'Oklahoma!' is just OK despite lively star

December 30, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mt. Royal

When: Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $20-$42

Call: (410) 889-3911

A theatrical special effects wizard couldn't have done it better. The 50th anniversary touring production of "Oklahoma!" arrived at the Lyric Opera House on the day Baltimore had the first significant snowfall of the season. Back in 1943, the show's New York debut was also greeted by a snowstorm -- one that, together with unfavorable word of mouth, led the producers to bring soldiers in off the street to fill the theater.

While the show those soldiers saw went on to make musical theater history, the adequate but largely uninspired production at the Lyric makes it difficult to recall what all the fuss was about.

So here's a little memory refresher. What composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II accomplished -- with significant assists from director Rouben Mamoulian and choreographer Agnes de Mille -- was a unification of song, text and movement that was so seamless that each element not only flowed into, but was inter-dependent on, the other.

With this in mind, it is rather jarring to see the famous dream ballet at the end of the first act (choreographed here by Daniel Pelzig) partially obscured by dense clouds of stage smoke and flashes of light, or to hear the orchestra come in late on several occasions.

In a couple of other respects, however, this production, directed by Linda Brovsky, does get things right. One of these is the casting of Marylander April Harr in the lead role of Laurey, the young woman torn between her love for thoroughly acceptable Curly and her ambivalent feelings for the dangerous hired hand, Jud.

Not only does Harr have one of the best voices in the show, but she brings a strength of character to Laurey. Instead of taking the easy way out and portraying her as a silly girl unable to make up her mind, Harr emphasizes Laurey's intelligence and conflicted nature -- qualities that make her a typically strong, interesting Hammerstein heroine.

The character of Curly is considerably less complex, and George Merrick does little to enhance this. Instead, he exudes such a spanking clean, all-American-boy aura -- even in his singing, which he does with a perpetual grin -- that it's easy to see why Laurey finds him less than fascinating.

Craig Benham's Jud at first seems a pitiable character, but he manages to convey a sense of menace that creates the only tension in a production that seems more a valentine than the involving dramatic work its creators intended. In addition, Benham's rich, beautifully resonant voice makes Jud's dark solo, "Lonely Room," the production's most deeply felt song.

The rest of the ensemble does an acceptable job, frequently striking poses that -- when seen on designer James Fouchard's evocative sets -- echo vintage photographs of the original production. However, despite the vast expanses of plains and sky in the painted backdrops, the touring set makes far less use of the Lyric's wide stage than seems fitting for a show about the broad frontier.

The result is a production that feels cramped and less lively than a revival of this ground-breaking masterpiece deserves. Maybe that's why the producers chose to decorate the cover of the program with a reproduction of the postage stamp issued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Oklahoma!"

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