Rousing 'Oklahoma' at renovated Arena Stage

For 60 years, Arena Stage has played a substantial role in Washington's cultural life. That role is sure to be bigger than ever after a multi-year, $135 million renovation that provides the nationally respected nonprofit theater with a greatly enhanced facility down by the Potomac.

The transformation, designed by Canadian architect Bing Thom, is quite the eye-catcher. The original 1960s-era theaters have been gently tweaked, and a small studio space had been added. The entire complex — now officially designated Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater (named for major donors) — is surrounded with soaring, undulating glass walls that provide an elegant, but unstuffy, touch.

The company has, appropriately enough, inaugurated the grand new site with a grand old American musical, "Oklahoma!", and has given it a rousing production that makes a good fit for the 683-seat, in-the-round Fichandler Theater (200 seats were removed to improve acoustics and intimacy).

Arena artistic director Molly Smith finds some new things to say about the iconic work. She took as her starting point the pre-statehood history that inspired a 1930s play by Lynn Riggs that would become the source material for the first collaboration by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. That history reveals a multiracial community of settlers vying for a chance to bask in the "bright golden haze on the meadow."

Smith seized on that factor to create an exuberantly diverse cast, far different from what audiences would have expected when "Oklahoma!" opened on the Great White Way in 1943. As a result, the conflict between farmers and cattlemen that crops up in the musical can be viewed here as a metaphor for fundamental issues of race and class that we're still enduring.

This is not a case of heavy revisionist concept, mind you, and it's quite possible some theater-goers won't even notice anything all that different and just get swept along by the richly tuneful score and all the kinetic dancing. But I think this subtly applied extra layer of meaning adds something valuable and affecting to the work.

Smith paces the action astutely and gets infectiously spirited performances from the cast.

Nicholas Rodriguez is an instantly likeable Curly. He delivers the famed show-starter, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," with a natural charm and sense of wonder, making it easy to conjure up a whole lot of scenery to go with Eugene Lee's minimal, yet nicely evocative, set. Later, when he grabs hold of clotheslines to imitate reins while singing about "The Surry with the Fringe on Top," the effect is thoroughly disarming.

As fatefully vacillating Laurey, torn between the over-confident Curly and the vaguely sinister Jud, Eleasha Gamble gives a winning portrayal. And, except for a little hardness in the upper register, she sings with warmth and suppleness.

The formidable E. Faye Butler, a favorite of Center Stage patrons, tears up the place as Aunt Eller — no shrinking homesteader she. Although the sheer force of the performance threatens to get just a little heavy at times, the payoff comes whenever Butler reveals Aunt Eller's tender, knowing heart.

Aaron Ramey makes an appropriately brooding Jud, revealing just enough allure beneath the surface to explain Laurey's attraction. He's a solid singer, too, and delivers "Lonely Room" with potent expressiveness. (The smokehouse where Jud lives rises neatly from the stage floor.)

June Schreiner cavorts about the stage in winning fashion as the comically conflicted Ado Annie, who can't say no and can't stick to a decision, either. Schreiner's voice is a little thin, so when she lays on the twang for her big number, the result turns grating. But that's a minor matter in light of her acting skills, which have the markings of a pro. (Schreiner is still in high school.)

Nehal Joshi shines as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who spends most of the show wriggling out of marriage traps. Cody Williams, a vibrant actor/singer and very nimble dancer, is the engaging Will. And Hugh Nees provides colorful support as Ado's pa. The chorus comes through in style, vocally and physically, executing Parker Esse's vivid choreography with elan. Remarkably refined amplification is used.

George Fulginity-Shakar conducts a tight ensemble of about a dozen musicians. Their perch in a corner of the theater gives them, appropriately, the image of barn-dance band; the folksy instrumentation completes that resemblance.

For that matter, the whole show, astutely costumed by Martin Pakledinaz and lit by Michael Gilliam, is folksy; there's no trace of hey-this-is-a-big-famous-musical attitude.

If you'll pardon the heresy, I have never thought that "Oklahoma!" boasts the greatest of plots. The bits involving the insufficiently defined Jud have an especially awkward feel. But this is a musical mostly about old-fashioned optimism and neighborliness, not to mention the positive spark of love, and all of that shines through brightly in this confident, ebullient staging.

If you go

"Oklahoma!" runs through Dec. 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., in Washington. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or go to

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