Review: Oklahoma!

A triumphant paean to the pioneer spirit with wonderful voices, high-stepping strutters, and enough exuberance to raise the roof

By: Leslie Milk

Star rating: **** out of 4

When Molly Smith took over as Arena Stage’s artistic director 11 seasons ago, she announced that she wanted to celebrate American theater. So it’s fitting that she should celebrate the opening of Arena Stage’s new home with the most-American of musicals, Oklahoma!. From the opening chords of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” to the final anthem of the brand new state of Oklahoma, this is an evening of joyful song and dance reflecting the pioneer spirit at its best.

Many of us have seen Oklahoma! on screen if not on stage. Some of us have performed in Oklahoma! at school or at camp. Forget those productions. The sheer musicality of the creation in the right professional hands is dazzling. And Molly Smith’s cast is up to the task.

Smith has assembled a multicultural cast, but to be honest, you hardly notice. The glorious melodies and the powerful voices of Eleasha Gamble (Laurey) and Nicholas Rodriguez (Curly) are what registers with the audience. The fact that she’s African-American and he’s Hispanic is of fleeting interest. They make truly beautiful music together. The junior leads, June Schreiner (Ado Annie Carnes) and Cody Williams (Will Parker) are so appealing that they threaten to steal the show. Schreiner, a high-school junior at Madeira School, was discovered at Arena’s summer theater camp. Williams has been a guest artist with the Atlanta Ballet, and he brings a winning grace to the dance numbers.

There are plenty of opportunities for star turns in Oklahoma!. Nehal Joshi (Ali Hakim) has so much oily charm he qualifies for an energy credit. And Aaron Ramey is riveting as the menacing Jud Fry.

Choreographer Parker Esse provides some of the best moments of the evening. He makes big things happen on a small stage. The newly appointed Fichandler Theatre at Arena is a theater-in-the-round, which makes a group-dance performance a challenge. But Cody Williams and company manage to make the space feel as wide as the prairie as they leap and tumble about.

This Oklahoma! is A-OK. Even if you think you’ve had the experience, it’s worth seeing the show again.

At Arena Stage through December 26. Tickets ($60 to $75) are available here.

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