Oklahoma: A daring new read on an old classic

The 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "Oklahoma" makes some brave casting decisions without losing the show's timeless excellence.

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Jud Fry (Kyle Scatliffe) in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 5th Avenue Theatre.

The 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "Oklahoma" makes some brave casting decisions without losing the show's timeless excellence.

As the star of my fifth grade production of “Oklahoma,” I have a special place in my heart for this great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, originally produced on Broadway in 1943. As a school child one thing did bother me though, as it still does today.

Why did everyone treat the hired hand Jud Fry so badly? Presented as a malevolent brute, he is the one discordant note in this otherwise sunny, optimistic piece of musical theater. In my 10-year old heart there was sympathy for Jud, as there is now; someone different, thwarted in love, and deeply compelling.

The 5th Avenue Theatre’s handsome production of “Oklahoma” opened last week with a fresh twist on how we look on the Fry character, and the play as a whole. The producers chose an interracial cast to better reflect what they saw as historical reality in 1907 Oklahoma Territory. Just before its statehood, it was a place where there were significant populations of African American settlers, townspeople, and cowboys. Casting Kyle Ratcliffe, an imposing African American actor/singer, as Jud was the show's boldest move.

Whatever the revisionism of this new production, the show’s timeless excellence remains in its memorable score. Fourteen songs with brilliant orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett are ably played by the twenty-one musicians under the baton of music director Ian Eisendrath. It was good to hear a chamber orchestra, rather than the tinny sounds of the small groups that are usually heard in Seattle with touring Broadway shows.

The production elements are first-rate, most especially the sets by Matthew Smucker. Rather than focus on the vistas of the flat Southwest plains, Smucker has chosen to give us a more intimate feeling of rural life nestled among all that open space.

There is the charming front yard of Aunt Eller’s farm — she the matriarch and earth mother of the play’s cast of characters — and the railway station where the delightful number, “Kansas City” takes place. Best of all is Jud’s squalid and claustrophobic “man cave” in the smoke house, fixed in place several feet off the stage floor and framed in by the wood slats that are used throughout the show to convey rustic life.

Donald Byrd's choreography is another of "Oklahoma's" top-notch elements. The dances for the original “Oklahoma” production were by Agnes de Mille, a choreographer noted especially for her ballet “Rodeo,”  which premiered in 1942. With its depiction of cowboys and ranch life, it was the work that gave her entrée as the show’s choreographer. Byrd has three big production numbers to show his skills, and takes ample advantage using the dancers from his own local company, Spectrum Dance Theater, as well as cast members.

The major romance in the show is between the ingenue Laurey and her cowboy beau Curly. Jud too is hopelessly in love with her. In the original production, a lurid and surreal “dream ballet” created by de Mille is interpolated into the action to demonstrate Laurey’s conflicted feelings about sex, love, and her two suitors. It has been said to be the first time such a device was used in American musical theater to both amplify the emotions of the characters and contribute to the story line.

Although Byrd follows the general framework of the de Mille original, he uses his own trademark blend of ballet and contemporary dance, combined with lots of sexualized moves such as exaggerated pelvic thrusts, to fashion a nightmarish scenario. The feverish anxieties of Laurey result in the ‘dream’ Curly being vanquished by Jud.

In his “Kansas City” number, Byrd focuses on Americana with tap, showcasing the hoofing talents of Matt Owen, who plays cowboy Will Parker (and some good tap vamping from the other dancers). The movements draw from both black and white American vernacular dance. Byrd has a tremendous curiosity about dance history and styles, which he integrates into his choreography. “Oklahoma” is served well by his work, and I suspect his hand appears in other parts of the show not strictly seen as ‘dance numbers.’

Casting an African American actor as Jud — especially one as tall as Ratcliffe — can evoke stereotypes about the black male as sexual aggressor, or speculation that his angry isolation is a result of his racial identity. The casting choice complicates Jud's character. Is his separation from the lives of others - his ‘difference’ - due to his race, or is Jud just being Jud? Or some of each? 

On the other hand, and lessening the impact of this casting choice, are the show's other African American performers, who play happy-go-lucky cowboys and farmers. Their white compatriots barely bat an eye at the ‘others’ among them.

Regardless of his race, Jud is the ultimate outsider. A hired farm hand, neither cowboy nor farmer nor townsman, he is treated in a shoddy manner by everyone. At one point Curly, in the “Poor Jud is Daid” number, actually tries to convince him to commit suicide so that people will then say nice things about him. Aunt Eller is the only one who speaks well of him, calling him the best hired hand she’s ever had.

Jud is uncivilized, and if “Oklahoma” is anything it is about becoming civilized: The territory will become a state; Curly the independent, free-ranging cowboy will become a farmer; when one man kills another there will be a trial (even the improvised one at the end of the production). We all need to get along with and be reliant on each other. As the song that opens Act II says, “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” It's no coincidence that, when the show debuted in 1943, our country was at war, with its outcome still in doubt — a battle of democracy (civilized) against savage totalitarian powers.

Jud is nobody’s friend, he doesn’t take anyone’s side, he is not political, he has no graces, and he is a naif. He actually seems to be listening to Curly when the cowboy sadistically suggests that he kill himself, allowing Curly a clear path to Laurey’s heart and hand. Jud’s obsessive love for Laurey is rebuffed, even as she uses his attentions to assure herself of Curly’s interest, and his loneliness and isolation are deeply affecting, best exemplified in his lament of a song, “Lonely Room.” His is the most complex and in many ways the most sympathetic character in a show full of stock ones. 

The cast for this production of “Oklahoma” features some lovely performances. Anne Allgood as Aunt Eller is a resolute and feisty presence, offering fine singing and some nifty dancing. Her portrayal channeled more than a bit of Charlotte Greenwood, she of the high kicks and jointless hips, who played the role in the 1955 film version and was apparently sought as the original actress for the role on Broadway.

Alexandra Zorn, with a lovely voice, presents Laurey as a sweet innocent with a backbone of steel, and Mr. Owens is a most agreeable Will Parker with a fine voice and dancing feet to match. His love interest though, Ado Annie, a bubbly Kirsten deLohr Helland is played too cute and over the top. She could add some subtlety and slyness to her performance. Mr. Ratcliffe has the right physicality and conflicted nature for Jud, but at times garbles his spoken words.

There is one other role that always troubled me in “Oklahoma,” and that is Ali Hakim — a womanizing Persian peddler who brings all sorts of otherwise unavailable small products for sale to the community. The itinerant peddler was known throughout rural and small town America, frequently cited as a Jew or an Arab, though of many different backgrounds. How to portray Ali as something other than an ethnic stereotype must be difficult for an actor. David Levine plays it too broadly, and comes across as an unfortunate combination of baggy pants comic and Borscht Belt tummler.

The 5th Avenue should be commended for risking a new read on an American classic, one sure to spur conversation around the subject of race, and the place for a work of musical theater almost seventy years old in our contemporary culture.

For anyone interested in creating another revisionist production of "Oklahoma," it should be noted that, while American Indians are not present in the original production or 5th Avenue's, the state of Oklahoma was known as Indian Territory until the end of the 19th century, and has long been home to one of the two largest populations of American Indians in any state of our country. A future production that recognizes this historical fact might be a most intriguing one.

If you go: “Oklahoma” plays at the 5th Avenue Theatre though March 4th. It is 2 ¾ hours long. Tickets are available by calling the box office, 206/625-1900 or online at www.5thavenue.org.


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