Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The 1943 musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II has become so familiar that one forgets how revolutionary it was in its time, with its melding of story, song, and plot-driven dance. Smith and her admirable cast, assisted by choreographer Parker Esse, reimagine the material and reveal facets that may have gone unnoticed in the pastprimarily, the fact that people of all races and colors settled the territory that became the state of Oklahoma.
To begin with, Smith gives the characters the depth and resonance they need. As Laurey, Eleasha Gamble is neither flighty nor simply manipulative in her contentious relationship with Curly (Rodriguez). She's a young pioneer woman in a rugged landscape, finding her way step by step with the help of Aunt Eller (E. Faye Butler, warmly sympathetic and constantly bringing down the house with her dry wit). Gamble also conveys the underlying ambivalence in Laurey's feelings toward the brooding farmhand Jud Fry (Aaron Ramey): she senses the threat in his personality and finds it both scary and exciting. (Esse's reimagining of the dream ballet allows part of her fantasy to come to life.)
Similarly, Ramey's Jud is a handsome man whose violence bubbles underneath the surface. He's clearly obsessed with Laurey, but also vulnerable enough that he gathers a wildflower bouquet for herhe wants her to want him, but he'll stalk her if he can't get her any other way. The fact that he is taller than the easygoing Rodriguez, and potentially stronger, adds visual interest to the conflict between the two men.
The large cast doesn't have a single weak link. June Schreiner, a blonde cutie still in high school, is a find as Ado Annie: effervescent and almost scarily intense as she juggles the affections of Will Parker (Cody Williams), a powerfully athletic dancer who earns ovations for his solo turn in "Kansas City," and the amusingly slick peddler Ali Hakim (Nehal Joshi). Hugh Nees makes a lot out of a small role as Ado Annie's father.
Smith and Esse play up the harsh side of territory life; the brawling between the farmers and the cowmen suggests the gang fights in West Side Story. Scenic designer Eugene Lee uses raw-looking, unstained wood to give the set piecesand the bandstand where George Fulginiti-Shakar conducts a sizable orchestrathe look of a new community built on the barren plains.