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Frisky Pioneers Jazz D.C. ‘Oklahoma!’; Bernstein’s Dud: Review

Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez play sparring lovers in
Eleasha Gamble and Nicholas Rodriguez play sparring lovers in "Oklahoma!" The revival at the Arena Stage is presented by artistic director Molly Smith. Photographer: Carol Rosegg/Arena Stage via Bloomberg

Nov. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The turbo-charged, romantic revival of “Oklahoma!” that opens in Washington this week may boast of a surrey with the fringe on top. But it has ants in its pants, too.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein perennial was a gutsy choice for artistic director Molly Smith. But the $135-million Mead Center for American Theater -- that’s the fancy new name for D.C.’s venerable, now lavishly revitalized Arena Stage -- deserved a big, celebratory show.

Smith, 58 and now in her 12th season as artistic director, has put just enough spin on things to make “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” sound fresh.

She was determined to cast a company that “looks like the city we live in,” not to mention the Indian Territory itself at the turn of the last century. She brought in Eugene Lee to design the sets (you know his work if you watch “Saturday Night Live” or have seen “Wicked”), which have an attractively unfinished, rough-hewn quality.

Floating Band

Lee puts the frontier all around us, stashing the pit band in a skeletal, half-built schoolhouse floating above the audience and opposite a metal-bladed windmill.

That leaves the central playing area clear for all sorts of inventiveness in a show that asks the compelling question: Who will get to take Laurey Williams to the box social -- dreamy, clean-cut cowboy Curly McLain or furtive, dirty-picture-loving farmhand Jud Fry?

When Jud’s cramped, creepy smokehouse digs pop up from below, he’s surrounded by Real! Live! Girls! in their unmentionables, 3-D versions of the “French” photo cards he collects. Aaron Ramey delivers Jud’s electrifying ballad “Lonely Room” like a caged tiger ready to pounce.

Menacing Men

Act Two opens with roughhousing between the farmers and the cowboys that quickly turns menacing, injecting some adrenaline into “The Farmer and the Cowman.” Smith and choreographer Parker Esse never let the movement flag.

A young, diverse company adds to the kinetic mix of mirth and poignancy. Laurey and her Aunt Eller are played by black actresses: Eleasha Gamble, a last-minute replacement as Laurey, sings beautifully and has a winningly expressive face. E. Faye Butler is just about perfect as Aunt Eller, the show’s warm-hearted, no-nonsense anchor.

As Curly, Nicholas Rodriguez is an affable foil to Ramey’s sinister Jud. Sixteen-year-old June Schreiner is an adorable Ado Annie whose glass-shearing voice surely will mellow with age. Cody Williams and especially Nehal Joshi gamely flesh out the stock characters of moronic Will Parker and slippery peddler Ali Hakim.

George Fulginiti-Shakar provides brisk, confident musical direction. There are terrific period costumes by the always imaginative Martin Pakledinaz and fine lighting by Michael Gilliam.

Through Dec. 26 at the Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, D.C. Information: +1-202-488-3200; http://www.arenastage.org Rating: ***

‘A Quiet Place’

Back home, I caught Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” at the New York City Opera.

There’s a reason why this endurance test disappeared from view after disastrous outings in Houston, Milan and Vienna almost three decades ago. A heavy-handed ode to suburban malaise, it was passe even before its debut and merely served to remind listeners of how far Bernstein had drifted from his multiple gifts as composer, raconteur and parodist.

“A Quiet Place” opens in a funeral home. Family and friends are gathered to mourn Dinah, a drunk who has died in a car crash, possibly a suicide. While her catatonic husband, Sam, listens, their weird grown children bicker and the neighbors chatter and gossip in atonal spurts as equally unpleasant sounds emanate from the orchestra.

Inside “A Quiet Place” lives a smaller, charming work. Jazz-inflected and spiked with humor, Bernstein’s 1952 “Trouble in Tahiti” is set several years earlier, when Sam, Dinah and their brood are living the American dream in a town that, as the lyric suggests, could be Scarsdale, Elkins Park or Chagrin Falls.

Bernstein and librettist Stephen Wadsworth eventually decanted “Tahiti” into “A Quiet Place,” an uneasy fit that turned the earlier work into an Act Two flashback.

At least in “Tahiti” Bernstein seemed to be having fun. When the word “suburbia” is sung by a jazzy trio comprising Dinah’s psycho son, needy daughter and the man who sleeps with both of them, the composer quotes the same four notes that make up “New York, New York” from his Broadway musical comedy “On the Town.”

Christopher Alden’s zombie-style production has its moments, though perhaps there should be a moratorium on crowds wearing sunglasses and female singers being forced to spend long minutes on their knees simulating fellatio.

Jayce Ogren conducted a committed cast. Sara Jakubiak, Dominic Armstrong and Joshua Hopkins were vocally lithe as the love triangle-cum-jazz trio at the center of “Tahiti.” Patricia Risley and Louis Otey are compellingly serious as Dinah and Sam.

At the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-870-5570; http://www.nycopera.com. Rating: * 1/2


What the Stars Mean:
****       Do Not Miss
***        Excellent
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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