Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Oh What a Beautiful Day: 'Oklahoma' at the Lyric Opera Goes a Country Mile Beyond Just OK

Theater / Opera Review

Lyric Opera, Chicago
Thru May 19

I have great respect and appreciation for opera in the traditional sense. I acknowledge that it has been a great art form for hundreds of years, and have seen more than 40 operas, most by Chicago's esteemed Lyric Opera.

But though I have enjoyed many of the classic operas--La Boheme, La Traviata, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni, Aida, The Magic Flute, The Merry Widow, Tosca and more--I can't pretend they have evoked the same emotional connection or sense of exhilaration as the best of Broadway or rock 'n roll.

So while I understand the devotion many among the Lyric's loyal subscriber base have for the traditional classics, and fully realize that there are many more outlets around Chicagoland for musical theater than for opera, I love it when a Broadway masterpiece is presented as part of the canon at the Civic Opera House.

And I hope that with a glorious rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma coming the year after a similarly sublime take on Show Boat--featuring the same leading lady, Ashley Brown--the powers that be at the Lyric will opt to include a "musical" in each of its coming seasons. Despite the fact that they haven't for the 2013-2014 season. But in truth Oklahoma was an add-on to the 2012-2013 campaign, not part of the subscriber options.

So maybe that's the happy medium: don't make opera subscribers see a musical--albeit done operatically--if that's not their preference, but put an à la carte operatic twist on Les Miserables, West Side Story, The Music Man, Phantom of the Opera, Sunday in the Park with George, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and other Broadway vanguards that could fit well into the venerated opera house. (Besides Show Boat and Gershwin's operatic-to-begin-with Porgy & Bess, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in 2002 is the only musical to have been presented at the Lyric since I began paying attention.)

I am not saying the Lyric should do more musicals (as operas) simply because I like them better; that would be silly.

But while I respect the typical tenets of traditional opera--singing in Italian or German, with booming bass and baritone voices, lengthy arias, Baroque costuming, etc., etc.--given that the Oxford English Dictionary defines opera as a dramatic musical work in which singing forms an essential part, I'm not sure why the legendary musicals (in particular) can't be construed as "opera."

And given that a production of a 70-year-old musical brought a full house to the Civic with an average age a good 30-40 years younger than the norm, I would suggest that if the Lyric wants to survive and thrive beyond its current crop of subscribers, it needs to include more musicals, even if only as an introduction to the operatic art.

Which brings me back to Oklahoma, where the winds go whipping down the plain.

With the caveat that perhaps I didn't note every nuance in the acting from my perch at the very top of the house--as I do at, say, Light Opera Works, which did an amazing version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel a couple years ago--I couldn't have wanted Oklahoma to be any more pleasing than it was.

John Cudia, a veteran of lead roles in Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables on Broadway, and who I'd seen dazzle in the latter show at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, was terrific as Curly. While his voice wasn't truly operatic, in a way that would have seemed strange for an Oklahoma cowboy, and Cudia's pipes were powerful enough.

And Ashley Brown, who starred as Mary Poppins on Broadway and on tour in Chicago, was wonderfully well-sung as Laurey, the love interest of Curly, but also Jud Fry (David Adam Moore).

Also quite good as Ado Annie and Will Parker are Tari Kelly and Curtis Holbrook, both with solid Broadway credits, while baritone Moore provided Jud with a voice as imposing as his character.

And a lot of fun for me was seeing local theater stalwarts like Paula Scrofano (excellent as Aunt Eller), Usman Ally (hilarious as peddler Ali Hakim), Matt DeCaro (Annie's father) and others shine upon the opera stage.

With a vast and excellent ensemble, the blissful Lyric orchestra, wonderful costumes, re-enactment of the original dances by Agnes De Mille, impressive-enough sets and strong direction from Gary Griffin--who has helmed all of the awesome Sondheim musicals produced at Chicago Shakespeare Theater--everything about this Oklahoma was A-OK and then some.

Especially in contrast to recently-in-Chicago newer musicals like Big Fish and Catch Me If You Can, Oklahoma has a sublime score full of songs that keep you smiling from beginning to end.

"Oh What a Beautiful Morning," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," "Kansas City," "I Cain't Say No," "People Will Say Were in Love," the title song and many other gems were magnificently rendered.

And with the lyrics projected as supertitles--as is custom at the Lyric, typically to translate the foreign languages--I was again reminded of just how progressive Rodgers and Hammerstein were, contrary to any previous assumptions.

When it's been awhile since I've seen one of their shows, it's easy for me to think of R&H's genre-defining works as being a bit too populist and quaint. But as I noted in reviewing a superb touring version of South Pacific last year, there's really a lot of verve to their subject matter, dialogue (especially between-the-lines) and Hammerstein's lyrics.

While I've tended to perceive the literate nature and sophisticated rhymes of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics as a step advanced, being able to read along with Oklahoma's songs on the screen above the stage helped me to better appreciate just how terrific Hammerstein was, and the influence he clearly had as Sondheim's mentor.

Although preceded in its creation by glorious book musicals like Show Boat (for which Hammerstein wrote the lyrics, working with composer Jerome Kern) and Cole Porter's Anything Goes, which I just saw and loved, Oklahoma helped the musical theater form take a quantum leap forward, and without getting too wonky, I can see where bits of it--like the extended dream ballet sequence--influenced similar pieces in West Side Story and the movie Singin' in the Rain.

70 years down the road, it remains one of the great works of American artistry. Whether it belongs, or is best rendered, within an opera's repertoire is a debate others can have, but watching it Sunday afternoon from the upper balcony of the stately Civic Opera House, accompanied by two of my dearest friends, there was truly nowhere else I would rather be than Oklahoma. OK.

Note: Ticket discount service Goldstar is offering discounted tickets for most performances of Oklahoma. I availed myself of these tickets as did seemingly many other patrons on Sunday. Goldstar requires registration and charges a per-ticket fee, but there is no other cost or catch to using this valuable service.

1 comment:

Seth Arkin said...

In response to this review, I was informed by Magda Krance, the Lyric Opera's Manager of Media Relations, that it was previously announced that the opera will follow Oklahoma with renditions of other Rodgers & Hammerstein classics in coming years: The Sound of Music, The King and I, Carousel and South Pacific.

This was welcome news and was also written about today by Chris Jones in his Theater Loop blog on ChicagoTribune.com.