When “Oklahoma!” premiered in 1943, it was a new beginning for musicals. Suddenly it was fine to start a show with a single voice, ballet had a place in the popular theater and every love song had to be more complicated than just two people saying “I love you.”
It’s appropriate, then, that Arena Stage chose “Oklahoma!” as the coming out party for its newly renovated Mead Center for American Theater. Walking from the Metro to the new theater after a nearly-three-year hiatus is a whole new experience. No longer is there the vague fear of mugging when you walk back to the Metro alone at night. Now it’s a burning desire to stop at the Safeway and buy some yogurt-covered almonds, because: delicious.
But back to the play. “Oklahoma!” is a piece of American pageantry, full of songs that have become part of our national psyche, and Arena’s production does the show with just enough polish. As lovebirds Laurey and Curley, Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez anchor the show — and, no doubt aided by their excellent voices, manage to make two singularly dopey characters likeable— and an orchestra that captures the strumming laziness of the prairie through fine use of what sounds like banjos.
Ostensibly the musical is about women choosing between secure, dimpled cowboys and vaguely dangerous (but isn’t that sexy?) outsiders. Molly Smith’s production shows the ladies having more trouble making that decision than more classic interpretations of “Oklahoma!” have, emphasizing the thrill of the forbidden — and echoing the choice the pioneer territories felt themselves facing as they were on the brink of becoming part of the United States. “Oklahoma!” is truly about the balance of taming a wilderness without making it suburbia, and Arena’s production proves itself more than able to walk that delicate line.
» Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW; through Dec. 26; 202-554-9066. (Waterfront)
Photo by Susan Biddle/The Washington Post