Oscar Hammerstein wrote lyrics for two musicals that broke barriers for their discussion of race in American society: Showboat and South Pacific. But his breakthrough hit with Richard Rodgers, Oklahoma!, can be dissed as "the whitest musical in the canon" as one clever friend put it.
However, with some bold moves by director Peter Rothstein, this latest take on the wide open spaces playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre acknowledges that not every cowboy was white. In fact, as the program notes, from 1865 to 1920, "free blacks" settled more than fifty towns in the new territory. And, as anyone who loves the blues knows, Kansas City became a hotbed of African-American musical expression in the early 20th century.
All of these elements influence the current production running downtown in Seattle, some more successfully than others.
Certainly choreographer Donald Byrd's deliberate honky-tonky stylings of dance numbers, particularily the "Kansas City" sequence, give the show a terrific energy.
More troubling was the deliberate casting of the villain as a young black man, a contemporary of the hero and heroine, and this was the part that led to the most lobby discussions of "does this work?" or "could it been done different?"
Normally the role of nasty Jud is played by a menacing white man. The young heroine’s reluctance to respond to his courtship then easily plays as a rejection of a creepy older dude and his collection of French (pornographic) pictures, rather than a fear of the racial other. And her cowboy swain’s attempt to run him off can be seen as more admirable than ominous.
However, the current casting of Eric Ankrim as Curly and Kyle Scatliffe as Jud (two great actors with powerful voices who are about the same age) turned Hammerstein’s joking “Pore Jud Is Daid” into an oddly uncomfortable reference to lynching as the white hero handed the African-American Jud a rope and suggested he hang himself.
On the preview night when friends and I saw director Rothstein’s new take on this revered warhorse of a musical, we did wonder if it might have been better to just cut this scene shorter and spend more time on the moving “Lonely Room” sung by Jud, especially if the goal was to show the uneasy mix of races on the far frontier.
Whether or not, Hammerstein would have liked what was done to Curly’s song -- and he most certainly would have picked up the racial overtones given his own interests -- Mike Todd would have loved the contribution made by Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theatre dancers.
Todd, a legendary producer, famously dismissed Oklahoma! in try-out as “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
With the fabulous Spectrum dancers on stage in Byrd’s hot new revision of the legendary Agnes de Mille dream ballet, there’s yards of lovely legs high kicking. And the cowboys doing their pelvic thrusts in chaps add some spice for the other side of the aisle too.
Meanwhile, the comic crew of Kirsten de Lohr Helland as Ado Annie, Daniel C. Levine as Ali Hakim, and Matt Owen as Will Parker gave the show plenty of laughs. Ado Annie’s two big numbers “I Cain’t Say No” about her love of cowboys, or boys in general, and “All er Nuthin’” always were classic Hammerstein comic zingers and favorites of actresses everywhere.
Typically, the 5th has so much depth in their local casting that there’s just not enough stage time for talents like David Pichette (Ike Skidmore) and Anne Allgood (Aunt Eller) in their roles.
Oklahoma! continues through March 4 at the 5th Avenue. It’s not your grandpappy’s Oklahoma! but the whole artistic crew deserves some kudos for attempting something different with an American classic.