fresh, musically adroit and light on its feet. Paula Scrofano's reflective Aunt Eller could not be more charming. And Usman Ally, an actor known in Chicago more for serious dramatic roles, makes a hilarious Ali Hakim, avoiding all the traps of this stereotypical role by figuring out that his guy is the smartest dude in the territory and revealing vaudevillian chops that sit quite hilariously on his bean-pole frame.
The other great (and hardly quotidian) pleasure is the work of Gemze de Lappe, who once danced the Dream Laurey herself and who, still working at the age of 91, here re-creates De Mille's original 1943 choreography from the point of view of a living witness to its creation. Griffin has unselfishly framed de Lappe's work as the visual centerpiece of his production. As lit by Christine Binder, it all looks simply magnificent — it's hard to over-praise the narrative precision, emotional honesty and delicacy of the choreography to not just the famous "Out of My Dreams/Dream Ballet" but also to "Many a New Day," reminding us how De Mille offered a crucial feminine counterpoint to the rope-tricks and knife fights of the outer, macho milieu — pointing out who really civilized Oklahoma.
When: Through May 19
Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
Running Time: 3 hours
Tickets: $32-$153 at 312-332-2244 or lyricopera.org