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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Oklahoma!

Oklahoma!
Eleasha Gamble and
Nicholas Rodriguez

Sometimes, everything just feels right. When Nicholas Rodriguez sings the opening phrase of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and strides down the corner aisle to the playing area of the refurbished Fichandler Stage in Arena Stage's glorious new Mead Center for American Theater, the entire audience exhales and relaxes, knowing that Oklahoma! is in the capable hands of director Molly Smith.

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 past—primarily, 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 her—he 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 pieces—and the bandstand where George Fulginiti-Shakar conducts a sizable orchestra—the look of a new community built on the barren plains.

Arena Stage
Oklahoma!
October 22nd – December 26th
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
Aunt Eller: E. Faye Butler
Ike Skidmore: Lucas Fedele
Sam: Vincent Rodriguez III
Jess: Anton Harrison LaMon
Cord Elam: Philip Michael Baskerville
Jud Fry: Aaron Ramey
Vivian: Emilee Dupré
Ellen: Cyana Paolantonio
Kate: Jessica Wu
Ado Annie Carnes: June Schreiner
Curly: Nicholas Rodriguez
Laurey: Eleasha Gamble
Slim: Andrew Hodge
Fred: Shane Rhoades
Will Parker: Cody Williams
Ali Hakim: Nehal Joshi
Virginia: Annie Petersmeyer
Aggie: Semhar Ghebremichael
Gertie Cummings: Cara Massey
Andrew Carnes: Hugh Nees
Dream Laurey, Sylvie: Hollie E. Wright
Dream Curly, Mike: Kyle Vaughn
Male Swing: Kurt Boehm
Female Swing: Jessica Hartman
Directed by Molly Smith
Choreographer: Parker Esse
Music Director/Conductor: George Fulginiti-Shakar
Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


Photo: Carol Rosegg


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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