Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: Arena Stage's 'Oklahoma!'

Good news from Washington: Arena Stage's 'Oklahoma!' is exuberant and lively, reminding us again why musical theater--especially by Rogers & Hammerstein--is so enjoyable.

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



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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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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