To quote the show, Arena Stage "couldn't pick a better time to start in life." Arena Stage under the capable direction of Artistic Director, Molly Smith, christens the Fichandler Stage with the 1943 groundbreaking musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Is it risky to inaugurate a new performance space with a musical that has become popularly produced over and over again in professional, community and academic venues? Not when the gamble is as vibrant and exhilarating as this production.
Oklahoma! a simple boy loves girl, girl loves boy, but danged if they'll admit it to each other story is rousingly brought to life in the theatre-in-the round Fichandler. The space feels brand-spanking new with the smell of freshly built sets mingling with the fresh scent from the multi-year makeover of the Arena Stage complex.
The acting ensemble is strong from the dancers of the chorus to the small roles of the community to the leading men and women. It is a testament to Ms. Smith's vision that her decision to cast actors of different ethnicities works in this production. It seems natural that Aunt Eller and Laurey are African American, Curley is of hispanic origins and, of course, Ali Hakim the peddler appears to be middle eastern. It is the melting pot of America all seeking the American dream of prosperity and the promise that comes from the eminent decision that the Oklahoma Territory is about to become the newest state in the union of the United States of America. But, more importantly it is talent of this acting ensemble that makes the multicultural casting seem natural and not forced.
E. Faye Butler is the commanding moral compass of the show as Aunt Eller. Yet she is both fun with a terrific sense of humor and easily takes charge when circumstances warrant it. As Curley, Nicholas Rodriguez could croon the phone book and the women in the audience would swoon. Mr. Rodriguez was wonderful as the male lead in Arena's The Light in the Piazza, and he proves with Oklahoma! that he has the stage presence and the voice to do justice to any musical leading male role.
Aaron Ramey is menacing, yet tragic as Jud Fry. The set designer, Eugene Lee, has created a claustrophobic smokehouse home for Jud that rises and falls from the depths of the stage, demonstrating Jud's position as social outcast. Mr. Ramey brings poignancy and menace to his solo, The Lonely Room.
As the male half of the "comic" couple, Cody Williams has the heart-on-his-sleeve naivety of Will Parker down flat. As a classically trained dancer he brings bravado to the first rousing "show stopper" Kansas City. As his lady love, Arena Stage has discovered a future star of the stage in June Schreiner. Ms. Schreiner is a Junior at The Madeira School who has trained for two summers in the Arena Academy program. She is a revelation being the right age for Ado Annie, and brings an innocence to her awakening desires that not every production's Ado Annie always has. Watch the area's stages for more from this young lady. The comic love triangle is completed by Nehal Joshi's Ali Hakim, who brings comedy and pathos to the traveling peddler.
The entire chorus of singers, dancers and small roles are perfectly cast. Standouts include Hugh Nees as Ado Annie's father and the beautiful dancing of Hollie E. Wright and Kyle Vaughn in the Dream Ballet.
The choreography of Parker Esse is rousing where it needs to be, romantic and fluid in others, simply perfectly wed to Ms. Smith's direction.
The costuming by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting by Michael Gilliam, and set design by Eugene Lee combine to place the audience squarely in the world of early 20th century pioneer life.
Be assured, the Thespian is not ignoring the contributions of one member of the cast. Eleasha Gamble was a very last minute replacement to play the leading role of Laurey. She literally was cast the weekend that preview performances began. The Thespian saw the very first performance that she gave and she was still "on book" carrying her lines in her costume when she needed to refer to them. It was a very brave performance, yet Ms. Gamble's talent and acting instincts were not handicapped by the circumstances. Her Laurey is both down-to-earth and longing for the romance that Curley promises. Yet she has the defiant stubborn streak of a young woman who will not go to the box social with Curley just because he (and the entire community) expects her to do so. Ms. Gamble has a beautiful soprano voice and good stage instincts. She was a perfect choice as a last minute replacement for this production.
Oklahoma! will be performed at Arena Stage through December 26, 2010. For tickets and performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.