Thursday, August 18, 2011

Looking Fresh and Green - Oklahoma! - Musical Review

Oklahoma! - Fichander Theater - Arena Stage at the Mead Center - Washington D.C. - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Richard Rogers, Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, Directed by Molly Smith, Choreographed by Parker Esse, Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
Runs until Oct. 2nd 2011

Oh! What a beautiful production! Oh! What a beautiful play!

Ok, so confession. I've never actually been a huge fan of the musical Oklahoma!. I've always thought it felt dated, simplistic, and just a bit corny. To me, it was always a mildly enjoyable musical, but never the epic show the groundbreaking musical history dictates. At least, that's what I thought until I saw Arena Stage's current remount of their revival hit from last year, which makes the 1943 musical feel fresh, young and vibrant. With it's theatre-in-the-round presentation, you step miles away from D.C. and straight into Oklahoma! country, and miles away from its anchor at the new Mead Center (a glorious new theatre complex by Vancouver's Bing Thom Architects, that is worth seeing a show just to go visit).

Eugene Lee's simple wooden sets envelop the Fichlander Theatre and sets the sunshine yellow tone that the young cast brings to this invigorating revival by Molly Smith. Being so up close and personal with the stage, the Fichlander brings a closeness to Oklahoma!, with a 360 presentation that strips away the dated nature of the play and brings us iright into simpler times, letting us easily buy into the story of a cowman trying to court a farm girl before the mysterious (read: dark) farm hand lays a hand on her.

Eleasha Gamble (who has dazzled me with her voice before in other local DC shows like Les Miserables at the Signature Theatre, and The Civil War at Ford Theatre) wonderfully gets to shine in a deserved lead role of Laurey, the strong female farm girl at the heart of the central love triangle. Gamble's beautiful voice and her smart and grounded presence is simply perfect for Laurey. PERFECT. Did I mention Gamble is a woman of colour? Molly Smith colour-blind casts this revival and if there are any critics against this, I challenge them to watch Gamble's performance and NOT agree that she makes a perfect Laurey, blonde hair or not. If there's a case that colour-blind casting CAN work, even in such historical contexts, Gamble should be the first example.

Matching wits and emotions with Gamble is Nicholas Rodriguez (who I best know from daytime soap One Life To Live as the 3rd wheel who tried to come between Oliver Fish and Kyle, its first gay love story). Nicholas Rodriguez has a boyishly handsome face and looks very different from previous Curly's I've seen (or know of), which is probably why I loved Rodriguez's Curly even more, for bucking the image of the character and still creating a smashing central lead that is both likable and confidently romantic while showing cracks of emotional vulnerability. Curly's later confrontation with Jud can sometimes feel a tad bullying, but Rodriguez never gets to that point. We understand Rodriguez's Curly, we root for him, but we never feel duped, nor frustrated (with some of his silly social moves). I say all this and I haven't even started mentioning Nicholas' GORGEOUS singing voice.

Knowing Rodriguez only previously from a soap opera, I figured he'd have a passable voice and coasted on his looks and likability, but I was not prepared for the smoothness in his singing that felt both full and large, while soothing and subtle. His entrance to "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'" sets us up for a beautiful night, but his "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top" shows the intricate emotions and playfulness as he begins to romance Laurey, and us the audience.

It's also nice to see two very young actors cast in the roles of the young maybe-lovers Ado Annie and Will Parker, as well as a suitably young Ali Hakim that gives the second love triangle storyline far more humour and springy lighthearted romance than I've ever fully understood it as.

Ado Annie is a young silly girl who falls in love too easily, and often just feels like a plain silly character. June Schreiner's youth and gee-golly playfulness sets her Ado Annie into the right age, which easily explains Ado Annie's naivety and gives her story a far funnier spin that still feels believable and real.

Cody Williams gives an equal fresh and green performance that at moments feels unrehearsed and unprepared, and whether by design or not, gives his Will Parker a genuine heart (as simplistic as it may be) that excuses Will's silly love story, as Shreiner and Williams' Ado Annie and Will re-enact that comic nature of first love.

Of course, it's not quite Ado Annie's first love, and Nehal B. Joshi, another young actor, livens up the character of Ali Hakim and gives the character a far less creepy vibe I've seen previously, and makes his traveling salesman a far more believable character duped into love than previous caricature portrayals I've seen. Joshi's expressions and intonations hit every comedic cue without turning himself into a clown, and rounds out a believable love triangle that had before felt like a bad cliche.

Of course, if there was ever a bad cliche in this musical, it seemed to fall upon the character of Jud, the lone farm hand who imbued all kind of darkness just because he was a loner, and didn't sing happy tunes. I always thought the scenes with Jud never really worked and were almost ridiculous in trying to cram an antagonist the way it does. I won't say it still totally works here, but Molly Smith has managed to make Jud far more compelling, and explain his story within the confines of the musical, far better in a reasonable manner. And Jud and Curly's on-going dislike is far better reasoned with Rodriguez and Aaron Ramey as Jud. Ramey gives this Jud a misunderstood soul, one that is pushed over the edge. Ramey (who I've seen recently in Miss Saigon in Toronto) has a beautiful thundering tone, and sings with such passion, while he makes his Jud less of a straight-out bad guy, and more of a troubled man who falls in too deep. Ramey's portrayal smoothes over the problems I've had with the Jud character, and another reason this revival works so well.

A great ensemble surrounds the excellent leads, that includes Hugh Nees as Andrew Carnes (Ado Annie's father) and E. Faye Butler (who has recently left the show to star in another Arena Stage play) as Aunt Eller. The young cast two-steps it's way around the 360 stage, in wonderful choreography by Parker Esse.

I loved this Oklahoma! so much that it's really made me re-evaluate other musicals I haven't loved, and wondering if I would have liked them more, if only they had a great cast and stunning production like this one that shows me the true brilliance of the intended show. This Arena Stage revival made a very old musical feel very young and new, with a modern connection that did not sacrifice it's old-simpler-times story and tone. Simply a marvelous and joyous production that relies on young raw talent full of energy and subtle performances in a very bright show.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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