Arena Stage is bringing back its box-office juggernaut "Oklahoma!" for a summer stint, filling a formidable slot in a vacation season that is becoming ever more competitive for Washington's theaters.
The return of "Oklahoma!" on July 8 for a three-month run cements an effort by Arena to make theater presentation a year-round operation for the venerable company and its refurbished campus in Southwest D.C. The idea is to build on the momentum of last fall's sold-out run and try to entice visitors and uninitiated Washingtonians with a crowd-pleasing entertainment - a brand-name musical that many tourists will already know and love.
Traditionally, the sleepy time for the city's stages had been summertime, the rest period when theaters geared up before a big autumn push. Over the past decade, however, an understanding began to take hold that there's a niche to be filled during the hottest months. And with the establishment of events such as the Capital Fringe Festival, the city started to see that even the more adventurous of theatergoers were looking for fresh diversions.
"When I first came to Washington, people felt audiences wouldn't come to the theater in the summer," says Molly Smith, Arena's artistic director. "Over the years, we've done some projects in the summer - 'Three Mo' Divas,' 'Crowns' - and that has had a wonderful effect. People came. That turned the idea on its head."
As a result, the options for the summer have been widening beyond venues such as Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center that routinely have booked touring musicals. Last July, Shakespeare Theatre Company brought in a road company of "Avenue Q," and this summer the twist is that companies are re-mounting their own highly successful productions, with their original casts.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, for instance, has announced that its acclaimed staging of "Clybourne Park," Bruce Norris's bracingly funny play about real estate and race, will return to the company's home on D Street NW for a summer run, beginning July 21. Woolly officials say that the eight actors from the original production, all familiar to Washington theatergoers, are reprising their performances.
These re-mounts do not come without risk. The performance schedules in cities such as Washington are based on formulas that provide for regular runs that could last anywhere from a month to six weeks. Whether shows can be financially viable for longer periods remains, for most companies, fairly uncharted territory.
Arena is betting that "Oklahoma!" can expand the theater's audience to welcome tourists, a market that has proved slow to embrace local theater in the past. "I felt that there was something deeper in the relationship between the audience and 'Oklahoma!'," Smith says, "because it speaks of how good and robust America is, and who we are as a people."
Smith is in the process of assembling the cast for the return of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and hopes to bring back many if not all of the performers from the fall run. The show, directed by Smith and featuring Nicholas Rodriguez, Eleasha Gamble, E. Faye Butler, June Schreiner and Cody Williams, was the surprise smash of the season, the biggest box-office success in Arena's history. (Although there had been some talk of a possible Broadway transfer, the move never materialized, in part because of the production's special physical requirements; it was designed for the in-the-round experience of Arena's Fichandler Stage, a configuration that can't be easily replicated in many New York spaces.)
Oklahoma! is scheduled to run through Oct. 9, and tickets will go on sale to the general public on March 4. On that first day of sales, tickets will be offered at a special discount price of $50. For more information, visit www.arenastage.org .