‘Oklahoma!’ makes a joyful return to Arena Stage


E. Faye Butler, left, who gives an amusing performance as Aunt Eller, is among the multicultural cast assembled for ‘Oklahoma!’ (Susan Biddle/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

That bright golden haze is just as radiant the second time around.

“Oklahoma!,” the surprise autumn smash at Arena Stage, is back on the Fichandler stage for a summertime fling, looking as smart and sending out as many joyfully youthful vibes as it did for the run that inaugurated the company’s return to its near-magically transformed campus in Southwest Washington.

The original multi-ethnic cast, which gave the seminal 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical such a freshly illuminating face, has returned intact. Supported by the robust sound of a dozen musicians under the baton of George Fulginiti-Shakar, the voices, if anything, embrace that astonishing score with even more confidence and style.

“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” that ditty your mom used to hum (when she was in a particularly good mood), gets some romantic swagger from Nicholas Rodriguez’s magnetically self-assured Curly. “Kansas City” becomes an energizing two- and clog-stepping showcase for choreographer Parker Esse and the superb, Broadway-ready Cody Williams as prairie dim bulb Will Parker. Eleasha Gamble’s becoming Laurey cloaks “People Will Say We’re in Love” in pure velvet. And the born comedian June Schreiner capitalizes on her natural gifts for the most expertly innocent version of Ado Annie’s “I Cain’t Say No” you are ever likely to hear.

Speaking of repeat listens: Why doesn’t anyone explore the possibility of cast recordings of regional productions? Because this would be one worth owning. Maybe even in the MP3 age the costs are prohibitive, but I’d bet that a significant percentage of the 600-plus people exposed nightly to Rodriguez and company would be sharing their R&H music files with friends. (Well, maybe they’d have to ask their kids how to do it.)

The breakthrough of director Molly Smith’s production is in fusing the making-of-America ethos of “Oklahoma!” — set at the turn of the 20th century, before the territory achieved statehood — to a more modern understanding of how the country’s composition is utterly dynamic. Thus, Aunt Eller (an amusingly persnickety E. Faye Butler) and Laurey are black; Curly is played by a Latino; the lead cast and ensemble include other actors and dancers who are white, Asian American and African American.

There is going on here the application of rose-colored eyewear: The only suggestion of hostility in this “Oklahoma!” of many colors — aside from the men who fight for Laurey, Curly and Aaron Ramey’s brooding farmhand Jud — is the pervasive rivalry between the farmers and cowmen. Otherwise, Smith maintains on this evening a jaunty air, evoked most definitively by Rodriguez, whose Curly flashes devilish grins and appears for the longest time to take the challenging courtship of fearful, equivocating Laurey as a bit of sport on the range.

His lightness of being is a useful segue as the first act spirals toward his smokehouse confrontation with Jud in the weird, mood-shifting number “Pore Jud Is Daid,” through which Curly tries to persuade his adversary that suicide would be an ennobling exit. Jud in Ramey’s portrayal is a seething menace, and though Jud is crucial to one of the musical’s motifs — the exotic sexual tensions generated by outsiders — Oscar Hammerstein II didn’t entirely solve the problem of how to give this creepy, unlikable character even a shred of humanity.

Smith, with the help of Rodriguez and Ramey, at least manages to milk the self-conscious irony of “Jud Is Daid” so that we sense Curly’s beguiling ham-handedness. And set designer Eugene Lee comes up with an ingenious device for illuminating Jud’s vulgar earthiness: His dark lair rises out of the floor of the Fich’s theater in the round, as if he inhabits an easily accessible level of hell.

This and the carnal turmoil conjured in Laurey’s haunting dream ballet — staged by Esse with both passion and coherence — are the only intimations of trouble on the Plains. The ominous aspects are trumped in Smith’s production by the sweeter ones, and so this “Oklahoma!” is more musical comedy than musical drama. (One cautionary note: Funny lines aren’t funnier just because they’re shouted. In fact, raised voices get muddier, a tendency creeping into some performances.)

The zany romantic triangle of Will, Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, the Persian traveling salesman who likes to peddle more than the wares on his cart to the local ladies, sets the dominant tone here. Nehal Joshi makes for a divinely enjoyable Ali Hakim, infusing this genial huckster with equal parts charm and slyness. He’s a quintessential immigration story unto himself: the visitor who comes only to make a buck, but ends up stitched inexorably into the American quilt.

That maker of other fine threads, Martin Pakledinaz, dresses the cast in the splendidly functional duds of pioneer culture, and Michael Gilliam’s lighting gives an ethereal pallor to Esse’s turbulent dream ballet. The blanket illumination here is of the variety that allows you to feel as if a landmark of the theater is making history all over again.

Oklahoma!

Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Molly Smith. Choreography, Parker Esse; music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar; set, Eugene Lee; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Timothy M. Thompson; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; fight director, David Leong. With Cara Massey, Hollie E. Wright, Hugh Nees, Kyle Vaughn. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 2 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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