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Review Roundup: OKLAHOMA! at Arena Stage


There is much speculation about the Arena Stage production of OKLAHOMA! making a transfer to the Great White Way in spring of 2011. Arena Stage begins a new life in its renovated home at the Mead Center for American Theater in Southwest D.C., opening its inaugural season with a classic American musical that similarly embraces life on a new frontier. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is the first production at the Mead Center and features an all-star cast under the direction of Artistic Director Molly Smith. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! runs October 22-December 26, 2010 in the Fichandler Stage.

Inspired by the toughness of the prairie, Smith sets her production in the robust world of territory life filled with a dynamic cast as rich and complex as the tapestry of America itself. D.C. area favorite E. Faye Butler (Arena Stage's Crowns, Ain't Misbehavin') stars as Aunt Eller, with Eleasha Gamble (Broadway's Ragtime, 110 in the Shade) as Laurey, Aaron Ramey (Broadway's Curtains, Thoroughly Modern Millie) as Jud and Nicholas Rodriguez (Broadway's Tarzan) as Curly, who played Fabrizio last season in The Light in the Piazza, also directed by Smith. Cody Williams makes his Arena Stage debut as Will Parker alongside June Schreiner as Ado Annie Carnes, a high school junior at The Madeira School in McLean, VA, who was discovered in last summer's Arena Stage Academy Musical Theater Training Company. With Rodgers and Hammerstein's timeless music, Smith's Oklahoma! celebrates the vigor of America's pioneering spirit with athletic dance and boot-stomping energy.

Peter Marks, Washington Post: 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.

Terry Ponick . Washington Times: In any event, Arena's new production of Oklahoma! is an intimate, refreshing, and uplifting version of the musical that arguably kicked off Broadway's Golden Age. It's a great way for Arena to kick off its renewed presence as what is now, hands down, Southwest DC's signature architectural and theatrical landmark.

Jeremy Girard, Bloomburg News: She was determined to cast a company that "looks like the city we live in," not to mention the Indian Territory itself at the turn of the last century. She brought in Eugene Lee to design the sets (you know his work if you watch "Saturday Night Live" or have seen "Wicked"), which have an attractively unfinished, rough-hewn quality.

Richard Ouzonian, Toronto Star: This isn't any kind of a radical revisionist production of the R&H classic. Apart from some blessed and bountiful colour-blind casting, Smith has been content to let the work speak for itself.

Bob Mondello . Washington City Paper: Yes, it's still a show in which the most pressing question is which of two guys will get to take a pretty girl to a dance, but by evening's end, I confess, I was in no mood to complain. Arena, after all, will have plenty of chances to tackle weightier topics this season, starting this week with a world premiere that a press release says will blend "ancient myth with magical realism, Biblical allegory with TV news." So what the hell-away we go.

Jordan Wright, Alexandria Times: The strength of this production's success comes from the supporting cast.  Nicholas Rodriguez, as Curly, was vocally outshone by secondary cast members, Aaron Ramey as Jud Fry and Cody Williams as Will Parker. Williams, slim as a minute, ripped up the stage with back flips, leaps, high kicks and soft shoe along with the cast's other crack dancers.

Chris Klimek, Washington Examiner:No, the real delight for anyone who knows the show only by reputation as a high school perennial, is how dark and dirty it is. Though it's plot-heavy compared to the musicals that preceded it, "Oklahoma!" interrupts those glorious tunes with what is, by modern standards, only a wisp of a story.

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: It doesn't help that so much of the acting in this "Oklahoma!" is broad to the point of cheerful caricature and that Aaron Ramey's performance as Jud, the angry farmhand, lacks the threatening edge of rage without which his climactic violence makes no sense. In addition, the 14-piece pit orchestra, which sports only one violin and one cello, sounds distinctly undernourished.


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