17 October 2011

'Oklahoma!' (Arena Stage)

On Tuesday, 27 September, my mother and I went to the new Arena Stage theater, called the Mead Center for American Theater, opened just this season, to see a matinée of their very successful and popular revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! My parents used to be long-time subscribers and attendees at Arena and I’d been going for many years on and off whenever I was in Washington, but neither Mom nor I had seen the new theater building the company’d built over about a two-year period (during which time, it had presented its productions in a couple of local theaters around the metro area, including the historic Lincoln Theatre in downtown Washington), so when the company announced that it was bringing back the hit revival, we thought it would be a great excuse to see the new facility. (Mother did see another play at the Arena in the interim, but at the time we bought the seats, several months ago, neither of us had been there.) I traveled down to Washington on Saturday for the express purpose of seeing the show, one of the classics on whose music I’d grown up (see “A Broadway Baby” on ROT, 22 September 2010), and we drove over to the new Arena on Southwest 6th Street, near the Potomac waterfront, arriving at about 11:30 a.m. to look around the Fichandler theater space a bit before taking our seats for a noon curtain.

The original Broadway production of Oklahoma! opened at the St. James Theatre on 31 March 1943, staying for a lengthy run of over five years, closing on 29 May 1948 after 2,212 performances. (The popular film adaptation was released in 1955.) After the première production garnered scores of encomiums, revivals have continued all around the country, indeed the entire world, since then, including several Broadway returns. Though I may have seen a production as a small child when we used to go to the Cape Cod Music Tent in Hyannis, Massachusetts, during summer vacations, I don’t remember it (though, as I mention in “Broadway Baby,” I do remember other performances there that made impressions on me). So for all intents and purposes, after growing up with the original-cast recording and the movie soundtrack (both of which I own, though the cast album was an inheritance from my father), this was my first time seeing the classic musical on stage. (I did watch the 2003 televised presentation of a London revival on PBS, just as I did with the Lincoln Center staging of South Pacific in August 2010, but that’s not quite the same as seeing it live.) The current remounting opened at the Fichandler Theater, Arena’s open-space theater-in-the-round, on 8 July (through 2 October) after an original run from 22 October through 30 December of last year, the inaugural production of the Mead Center which garnered four Helen Hayes Awards last February, Washington’s local counterparts to the Tonys, including Outstanding Resident Musical. (Peter Marks of the Washington Post called that first edition “an enchantment.”)

As I’ve said many times now, I have no real objectivity when it comes to these golden oldies. My response to them is all tied up with private nostalgia and my general love for the American musical from back when it was still called musical comedy. I never saw Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Howard da Silva, or Celeste Holm do Curly, Laurey, Jud, or Ado Annie, but those are the voices I still hear when I think of the songs from the Oklahoma! score. (Curiously, I don’t hear Gordon MacRea, Shirley Jones, Rod Steiger, or Gloria Grahame, even though I did see the movie when I was little and played that LP nearly as often as the Broadway album.) So when I tell you that I enjoyed this production immensely, with very few reservations or complaints, you have to understand my perspective. I love these shows so thoroughly that I can seldom find any real fault in them—unless the production really goes off the rails. I’ll say right here that this one did not—by any measure, I’d say.

Most of the current cast was the same as the one that first appeared in the Arena revival, staged by the troupe’s artistic director, Molly Smith, herself nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for the show. (I’m going to assume that anyone reading this already knows the story of Oklahoma!, adapted from Lynn Riggs’s 1931 Green Grow the Lilacs, or can find it easily, so I won’t recap it.) Because we saw a matinée, there were a few substitutions, the most significant of which was the actor we saw playing Curly. Performing the romantic lead here was Kyle Vaughn who normally dances Dream Curly in “Dream Ballet.” (He was also the designated understudy for Curly.) Since I never saw Nicholas Rodriguez do the role, I can’t compare the two performances, but I can say that Vaughn was fine, with an excellent tenor voice and matinée-idol (no pun intended) good looks, and solid acting skills. Not a thing was diminished, as far as I could see, from the switch.

Maybe I should get back to the performances in a bit and say a few words about the rest of the production first. I think I should broach the subject of casting, but only because it was there in front of us, not because there’s any need to explain it. The Arena is a stalwart practitioner of non-traditional and color-blind casting, and Oklahoma! was a multi-cultural company. Laurey and Aunt Eller were played by African-American actors (Eleasha Gamble and Terry Burrell, respectively; and Hollie E. Wright as Dream Laurey is an African-American dancer). There were Asian, Latino, and black cowboys, farmers, and farm women in this Oklahoma Territory. This didn’t enter into the dramaturgy of the production (though it did add a fortuitous frisson of additional meaning when Aunt Eller sings, “I don't say I'm better than anybody else, / But I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good!”), but I understand from the scuttlebutt that it disturbed some spectators—or at least detracted from their full enjoyment of the show. (I’ve seen many Arena musicals with interracial casting, including Damn Yankees, Camelot, and South Pacific, though this was the first show I’ve seen there in which one of the lead characters was cast interracially this way. It’s not, however, as if anyone in the Washington audience wouldn’t know the company acts on this commitment.) Though I don’t feel that an explication is necessary, I’ll quote director Smith’s program statement in this regard to put her on the record:

The only reason to do a revival is because you have something new to say about the story. My idea was simple—I wanted to create an Oklahoma that looks and feels like 1907 [the year it became a state] on the frontier—a time when it was a robust territory, not a state. This Oklahoma was a place where no one knew what it would become, but all were ready to leap forward. There was an essential wildness about the place and people.

Oklahoma was diverse—frontiers always are. Arena’s cast is an American tapestry, with all colors and types. African-Americans, Native-Americans and Asian-Americans lived in Oklahoma at [the] beginning of the 20th century. They shared a territory but lived in separate communities. Arena’s production celebrates this diversity but also reflects modern America where people from all backgrounds and races live and work together.

"Country's changing, and we got to change with it!" says Curly, so if you need a rationale for diverse casting, then I suppose this is one’s all right. (Delivered by Nicholas Rodriguez, a Latino actor who usually plays Curly, to Gamble’s Laurey, this line might have taken on an addition edge.) It’s a fantasy of an early-20th-century America, to be sure, but so’s Oklahoma! anyway. (Interestingly, Lynn Riggs, the author of the play on which the musical was based, was not only an Oklahoma native, but a Cherokee Indian. He wrote Green Grow the Lilacs in Paris in 1928.) It was part of the staging only visually, however, which is fine. I wouldn’t want lines inserted to “justify” the racial mix on stage. (After all, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II wrote in an important character of Persian origin, the peddler Ali Hakim, played by Nehal Joshi, and no one else remarks on his ethnicity—he makes reference to his Persian culture himself sometimes—even though some might see his role as somewhat demeaning by today’s standards. The cowboys and farmers of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma territory, at least, don’t treat Hakim any differently than they do each other—and Ado Annie’s dad is more than ready to make the peddler his son-in-law.) The old New Frontier depicted in Oklahoma! is certainly more heartening than the country reflected in today’s cancerous politics.

Creating sets for arena productions is often difficult since the designer can’t create backdrops or walls to help establish the locations and settings. The Arena overcomes this often by incorporating parts of the auditorium in the design concept, and Hayes-nominated set-designer Eugene Lee (who has several Tonys, too) decorated the house with wisps of tall grass, 45-star American flags, and other trappings of the period, region, and atmosphere. Over one vom was a windmill of the kind you might see in a prairie farm field, over another was the front porch and entrance to Laurey and Aunt Eller’s house, and over a third was a wooden enclosure on which was nailed the red banner with a large white star bearing the inscription “46”: the first state flag of Oklahoma, adopted in 1907 when the territory became the union’s 46th state. Next to the fourth vom was a structure than might be a house or a barn under construction (in the movie, there’s a barn-raising scene), with a long sluice running from a middle level to the stage as if hay bales or something might come sliding down from a loft. (The structure served as the “pit” for Musical Director George Fulginiti-Shakar’s 13-piece orchestra—he won a Hayes Award for his musical direction—and the platform was where Aunt Eller stood to auction off the hampers at the box social; the sluice was used in a couple of the scenes, especially dance routines, as a slide.) Aside from a few props that came and went, though, the stage floor was mostly bare, looking like the kind of makeshift stage a prairie town might erect for an outdoor square dance. (Jud’s smokehouse came up in the center of the arena square on a lift both for the “Pore Jud” scene and during the “Dream Ballet.” It ascends from the . . . well, nether regions as if Jud resided part time in hell.) It was both serviceable, accommodating the sometimes large cast (all those cowboys, farmhands, and their gals) and the dance numbers, and atmospheric enough to keep the play’s world in mind even when there wasn’t a lot of other scenery.

Arena’s costumes have always been good. I particularly remember the job the designer for 2004’s Camelot did, taking into account the multi-ethnic casting of the knights (there was an African warrior, a Middle-Eastern mamluk, and a Japanese samurai)—almost certainly anachronistic for Arthur’s Britain, but terrific visual fun nevertheless. Here Martin Pakledinaz created clothes that evoked the turn-of-the-century West (musical-theater style, of course) without coming off either too gritty (à la 21st century) or too prissy (pre-‘60s 20th century)—neither Clint Eastwood/Sam Peckinpah nor Tom Mix/Roy Rogers; they just looked nicely functional and colorful enough to dress up the often-empty stage. (As a sidelight to the current productions at the theater, “the Fich” was housing an exhibit of past Arena costumes around its lobby space, including that Camelot and the Damn Yankees I saw there in 2006.)

Lighting, as far as I can tell, is also a difficult design for an arena production, since the designer can’t use the back of the set for washes of color or the suggestion of moonlight and such. (The famous orange-red glow across the sky-cyc in the “Dream Ballet,” for example, just isn’t possible, obviously.) Lights can’t be focused so that they shine across the acting space into the seating section on the other side, so “side” lighting isn’t really possible on an arena stage, either. That means it all has to be basically practical—put light on the actors—and essentially overhead. This Michael Gilliam did effectively.

Oklahoma! is famously a dance show. The dance numbers all sprang from either the characters or the dramatic situation, starting a new musical-theater tradition (that culminated with West Side Story a decade later). Aside from the ground-breaking ballet sequence at the end of act one, there are several big ensemble numbers (“The Farmer and the Cowman” and “Oklahoma!”) as well as extensive duets and small-group dances. Choreography, originally by Agnes de Mille, is as important to this musical play as singing and acting. In this respect, the Arena production was less than stellar—and I’ve seen this in past Arena musicals as well. I don’t know a great deal about dance, so I may be misjudging the problems here, but I feel that choreographing on an arena stage is innately hard. In addition to all the usual considerations a choreographer has to make when conjuring dances for a musical drama, he has to keep in mind that everything the dancers do is viewed not just from the front but from all sides so that the dances have to look just as good from the sides and the back as they do head-on. By the same token, all the spectators deserve face-time with the cast, so the choreographer must design dances that rotate from time to time for no other reason than that all parts of the house get to see them face to face one fourth of the time. Finally, I believe most arena spaces are just smaller than the standard proscenium stage, giving the choreographer less room to “swing a rope,” so to speak. (This isn’t even considering the lack of levels the set on a proscenium or even thrust stage might offer to create interesting steps and visuals.) Pretty much all Parker Esse, another Helen Hayes nominee, had to work with was a bare platform, a little wooden square. Still, within those restrictions, Esse didn’t come up with much that was terribly interesting, much less spectacular. (The whirling chaps were kind of fun, I must say—the Dervishes have their caftans; these buckaroos had their chaps—but I don’t know how unique to this staging that is. Esse also had a clever bit with a pair of parallel clotheslines that became the reins of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”) The “Dream Ballet” was pedestrian and somewhat awkwardly danced, as if the cast of this long-running revival were still in rehearsal. Even Cody Williams’s acrobatics as Will Parker were subdued; he even slipped once coming out of an aerial flip. Of all the aspects of this Oklahoma!, the dancing was the least successful.

The other part of the show that didn’t measure up was the fight choreography, credited to David Leong. Leong has a long list of credits on Broadway and at the Arena, but I hadn’t seen any of the named shows in his bio so I don’t know if this was his usual work or an aberration. The fights just weren’t credible even in the context of musical theater. Again, I understand that choreographing fights might be harder when there’s audience on all four sides—hiding pulled punches is tough when you can’t block much of the audience’s view—but everything was slow, though not enough to evoke slow-motion (which wouldn’t have been appropriate in this production anyway) and looked very much as if the actors were all going through the movements by the numbers without the acting element of committing to the emotions behind the fight. (Next to a love scene, I’d say that a fight may be the most emotion-laden moment in which an actor can engage.) The most damaging—and confusing—example was the fatal knife fight between Curly and Jud near the end. Along with the other faults, the moment of Jud’s stabbing was so illogical and badly timed, I wasn’t even sure I saw what had happened and Jud was facing me directly when it occurred. (My mother, sitting next to me, didn’t see it, and spectators in other sections of the house probably had no idea what had taken place.) Jud had drawn his knife and he and Curly struggled center stage for a few seconds, then Curly threw Jud off to his left (that is, toward my seating section) and Jud, standing but slightly hunched over at the waist, stabbed himself in the belly. There didn’t seem to have been any reason the force or momentum of his movement would have caused this; it was almost an afterthought. Jud then pulled the knife out, revealing a blood spot, and returned to Curly and they grappled some more. Then Jud reeled backwards a few paces, stumbled, and fell to the ground on his side, clearly now dead or dying, the knife sticking in his stomach again. The whole sequence seemed sloppily conceived and clumsily executed, not to mention illogical. If the performers couldn’t do the stabbing in one of the fight’s clinches, hidden from clear view by the audience but visible enough for us to know what was happening, then how about just having Jud fall on the knife when Curly threw him out of a clinch? It would be cleaner and everyone would see what happened easily and, I hope, believably.

But when it came to the acting and singing, I had very little to complain about. I will say, with no reflection on the performers, that the amplification system in use got muddy at the higher volumes making it hard to hear some of the lyrics (as if I didn’t already know most of them by heart anyway—but there are, amazingly, a few songs that aren’t so well known: “It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!” and “Lonely Room”). Everyone knows by now how I feel about electronic amplification (see “The Sound of Muzak,” 6 June), but I still say it’s a shame that singers can’t work without it today. (Mikes were used for the spoken dialogue, too.) Nonetheless, the performers were all fine otherwise when it came to their roles and their songs. In the leads of Laurey and Curly, Eleasha Gamble, who was also nominated for a Hayes Award, and Kyle Vaughn were both solid and strong but with enough sense of humor to keep the characters from being latter-day Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Gamble’s Laurey started to seem like a Sooner mean-girl in the first few moments of her meeting with Curly, but the actress softened and began to seem like the teenager Laurey is—she’s about 18 in the play—not quite sure what she wants or how to get it. As Jud Fry, the third side of the central romantic triangle and one of musical theater’s darkest villains, Aaron Ramey displayed a magnificent baritone—his one solo number, “Lonely Room,” was almost frightening in its implications—and a strong sense of character, exuding an almost Pinteresque threat, especially before we really know what Jud’s capable of, and just the right note of the tortured soul that comes close to making him pitiable. Terry Burrell’s Aunt Eller was just whip-sharp enough to make the cowboys and farmhands pull up short lest they make her angry—she cows them nicely in “The Farmer and the Cowman”—but you still know that she’s everyone’s favorite adopted aunt, the town’s heart if not its brains (which she probably is, too).

In the second love triangle, Cody Williams as Will Parker, the womanizing-and-gambling, slightly dim suitor of Ado Annie, was appropriately cocky and brash, making those traits all the more striking because Williams is a little guy. Aside from the one dance slip I mentioned earlier, his energetic dancing was also enjoyable. Williams, who also garnered a Helen Hayes nomination for this role, had the most character-ly voice in the cast and he made the most of that in his comic songs “Kansas City” and “All er Nothin’”—the first a nice dance number with the cowboys and the second a terrific two-scene with Ado Annie, off of whom Williams played very well. In June Schreiner’s hands (and voice), Ado Annie—one of my all-time favorite musical theater characters—was much more of a little girl just discovering her sexuality than either Holm or Grahame (who were both women who knew what they could do, even if they couldn’t always control it). Schreiner was the only female on stage who was an actual “girl” as opposed to a “young woman,” which may have been because Schreiner’s a high school senior! Her scenes with both Will Parker and Ali Hakim were standouts. Petite and strawberry blond, with her hair in twin pigtails down her back, she looked like that wind sweepin’ down the plain could blow her away, but she had the determination to blow right back: Schreiner’s got a big soprano voice in that little package. (Gamble is a somewhat bigger gal than Schreiner, but when the two were together, you’re not sure Ado Annie couldn’t take Laurey just by sheer will and energy! I have a feeling Kristin Chenoweth was a little like Schreiner when she was 18.) Finally, the odd part of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler and philanderer, was fulfilled with great humor (and a little well-placed cowardliness) by Nehal Joshi, who managed to avoid any obvious incursion of period stereotyping or caricaturing. (It’s not possible to avoid it all: the character is written a little that way, from the perspective of the 1940s. I suppose it’s significant that the character’s not an Arab or a Jew. I suppose Persia was sufficiently exotic in the 1940s to be protected a little from preconceptions—the name had changed to Iran officially in 1935; I looked it up.) Hakim’s dealings with Will Parker, the slick merchant and the slow-witted cowpoke, were small masterpieces of comic misdirection and ambiguity, nicely handled by Joshi and Williams.

It’s an additional amusement, by the way, that Hakim’s cart, a peddler’s horse-drawn wagon in the film, of course, and probably a large hand-pulled cart in proscenium productions, was here a small contraption mounted over the front wheel of a bicycle! I don’t know how Hakim traverses the Midwestern plains in that thing (but, then, how does Porgy get to New York from South Carolina in a goat cart? It’s best not to ponder these things too much), but it makes a wonderful visual gag. (Maybe he ties the wagon up in town and uses the bicycle cart for his local sales visits. Saves the horses, I guess.) Whatever the rationale in set designer Lee’s or director Smith’s mind was, it’s enough justification (for me, at least) that it was functional—and cute. Functional and cute is a good thing! (What can I tell ya—I’m easy!) Late in the show, a small “horseless carriage” putted across the stage, allowing a peek at what’s to come along with those seven-story skyscrapers and Bell telly-phones.

Molly Smith, who was a New Frontierswoman for a long while herself (she founded Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre in 1979 and ran it for 19 years), took a slightly liberal perspective on the musical classic. The casting was one indication of her view of the play and its implications, and she and Parker Esse updated the dances in the sense that they’re more acrobatic and energetic than de Mille’s more traditional mid-century Broadway steps. There were also hints of line- and clog-dancing (to my uneducated eye, at any rate) redolent of today’s country-flavored hoedowns. The traditional point-of-view of Oklahoma! is, as expressed in the movie, a rose-colored view of America’s past and the expansion westward. I think Smith wants us to concentrate on the future(s)—the one about to start for the residents of “a brand new state” and, by implication, ours. (In a sense, there’s another future on the cusp here as well: this Oklahoma! inaugurated the Arena’s $135 million new theater complex, the beginning of the troupe’s new life to come, too.) If I’m right, she’s a lot more optimistic or hopeful than I am right now—but I don’t think that’s wrong for theater. Especially in a musical. Maybe we need to be reminded what other possibilities there are. In any event, Smith didn’t violate the spirit of the play at all, and did a very nice job putting it on the stage for us to relish.

Just for the record, Arena’s Oklahoma! broke all kinds of box-office records for the troupe and all the reviews were laudatory, some in the extreme. There was a lot of punning—in which you’ll notice I also engaged—with Terry Ponick in the Washington Times declaring, “’You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!’ And Oklahoma’s, O.K.!” and Marks in the Post saying, “That bright golden haze is just as radiant the second time around” (on his own second go-round).

I said that seeing Arena’s re-revival of Oklahoma! was an excuse to see the new theater—but to be honest, I shouldn’t have needed an excuse. The show was its own justification—particularly from my perspective as a sucker for old-time Broadway musicals. A few cavils aside, I’ll say unequivocally that I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more (except for the unlikely chance I could go back in time and catch Alfred Drake, et al., in the preem—a chance that may be less unlikely now that scientists may have discovered particles that travel faster than light!). Since I’ve admitted that I have a hard time being critical of these shows, I guess my assessment is suspect. So, take it as you will. I’m stickin’ to my guns. Whatcha gonna do? Spit in my eye?

[Because Oklahoma! was the opening production at Arena’s new Mead Center and this was my first visit to the new theater, I’m considering writing an article on the building, its construction, and the history that brought the company to this point after 61 years. And because the troupe staged many of its productions in Washington’s 90-year-old Lincoln Theatre while it was displaced from its home base, I’m also thinking of writing a sort of companion piece about that historic theater and its sister, the Howard, which hold a significant place in the history of American popular entertainment. (There’s also a family connection in this history, which impels me to follow through on this idea.) Nothing’s been committed to words yet so I don’t know when either of these articles might appear on ROT, but if I do write them, I expect it will be before the end of 2011. In the meantime, I’ve recently seen two interesting productions at BAM, the Berliner Ensemble’s Threepenny Opera directed by Robert Wilson and Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Speaker’s Progress, and there will soon be reports on those performances on ROT. I hope readers will return to this site to read my impressions of those and future performances.]


  1. Dear Rick,
    Thanks for the thorough report! I'm presenting a conference paper on the Arena Stage production of Oklahoma!, and I intend to write my dissertation on the history of the company. We should get in touch!
    -Donatella (dgalella@gc.cuny.edu)

  2. Donatella--

    Thanks for the compliment. FYI, I have a later article on "ROT" called "Washington’s Arena Stage: Under Construction," posted on 26 Nov. 2011, which covers some of the company's history, but focuses on the new complex. (There's also another report on 25 Dec. 2011 on the Washington theater scene as it was in 1985 or so, when it first started blossoming.) Otherwise, I really don't have any further information to share with you.

    Good luck,