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.
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.