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A CurtainUp Review

Oklahoma! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
Re-reviewed by Susan Davidson

Everythin's goin' Arena's way. After its record-breaking sold-out run (October 27 to December 26, 2010), ten Helen Hayes nominations, four wins, Oklahoma! has returned to Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater with very few changes for a July 8 to October 2, 2011 run. If anything this revival is even better than the original. Some members of the ensemble are new and lighting designer Michael Gilliam has added more green and yellow to his palate but the rest is the same and that's very good news.

The genius of this production is in its casting (Stuart Howard, Amy Schecter, Paul Hardt and Daniel Pruksarnukul) and its choreography by Helen Hayes winner Parker Esse. His dance for "Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City," not only leaves you wanting more but it stops the show, nightly.

All the principals appear to have settled into their parts in such a way that their performances are richer and deeper than they were last year. Audiences are enchanted from the beginning of the first act when the gorgeous voice of Nicholas Rodriguez (Curly) is heard before he appears on stage. The thrill of hearing this very gifted singer remains throughout the performance. His scenes with Eleasha Gamble (an excellent Laurey) are as tender and heart-warming as young love should be. Aaron Ramey, who plays Jud Fry as a socially inept, possibly autistic sad case, also has a voice that is flawless.The mighty perky June Schreiner (Ado Annie, the girl who cain't say no) is well-paired with the always energized Cody Williams (Will Parker) — remember the name. This guy has it all — voice, movement, gymnastics, dance, charm, wit. And he can act too. E. Faye Butler as Aunt Eller has toned down which means that her lines are no longer lost due to speed of delivery or shrillness.

If there is one quibble it's the sound. Not the sounds coming from music director George Fulginiti-Shakar's 13-piece orchestra, they would surely make Rodgers and Hammerstein proud. But the miking and amplification can be very annoying. Admittedly, the mikes make it possible for performers to be heard on all four sides of Arena's theater in the round, but the quality of spoken words sometimes suffers. Surely this could be corrected.

In describing love, one of the characters declares that he feels "all shaky from horn to hoof." The same can be said for those who see this Oklahoma! Oh, what a beautiful show.

Review based on July 14, 2011 performance.
Oh, what a beautiful mornin'
Oh, what a beautiful day
I got a beautiful feelin'
Everythin's goin' my way

Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez in Oklahoma!
Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez in Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez in Oklahoma!
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
Just when you think you might be tired of a corny old classic such as Oklahoma! along comes a production that is fresh, charming and bursting with energy. Such is the case with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical currently playing at the recently re-opened Arena Stage. It is filled with joy and optimism. So much so that it makes the old look new again. Just like Arena's new Mead Center for American Theater.

Director Molly Smith's politically correct production of the musical sees the Indian Territory that became the state of Oklahoma as multi-cultural, with notes in the program and online ( to support this thesis. In the 1830's the first settlers were Native Americans, followed by homesteaders and farmers. By 1889, African Americans, freed slaves, joined them. Prejudice appears to be absent; brawls tended to stem from jealousy only.

The cast is particularly well chosen. As Laurey, Eleasha Gamble, a last-minute replacement, is heart-breakingly honest. What a treat and matter of pride for Washington audiences who have watched this artist grow from an untrained (and untamed) screamer into a singer with a gorgeous voice and asactor of intense sensitivity. Gamble's Laurey is well-matched with Nicholas Rodriguez, whose Curly is perfection. His superb voice and high energy dance moves along with his ability to embody a cool dude of the prairie equals a deeply moving performance.

A large man with a booming baritone, Aaron Ramey's Jud Fry exudes anguish. His excellent performance is also about being an outsider who wants someone to truly love. Poor Jud. He is indeed, he is indeed a tragic figure, made more so by Ramey's brooding performance.

If there is a weak spot in this production it is in the singing by E. Faye Butler as Aunt Eller and June Schreiner as Ado Annie. While Butler's dancing is sassy, her singing is sometimes unintelligible because her dialect and rapid delivery is better suited to a character that is 21st-century urban African-American. Schreiner, a high school junior who is already an accomplished actress, looks very "purty" in her blonde braids but her voice (at least the night I caught the show) was shrill and off key.
What lifts this Oklahoma! into the upper ranges of feel good territory is Parker Esse's choreography. The guy is a genius. Plus he is blessed with a group of dancers, particularly the men, whose energy and fast-paced moves provide great pleasure for the audience. A roar went up at the end of their first big number in Act One, and that set the tone for the evening. All the dancers are excellent but Cody Williams as Will Parker stands out. He's cocky, acrobatic, balletic, funny and highly likeable. As for Esse, it's good news for Washington audiences that he will be back in town for the Kennedy Center's 2011 production of Follies.

Arena has just undergone a $135 million makeover, under the careful and inventive guidance of architect Bing Thom. A glass canopy now hangs over the two old auditoria, the Fichandler and the Kreeger, as well as the new one, the Cradle. For old timers who remember when, the big question was would the renovated Fichandler, a theater in the round, finally be rid of the acoustical problems that have plagued it from inception. The answer, I am delighted to report, is yes. The removal of some seats, the raising of the stage, and insertion of the kind of panels that do splendid things to sound waves have done the trick. (Also the actors are miked). Sight lines were also a problem in the past but , with one minor exception — a pair of boxer shorts drying on a washing line briefly marred my view of dancers on the opposite side of the stage—- have also improved as set designer Eugene Lee's scenery is limited to frames (connoting buildings) suspended from the four corners of the auditorium and prairie grass that separates the seating area from the exit passages. In fact, visually the show is a treat. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes manage to look absolutely right for prairie living but, at the same time, provide a pleasing, sunny palette.

Well done, Arena! Oklahoma! is more than ok; it's terrific.

Music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
Director, Molly Smith
Choreographer, Parker Esse
Musical Director, George Fulginiti-Shakar
Cast: E. Faye Butler (Aunt Eller); Lucas Fedele (Ike Skidmore); Vincent Rodriguez III (Sam); Anton Harrison LaMon (Jess); Philip Michael Baskerville (Cord Elam); Aaron Ramey (Jud Fry); Emilee Dupré (Vivian); Jessica Hartman (Ellen); Jessica Wu (Kate); June Schreiner (Ado Annie); Nicholas Rodriguez (Curly); Eleasha Gamble (Laurey); Andrew Hodge (Slim); Shane Rhoades (Fred); Cody Williams (Will Parker); Nehal Joshi (Ali Hakim); Annie Petersmeyer (Virginia); Semhar Ghebremichael (Aggie); Cara Massey (Gertie Cummings); Hugh Nees (Andrew Carnes); Hollie E. Wright (Dream Laurey, Sylvie); Kyle Vaughn (Dream Curly, Mike); Kurt Boehm (Swing).
Set Designer, Eugene Lee
Costume Designer, Martin Pakledinaz
Sound Designer, Timothy M. Thompson
Lighting Designer, Michael Gilliam
Running time: 2 hours and forty-five minutes
The Mead Center for American Theater/Arena Stage/Fichandler Theater, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC; 202-488-3300;
From October 27 to December 26, 2010.
Review by Susan Davidson, based on November 5, 2010 performance .

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