What a year this is shaping out to be for musical theater in the Baltimore/Washington area.  It started with the Signature Theatre‘s wonderful  Chess (with Sunset Blvd.  set to open Dec. 7). Center Stage just broke all box office records with The Wiz.  The Shakespeare Theatre Company currently has the classic Leonard Bernstein hit Candide directed and newly adapted by Mary Zimmerman. The Kennedy Center recently presented the wonderful Broadway revival of Hair and opens with South Pacific  on Dec. 14. The Olney Theatre Center has just extended its current production of Annie to Jan. 9.

And now, to baptize the brand new Mead Center for the Performing Arts, Arena Stage is presenting a not-to-be-missed production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma which already has broken many box-office records.

There are not many theaters in the area that have the set up like the Fischhandler  where the stage is surrounded by four sides of theatergoers. One advantage is that during  the performance you can watch like I did and observe all the smiles of wonder on the faces of other patrons during the performance.  I particularly noticed six year old Libie Pedone who had a perpetual smile of amazement sitting in the first row. (Libie’s 9 year old sister Ally was treated to a pony ride outside the theater where the Arena for four Saturdays presented a petting zoo. They hail from Canton, Ohio).

  It was a wise decision to sign award-winning Set Designer Eugene Lee (recently inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame). There are working oil lanterns surrounding the audience, a huge working windmill in one corner, in one corner is Aunt Eller’s house with a screen door, a long gutter or shoot in another corner.  There’s so much clever use of props like the use of two lines of laundry that become the reigns of the surrey that has a fringe on top, a clever magical push cart, vintage cars, and the smokehouse which rises from beneath the stage.  I marveled  when the character Judd leaves the smokehouse through its roof and lands on terra firma just as the smokehouse disappears underneath the stage. I only wish that all the props did not look so new as if they were never used. They should all display the dirt and grime that would be associated with a farm.

The orchestra  (all dressed in “cowboy outfits” since they are exposed to the audience) is housedin a corner of the theater in a replica of the unfinished “School House” which is the subject of an important fund-raising auction in Act II.  George Gulginiti-Shakar (both Conductor and Music Director) does a superb job with his wonderful musicians: Doug Dube on violin, Deborah Milan Brudvig on cello, Jeffrey Koczela on bass, George Hummel on flute and piccolo, Rita Eggert on clarinet and bass clarinet, Elaine Baughman and Susan Vought Findley on oboe and English horn, Cuericke (Chris) Royal on trumpet, Theodore C. Peters on horn, John Jensen on trombone, Phillip Mathieu on guitar, banjo, and harmonica, Ken Crutchfield and Danny Villanueva on percussion, and Mary Sugar on synthesizer and Asst. Music Director.

Patrons were given souvenir hand fans which on one side had a replica of the Washington Post, Sunday , November 17, 1907 which reported that Oklahoma official became a state on Nov. 16 when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the proclamation. (You can see a photo of Roosevelt in the set).   The other side of the fan has excerpts from the opening number “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” (I remember when in my early days of teaching music in an elementary school in Somerville, Massachusetts, I utilized a recording of Richards Rodgers explaining how different the song would have been if he utilized a D sharp for “morn” in “morn-in” rather than a D natural).

What makes this version of the American classic so different is Molly Smith‘s decision to have a diverse cast.  It is surprising this has not been tried before in light of the fine work by Dramaturg Janine Sobeck  who relates in the program that when the Oklahoma territory was begun how diverse it was.

Smith probably knew from the start that veteran E. Faye Butler would make a perfect Aunt Eller, probably the first African-American actress to portray this character in a major Equity house. And Butler delivers (as always). I only wish she had more stage time.

Playing her daughter Laurey is Eleasha Gamble who replaced actress Valisia LeKae just before the show opened due to personal  matters. Gamble is fresh from the terrific Signature Theatre production of Chess but is no stranger to the Arena. She was last seen there in The Women of Brewster Place. Gamble tackles the complex role eloquently. What a voice she has. (See a nice article about her in the November 14 Washington Post by Jane Horwitz.)