The company of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Arena Stage’s Oklahoma! - their first production since their return to their proper home – isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. The dramatic misses are made-up for in toe-tapping, infectious energy combined with enjoyable choreography and an impressive stage design. If the stars lack a little chemistry and the threat in the final act fails to really fit, well, if you can’t grade Rogers and Hammerstein on a curve, who can you?
Oklahoma! starts strong with Nicholas Rodriguez as a Curly so likable and beaming that you’re left a little uncertain why Elesha Gamble’s Laurey would ever play hard-to-get. The two of them never managed to convince me they were deeply in love, but any lack of chemistry they exhibit in their duet is quickly forgotten when Cody Williams as Will bursts onto the stage and sings and dances his way through what ended up being my favorite number of the night: Kansas City. The cliche police might come to get me but it’s true: I really did discover myself tapping my toe without realizing it.
Arena’s Oklahoma! succeeds best in the moments when it’s being loudly and gleefully earnest and cheesy. It’s not too surprising that this would be the case – Director Molly Smith’s program notes comment that the play was chosen because of its sense of transition and beginnings, to match Arena’s return to its transformed home down by the waterfront. Perhaps some of the other interesting and intermittently successful choices mirror Arena’s transition and journey in other ways as well.
A few of the choices that work well are a little surprising. Making Laurey and Aunt Eller African-American certainly is historically questionable in the extreme. However in the context of the story’s different communities managing to get along in a challenging environment in transition – as well as a cast that’s ethnically diverse in other ways – it simply blends into the background. It certainly doesn’t hurt that E. Faye Butler’s portrayal of the boisterous Aunt Eller makes you think nobody would notice if she was polka-dotted, she’s such a force of nature.
June Schreiner as Ado Annie Carnes, Nehal Joshi as Ali Hakim and Cody Williams as Will Parker in the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! October 22-December 26, 2010. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The production manages to side-step the one bit of potentially offensive diversity that existed in the original material: peddler Ali Hakim, who would like some no-repercussions romance with the local women while selling pedestrian items passed off as Persian wonders. Nehal Joshi injects enough droll humor into Hakim that it’s easy to believe him as a fairly harmless womanizer willing to leverage people’s ignorance about his culture rather than the somewhat sinister stereotype he was in the original material. When Will Parker casually says that polygamy is the way of the world in Hakim’s home, Joshi makes the comeback joke seem more like he’s the one making fun of the Americans rather the being the butt of the joke.
Aaron Ramey as Jud Fry in the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! October 22-December 26, 2010. Photo by Carol Rosegg
A little less successful is the handling of Jud, who ends up seeming less menacing creep than misunderstood and ill-used. Plenty of blame can be laid on the source material, but casting the handsome Aaron Ramey and softening some of his harder edges was a local choice. It might make for an interesting depth if it didn’t end up making the death and murder trial seem somewhat unfair and unjust. When the trial scene screams through it seems like everyone on the stage is impatient to get past this distraction and on to the closing number. A pretty abrupt and sad end for someone whose major reversals came more from being Laurey’s bargaining chip earlier-on.
Let’s be honest, however – nobody’s here for moral ambiguity and an examination of class in pre-statehood Oklahoma. Both we the audience and the play itself are here for optimistic numbers about love and the future. If we ignore the un-shown cholera and farming accidents and blaze past the accidental drunken death, so be it – there’s singing and dancing and quipping to do.
Oklahoma! runs at Arena Stage through Dec 26th.
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