“Oklahoma” Takes a Final Bow this Weekend

As the final days for the production of “Oklahoma” at Arena Stage run down, people are still talking about the show, in some ways as if it were a brand new phenomenon that wound its way through town like a tornado.

The production, directed and selected by Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith, played to packed houses in the Fichandler after it opened Arena’s 2010-2011 season in its new $100 million plus Mead Center for American Theater. Some critics were skeptical of the choice which seemed a little safe, but the show was in keeping with Smith’s exploration of American theater and musicals, proving to be a monster hit with audiences and critics alike. The resurrection hauled in all sorts of honors, at one point being considered for a Broadway production.

The show was so popular that Smith and Arena decided to bring it back for an end-of-summer, start-of-fall run that ends Oct. 2, starting something of a theater recycling trend in Washington.

The other night while attending “The Habit of Art” at Studio Theater, I chatted with a couple sitting next to me, and, after talking about dogs and theater in general, the couple said they had just seen “Oklahoma” for the first time.

“We’d seen the movie,” she said. “You know, Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones and all that stuff. But we were so surprised and it was so fresh. Having the salesman be a Middle Easterner was a surprise, it sure wasn’t Eddie Albert. And that Ado Annie, she was something. She was delightful.”

That would be June Schreiner, the 16-year-old (when the show opened) Madeira School senior who was bowled over with critical praise for her portrayal as the girl with two suitors who sings “I Can’t Say No,” an enduring highlight tune among many classics in “Oklahoma.” Not to mention she executes some nifty roping moves with Cody Williams, who plays one of her beaus, a cowpoke named Will Parker.

One of the unique things about the production was that even in the process of performance, the company seemed tightly knit, a community of sorts. I got a real sense of that several weeks ago when I sat down with Schreiner and Teresa Burrell, who had just taken over the part of Aunt Eller, the almost totemic matriarchal figure in the Oklahoma community. The part had formerly been played by F. Faye Butler, who moved on to star in Arena’s “Trouble in Mind.”

Schreiner, a thin, pretty blonde teenager, showed up pumped after taking additional roping lessons. Burrell, a veteran actress familiar with the Arena Stage scene, had just made her first appearance as Aunt Eller the previous night.

“You know, you’re replacing a key member of the company, and not just any company, but this one, which is like a family, you could tell that right away,” Burrell said. Burrell looks rangy and vivacious and hardly resembles a matriarch. She is still remembered for her dazzling starring role in Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie” at the Kennedy Center a number of years ago, and is also currently working on a show about Ethel Waters, the legendary African American singer and performer.

Schreiner said Burrell “fits right in.” She should. She’s something of an Arena veteran, having starred in their ground-floor musical version of “The Women of Brewster Place” among other productions, and has been seen at Signature in the iconic role of Julie in another American classic, “Showboat.”

It’s interesting to watch and listen to Schreiner and Burrell talking. One moment, Schreiner is exactly the senior in high school that she is, daughter of show biz parents, a young American girl, still excitable, the next she sounds like a theater veteran (which she is) who got a tidal wave of media attention after “Oklahoma” opened. When the talk is about the show, she and Burrell dive in, dissecting, describing, figuring things out. “It never gets old,” said Schreiber, who’s now played the part too often to count. “Every night, there’s something different. It’s like you’re in the group of people the characters, you’re part of something that’s happening to them in the country a new world.”

“I’m so happy to be in this, to take this part,” Burrell said. “It’s such a fresh production. It’s a little darker, and then again not. It’s complicated, more grown-up in a way. Aunt Eller is the rock of the community, she has to have size, but she’s also very human, warm and funny.”

Burrell, next to Schreiber, is so energized she might as well be a teenager too. They talk about Ado Annie as a character. “With Schreiner playing her, and playing her with that kind of absolutely fresh way she has, she’s something different than say an older woman who’s been around a little,” Burrell says. “It’s a little more innocent—she wants things and likes both the young men who like her, but there’s something endearing about that and she gets them going that’s for sure.”

“Ado Annie is a young person in that time, she’s like me, age wise,” Schreiber said. “That makes it a lot more fun, for one thing.”

Schreiber wasn’t nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for her role. It was a major omission to many observers, but not to her. “The whole thing was just so amazing to me, the process, the time spent in a show like this, the people, all those talented people and Molly,” she said. “That didn’t bother me. I’ve gotten so much out of this.”

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