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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

An Offbeat Oklahoma! Kicks up a Ruckus
at the 5th Avenue

Oklahoma!
Matt Owen and Anne Allgood
With an African-American Jud Fry, and erotically charged choreography that has turned a few heads, the current production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's Oklahoma! has proven controversial in some quarters (and that has probably helped sell tickets to the venerable, once revolutionary musical). The show I saw on opening night didn't provoke any extreme response from this aisle sitter. It's a respectable, handsome, exceedingly well-sung version of the show, brimming over with talent. And for me, controversy/smontroversy, or as Hammerstein wrote in a lyric for his next show Carousel, "all the rest is talk".

Director Peter Rothstein's take on the show is darker than most, especially when the going gets darkest. There's a two-thirds sunny first act where the biggest issues are whether smart-lanky lothario Curly is going to take flirtily coy farm girl Laurey to the box-social, and to whom the blooming Ado Annie will say yes (she "Cain't Say No", ya know): her cowboy charmer Will Parker or the pawing Persian peddler man Ali Hakim. Then the skies darken as Curly taunts Jud, the clearly disturbed farmhand whom Laurey has accepted as her escort to the picnic, and Laurey relies on a bottle of the peddler's magic elixir, which is supposed to help her make up her mind between the two. This leads to the act one climactic "Dream Ballet" which turns into more of a fever dream, in which Jud vanquishes Curley. It's back to corn-fed comedy for most of act two, but Jud's menacing presence hovers, and he meets a dark end after showing up at Laurey and Curly's wedding, and Curly's fate looks dire as he is held for trial in the matter of Jud's demise. But not for long. The tension of the trial dissipates as quickly as you can say yippie-i-o-i-ay, as Curly is acquitted and the pair ride off into future beautiful mornings! Hammerstein's rapid wrap up of the tale seems worse than ever now, however close it may hew to Lynn Riggs' original play Green Grows the Lilacs.

Director Rothstein hasn't found a way to solve the jarring tonal shifts, but he has hired a cast that can bring it, and choreographer Donald Byrd and his Spectrum Dance Theatre ensemble deliver some artful moves (though his more libidinous "Dream Ballet" doesn't trump Agnes DeMille's original and still feels way overlong). Eric Ankrim's Curly and Alexandra Zorn's Laurey shine brightly on the still dreamy R&H evergreens "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'", "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're in Love," but with Kyle Scatliffe playing a more sympathetic Jud, Curly's "Pore Jud" sarcasm seems cruel, as does Laurey's subsequent confrontation with Jud. No mistake, Scatliffe still delineates Jud's psychotic side (and he sings the roof off of the 5th with Jud's underrated "Lonely Room"), but we end up feeling sorrier for him than Hammerstein or Riggs ever intended.

The Will, Ado and Ali triangle is written as pure cornpone, and Kirsten deLohr Helland, Matt Owen and Daniel C. Levine embrace the corn. The audience digs into it, heartily. Ms. deLohr Helland is pure old-time Broadway bounce, belt and joy on "I Cain't Say No" and is so crowd pleasing you wish they had not cut her encore. She steals the show so handily you wish she might be playing Annie Oakley in a musical that would give her many more solos. Owen, who has grown up from chorus kid to leading man at the 5th, is a Jim-dandy Will Parker and, in Byrd's outstandingly staged "Kansas City," twinkles with outright star-quality. Levine is pure borscht belt buffoonery finely tuned as Ali Hakim, proudly and delightfully delivering the score's one dud number, "It's A Scandal! It's an Outrage!" as if it were Rodgers & Hammerstein's best. Solo-less though the role is, Laurey's spinster Aunt Eller is perhaps the best written role in the show, portrayed here in a warm, wry yet unsentimental performance by Seattle's always amazing Anne Allgood. As Gertie, the gal who gets Ado Annie's cast-off beau, Sonya Meyer creates a deliciously goony laugh for her character that has to be heard to be believed, while Allen Fitzpatrick and David Pichette add heft to their smallish roles as Andrew Carnes and Ike Skidmore. Applause is also due to dancers Kara Walsh, Josh Spell and Donald Jones, Jr. as Laurey, Curly and Jud's dream counterparts.

Ian Eisendrath's musical direction is surely behind the vocalist's fine work, as well as the stunning sound of a wonderfully large orchestra. Matthew Smucker's scenic designs qualify as high, wide and handsome, as do Tom Sturge's pristine lighting design and Lynda L. Salsbury's savory costumes.

When all is said and done, this may not be everyone's favorite Oklahoma! (my pick would be Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman's version) but at its best it's a good deal more than OK!

Oklahoma! plays through March 4, 2012, at The 5th Avenue Theatre (1308 5th Avenue, Seattle). For tickets (starting at $29) or information, visit www.5thavenue.org or call the Box Office at (206) 625-1900. Tickets may also be purchased at (888) 5TH-4TIX.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David Edward Hughes



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