How fitting that Arena Stage settles into its gorgeous new Bing Thom-designed digs with an equally gorgeous and exuberant production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!
Artistic Director Molly Smith has crafted a triumphant show that is at once feisty and forward-thinking and fittingly reflective. After an election season that for Marylanders in particular was dirty and demoralizing, it just feels cleansing to gaze upon a vision of America and Americans that is full of hope, promise and pluck.
Prairie sweethearts Curly (the sublime Nicholas Rodriguez) and Laurey (Eleasha Gamble, an eleventh-hour recasting that proves to be an inspired move) embody the nation’s optimism and appetite for change. She’s a farm woman with deep ties to the land; he’s a cowboy fired up by what he’s seen of the country’s potential.
Their affecting relationship is expressed in the songs “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” which are so beautifully delivered by Mr. Rodriguez and Miss Gamble that you have to admit it is not the hay and the wheat sheaves strewn around the Fichandler that are making you tear up.
The storm cloud in their romance comes in the menacing form of farmhand Jud Fry (Aaron Ramey, giving a performance of brooding power), a troubled soul with a predatory sway over Laurey. Jud’s unrest and dark urges are shiveringly evoked in the song “Lonely Room” and given a sardonic turn in the comic “Pore Jud Is Daid.”
Fellow spooners Will Parker (Cody Williams) and Ado Annie (June Schreiner) provide ample comic contrast to this love triangle. Will’s big-eyed eagerness and buoyant spirit bring happy comparisons to Woody from the “Toy Story” movies—albeit a Woody imbued with the dance chops of Gene Kelly, as Mr. Williams flawlessly executes Parker Esse’s boisterous high-kicking, boot-scooting choreography. He’s crazy about Ado Annie, and who can blame him, so beguiling is Miss Schreiner’s performance. Initially, it may seem a bit on the pervy side to have the actress, a high school junior, playing a girl who “cain’t” say no. Yet, Miss Schreiner portrays this sexual eagerness as curiosity and innocent enthusiasm rather than precociousness, which eliminates the “ick” factor.
E. Faye Butler’s Aunt Eller exemplifies the pioneer spirit of gumption and generosity. Miss Butler has a way of getting the most out of the most ordinary lines—the twist she gives to the word “party” should not be missed—and she is both entertaining and provides the show’s moral core.
From top to bottom, the cast is robustly at the top of their game, from the rascally charm of Nehal Joshi’s Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler with an eye for the ladies, and Hugh Nees as Ado Annie’s flinty, rifle-toting papa to the exquisite dancing of Hollie E. Wright and Kyle Vaughn as the Dream Laurey and Dream Curly in the Dream Ballet sequence.
Miss Smith portrays the optimism of turn of the century America with pitch perfect gusto, which is enhanced by such period flourishes as Ali Hakim’s elaborate, bicycle-powered pushcart, parade floats festooned with flag swags and bouquets of grain, a slowly-turning windmill, and vintage autos.
Arena’s staging of Oklahoma!, with its can-do spirit, may be just the thing to revive our flagging faith in a nation where “change” is nothing more than a hollow political rhetoric.
Music by Richard Rodgers . Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Original dances by Agnes de Mille, choreography by Parker Esse
Music direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
- Sarah Kaufman . Washington Post
- Lisa Troshinsky . WashingtonDiplomat
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
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- Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
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John Glass . DramaUrge
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Patrick Folliard . Washington Blade
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Missy Frederick . DCist
Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Leslie Milk . Washingtonian
Susan Berlin . Talkin’ Broadway
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Terry Ponick . Washington Times
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Jeremy Girard . Bloomburg News
- Michael Toscano . TheaterMania
- Peter Marks . Washington Post