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You’ll have heard by now that Arena Stage’s gamble—opening its futuristic, glass-sheathed Mead Center for American Theater with that 1943 musical chestnut, Oklahoma!—has paid off handsomely. That is, the show itself is handsome, its box office success a reasonable presumption.
Also reasonable, of course, is the sniffing heard locally since the troupe started talking of Oklahoma! somehow being emblematic of theatrical frontiers, pioneering artists, and the like—pleasant enough as a PR construct, but hardly persuasive to those who recall that when Arena first set up shop in Southwest 50 years ago, it did so with Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Heading off on bold new theatrical adventures in the company of Rodgers & Hammerstein sends a somewhat less ambitious message, no?
Still, even naysayers who grumble on their way into the attractively refurbished Fichandler Stage about how Arena was founded as an antidote to precisely this sort of blithely commercial entertainment are likely to emerge with contented grins. There’s a reason boulevard theater is popular, and much as I might wish this particular occasion were being celebrated with a show that hasn’t been a staple of high school drama clubs for decades, it’s incontestable that Molly Smith’s staging is every inch the rousing crowd-pleaser you’d want a professional revival of Oklahoma! to be: homespun, heartfelt, spiritedly amusing, and stirringly sung.
And it is all of those things from the moment a cowhand named Curly (Nicholas Rodriguez) ambles on from the back of the auditorium to croon the hell out of “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” at first with only some chirping birds for accompaniment (a touch that nicely shows off the house’s freshly pristine acoustics, now isolated from jet and highway noise by that soaring roof and glass curtain wall).
It’s clear that Curly’s really feelin’ that mornin’, his voice soaring, his smile lighting up the stage. And when he stops singing long enough to trade a few quips with E. Faye Butler’s feisty Aunt Eller about taking her niece Laurey (an enchanting Eleasha Gamble) to the box social, you sense that he’s feelin’ that too. In fact, while multicultural casting has been cited as this production’s calling card, perhaps the most unorthodox thing Smith has done to freshen up an over-familiar show is to have her performers act it with the same conviction they’d bring to Chekhov or Molière. The book scenes, whether romantic or vaudeville-inspired, play just as persuasively as the songs and dances. At the matinee I attended, there were actually a number of audience gasps, all of them prompted not by scenic effects or dance pyrotechnics (though Parker Esse’s terrific choreography offers plenty of the latter), but by dialogue that took the crowd by surprise.
Which is not to suggest that the music is being given short shrift. With George Fulginiti-Shakar’s capable 14-piece orchestra situated in an elevated bandstand and vocal amplification managed subtly enough as to be essentially unnoticeable, the show sounds better than any Arena musical ever has. Nor is it afflicted with performers who just stand and sing (or twirl and sing, being in-the-round) as some previous shows have been. Curly’s flirtatious ditty “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” is ornamented with enough business, including a stage-spanning clothesline, that it becomes a playlet of its own. Initially, the hanging clothes seem a miscalculation, obscuring one or another of the actors’ faces from virtually every seat in the house, but there’s method to Smith’s madness; she’s engineered a clever, compensating little payoff.
And when sweetly dim Will Parker (played by triple-threat singer/dancer/comic Cody Williams) strides on so excited about how up-to-date everything is in Kansas City that he can’t keep his feet from flying, first into a two-step and then clean over his head, you entirely understand why his fellow cowpokes get stampeded into a boot-stomping frenzy.
Aaron Ramey’s splendidly full-voiced villain, Jud, barely has to open his pipes in song to make you wish someone would build a production of Sweeney Todd around him. Squeakily adorable June Schreiner, as Will’s gal who “cain’t say no,” and Nehal Joshi’s amusingly put-upon Persian peddler, who makes the tactical mistake of talkin’ purty to her, also have their musical moments. And Gamble, who joined the production just 10 days before its opening, finds such a gentle, ethereal way to send Laurey’s wistful ballad “Out of My Dreams” floating toward the rafters that you’d never guess she’s mostly been heard locally as a belter.
That song leads to a Dream Ballet that’s arguably the least of the production’s enchantments, but credit Smith and her designers with making it plenty eye-popping—costumer Martin Pakledinaz adds a dash of Victoria’s Secret to the show’s calico and cowboy-boot aesthetic, while set and lighting designers Eugene Lee and Michael Gilliam up the steaminess quotient with, well, real steam, which hisses through floorboard slats suddenly glowing scarlet.
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.