Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez
in Oklahoma!
(© Carol Rosegg)
Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez
in Oklahoma!
(© Carol Rosegg)
After spending 135 million dollars refurbishing and expanding its southwest DC campus, Arena Stage has returned home and chosen Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical Oklahoma! to inaugurate the new era. And there's little doubt Arena fans will feel right at home with both the space and the production. While director Molly Smith has assembled a culturally diverse cast for the show -- an idea which holds the mostly unfulfilled promise of some sharp new angles on this tale of the late American frontier -- the production is essentially a traditional one.

What Smith delivers is a pleasingly polished, high-energy hoe-down full of agreeable song and dance, supported by Parker Esse's athletic choreography, George Fulginiti-Shakar's vigorous orchestra, and that beautiful bouncy score that sweeps you right along and leaves you humming long after you've left the theater. Unfortunately, the larger emotional resonance is faint, and you can sense each of the 67 years that has passed since the show's Broadway debut.

The story takes us back 100 years to when the Oklahoma territory was on the verge of statehood. But the plot is mainly of the romantic comedy variety: Cowboy Curley (Nicholas Rodriguez, who unleashes a soaring, emotion-filled voice) pursues young Laurey (Eleasha Gamble), who lives with her feisty guardian Aunt Eller (E. Faye Butler), and who plays hard-to-get despite her feelings for the young man.

Gamble layers bittersweet depth onto Laurey's innocence, and we feel her unwillingness to cope with life's ugliness. Her powerful, textured voice is a story-teller's tool, even as it soars to the score's big notes. Butler's Aunt Eller displays wisdom born of bitter experience, but the actress' innate sense of irony and humor make the character shine with optimism, and her powerhouse energy fills the theater.

Indeed, the darker hues of the book from Oscar Hammerstein II are transformed into muted grays here, and the moments of lurking danger and queasy suspense seem oddly diluted. Aaron Ramey plays sinister farmhand Jud as alternately menacing and meek, blurring the character's identity.

Meanwhile, Cody Williams and local high-schooler June Schreiner are both delightful as the lame-brained Will Parker and flirtatious Ado Annie. Williams evokes young Jimmy Stewart in full "aw-shucks" mode, while the gamine Schreiner is comically, radiantly piquant, making it easy to root for these lovebirds.

Esse's western-themed moves -- with lots of resounding, foot-stomping on Eugene Lee's stark, wood-planked set -- create show-stopping effects in the ebullient ensemble number "Kansas City" and the high-spirited "The Farmer and the Cowman." In a different vein, the act-one closer, the "Out of My Dreams/Dream Ballet" sequence, artfully mixes muscle and mysticism in a display of traditional American dance motifs.

In this Oklahoma!, the wind that comes sweeping down the plain is a warm wind that will lift your spirits, even if it only rarely blows you away.