November 11, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Triangles and triumphs

‘Oklahoma!’

Through Dec. 26

Arena Stage

1101 Sixth Street, S.W.

$45-$105

202-488-3300

‘Richard III’

Through Dec. 12

Washington Shakespeare Company

Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington

$25-$35

703-418-4808

Nicholas Rodriguez as Curly and Eleasha Gamble as Laurey in 'Oklahoma!' at Arena Stage's new Mead Center for American Theater. Rodriguez, who's gay, is entirely convincing as a straight character and generates genuine chemistry with Gamble. (Photo by Carol Rosegg; courtesy of Arena.)

When Arena Stage announced plans to inaugurate its breathtakingly renovated Southwest waterfront campus with “Oklahoma!” months ago, there were a few grumbles: Why mark the anticipated moment with an old, oft-produced musical?

As it turns out, director Molly Smith’s rock-solid, rollicking production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking classic couldn’t be better suited for the occasion. Current, diverse and alive, Smith’s “Oklahoma!” is as fresh as the company’s newly redesigned digs.

Set in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma territory, the 1943 Broadway hit is credited with being the first modern musical to integrate music and dance into its plot. The story revolves around two love triangles: Laurey, a headstrong farm girl, who plays hard to get with handsome cowboy Curly while stringing along another guy — dangerous farmhand Jud Fry. Simultaneously, a more comic threesome — Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no,” and her suitors: besotted cowboy Will Parker and Ali Hakim, a traveling Persian peddler – work out their romantic issues.

Smith (who is also Arena’s artistic director) has cast Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez, both actors of color, as Laurey and Curly, leading parts traditionally played by white actors. The result is fabulous — not only are the players terrifically talented, but the casting reflects actual life in the territory and Arena’s multi-cultural mission.

Rodriguez, who played Tarzan on Broadway and gay rights activist Nick Chavez on daytime soap “One Life to Live,” first appeared at Arena last season in “Light in the Piazza” as Fabrizio, a romantic young Italian who falls for a slightly mentally-challenged American girl. With his gorgeous voice and dark good looks, he was terrific in the part. As Curly, Rodriguez again destroys the fallacy that gay actors cannot credibly play straight romantic leads. Not only is he believable, but the chemistry between him and the talented Gamble, who brings the perfect balance of strength and vulnerability to her role, is palpable.

The remainder of the diverse cast is excellent as well. Standouts include real life high school junior June Schreiner as boy crazy Ado Annie and genuine triple threat Cody Williams who plays Will. He lights up the stage in “Kansas City,” an acrobatic, first act showstopper. E. Faye Butler makes a wonderfully tough yet wise Aunt Eller, and Broadway’s Aaron Ramey is perfectly ominous as Jud.

Lead by musical director George Fulginiti Shakar, the dozen-or-so-person orchestra perched offstage in an under construction frontier school house compliments of set designer Eugene Lee, vibrantly interprets the show’s mythic score including songs like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and, of course, “Oklahoma!”

Parker Esse’s bold and beautiful choreography gives a real sense of the settlers – these men and women aren’t gentle folk. “The Farmer and the Cowman” number is virtually a controlled brawl. Yet Esse also considers the characters’ private and romantic aspirations, poignantly brining them to the fore in the “Dream Ballet.”

Without a doubt, “Oklahoma!” is Smith’s best musical endeavor since ably tackling one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s other hits, “South Pacific” almost eight years ago.

Across the Potomac in Rosslyn, Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC) is christening its new home – a black box space in Arlington County’s recently opened Artisphere – with an enthralling, futuristically stylish production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Like Arena, WSC has also made some very smart casting choices — particularly in giving Frank Britton the title role.

During an interview with me several months ago, Britton (who’s bisexual) commented that black actors don’t often get the opportunity to play the ruthless, crown-seeking Richard and he was going to make the most of his moment. Indeed he has — Britton’s layered, nuanced performance as “that foul bunch-backed toad” is a pleasure to behold.

Co-directors (and newlyweds) Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee have also cast women as the king’s advisors (roles originally written for men), adding an intriguing texture to the production. Here Annie Houston as Stanley expresses a mother’s love for her endangered son; there are hints of a lingering romance between Barbara Papendorp’s Catesby and the doomed Hastings played by Joe Palka. And in no other “Richard III,” as I recall, does the scheming Buckingham (Adrienne Nelson) rock big blonde hair a la Angie Dickinson circa 1964. It’s a great season opener for WSC.

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