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Theater Review (Seattle): Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II at the 5th Avenue Theatre

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Anyone who appreciates the artistic heights to which musical theater can rise to owes a debt of gratitude to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s game-changing 1943 musical. Any Seattle theater fan ought to be pretty grateful for the 5th Avenue Theatre too, as the 5th’s new staging of the classic is an ambitious, bracing take on the fully integrated musical.

First off — the performances here are all top notch, from the reticent flirtatiousness of Eric Ankrim’s and Alexandra Zorn’s Curly and Laurey to the airheaded love affair of Kirsten DeLohr Helland’s and Matt Owen’s Ado Annie and Will Parker to the seething rage and underlying hurt of Kyle Scatliffe’s Jud Fry. Scatliffe is especially commendable for his tangible vulnerability — all the more powerful for its incongruity with his massive frame. His thoughtful and nuanced performance dispels the potential racial ugliness that could be present with a black man cast as the villain — especially considering the social climate the play is set in.

Oklahoma!

Taking the production to the next level are the contributions of choreographer Donald Byrd and his Spectrum Dance Theater, which enliven the dance numbers across the board and elevate Act 1’s closing “Dream Ballet” to sublime territory. Byrd pays homage to original choreographer Agnes de Mille’s venerable staging while making the nightmarish even more palpable. The “Dream Ballet” sequence is crucial to the groundbreaking integration of Oklahoma!, and Byrd’s staging lays the hopes and fears of a generation out in a penetrating glance into one character’s interior life.

Director Peter Rothstein understands something crucial: For all of its broad comic gestures and a rousing, joyous rendition of the title tune at the finale, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration is a fundamentally dark — or at least, incredibly ambivalent — work. The possibility of the unknown means hope and fear are comingling in unsettling ways, and with the promise of new statehood comes the reality that a big bright future may not be in store for everyone.

Nowhere is that subtext more precisely evoked than in Matthew Smucker’s brilliant scenic design. The opening scene frames Curly against a rectangular cutout of the sky, evoking an iconic doorway image from John Ford’s The Searchers. A series of shifting barn door panels occasionally make way for the big blue vista of the wide-open Oklahoma sky in the background, but more often they constrict, letting just a little bit of that sign of boundless potential through. It’s haunting, thrilling design work that sees the enormously talented Smucker outdoing himself again.

The 5th Avenue’s production of Oklahoma! is a masterful, rich staging of the musical that changed musicals forever. It’s on stage now through March 4. Tickets are available for purchase online at the 5th Avenue’s website.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • flushattack

    The most amazing performance of Oklahoma. The dancing was magical.

  • Mark Seattle

    Couldn’t disagree more. The casting of the villain with a black actor was irresponsible, unnecessarily introducing the implications of racism without ever acknowledging it. Either it was about race – in which case, who is the villain? – our it wasn’t, in which case the director missed the mark entirely by failing to convey the evilness, the rough nature, the danger that the antagonist owns in the story. The cutesy choreography was frustrating as well. A clear indicator that the play missed its mark: at intermission no one was talking about the play. Everyone in the bathroom line did silently. Very disappointing.

  • Christina

    I was disappointed with the tone of the musical. This is a classic piece of Americana and I disagree with changing the theme. Previous poster Mark was spot on, the theme of this production was quite pointedly racism. The original show’s story was the conflict caused by the western march of the farmer into the wide opened spaces ruled by the cowboy. The theme of the show is all about that conflict. The whole second act opening number about Cowmen and the Farmers is all about this. The fact that Curly trades his horse, saddle and gun to win Laurey’s basket which makes him ineffect, a farmer is climactic. Disappointing that the 5th Avenuechose to subvert the original book.

  • Karla

    I completely agree with Mark and Christina. I was very disappointed that the 5th felt it necessary to tamper with this American classic. Your advertising says it all: One of the greatest musicals of all time. You should have stayed true to the original. We almost left at intermission; the couple next to us did so. That said I complement Curry’s performance as Curly and the set design.

  • Karla

    P.S. Apologies for mis-typing “Curry’s” when I meant compliments to Eric Ankrim.

  • maureen hughes

    hm…now im not so excited to see it as I was before i read these reviews…. i will have to make my own opinion

  • Rosie

    Traditional productions of Oklahoma! have ALWAYS failed to acknowledge the presence of people of color in Oklahoma during the time this musical is set. People forget that ERASURE is also a form of racism! PRETENDING that people were not eradicated in America’s formation is racist. Ignoring that fact that people like JUD were ostracized, enraged, and then eradicated (with no justice) is also a form of racism. I saw the 5th’s production. Jud is a victim that we need to acknowledge. His portrayals as a rapist and brute happen inside Laurie’s mind. And Curly never is brought to justice in a way that was common throughout our history. People who can’t stand to see this on the stage are (perhaps unintentionally) guilty of the racism which ignores our fraught history.

  • Ross

    Well I saw this production and it was frustrating. As musical theater goes, this is a historical document and I saw in it a ham handed attempt at diversity.
    I saw Cinderella in December and it had diverse casting which was perfectly fine and in fact deliightful, because it was a fairy tale, each Character in that was a stock character in an ancient morality play.
    OKLAHOMA! however is about a specific time and place and is, for better or worse, burdened with historical context. If the director had wanted to cast it in a diverse way, then cast the three leads with amazing African American actors and actresses or, cast the hero, Curly, as a black man…perhaps Aunt Eller…but to cast Jud, a very frightening and less than sympathetic character and all the subtext of that character was very, very disturbing and difficult to watch.
    I have thought about this a lot since I saw the show on opening night and questioned my own attitudes and notions of race. Ultimately I decided that, for myself, it just didn’t work.

  • M. King

    I was very surprised that a black man was cast as Judd Frye. In those times, he would have been hung for even touching a white woman, let alone thinking he could take her on a date. I found it very disturbing, but the music was wonderful and the singers were top notch especially the woman who played Laurie. Thoroughly enjoyable.