Lyric Stage does it again with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! The musical that revolutionized musical theater 70 years ago proves its genius once more, embodied in the huge, jubilant, sexy production onstage at Irving Arts Center. The lovers sizzle, the singers are in top form, and the dancers click their heels high in the air. Even the psychotic villain evokes a dark, physical appeal. Add another exclamation point and roaring cheer for founding producer Steven Jones and his incredible creative team.
Director Cheryl Denson keeps finding star quality talent, showcased in this energetic and youthful cast of 33 actors, singers and dancers. Music director Jay Dias conducts the extraordinary 33-piece orchestra with zest and sensitivity, from the enticing overture to the rousing finale in this original Broadway orchestration, newly restored from Robert Russell Bennett's original. Choreographer Ann Nieman uses Agnes de Mille's original ballet as inspiration, and comes up with dance filled with grace and vigor. The dancers are particularly evocative in the dramatic Dream Ballet closing the first act.
The show, set at the turn of the century when the state was still Indian territory, is based on Lynn Rigg's play Green Grow the Lilacs. The story of young love blossoming in a young land is musically manifested in the joyous love songs and playful teasing. When the handsome cowboy Curly (Bryant Martin) walks on the stage singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" we feel his physical strength and natural optimism at once. Then pretty Laurey (Savannah Frazier) steps onto the porch, and her initial resistance to Curly's flirting becomes a magnet for him. Everything depends on the chemistry between these two—and we feel the heat building, smile after smile, song after song. A bold and manly Curly, Martin's rich tenor voice moves easily from a buoyant, imaginative rendition of "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" to a tender duet with Frazier in "People Will Say We're in Love." How can any woman resist this marvelous man?
Frazier, a slender brunette with a willowy appeal, grows even more attractive once she quits being a sourpuss and starts flirting back. Her Laurey is a strong, passionate woman, but not easily won. Her clear soprano voice blends enticingly with Martin's tenor in their duets, and she radiates independence and charm singing "Many a New Day" with the female ensemble. Laurey's down-to-earth Aunt Eller (Deborah Brown) tells Curly he'll win in the end. And we know Laurey really wants to go to the box lunch auction with Curly, even though she makes him wait for an answer.
Waiting is not a problem for Laurey's friend Ado Annie (Erica Harte), the girl who admits "I Cain't Say No" to any man that "talks purty." Harte, her big eyes rolling and helplessly swooning into all available arms, is totally adorable in the role. Sean McGee, a tall, athletic actor with a winning grin, is perfect as her long-suffering cowboy sweetheart Will Parker. All the scenes with Ali Hakim (Brad M. Jackson), the traveling "Persian" peddler trying to escape a shotgun wedding with Ado Annie, are hilarious. Whether he's peddling snake oil or smooching up the arms of his female customers, his comic timing and slightly terrified expression make everybody laugh.
But Oklahoma! has a dark side, too—and this production flashes with the sudden tension of violence and jealously in a fatal triangle at the center of the plot. The oddly threatening hired man Jud Fry (Kyle Cotton) has somehow persuaded Laurey to let him take her to the big party. Cotton's Jud is not the stumbling hulk often seen in this role, but a powerful, damaged man with great physical presence and a big baritone voice. You understand why Laurey might feel not just pity for such a man, but a kind of unwished for attraction, as well. When Curly visits Jud in his dirty smokehouse quarters, he approaches with caution. When the two sing "Poor Jud is Daid", you feel again Curly's great powers of persuasion in suggesting his rival hang himself, but also Jud's instant attraction to death in any form. This guy is at once creepy and compelling.
The restoration includes two songs often dropped from modern productions. "Lonely Room," sung by Cotton's Jud in a voice throbbing with the remorse of long humiliation, and giving greater depth to the angry, twisted nature of the show's dangerous villain. "It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!" is a high-spirited song and dance number about female expectations, sung by Ali Hakim and the male ensemble.
The Dream Ballet sequence, featuring Mallory Michaellann Brophy and Hayden Clifton, is beautiful and haunting, as it moves from a dream of love to a prophetic nightmare of lust and revenge. Gorgeous stuff. All the big ensemble pieces, with 30 dancers and singers stretched across the stage, are just plain thrilling. You'll love the energetic and rambunctious "The Farmer and the Cowman" number, and I got goose bumps listening to the rich chorale complexities of the title song, affirming a new marriage, a new statehood—and the utter joy of singing and dancing. OK!
Michael Schweikardt's scenic design with its big farmhouse and tall windmill puts us there, but leaves plenty of room for plenty of action. Drenda Lewis's colorful, well-fitted costumes feature waves of rustling petticoats on the gals and leather chaps for all those handsome cowboys.
◊ To read Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' essay about the music in Oklahoma!, and why the show was groundbreaking, click here.