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'Oklahoma!' comes sweepin' into Lyric Opera

Saturday brings new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein classic

John von Rhein

2:52 PM CDT, April 26, 2013

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If ever a musical theater work deserved its exclamation point, it's “Oklahoma!”

Breathes there a man or woman of a certain age who hasn't at one time or another succumbed to the nostalgic charms of this classic American show, whose spirit remains as sunny and open as the meadows of Oklahoma? It's packed with a sweet story and a wagonload of optimism. What's not to like?

And how about that hit parade of endearing and enduring songs? The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that gave us “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We're in Love” and the rousing title tune launched the long-running collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II in high style.

“Oklahoma!” may pile the corn as high as an elephant's eye, the show may creak a bit, but entire generations have taken it to their hearts, as do plenty of folks today.

It seems only fitting that Lyric Opera should begin its multiyear American musical theater initiative with the show that 70 years ago ushered in the golden age of American musicals.

Preceded by one of the biggest publicity pushes Lyric has ever given any opera it has mounted, “Oklahoma!” will clip-clop into the Civic Opera House on Saturday night for the first of 16 performances. The new production is staged by veteran Chicago director Gary Griffin, with Broadway favorites John Cudia and Ashley Brown (who sang Magnolia in Lyric's “Show Boat” last season) as the wholesome romantic leads, Curly and Laurey.

For good, authentic measure, the show will employ the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations and the original Agnes de Mille choreography, the latter re-created for this new staging by renowned choreographer Gemze de Lappe, de Mille's longtime associate, who danced the role of the “dream Laurey” in the 1943 national company of “Oklahoma!”

A new electronic amplification system created by sound designer Mark Grey will project the spoken dialogue more evenly throughout the 3,600-seat theater than was the case with “Show Boat,” says Lyric general director Anthony Freud.

More important, “Oklahoma!” will launch a major cycle of classic Rodgers and Hammerstein shows to be given over five years under Lyric's aegis. Next on the docket is “The Sound of Music” in 2014, followed by “Carousel” in 2015, “The King and I” in 2016 and “South Pacific” in 2017.

Focusing on the “big five” Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals out of the starting gate struck Freud as a better way to go than cherry-picking the vast American musical theater repertory, he says.

“It was very much my view to start with a series of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that would have an artistic coherence and, hopefully, integrity that would be a reflection of how seriously we at Lyric are taking this commitment,” Freud says.

So what exactly makes “Oklahoma!” the indestructible cultural landmark it has turned out to be?

While the 1927 “Show Boat,” with Hammerstein's book and lyrics and Jerome Kern's music, removed the Broadway musical from its vaudevillian song-and-dance roots, “Oklahoma!” transformed the American musical through its innovative integration of song, story, dialogue and dance.

Appearing as it did in 1943, not long after the nation had emerged from the Depression and was embroiled in World War II, “Oklahoma!” spoke to a collective need to escape to simpler times and simpler, more rural values. A nostalgic, feel-good romance set in the turn-of-the-century West was “a great uplifting of the spirit” for audiences of the time, says de Lappe.

Everything from the string of Rogers and Hammerstein shows that followed, to “My Fair Lady,” “West Side Story” and the concept musicals of Stephen Sondheim, owes “Oklahoma!” an enormous debt. No wonder the show is in perpetual revival. No wonder it has survived countless amateur and high school productions, virtues intact.

One man who needs no convincing whatsoever as to its towering merits is Gary Griffin.

“To me, ‘Oklahoma!' is not dated at all,” declares Griffin, who is associate artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “The show speaks to the way we live now. The individual and collective wish for people to make something better of themselves is reflected strongly in this work.”

As librettist and lyricist, Hammerstein wanted the world of “Oklahoma!” to evoke a strong sense of community, Griffin explains. The show's farmers and cowmen must adjust to life in a brave new world and learn to live together, to prove themselves worthy of the land to which they belong. A striving for common purpose is applicable to today's society, the director maintains.

“One of the things that's challenging about America today is that we have this two-party system that reflects different visions of how to live,” Griffin says. “What ‘Oklahoma!' says is they are vital together. The show is all about how we as Americans should coexist. We are better as a big idea.”

The fact that Lyric is using the original Bennett orchestrations, assembled with help from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and members of the Rodgers and Hammerstein families, is a luxury indeed, says the show's conductor, James Lowe.

Most, if not all, Broadway revivals of vintage musicals like “Oklahoma!” forgo using orchestras as large as Lyric's — the company is deploying 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra for this show — not only to save money but also because most Broadway theater pits aren't big enough to accommodate that many players, he points out.

“We have been able to re-create the score in a way that I don't think has been done in many years,” he says. “People are going to hear the music in a new way. There's so much warmth and lyricism in it. To me it sounds effortless, as though it always existed.”

The stage was set for Lyric's grand foray into the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon in late 2010, when superstar soprano Renee Fleming joined Lyric as the company's first creative consultant. One of the singer's first orders of business was to propose ways in which Lyric might attract new audiences.

Lyric already was preparing its new Francesca Zambello production of “Show Boat” for a February-March run in 2012. Fleming and former general director William Mason agreed that another vintage American musical theater work should follow, and that “Oklahoma!” was the ideal choice.

It fell to Freud, who succeeded Mason in 2011, to kick the musical theater initiative up a notch: Why stop with just one Rodgers and Hammerstein show when Lyric could present an entire cycle of great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals?

He and Fleming arranged a breakfast meeting in New York with Ted Chapin, president and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, to pitch the project. Chapin was intrigued.

“Musical theater and opera have been doing a sort of do-si-do for years, and I thought the plan made a lot of sense,” he says. Although various Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have been staged by smaller U.S. opera companies, Lyric will be the first major American opera company to present them as a multiyear festival, he adds.

“Putting musicals within the repertory of an opera company, I don't think makes sense. But using the resources of an opera company, especially one as enlightened as the Lyric, strikes me as a very interesting idea.”

With more than 57,000 seats to sell for a single show, Lyric officials are crossing their fingers that the tuneful appeal of “Oklahoma!” will cut across many demographics. In other words, they are betting the farm on the belief that Chicagoans will be as susceptible to the allure of a big, classy, heartwarming musical as Broadway audiences of the 1940s were.

As for Griffin and the other members of the show's artistic team, they seem satisfied that the 70th anniversary production they have lovingly crafted will do justice to one of the iconic masterpieces of the American musical theater.

“Until this version at the Lyric, I have never been around a production of ‘Oklahoma!' where all the required elements were fully present,” Griffin says. “I think our ‘Oklahoma!' will reach down deeper into the audience than this show ever has.”

Lyric Opera's new production of “Oklahoma!” opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and plays through May 19 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $32-$153; 312-332-2244, lyricopera.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com | Twitter @jvonrhein