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A&E road trip: Arena Stage's "Oklahoma!" in D.C.

August 14, 2011

I’m glad the buzz about a possible Broadway transfer for Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” didn’t pan out. That’s because the show is just fine where it is, in D.C., where the production that opened Arena’s new theater last season has returned for a summer run.

This is a production very careful and joyfully designed for an intimate, in-the-square space.  Beautifully crafted down to the barn that houses the band, its director and designers know that in a show such as this, cleverness should only be used sparingly, less it become gimmickry. That restraint makes moments such as Curly using clothes lines to rein in his imaginary surrey’s horses or Jud’s lonely smokehouse room rising from below the stage all the stronger.

More importantly, this is an “Oklahoma!” that understands that for the audience to care, there has to be very real conflict being experienced by very real people. The show—not this production—dies when it’s staged as a greatest Broadway hits collection sung by 35-year-olds. And when you cut out, trim to nothing, or have tiresome dancing in the dream ballet that ends Act 1, you cut out a big part of the heart of the play. Here, the ballet serves a vital narrative function (and paves the way for a virtuoso piece of stagecraft to transition out of the dream).

You may recall that, at that point in “Oklahoma!,” Laurey is trying to decide if she made the right choice by letting hired hand Jud Fry take her to the boxed lunch social.  The creepier the Jud, the less of a choice Laurey really has to make. Here, we have a Judd who’s, well, sexy. He’s handsome. He’s strong. And he even gets a walk-by playing harmonica before Curly sees the bright golden haze on the meadow at the top of the show (For a second I thought he was Curly).                

When Laurey talks about Jud to Aunt Eller, she’s not describing someone she’s only terrified of: She’s describing someone she knows she’s very attractive to, someone who wakes up something in her. The dream ballet makes her confusion even more palpable—and Jud’s memory of Laurey helping to take care of him when he was sick becomes genuinely moving. Actor Aaron Ramey is allowed to turn yell-y in Act II when boiling-but-not-bursting quieter intensity would have been more dramatic. But up until then, Laurey’s decision is far from a done deal. This Curly is going to have to work to make himself the leading man in her story.

If Eleasha Gamble’s Laurey feels a bit too transparent and Nicholas Rodriquez, her Curly, looks disturbingly like infomercial “Money Making Secrets” spokesguy Don Lapre, well, those are things one can deal with. Especially when they feel the right age, there’s a solid production around them, and you’ve got a treasure of an Ado Annie in June Schreiner.

Still in high school, the kid knocks the role out of the park with a funny but not cartoony take on the “can’t say no” gal. She plays opposite Cody Williams as her Will Parker who, with the spirit of Donald O’Conner or Tommy Steele, proves a stronger dancer than singer—and he’s a very good singer. Extra credit to choreographer Parker Esse who not only able handled the showstopping big numbers but also found ways to turn the Ado Annie/Will Parker duet “All er Nothin’” into much more than a second-act novelty throwaway.

And, I’ll confess, this is the first production I’ve seen of “Oklahoma!” where, in a heartbeat, I would take Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) to the social.  

Broadway? Without name stars or an overriding gimmick, this intimate Oakie wouldn’t have much of a chance. Let it remain what it is: A regional theater treasure of a production. And let’s hope that the sets are stored somewhere instead of dismantled. It’s a production that’s worth reviving.

“Oklahoma!” runs through October 2. The upcoming Arena Stage season includes a Eugene O’Neill festival, a new musical version of “Like Water for Chocolate,” and much more. Details here.

Coming soon: Thoughts on Studio Theatre's production of "Pop!," a musical about Andy Warhol.

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