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Soaring 'Oklahoma!' at Lyric

Lyric Theatre has produced an “Oklahoma!” that deepens and brightens the show that gave Oklahoma its state song. Director Michael Baron is the ringleader who has pulled off the difficult job of giving us an “Oklahoma!” that is true to its material and is a fresh and engaging take on this historic show. Considered by many to be the first real American musical, it’s one of an elite group to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The show begins with an empty stage that holds a ghost light—one bulb lit at center stage. The ghost light is an old theatre tradition; it’s required for safety in a dark theatre, and it may have originated in the days of gas-based lighting to avoid dangerous build up of gas in the lines. There are many who believe it’s necessary to appease theatre ghosts by giving them a lighted stage for themselves.

Oklahoma is a state with some ghosts of its own. Starting this way symbolically acknowledges the problem parts of our history without a word. Using the overture to literally construct the world of the play in front of us, the company begins from before the beginning; the first people we meet on stage are the stage manager and her efficient and eerily silent crew. Everyone in the hall becomes responsible for creating an idealized version of life on the frontier—one without dirt, manure, damaging weather, wild cattle, untreatable diseases, failed crops—where the story can be told.

Oscar Hammerstein II, who based his book on Lynn Rigg’s earlier play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” has built a story of two triangles, one lighter and one darker. Richard Rodgers’s music enhances this structure: the darker triangle puts the lyric soprano voice between two a light baritone and a darker one, while the lighter triangle locates a richer soprano between a tenor and a non-singer. This balance lets the songs and the voices carry the story, not merely comment upon it—one of many innovations that Rodgers and Hammerstein gave American theatre.

The luminous sky that overhangs the gray prairie home of Aunt Eller (Julie Johnson) and her niece Laurey (Kirsten Scott) is also filled with roiling clouds that all prairie people know portend a storm. Curly (Mateja Govich) comes calling on Laurey, an independent young woman unwilling to have her interest in him taken for granted by anyone. Farmhand Jud Fry (Kasey Yeargain) is also interested in Laurey, although she finds his interest frightening. Laurey’s friend Ado Annie (Morgan Mabry), who has a roving eye, is caught between Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Andi Dema) and her cowboy suitor Will Parker (Christopher Rice).

The cast was superbly matched to each other and to their respective roles; the voicings are so comfortably right that the singing feels like a natural extension of speech. Bright and innocent, but by no means naïve, Scott’s Laurey was petulant for effect rather than as a character choice. We met an idealistic and intelligent young woman who knows what she wants in the face of a social system that doesn’t help her much; Scott also offers an insight into Laurey’s fear of Jud. Johnson’s Aunt Eller gave Scott a foil who is both supportive and confrontive while also showing us where Laurey gets her moxie.

Govich gives us a Curly who is a good match for Laurey; he admires and respects her independence and is willing to engage in romantic skirmishing. However, Jud’s obsession with Laurey contributes the third leg to this triangle. Dark and difficult, Jud Fry is often merely menacing; instead, Yeargain gave us a lonely and disturbed man who excites sympathy as well as fear. The dynamic of this triangle is determined by whether or not Laurey’s need to be rescued is real or not—and for that, we need the ballet.

The inclusion of the dream ballet, choreographed by Brian J. Marcum and danced with exquisitely moving precision by Elise Mestichelli (Laurey), Anthony J. Martinez (Curly) and Kelly Methven (Jud), deepened and clarified the tensions between the three. Without clear and expressive performances by Scott, Govich and Rice, the ballet has no hooks into the story. Without a carefully executed ballet to explore Laurey’s inner fears, the relationships and denouement are thin and less coherent.

The second triangle weaves through the first. Rice’s delightfully sincere Will Parker was a charmingly dim fellow who has been seeking the extremely vivacious Ado Annie, much against the wishes of her father Andrew (played with an appropriate combination of protectiveness and exasperation by Vince Leseney). Will’s hapless attempts to hold on to $50 long enough to get Andrew’s permission form a connective line through that second triangle—and a series of good laughs for the audience. Mabry sparkled as the girl who “can’t say no” to any kind of flirtation, and who seems to believe that men’s intentions are always likely to be honorable; her flirtation with a traveling salesman is only serious when she’s with him. Dema as Ali Hakim enjoys dalliances wherever he can; he’s eager to avoid any permanent entanglement. Balancing Will’s earnestness against Mabry’s roguish and winsome Ado Annie, and in the context of Dema’s carelessly philandering Ali Hakim, this lighter triangle suggests that anyone who commits to a life with Ado Annie may need rescuing!

Baron’s direction has placed these triangles in clear juxtaposition, using his talented technical staff to clarify and hone the connections and comparisons. In this production the audience is not merely welcome to participate in the state song, we are invited to do so. This director and his team recognize the value of interconnection, and they extend that to everyone in the room. From the opening where we leave our ghosts behind, to the ending where we sing ourselves into optimism, there is no aspect of this production that fails to rise to the occasion, and all with the appearance of making lazy circles in the sky.

Lyric’s “Oklahoma!” delivers on every level. Make the effort to see it. Playing through Sunday, June 28 at the Civic Center Music Hall in Oklahoma City, curtain is 8:00 Friday and Saturday at 8:00 and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00. Tickets are available through the Lyric website or by calling the ticket office at 405-524-9312.