[Editor’s note: Much has been written about the extraordinary production of Oklahoma!, now enjoying a return engagement at Arena Stage. We’ve asked our dance reviewer to look at it from her perspective.]
When choreographer Parker Esse joined the creative team of Arena Stage’s Oklahoma!, he was entering sacred territory: previous choreographers of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical include Agnes de Mille (1943 production and 1955 film) and Susan Stroman (1998 London revival and 1999 film). What impressed me the most about seeing Esse’s version last Thursday was how he retains and updates trademarks of these acclaimed artists. I left the theater thinking about how Arena Stage has created a production that is classic and at the same time contemporary.
Like de Mille, Esse emphasizes naturalism. This means the actors rarely break out of character to perform their dance numbers. Instead they use movement to reveal aspects of their personalities. Best seen in Cody Williams’ depiction of Will Parker, his dance numbers burst with the same exuberance Will feels for Ado Annie (the adorable June Schreiner).
Even though the entire cast is impressive, Williams is a dancer extraordinaire. He makes some of the most demanding steps appear effortless – and a lot of fun. Perhaps some of Esse’s success as choreographer is attributable to these multi-talented actors.
There’s a certain sturdiness to the cast: every performer is impressive as a dancer, and this gives the group numbers strength and force. In “Kansas City” the entire stage seems to swell and contract as dancers alternate between solo and group phrases, featuring one dancer and then the entire ensemble.
Esse uses the rectangular stage space in clever ways: since the audience sits on a steep rake surrounding the stage we sometimes get a Busby Berkeley-like view of the cast in two-stepping duets shifting to a huge spinning circle. There’s also complexity in the steps themselves, and this may be an element in Esse’s version that deviates from predecessors. His scenes are more choreographically dense with demanding steps and rhythms for the cast.
Molly Smith’s direction enhances this sense of roiling energy. Considering audience’s perspectives from multiple angles, she has the actors shift their places during each scene. In a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Oklahoma! she instructs the cast to change places during their dialogue, telling them “here’s what happens when you’re in-the-round… we have to find places to move.”
Eleasha Gamble is winsome as Laurey, and it’s easy to see why she is smitten with Curley, played by Nicholas Rodriguez. He’s gorgeous, capable, with a spark of mischievousness, and each glance, every facial expression tells us more about his personality. Nehal Joshi as peddler Ali Hakim is a similarly physical actor. His slipperiness as a man who is not ready to commit emerges through body language.
This attention to detail and ever-present motion in the staging gives the production a dynamic pace and alluring suspense.
Sixty-eight years ago, when de Mille choreographed the original, there was also a sense of wonder. She wrote in her autobiography “Dance to the Piper” about the audience’s reaction: “They were roaring. They were howling. People hadn’t seen girls and boys dance like this in so long. Of course they had been dancing like this, but not where the audience could see them.”
Arena Stage’s Oklahoma! accomplishes a similar feat. At a time when most audiences watch dancing on television shows like “So you Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing With The Stars,” it’s a rare opportunity to see choreography that is not a display of stunts, but rather dancing that enhances a plot and develops its characters.
We see this clearly in the “Dream Ballet” when the attraction between Curley and Laurey is displayed kinetically. Esse uses balletic steps and lush partnering phrases to show the couple’s devotion. While Esse keeps the romantic feel of the scene similar to de Mille’s and Stroman’s version, he incorporates more extensions and travelling waltzing for Laurey so the choreography fills the rectangular stage. The swirling patterns evoke a feeling of being swept off one’s feet, and although I found the dancers a bit too occupied with their high legs and multiple turns, another DCTS review described the scene as “exquisite.”
There’s a sense of camaraderie built into this version that is deeply attractive. In an interview with DC Theatre Scene, Cody Williams spoke about Esse creating steps specifically for him: “Parker has choreographed an incredible number for me to dance… [‘Kansas City’] starts by Will teaching the guys the fancy new dances he learned in Kansas City. Once they get it they all burst into a fantastic unison dance having the time of their lives. All of the steps are athletic and reminiscent of a hoedown.”
The scene builds to a massive climax, merging solos with partner dancing and acrobatics. It draws me into the action, making me feel as if the show is being created and lived in the moment rather than a relic staged from 1943.
Collaboration was a key part of the London revival a decade ago as well. Director Trevor Nunn said of working with Stroman: “Nothing I did was without her. We spent most of our time in each other’s rehearsals. I don’t like working with people who guard their own territory. All the best work is done in collaboration.”
Maybe this, along with the endearing characters and charming lyrics, is what makes this Oklahoma! so extraordinary. It’s about a community on stage, behind-the-scenes, and the connectedness we feel when we leave the show savoring its images and humming its tunes.