The precision and athleticism of the dancers under the direction of choreographer and Seattle’s own Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd are reason enough to attend a performance of the 5th Avenue’s “Oklahoma!”
With resumes that read like a who’s who of contemporary dance (Alvin Ailey, Joffrey Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem), rarely has such an accomplished group of dancers graced the 5th Avenue’s musical-comedy stage.
Byrd’s embellishment of the original choreography by ballet great Agnes De Mille incorporates African-inspired dance moves into the hoedown dances performed by the multicultural chorus and infuses the iconic dream ballet sequence with enhanced sexuality.
In fact, “Sex and the Prairie” might be an appropriate subtitle for this production of the much-loved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about the cowboys and farmers who inhabit the Oklahoma territory as it teeters on the brink of statehood. Director Peter Rothstein plays up the sexual undertones for laughs, imbuing teasing cowhand Curly’s (Eric Ankrim) courtship of Laurey (Alexandra Zorn) with undercurrents of sexual repression.
Curly pushes Laurey away whenever their embraces become too intimate.
Will Parker (Matt Owen) can barely contain his passion for naïve, but easy, Ado Annie (Kirsten deLohr Helland), who “…Cain’t Say No” to either Will or itinerant peddler Ali Hakim (Daniel Levine), who democratically shares his passion with all comers.
Meanwhile, the chap-attired cowhands canter across the prairie with pelvic thrusts worthy of Elvis.
All of which makes more jarring the casting of superb baritone and African-American actor Kyle Scatliffe as Jud Fry, the coarse villain of the piece. The cast of the chorus is multicultural, but Scatcliffe is the only African American in an otherwise white cast of actors playing major roles. It’s unclear what Rothstein intended with this casting choice; possibly he is trying to justify Jud’s otherness and ostracism from the community as resulting from racism.
Unfortunately, Jud’s characterization as sexually obsessed (he collects “French postcards”), his sexually needy courtship of Laurey (a virginal, white woman) and his lack of restraint (as opposed to Curly’s aforementioned self-control) feeds racial stereotypes rather than otherwise.
The character of Jud has always been somewhat out of place in the midst of “Oklahoma”’s light-hearted treatment of courtship; making him a victim of racism only makes his character more of an aberration.
Good voice talents
Ample voice talents are on display, well accompanied by a streamlined orchestra conducted by Ian Eisendrath.
Eric Ankrim as Curly does justice to the much loved classics “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” and his clear-voiced tenor blends beautifully with Alexandra Zorn’s full-voiced soprano in “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
Kyle Scatcliffe’s heartfelt rendering of “Lonely Room” fills us with pity and fear.
Kirsten deLohr Helland, Daniel Levine and Matt Owen bring comic gusto to the Ado Annie-Will Parker-Ali Hakim love triangle. Other cast notables include Anne Allgood as Aunt Eller and Allen Fitzpatrick as Andrew Carnes.
Matthew Smucker’s set design drops us right into Oklahoma territory with the iconic opening image of a cowboy silhouetted against a wall as the sun rises over the prairie. A wooden frame expands and contracts around the scenery like the fences, both physical and societal, that accompany the arrival of farmers and townsfolk to the beloved open plains of the cowman.
“Oklahoma!” plays through March 4 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.