OFF BEAT

OFFBEAT: Sunday ends Chicago Lyric Opera fun run for 70th Anniversary 'Oklahoma!'

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-05-17T00:00:00Z 2013-05-17T18:35:07Z OFFBEAT: Sunday ends Chicago Lyric Opera fun run for 70th Anniversary 'Oklahoma!'By Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

The last time a major production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" set up shop in Chicago, it was the Broadway national tour playing a short stay hosted by Broadway in Chicago in July 2004 at Auditorium Theatre.

We finally have the singing cowboys and farmers of "Oklahoma!" back and in full swing with a rousing new production now at Lyric Opera of Chicago and certain to close on Sunday.

For me to say this three-hour song and dance tale that set the standard for musicals is not-to-be missed is an understatement.

The new production includes the original choreography by the legendary Agnes de Mille.

It's feels right at home at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive in Chicago, with tickets ranging from $32 to $153. FYI: (312) 332-2244 or lyricopera.org

This Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, which was their debut collaboration, is also marking its 70th anniversary in 2013.

Director Gary Griffin expertly wrangles his larger-than-life staging as part of Lyric's American Musical Theater Initiative and features 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra performing the sweeping original orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett. It features a 24-person singer-dancer ensemble, including 12 members of the Lyric Opera Chorus, plus three solo dancers.

Chicago audiences have always loved "Oklahoma!" Just 6 months after the show's triumphant 1943 Broadway premiere, it opened at Chicago's Erlanger Theater, playing to sold-out houses for a year.

"Oklahoma!" also bucked the trend of starting with a big chorus number, instead opening with the now-famous "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," for a single character, Curly, a role that has been portrayed by stars including Alfred Drake, Howard Keel, Gordon MacRae, John Raitt (Bonnie's dad!), and Hugh Jackman.

For the original production 70 years ago, it was suggested Shirley Temple play the Laurey lead and Groucho Marx as the traveling salesman Ali Hakim, to assure some star billing for the marquee. But producers opted for a young cast of fresh talent.

For this turn with the Lyric Opera's casting, we get vivacious Ashley Brown in the lead as love-torn Laurey. I loved Brown in the 2009 Broadway tour as the caustic title character in "Mary Poppins." And here, she is once again perfectly comfortable in high-button shoes in this role that has been played by everyone from Florence Henderson on stage (1953) to Shirley Jones on film (1955). Her cowboy Curly is played by the abounding talent of John Cudia, with every bit of charm imaginable.

For fun, Tari Kelly (and I mean this as a compliment of high-praise) is a natural-born Ado Annie, "A Girl Who Just Can't Say No," the role ever immortalized on Broadway by sweet Celeste Holme, who we just lost at age 95 last July. Curtis Holbrook is a burst of energy and enthusiasm as her "intended," and his vocals are magic. Add to all of this David Adam Moore in fine form as dark and brooding hired hand Jud Fry and Paula Scrofano (as a slightly younger than expected) Aunt Eller, the part played on Broadway by veterans Margaret Hamilton and Mary Wickes, and "Oklahoma!" is a place you want to visit again and again.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or (219) 852-4327.

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