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

By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; E07

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.

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.

By Oct. 27, Gamble performed her second preview show, carrying what she calls little "bibles" -- mini-scripts the Arena staff prepared for each of her scenes, tucking them into her costume aprons and checking lines when she needed to. She credits assistant stage manager Jenna Henderson with getting her on and offstage successfully and with the right props. "I don't know what I would've done those early days without her," Gamble says.

She went "off-book" (scriptless) a few days before the press opening, but she says she still reviews her lines backstage before each scene, just to be safe.

In his Nov. 6 review, Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks wrote that Gamble plays Laurey "with a beguiling earthiness." Gamble says: "If you're living on the Oklahoma Territory at that time, and you're two women who are running a farm, you couldn't be this dainty little thing. You're a tough broad, and you kind of have to be."

A little toughness and resilience don't hurt, either, when you're taking on a big role at a major theater at the last minute. "You had to just step up and do it and trust," Gamble says. "Thank God, I'm surrounded with an amazing cast of people and wonderful stage management . . . that helps immensely."

Fulginiti-Shakar remembers Gamble from her college days, when he recruited her for Catholic University's show choir. "We recognized talent when we saw it and gave her a couple of solos right off the bat. And to watch her journey from those days at Catholic University to where she is now . . ."

The music director also worked with her at Ford's Theatre last year on "The Civil War," for which Gamble won a Helen Hayes Award. He says he "watched her grow and just really open out that part."

Gamble was more than ready for "Oklahoma!," he says. "I feel this was a leap for her, but it really was the next leap. She was ready for it. This wasn't anything that she couldn't have done."

Despite the whirlwind way she joined the show, Gamble says: "It just feels like this was where I was supposed to be. I was telling someone the other day, doing this part and everything about it, the second I step onstage, it's felt like breathing."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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