Oklahoma!, playing at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle through Sunday, March 4, is the 1943 musical that marked the first collaboration between superteam Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III. It occupies a singular place in the canon of musical theater. It was the first musical to use the score seriously, advancing character and plot development in a way that hadn’t been seen before.
As such, it’s a worthwhile addition to a young person’s introduction to a classic American genre –- with the caveat that it’s a story with more than a hint of darkness to it, especially given a casting choice that adds a superfluous layer of edginess and controversy.
The story is frothy, with a couple of exceptions; farm girl and cowhand spar their way to marriage, the girl’s wise aunt keeps things running socially, farmers and cowboys fight for supremacy, and everyone looks forward to the creation of the state of Oklahoma. Along the way, the spirited farm girl, Laurey (Alexandra Zorn), dithers when it comes to accepting the advances of possibly untrustworthy cowboy Curley (an extremely likeable Eric Ankrim), allowing farmhand Jud Fry to take her to a dance as a way of showing Curley that she just doesn’t care.
Jud, unfortunately, is an angry misfit who threatens Laurey’s life when he finds out that she loves Curley. The theme of partner violence is explicit, and it’s something that parents should be aware of if they’re thinking of taking younger kids to the performance. The role of Jud is played by African-American actor Kyle Scatliffe, a huge man with a fine voice who eloquently channels Jud’s pain and rage -- but the casting of a black actor who represents a sexual threat to a white woman (explicitly, in a dream ballet sequence beautifully performed by members of the local Spectrum Dance Theatre) calls to mind some of our country’s ugliest racial stereotypes, and it’s difficult to see it as anything but a misstep despite Scatliffe’s masterfully frightening performance.
Additionally, when Curley visits Jud to dissuade him from pursuing Laurey, he sings “Poor Jud Is Dead,” which should be nothing but a series of sly putdowns, but does include Curley’s suggestion that Jud hang himself, causing one to wonder again at the casting choice -- it's a dissonant and ugly suggestion coming from a white to a black man in a musical set in a period in which lynchings were common.
The themes of sexual awakening and violence (the story culminates in Jud’s manslaughter at the hands of Curley, on Curley and Laurey’s wedding night, when Jud comes back with revenge on his mind), and the implications of this production’s color-blind casting, are things that parents might want to discuss with their kids before or after the show, if you decide to take them.
The rest of the production is light and fun, filled with exuberant dancing cowboys showing off their pecs, and some of the musical world’s best-known hits, including a gorgeously sung “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (by Curley and Laurey) and the clever, seductive “Surrey with a Fringe on Top.” The romantic leads have serious chemistry, and supporting roles -- including Kristen deLohr Helland as the comically frisky Ado Annie; peddler Ali Hakim (Daniel C. Levine), who (equally comically) just wants to get into Ado Annie’s drawers; the great Anne Allgood looking a little too young to be the sweetly flirtatious Aunt Eller, but still perfect for the character’s blend of kindness and authority; and Ado Annie’s infinitely patient beau Will Parker (Matt Owen) -- are well-cast.
On press night, we saw quite a few kids who looked to be in the 10-to-12-year-old range. My recommendation is that 10 is pushing it as a lower age range; teens will be best suited intellectually to appreciate the importance of Oklahoma! in American entertainment history, and emotionally to process some difficult elements in an otherwise impeccably enjoyable show.
If you go:
Where: The 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle
When: Through Sunday, March 4
Tickets: Buy tickets online; prices run $29-$129. For ticket deals for students, buy tickets for “The Oklahoma! Project” shows on March 16-17, which will feature an all-student cast and $19 tickets for young people.
Panel discussions on Oklahoma! and race: In response to the spirited discussion that has emerged about the show's portrayal of race, 5th Avenue Theatre is holding several panel discussions about the topic on 2/18, 2/19, 2/25, 2/26, and 3/5. Find out more here.
Kris Collingridge discovered musical theater late in life, and wishes she had learned to appreciate it far earlier.