By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; C01
What a perfect time for a theater to hit its stride. Arena Stage's "Oklahoma!" is quite simply an enchantment -- a triumphant wave on which the venerable company rides back into its refurbished home on the Washington waterfront.
The show's got life, humor, heart. Director Molly Smith infuses a musical that sometimes can come across as a nostalgia piece with the energy of a new age, with the gifts of a cast whose faces reflect the America of this moment. Her exciting take -- reinforced grandly in Parker Esse's superb choreography -- touches on the uplift you feel merely walking into Arena's newly glittering complex, itself a representation of the nation's optimistic impulse for reinvention.
"Country's changing, and we got to change with it!," Curly, in the charming guise of Nicholas Rodriguez, confides to his prairie love, Laurey, portrayed with a beguiling earthiness by Eleasha Gamble. It might seem that in casting a Latino and an African American as the lead couple, Smith has placed Curly's line in italics too deliberately. But not only is there some historical support for these choices, it's also a fact that each of them sings like a dream. In the benevolent land of opportunity that is conjured here, they've earned these jobs, on merit.
And their performances are cushioned by the most astutely assembled cast Arena has rounded up for a musical in years. As the show's comic couple, the dopey but devoted Will Parker and the overeager object of his affection, Ado Annie, the sublime Cody Williams and June Schreiner come this close to upstaging the main-event love story. Williams executes a two-step as sharply as he sings, and with the help of the male ensemble, turns the first-act dance number "Kansas City" into a thrilling acrobatic showpiece.
Schreiner, a junior at Northern Virginia's Madeira School, proves an utterly irresistible Annie, adorably barking out the lyrics to "I Cain't Say No." Schreiner's dewiness is an asset, too, for Ado Annie's appetite for men is not the ardor of one who knows a lot about sex, but one who merely wants to. This young natural with comedic chops to spare is on her way, and it is going to be great fun following her ascent.
Smith raised some eyebrows with the selection of this signature Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from 1943 to reopen the Fichandler Stage, and Arena's Southwest Washington campus, after its $135 million overhaul. What gives with serving as a first course a chestnut? Well, old can be new, as architect Bing Thom's respectful and transformational design for the complex also reveals. In the past, Smith (who's also Arena's artistic head) has exhibited a passion for Golden Age musicals such as "Damn Yankees" and "Cabaret," but too often seemed to feel the need for intrusive statementmaking and stagy embellishment.
Perhaps because her ties to the American frontier are so personal -- Smith spent many years living in Alaska and then running a theater there -- she feels closer to the material, trusts it more completely. Whatever the reason, "Oklahoma!" is the most mature and confident production she's shepherded. With assistance from the invaluable music director George Fulginiti-Shakar and a 12-member orchestra, she always allows the show to sing in its own flavorful voice.
The score -- filled with melodies that get stuck in your cranium ("The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "People Will Say We're in Love" and of course, the title choral number) -- reverberates pleasurably in the rehabilitated Fich. The box seats at the top of the in-the-round space have been done away with, a capacity reduction that warms the theater, intensifies its intimacy. Some amplification is used, but in any event, the ear is fully accommodated.
Based on a play that's largely been forgotten, Lynn Riggs's "Green Grow the Lilacs," "Oklahoma!" takes place just after the turn of the 20th century in a territory soon to become a state. It's about plain folks on a small patch of earth being absorbed into a universe of bigger ideas and ambitions: Will returns from a trip to the city, amazed at the towering skyscrapers -- seven stories high. The outside world comes knocking, too, in the person of Ali Hakim (the charismatic Nehal Joshi), a Persian peddler who, true to the musical's tolerant spirit, is treated with the same roughhewn etiquette as everyone else.
That appealing dichotomy in the characters -- intimations of stubbornness along with generosity -- is embodied most entertainingly by Laurey's Aunt Eller, here portrayed with a pitch-perfect flintiness by E. Faye Butler. "You cain't deserve the sweet and tender in life less'n you're tough," she instructs, counsel that permeates the musical. It serves no good purpose, for instance, to be anything but sternly resolute when dealing with the no-account farmhand Jud (Aaron Ramey, in yet another of the production's maximum-impact turns), who's displayed violent tendencies and has his menacing eye on Laurey.
Some of the unusual demands of staging "Oklahoma!" in the Fich have been innovatively satisfied by designer Eugene Lee, who places his main visual elements -- a windmill, the doors to Aunt Eller's farmhouse, the bandstand -- over the corner stage exits, or in a portion of the audience. Ali's elaborate pushcart rolls on, as do vintage cars and parade floats. And the subterranean precincts of Jud's mind are intriguingly illuminated in the evocation of the smokehouse in which he bunks.
Michael Gilliam's lighting adds another dimension, especially during the famous dream ballet, bathed in a ghostly green that shows up both in Martin Pakledinaz's costumes and Gilliam and Lee's cleverly engineered strobe effect.
The disparate pieces of Smith's "Oklahoma!" converge so potently that you can't help seeing the hopeful future in which Curly and Laurey and Eller and Annie believe. With the nation nursing a hangover from all the antics of this vituperative election cycle, it's an ideal moment to reflect on what other kind of future these characters might have been contemplating. Come to think of it, that beleaguered-looking guy in the White House might want to swing by one night soon, for a melodic reminder of American resilience.
music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Molly Smith. Sound, Timothy M. Thompson; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; fight choreography, David Leong. With Semhar Ghebremichael, Hollie E. Wright, Kyle Vaughn, Emilee Dupré, Andrew Hodge, Philip Michael Baskerville, Lucas Fedele, Hugh Nees, Jessica Wu. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Dec. 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit http://www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.