The Lyric Opera ends their 2013–14 season with a run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, in all its frothy, proto-American, miked glory. Pluck is in evidence throughout. No audience anywhere, let us presume, need ever fear that the scourges of European “director’s opera” will ever touch this story of proto-nationhood, nor even some light corporate facelift involving suits and uniformly gray sets. Instead, from the moment the curtain goes up, what you get is expansive, pre-modern, American, blue-as-a-baby’s-bonnet skies, proud bright farmhouses, a woman doing the washing, the heavy heat of an Indian summer. I nearly sneezed.

Act I of Oklahoma: Curtis Holbrook © Dan Rest
Act I of Oklahoma: Curtis Holbrook
© Dan Rest

About the microphones: the Lyric has mounted two giant speakers that sit astride the surtitles bar (and there are possibly more throughout the hall). The balance between the singers and the orchestra is good (and it’s a pleasure to hear a full band, a privilege so rare on Chicago’s Theater Row), but some voices fare better with the miking than others: the nimble Curtis Holbrook, who plays Will Parker, seems excellent but sounds as though the body of his voice fails entirely to transmit through the Lyric’s sound system, giving us a tinny and weirdly mechanically warbled sound. Some of this has, no doubt, to do with the ad hoc electrical rigging and the sheer spaciousness of the Lyric hall, which is certainly preferable to the miserly architecture of, say, the Bank of America theatre, wired like a rock stadium and determined to squeeze in as many dollars per square inch as possible. And the long-breathed pace of the musical, which depends so much on the sense of freedom from time caught in the set’s expansive sky, finds resonance in the expansiveness and luxury of the Lyric’s wide proscenium.

Each of the major roles is excellent and distinct, a real success of character casting. The stand-out is actor Usman Ally, who plays the Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Surreally tall and decked out in a checkered suit, he swallows the stage with his stride and exudes a mix of cunning and helplessness that never fails to be funny. Tari Kelly is ditzy, but not unwise, as Ado Annie; David Adam Moore has a wonderful darkness that almost – almost – makes one doubt the sunshine of the rest of the piece. But this is, of course, part of the operetta’s moral campaign. The founding of a state and the founding of a marriage rest not on mutually happy conversation but on the eradication of an outsider, not because he has done something wrong, but because there is nothing that bands folks together more than a murder.

But I digress. This musical is supposed to make you feel happy! Ashely Brown as Laurey has a stateliness and dignity that are so hard to capture in a piece like this, but she does it exquisitely. John Cudia (Curly McLain), apart from having a hilarious Southern accent, never makes us doubt his sincerity or his ability to host us for the evening. The greatest achievement in this production is the immediacy with which we feel at home with this cast – even with the outsider, Jud Fry, who seems like a brother who has simply gone astray.