He loves her. She loves him. He wants to take her out. She wants him to take her out, also. He waits too long. She gets pissed and goes out with another guy who is actually pretty creepy and not nearly as dreamy as he. He gets pissed and goes out with an obnoxious chick. She almost gets attacked by creepy guy and runs to him. He drops the obnoxious chick and runs to her. They drop the BS and fall in love. Finally.
Who says we have nothing in common with century-old folk trying to make it on the open range, all the while singing Rogers and Hammerstein songs? Not this girl. I love Oklahoma!, because it explores the timeless themes of perseverance, tenacity, loyalty, community, and defensively shin-kicking and game-playing the crap out of the person you actually love from afar in the name of personal pride.
Oklahoma! is one of those iconic standards in American musical history that, after 11 professional revivals, 1 Academy Award winning film adaptation, and countless tours and productions in high schools and community theaters across the world, still manages to come to life in wonderful and horrific ways. The play is tricky. The script is dense and long and full of strange country dialect. The Oklahoman community portrayed is so tight, that each character is constantly in one another’s business. Each of the 7 main characters is so nuanced that each has their own solo number through which to explain themselves. The songs are borderline corny and the comedy is both light and morbid. And there is a huge ballet dance number. If the production lags anywhere, in pace or performance, Oklahoma! gets mighty tedious.
Luckily (but not surprisingly), Arena Stage’s current production of Oklahoma! is in the absolutely wonderful category of revivals. The pace is perfect, the voices are incredible, the choreography and direction are gripping and completely on point. And absolutely everyone is attractive. What else do you really need?
The Arena Stage production of Oklahoma! is performed in the original Fichandler Stage, which is nestled within the stunning new, state-of-the-art Mead Center for American Theater building on the DC waterfront. The set design, by Eugine Lee, maintains the hearty frontier setting through resourcefulness. No piece is extraneous. The orchestra is perched in an unfinished schoolhouse the Oklahomans raise money for during a tense box social auction. The smokehouse, home of ominous farmhand Jud, rises ascends and descends out of the clapboard stage floor. A spotlight shines through the windmill during “Laurie’s Dream,” creating a strobe effect that twinkles on the entire arena. Main cowman “Curly,” played to perfection by Nicholas Rodriguez, mimics reigning in a snow-white team of horses on long clothing lines strung across the stage (“Surrey with the Fringe on Top”).
Alongside Rodriguez, Eleasha Gamble takes the easily blah ingénue “Laurie” and makes her tough as nails, which is very refreshing. E. Faye Butler portrays the matriarch “Aunt Eller” perfectly. She is the everywoman – strong, independent, sassy, tenacious, nurturing, full of grit and determination – as Butler conveys with every inflection in her voice and movement she makes. I-would-smack-her-across-the-face-if-she-wasn’t-so-adorable “Ado Annie” is brilliantly played by June Schreiner (who, in real-life, is still in high school). Schreiner slings a rope, rides around on a bicycle and frets over being a little slutty (“I Cain’t Say No”), but still manages to be the most sincerely innocent little “110-lbs. in the territory.” The whole ensemble is incredibly dynamic and vibes like a true, close-knit community of down home folk. Everyone dances and sings beautifully. Nobody misses a beat.
Added bonus: the costumes. Beautiful leather holsters, chaps, skirts and boots, and cotton lace petticoats, bloomers and corsets. The detail is impeccable. And yes, there are pretty ladies in bloomers and corsets (“Many a New Day”). Turn-of-the-century undergarments. Hot.
Billed as a “muscular,” “not your mother’s Oklahoma!” the Arena Stage proves to provide an invigorating, entertaining and thoughtful production of a seemingly overdone American classic. If you have ever, for a moment, enjoyed a musical (Newsies counts!), go see Oklahoma! at Arena Stage.
Oklahoma! runs until October 2nd with a Summer Weekend Special through the end of August.