That’s not just a bright golden haze, it’s an effervescent glow spilling out of Carpenter Hall at Irving Arts Center, generated by Lyric Stage’s spectacular production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” running through June 24. It’s one of the best regional productions of Summer 2012 and a Best of the Best in a fine line of triumphs for nonprofit Lyric Stage.The combination of Cheryl Denson’s stage direction, Jay Dias’ musical direction and orchestral conducting, Ann Nieman’s choreography, Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design and Drenda Lewis’ simple, accurate period costumes along with a versatile, dynamic cast with stunning eye appeal and tuneful voices makes this production a sheer delight to experience and remember. It honors the tradition of this groundbreaking “book musical” icon while keeping it snapping along crisply, exploring its psychological depths for contemporary relevance in unexpected ways.
“Oklahoma!” didn’t have an auspicious genesis back in 1943. Approached by the Theatre Guild to turn Lynn Riggs’s brooding, unsuccessful 1931 stage play set in turn of the century Oklahoma Territory “Green Grow the Lilacs” into a musical, Richard Rodgers accepted the challenge; but his main collaborator Lorenz Hart tuned it down as it wouldn’t allow him to write the sophisticated, witty, contemporary lyrics he preferred. In the meantime, Oscar Hammerstein had approached Jerome Kern about creating a musical version of “Green Grow the Lilacs” and also got rebuffed. Hart suggested Rodgers team up with Hammerstein; the two found it a productive, creative working relationship. They threw out the diversionary, conventional musical comedy structure of the era and decided to focus on the work’s source material. They embarked on a risky, fresh approach where the songs and dancing developed the themes and revealed the plot, intensifying the performances and the depth of character. They decided to cast singers who could act, not the norm at the time, and find performers truly suited to the roles they created. (Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim?) And they cast unknowns, almost never done. The show limped into its out of town tryouts in New Haven as “Away We Go!” with scant expectations (Hammerstein’s six previous musical flops lowering that bar) for success. Producers frowned it had no star power, no jokes, no exposed girlie legs to charm the crowds. Before its Broadway opening, undaunted, the creative duo added the group finale song “Oklahoma!” and renamed the show after it. The musical debuted at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943. Audiences and critics were entranced and ate it up. Young, amazed Alfred Drake entered from upstage in his cowboy gear, crooning “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” a cappella and had to exit immediately after to re-enter and perform it again, night after night. The lines for tickets stretched around the block, day after day. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that the opening number “changed the history of musical theater forever.” It ran for 2,243 performances on Broadway for five years and two months, grossing an unheard of $7,000,000. It made star careers for its original cast members and won a special Pulitzer Prize. It shifted the theatre paradigm by birthing the Golden Age of American musical theatre.
If the ghosts of those original 1943 cast members could come join the Lyric Stage audiences at Carpenter Hall, they would surely thrill at this generation’s production, over a half century later.
Lanky, ebullient Bryant Martin swaggers onstage in his batwing chaps, toting a Western saddle like a postage stamp, wooing every romantic in the house with his soaring, simple delivery of the signature opening song. Eyes blazing with hope and goodwill, he’s optimistic, warm, naturally masculine; he’s at ease with himself and revels in the joys of a beautiful morning, hoping to see, and tease, and charm, his favorite girl. Saucy Savannah Frazier as Laurie makes Martin’s Curly earn every momentary admiring glance with innocent verve, her classic, rich soprano enlivening her solos with a pensive vitality and voicing an occasional sweet grace note trill in homage to the show’s 1940’s roots. She’s a very modern girl, but every inch a lady. Their exquisite duet blends beg for more verses or an encore at least.
Comic relief finds exuberant, perfectly matched expression in the non-stop mischief-makers Ado Annie and Will. Erica Harte, one of the region’s finest up and coming musical stars (“Spring Awakening”, “Next to Normal”), goes beyond conventional stereotype with an approach to Ado Annie that’s more vivacious flirt than haystack hustle. She adapts her versatile, mature singing voice to classic soubrette insouciance. Matching her note for note and hyperkinetic antic for antic, University of Oklahoma senior Sean McGee as Will employs nonstop the skills he’s learned at school that allow his considerable talent as a song and dance man to shine. What a perfect comic match.
Brad M. Jackson’s Ali Hakim provides needed diversionary, sympathetic entertainment (without ever embodying the once suggested Groucho); and Deborah Brown’s dry, grounded wit and common sense Ant Eller keeps the ensemble hijinks from Occupying Oklahoma. Sad and unbalanced, emotionally obsessive and vengeful, villain Jud Fry often gets portrayed as a clumsy, thickheaded savage. Kyle Cotton, under Cheryl Denson’s superlative direction, plays a seething psychopath along the lines of Timothy McVeigh. Nobody suspects how deeply troubled he is; nobody knows how much damage he intends to cause.
His voice booms and roils with desperate longing and barely contained rage, mesmerizing, almost an operatic performance in style and scope. Group numbers seem to stage themselves effortlessly and picture perfect, with Ann Nieman’s balletic choreography flowing seamlessly into Jay Dias’ fluently harmonized choral numbers. The innovative Agnes DeMille “dream ballet” (featuring Mallory Michaellann Brophy and Hayden Clifton as Laurie and Curly) blends the original staging with a spirited, more modern expression, as full of surreal lyricism and nightmarish tension as any modern dance creation. When the chorus and leads finally arrive at the climactic number “Oklahoma!”, delivered full energy, full front to the house, the audience can barely refrain from surging to its feet, clapping and singing along. Encores in 1943? Could happen just as easily with this Lyric Stage production.
A special note of praise for Drenda Lewis’ period costumes, particularly the men’s as cowboys and farmers. From the cut and drape of their pants and/or chaps to their ties and kerchiefs or suspenders to the creases in their hat crowns and brim rolls to the proper style of boots with appropriate heels, they fit the era and their jobs perfectly. These acting/dancing singers don’t look like waiters at a giant-sized New York City bar/restaurant with a gay cowboy theme. Thank you, Ms. Lewis.
Yes, there is a fabulous surrey with fringe on top! Don’t miss it. Lyric Stage’s “Oklahoma!” runs through June 24 at Carpenter Hall in Irving Arts Center.
Irving Arts Center Box Office
3333 North MacArthur Boulevard
Irving, TX 75062
Photos by Michael C Foster