Following last year's production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat, the Lyric Opera continues its dabbling in the musical-theater canon with Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers's groundbreaking Oklahoma! (It's the first of five Rodgers and Hammerstein tuners the Lyric has said it will produce through 2017.) The 1943 piece about farmers and cowmen learning to be friends in the turn-of-the-century, pre-statehood plains is often credited with marking a crucial step in the development of the true "book musical," away from the light comedies and revues that populated Broadway in earlier years. The Lyric's lavish but straightforward production highlights the show's strengths and its quirks.
It's easy to see in Gary Griffin's staging Oklahoma!'s lasting influence; try not to notice the striking parallels between this piece and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes's 2008 In the Heights, for instance, in their depictions of a particular, tightly-knit American community. (If no one's yet written a thesis drawing a line from Oklahoma!'s Aunt Eller to Heights's Abuela Claudia, well, you're welcome.) And hearing Rodgers's score, stacked as high as an elephant's eye with such winners as "Kansas City," "I Cain't Say No" and "People Will Say We're In Love," lushly rendered by a 37-piece orchestra and top-notch singers is a great and rare pleasure.
While Griffin's production is a delight to hear—and to see, with Agnes de Mille's choreography, including the original dream ballet, recreated by her now 91-year-old associate, Gemze de Lappe—his casting doesn't always feel true to the story's spirit. Oklahoma! is essentially about restless youth and growing pains—those of a young nation as well as the show's young leads. Ashley Brown's Laurie, playing coy with John Cudia's Curly and wary of David Adam Moore's Jud, seems to lack the vulnerability and naïvete that are vital to the character. Brown sings the part gorgeously, but her Laurie feels just as ultracapable as her Mary Poppins did; you expect she could manage Moore's too-gentle Jud just fine by herself, thanks.
Cudia also sounds terrific, and gives his Curly a heaping helping of cornpone charm, and Paula Scrofano makes a winningly authoritative Aunt Eller. But the comic roles fare best: Tari Kelly and Curtis Holbrook get a great deal of laughs out of Ado Annie and Will's negotiation of romantic commitment, while Usman Ally steals every one of his scenes with a sly take on the peddler, Ali Hakim, who catches Annie's eye.