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THEATER

For Eleasha Gamble, a sudden journey to 'Oklahoma!' at Arena Stage

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Eleasha Gamble stars in Arena Stage's production of 'Oklahoma!.'

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By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Eleasha Gamble was rehearsing for a mini-cabaret turn as one of the guest performers at Arena Stage's Oct. 23 open house when her career took a gulp-inducing leap.

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Artistic Director Molly Smith asked whether Gamble could step into the lead role of Laurey in "Oklahoma!," which was in previews and had less than two weeks before its Nov. 4 press opening.

And not just any press opening, but the show inaugurating Arena's $135 million redesign and grand opening after almost three years of construction and of producing shows at the Lincoln Theatre and temporary venues in Crystal City.

She replaced Valisia LeKae, who, the theater company said, was forced to leave because of "pressing personal matters." The sudden invitation to take over the role and the rush of events after she accepted felt "like the universe colliding all at the same time," Gamble says. She had been scheduled to start rehearsals for "A Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theatre, but Ford's released her with good wishes, she says.

Gamble, 30, a native of Takoma Park (she still lives there with her dad) and a Catholic University theater grad (where she studied with Jane Pesci-Townsend, the beloved musical theater and cabaret performer who died in August), says she's never considered herself a "quick study" when it comes to learning a part. Even so, she jumped into playing Laurey, the spirited young woman who runs a farm with her aunt in the Oklahoma Territory, circa 1900.

"It was just one of those things like, all right, this is what I have to do. There's no time to even complain or worry. You just have to become a sponge and absorb as much as you can as quickly as you can. Trust me -- I surprised myself," she says with a laugh. She admits she was unfamiliar with the show except for its two most famous songs, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " and "Oklahoma!"

Whatever doubts she may have had about her ability to step into the role, the actress says her faith buoyed her. She says she concluded: "God is putting this in my lap for a reason and I can't deny that. I just have to surrender to this process and just trust and believe that this is where I'm supposed to be."

The "process," Gamble says, has been "stressful and crazy and nerve-wracking," but at the same time "a wonderful validation for me."

The day after she was offered the part, she began rehearsing the score with music director George Fulginiti-Shakar and spent the next two days rehearsing with a couple of her co-stars, honing Laurey's big numbers, "Many a New Day" and "People Will Say We're in Love," and other songs, such as "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and of course, the title song.

Fulginiti-Shakar had to get out of his usual Sunday gig as music director at a church to start working with Gamble. They "just bore into the score," he says. He coached her on how to sing the tunes and act the lyrics. "She's a trained musician," he says. "She can read music, so she can actually find her way through the piece, even though she didn't actually know it. Then we just had to start putting in acting values. . . . She had a couple days of music rehearsals before she ever stepped into walking the staging and dancing."

Laurey first comes onstage singing a bit of Curly's signature tune, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," after which she gets into a flirty repartee with him. "That entrance is so important," Fulginiti-Shakar says. "That a cappella entrance . . . is so important, because it says: 'Here I am. Here's the Laurey character you're going to fall in love with for the next two hours.' "

By the third day, Gamble was rehearsing with the whole cast and orchestra and developing her character with Smith, who staged the show. They worked on finding nuance in Laurey's conflicted feelings about the nice guy Curly (Nicholas Rodriguez), whom she clearly loves, and the surly farmhand Jud (Aaron Ramey), who both scares and intrigues her.


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