Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oklahoma Revived at Arena Stage

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, christened the Fichandler Stage with the 1943 groundbreaking musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!    Was 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. And it is a brilliant decision to revive the show for a three month run this summer so that even more people have a chance to revisit an old friend in such a fresh 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 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 origin 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, Helen Hayes Award-winner 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. 

Eleasha Gamble was a very last minute replacement to play the leading role of Laurey during its original production last Fall.    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. It is a joy to see how her Laurey has evolved since that very first performance.  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.  

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 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 rising Senior at The Madeira School who 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 possesses.  This is perfect example of the right actress of the right age allowing a fresh perspective on a classic comic character.  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.
Please note that beginning with the August 9th performance, the role of Aunt Eller will be portrayed by Terry Burrell.

Oklahoma! will be performed at Arena Stage through October 2, 2011.   For tickets and performance information please visit

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