Review: Arena Stage's 'Oklahoma!'

Oklahoma! Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. ,Washington, D.C. Through Oct.2. Tickets $61-106  Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org

 

Oklahoma!

By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

 

Here’s a shocker: Good news from Washington.

 Unlike Congress, three major theaters in D.C. have been winning rave review after rave review, from Wooly Mammoth’s Clybourne Park to Kennedy Center’s Uncle Vanya, to Arena Stage’s Oklahoma!, the exuberant Rogers and Hammerstein musical which always earns its exclamation point.

 The familiar plot gives us Laurey (Eleasha Gamble whose voice—speaking and singing—is harsh except in the upper registers) who is being wooed by Curly (Nicholas Rodriguez whose voice is gorgeous). She resists, he persists. Aunt Eller ( Terry Burrell) referees. A reclusive and dangerous hired hand, Jud Fry (Aaron Ramey) is also in love with Laurey, and that provides the central conflict.

 In comedy there are always two couples, but here the second bananas outshine the first with more engaging character portrayals by more talented actors.  Ado Annie (June Schreiner—about to start her senior year of high school (!) is dimpled and adorable and can sing and dance to beat the band)and  her beau Will (Cody Williams who is a fine singer and a knockout dancer). But here, too, there is a rival: the traveling Persian  peddler Ali Hakim (Vincent Rodriguez III in a hilarious performance). 

 Oklahoma! is one of American theater’s best-loved shows, but it can still surprise: just when you think you know all the words for one of the many great songs (and are trying very very hard not to sing them aloud), another verse turns up with lyrics even cleverer and rhymes even wittier.

 The spirited dancing (choreography by Parker Esse) is full of high kicks and stomping, with  lots of chaps and spurs and sashaying petticoats; all the numbers are fully dramatized so the show never stops in its tracks to sing to us.  There are lasso tricks and flag-waving (this is back when Oklahoma was on the verge of statehood), and the occasional dark moment.

Director Molly Smith clearly likes walking the sunny side of the street, so that those dark moments—including a murderous knife fight between Curly, our hero, and Jud Fry, our villain—are barely murky, much less frightening. Jud Fry here seems merely pathetic, not dangerous and sinister as he did in the brilliant Trevor Nunn revival which came to Broadway in 2002.  Jarringly, Smith has Jud start the show by walking across the stage, playing the opening bars of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” on a harmonica—bright golden hazes are not Jud Fry’s kind of weather.  The nightmarish “Dream Ballet”  is similarly disappointing.

 Arena’s production, which opened last year, was nominated for ten Helen Hayes Awards (Washington’s equivalent of our Barrymore Awards), and shattered box office records in the company’s sixty year history, playing to nearly sold-out houses, which is why Arena Stage decided to bring it back. And the company has a splendidly refurbished venue, with a new and spectacular glass shell, is an architectural dazzler.

 

 

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