Arena’s Oklahoma! redux is more than OK

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Michael Toscano

Rerun Summer ’11 continues through sultry August, as local theater companies entice audiences into their air-cooled, usually-empty-in-the-summer confines by bringing back blasts from the past.

 For example, Wicked, the glittering musical telling the back story of the two witches at the heart of The Wizard of Oz, is still packing them in (through Aug. 21) in its second run at the Kennedy Center. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has a hit the second time around with Clybourne Park (through Aug. 14), the Pulitzer- and Helen Hayes Award-winning play using barbed comedy to examine race and gentrification in a Chicago neighborhood.

And, of course, Arena Stage sparkles with the revived version of their production of Oklahoma!, which inaugurated their brand-new southwest campus last fall.

Newly energized show

The Rodgers/Hammerstein chestnut was given something of a facelift when it first played the acoustically sweetened and technically improved Fichandler Stage, Arena’s original in-the-round theater. Director Molly Smith assembled a culturally diverse cast, promising but not quite delivering sharp new angles on this tale of the late American frontier.

Leading performances were stellar, but it’s hard to say the overall effort was as special as the hype surrounding the production might have you believe. Just about the entire cast (of two dozen) is back for the rerun, and they seem to have received a jolt of fresh energy during their time off the show.

The sparks that were missing the first time around now radiate both light and heat. Parker Esse’s athletic choreography and George Fulginiti-Shakar’s vigorous, 13-piece orchestra are back in full power and Oklahoma! is more than OK.

Sure, the show was quite pleasing in its first run, winning four Helen Hayes Awards, including Outstanding Resident Musical. Even before some critics swooned, the show was already filling the house to 99 percent capacity, a testament to the enduring appeal of Old Broadway.

It was a glossy, high-energy hoe-down supporting a lovely collection of songs and featuring eye-catching dance. But there was little of that unique energy, that chemistry between cast members, to make the show transcendent, at least to me.

It was good, but somewhat standard fare. Perhaps because the cast performed it for a complete run, had time off, and then re-assembled, the chemistry between them has significantly matured. The onstage ambiance is relaxed now, and the performers seem to be paying more attention to each other.

Down on the farm

The story takes us back 100 years to when the Oklahoma Territory was on the verge of statehood. The frontier ethos still prevails, even as the modern world looms.

Two sets of young lovers explore romance, surrounded by colorful characters and one surly farmhand. Local favorites E. Faye Butler and Eleasha Gamble dominate the show, just as they did last year.

Butler is Aunt Eller, the feisty and wise guardian of lovely Laurey, played by Gamble. They embody the energies and spirit of the rough-hewn American spirit.

Butler’s Aunt Eller displays wisdom born of bitter experience, but Butler’s innate sense of irony and humor make the character shine with optimism and her powerhouse energy fills the theater. [Ed’s Note: Shortly prior to press date, Butler was replaced in the role by Terry Burrell.]

Gamble layers bittersweet depth to young Laurey’s innocence, and we feel her unwillingness to cope with life’s ugliness. Her powerful, textured voice is a story-teller’s tool, even as it soars to the big notes.

Much has been written about the fact that both Butler and Gamble are African-American, and that Nicholas Rodriguez, who plays Laurey’s suitor Curley, is Latino. Of course, the script never mentions this, and it is doubtful that an interracial relationship would pass unnoticed in the time and setting of this tale.

But non-traditional, colorblind casting has been routine here for some time, and it did not make as much of an impression on me as it did with other critics.

What stood out last year was the vibrant talent of Butler and Gamble, which rendered their race totally irrelevant. Rodriguez seemed stiff and emotionally disengaged in that first run, even as his expressive voice soared. But now he shines with adoration and passion.

Masterful music

Oh, and what wonderfully effervescent music Richard Rodgers has given these singers to explore. The show opener “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” flows into “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” soon to be followed by such time-honored hits as “People Will Say We’re in Love” and the title song, an iconic anthem destined to echo in your mind.

Extended dance sequences, particularly the Act 1 closer, the “Out of my Dreams/ Dream Ballet” sequence, artfully mix muscle and mysticism in a display of traditional American dance motifs.

It takes a few moments for the show to heat up. The magic starts to fill the Fichandler with the second tune, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” The undulating rhythms, the clever wordplay and rhyming lyrics, and the blended vocals meld into a softly sensuous sensation. The actors are so animated you can just about feel the sun on their faces.

There’s plenty of testosterone-fueled terpsichore here, with Western-dance foot stomping resounding on Eugene Lee’s stark, wood plank set. The rousing ensemble number “Kansas City” is a show-stopper.

Another number rousing the audience comes at the top of Act 2, with “The Farmer and the Cowman.” Here, the stage is alive with cornpone choreography and high spirits.

Unlike the first time around, the darker hues of the book from Oscar Hammerstein II are presented in vivid relief, the lurking danger and queasy suspense fully exploited. Much of that is due to the layered and unusually nuanced (for musical comedy) portrayal of Aaron Ramey as Jud, the sinister farmhand with the fevered soul and eyes set on Laurey.

This is no standard one-dimensional villain. Rather, Ramey gives us Jud as a Frankenstein monster — a murderous, tortured creature who nevertheless is grounded in a simple humanity. It is a chilling, powerful performance that is far superior to the tentative work he did the first time out.

Of course, this is musical comedy and we get plenty of that. Cody Williams and local high-schooler June Schreiner are both delightful as one pair of lovers, the lame-brained Will and the cluelessly flirtatious Ado Annie. Williams is guileless, while gamine-faced Schreiner is comically, radiantly piquant.

As randy peddler Ali Hakim, Nehal Joshi’s facial athletics and expressive body language send off comic vibrations to fill the entire theater in each scene he’s in. (Judging by the audience uproar that greets him at curtain call, he is clearly a favorite of the patrons.)

Smith efficiently moves her actors around the barren wood floor, giving audiences proper views on all four sides of the stage. The vigor never falters.

Tickets are expensive, and Arena is clearly hoping the big box office take from Oklahoma! will help them retire whatever they still owe on the $135 million expansion of its dazzling new home. Prices range from $61 to $106 plus fees, (but Arena ominously warns that prices “are subject to change”).

Is it worth it? Yes.

Oklahoma! continues through Oct. 2 on the Fichandler Stage theater of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, located at 1101 6th St., S.W., Washington. D.C.

Show times are Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Special matinees are scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 21 and Tuesday, Sept. 27 at noon.

There will be an audio-described performance Saturday, Aug. 27 at 2 p.m. and an open-captioned performance is set for Wednesday, September 7 at 7:30 p.m. Sign-interpretation is scheduled for the 8 p.m. show on Thursday, Sept. 8.

Tickets may be purchased online at www.arenastage.org, by telephone at (202) 488-3300, or at the theater’s sales office. A limited number of half-price, day-of-performance tickets are available 30 minutes before each performance.

For more information, visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300 (TTY: 202-484-0247).