Review: “Oklahoma!” at the 5th Avenue is a bit problematic.

Published by on February 10th, 2012
Review: “Oklahoma!” Music by Richard Rodgers. Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Peter Rothstein. Musical Direction by Ian Eisendrath. Choreography by Donald Byrd. With Eric Ankrim, Alexandra Zorn, Kirsten deLohr Helland, Daniel C. Levine, Matt Owen, Kyle Scatliffe and Anne Allgood. Now through March 4, 2012 at The 5th Avenue Theatre.

Will Parker (Matt Owen) and Aunt Eller (Anne Allgood) in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo: Chris Bennion

“Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!”  the iconic American musical that changed the face of musical theater has swept into The 5th Avenue Theatre for a lavish new production with an all-star (mainly) local cast and choreography from Donald Byrd and his Spectrum Dance Company. It features an impressive set from Matthew Smucker; lighting by Tom Sturge and the very appropriately period costume work of Lynda L. Salsbury. There’s a lot to love about this production. There’s also some troubling stuff that’s impossible to love that borders on the creepy and the insensitive.

“Oklahoma!” is an American classic so I hope that means I don’t have to do a damn long synopsis…but, in a nutshell, “Oklahoma!” is about a territory about to become a state; the conflict between cattlemen and farmers; and most importantly, the love triangles of a bunch of young Oklahomans circa 1906. We have the more comedic triangle of Ado Annie, a “Gal who just can’t say no” and her two suitors: Will, a sweet but dim cowboy, and the smooth talking travelling peddler Ali Hakim. But, front and center, we have our principle trio of Curly, a sweetly smart and persistent cowboy in love with Laurey, a farm girl resistant to Curly’s charms, and her surly hired hand Jud Fry who just might be a bit unhinged when it comes to his obsession with Laurey. Add in the crowd pleasing Aunt Eller as Laurey’s aunt and matchmaker; an innovative 15 minute long dream ballet originally choreographed by the legendary Agnes deMille;  a gob of hit songs including the opening song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “People Will Say We’re in Love” and the title song, and you have a huge monster hit that runs for years and years and years.

Of course, with 60 years of popularity comes a bit of familiarity and “Oklahoma!” can seem a bit dated and corny. The famous songs are great; the less famous songs less so. The plot is really a bit thin; it’s two contrasting love triangles, one funny and one fairly serious but the famous main triangle between Curly, Laurey and Jud has always seemed a trifle forced. Laurey is afraid of Jud, (for good reason; he’s really creepy) yet she uses him to make Curly jealous for unfathomable reasons. Frankly, Laurey has always seemed like a bit of a nudge to me…she has a cute, sweet cowboy interested in her and she acts like a dingbat and hooks up with a weirdo living in a shack with porno on his walls just to make sure Curly doesn’t take her for granted? Then, she’s very obviously freaked out by Jud’s actions, yet she doesn’t do the obvious: fire his ass and order him to get the hell away from her, until late in the musical. Supposedly she’s kinda/sorta attracted to Jud’s dark nature, but Jud has always been so creepishly written that it doesn’t really make much sense. Laurey is just another fickle musical theater heroine.

The 5th Avenue and director Peter Rothstein wanted to “mix things up” for this new production of  “Oklahoma!” and following the precedent set by some other recent productions, they decided to add a new layer of meaning to “Oklahoma!” by casting African American actors as part of the ensemble, to reflect the actual racial mix of the time period, (despite 100 years of Hollywood films and Zane Grey novels, in reality African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans made up a large percentage of the cowboy population.) And, Oklahoma itself is a state with a diverse population…of course, it was very much a racially/culturally segregated population but that historical aspect has been ignored at the 5th. There’s also a lack of obvious Mexican or Native Americans on stage as well. And, in the most daring move, the role of Jud Fry is played by the African American actor Kyle Scatliffe.

It’s a controversial and shocking choice and I think it’s one that fails. Not because of Mr. Scatliffe, a powerful young actor with an imposing physicality and voice, who does a good job of portraying Jud, (though frankly it is a performance that could use some nuance and firmer direction. His Jud is definitely sub-normal and psychotic.) And while I very much approve of appropriate “color blind” casting, the decision to cast Jud as black raises some disturbing issues.  Mr. Rothstein’s “Oklahoma!” is now the story of a crazy, sex obsessed black man living in a shack out back, lusting violently after his white mistress who ends up murdered at the hands of a white man, who gets off scot free after a mock trial. Cue the rousing closing number!

Here’s my problems with this casting. It reinforces stereotypes about big black men obsessed with fucking demure white women. Jud has always been written to be sub-normal and an outcast and the villain of the piece…maybe a villain you can feel some empathy for, but not much; he’s an animal, another stereotype inflicted upon African Americans by the racist. And, by making this change, is Mr. Rothstein trying to alter the meaning of the original creators? Are the white characters of “Oklahoma!” now supposed to be the “villains”? Of course the creators of this production haven’t changed dialogue; that wouldn’t be allowed by the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate without permission which would never be granted. So, we’re left with a historically inaccurate casting, (a black man would never have been allowed to escort a white woman to a box social in 1906 Oklahoma…there are parts of Oklahoma today, where that might not be such a good idea…) just to add a “fresh”  more contemporary look at an old show. It seems contrived and pointless and frankly, a bit creepy, (especially when Curly suggests that Jud hang himself…basically, a self-lynching.)

Now,  part of me did consider the fact that maybe I was buying into white, liberal guilt about racism and being overly politically correct about this production. But, at intermission I ran into an acquaintance who happens to be African American and we exchanged notes and realized we both felt the same way…she, (a theater professional) was also creeped out and bothered by this casting and direction. It feels phony, inaccurate and seemingly like a grand standing gesture to appear artistic and timely. It’s not artistic and it’s not intelligent, well thought out theater. It’s a lazy attempt to be modern and it fails.

More negativity, folks. I wasn’t a big fan of Donald Byrd’s choreography. “Oklahoma’s” famous dream ballet at the end of Act One, was a daring and powerful innovation in 1943 and beautifully choreographed by Agnes deMille. Audiences and critics of the time were bowled over by the use of ballet to convey the story in a musical, and the psychological implications and imagery as Laurey imagines her life with Curly but destroyed by Jud. The trouble is, the “dream ballet” isn’t very innovative in 2012 and the psychology and symbolism that seemed daring in 1943 seems a bit old hat and Psych 101 for modern audiences. Mr. Byrd is an esteemed choreographer but his attempts to put a fresh spin on the ballet all seem to misfire; it was a disjointed, muddy, and frankly dull 15 minutes of theater that wasn’t aided by the cliches of fog machines (all dream sequences MUST have fog!) and rather boring lighting effects. You don’t leave Act One of this “Oklahoma” with tapping feet; you flee for some fresh air and a stiff drink at the bar.

Time for some Positivity! The cast is largely excellent with a terrific lead performance by Eric Ankrim as Curly, who emphasizes the charm and humor of the character…his Curly is so adorable, you don’t understand why Laurey is so resistant to his charms. Kirsten deLohr Helland, Daniel C. Levine, Matt Owen made a fine second love triangle as respectively, Ado Annie, Ali Hakim and Will Parker. Ms deLohr Helland is a rising young star in the Seattle theater musical community and her 5th Avenue debut as the crowd pleasing Ado Annie is just another laurel to add to her list of credits. Mr. Owen was a sweetly befuddled Will, with impressively lanky dance skills and charm. Mr. Levine added some richly developed comedy bits with his excellent sense of timing.

My personal favorite was the not unexpected excellent performance of  Anne Allgood as Aunt Eller. You can argue that it’s a given that the actress playing Eller is going to get good notices; it’s a terrific crowd pleasing role, but a dull actress can ruin the juiciest of roles and Ms Allgood has never been dull on stage in her life and she sinks her teeth into this peach of a role and runs with it. She’s terrific and you wish that Rodgers and Hammerstein had written a big number for the role. (Why didn’t they?)

Finally, a love/hate shoutout to Matthew Smucker’s set. It’s big and wooden and frames the stage and frequently irises in and out like a scene in an old film and I love the texture and shapes that Mr. Smucker creates. (And, REALLY love the claustrophobic set for Jud’s nasty little cabin which rises out of the bowels of Hell, apparently…) But, as a native Midwesterner, I have to point out that there ain’t a lot of wood in Oklahoma and the feel of all those divine textures inherent in Mr. Smucker’s set actually conjure up NORTHWESTERN images of frontier life, not the rolling prairie/big sky/ corn flower blue and sun dappled wheat color imagery of that part of the world. His Oklahoma feels more like a salmon fish fry in seaside log house on the Kitsap Peninsula than a picnic on the prairie. I almost wanted to start singing, “O-R-E-G-O-N!” when I saw that set.

And, it seems facetious, but I love the 5th Avenue’s marketing for this show. Those gorgeous posters and ads feature some beautiful photography and art direction…they’re going to sell a lot of tickets just from those images.

So, I’m conflicted. There are things I really admire about the 5th Avenue’s “Oklahoma!” and there are things I really dislike and disagree with to the point I want to have a spirited discussion with someone about it. You’ll have to make up your own minds. A theater review/critical analysis shouldn’t necessarily be all one way or the other…thumbs up or thumbs down. Some folks will love this show and some folks will have some issues with it.  You decide.

 


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