The 5th Avenue Theatre's staging of the vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, opening Feb. 9 and directed by Peter Rothstein, aims to blend folkloric homage with multicultural vision.
Is the vintage Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” just a toe-tapping hoedown of a show, filled with do-si-do-ing cowboys and gals in calico? A fondly hokey vision of a bygone America of box socials and surreys with fringe on top?
For some contemporary theaters (and many theater historians) there’s much more to it than that. The classic 1943 tuner was the first Broadway musical to fully integrate music and ballet into a well-developed story (based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs”).
And recent stagings have found new social and racial dimensions in the tale of romance and rivalry in the Territory of Oklahoma.
Now the 5th Avenue Theatre is rustling up its own ambitious, full-scale version that opens Thursday. It aims to blend folkloric homage with a vision of incipient multiculturalism, via some unusual cross-racial casting, and dances by Donald Byrd that incorporate square dance and African-inflected moves.
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“On one level our ‘Oklahoma!’ will remain a valentine to Americana,” explains the show’s Minneapolis-based director, Peter Rothstein. “The dance numbers soar, the comedy lands. But we also want it to be a more authentic kind of Americana, a more diverse Americana.”
A recent “Oklahoma!” at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage mingled races on the range with a feminist slant. Last fall a smashing rendering at Portland Center Stage, inspired by all-black towns that existed in early Oklahoma, had mostly African-American actors.
The 5th Avenue’s approach is different — and potentially more “dangerous,” suggests Rothstein. It’s not just that the chorus is multiracial. The malevolent figure Jud Fry will be played by a black actor (Kyle Scatliffe).
Jud is a glowering farmhand who pines for the show’s ingénue, Laurey (Alexandra Zorn). She accepts his invite to a town picnic, but only to make her cocky cowboy suitor Curly (Eric Ankrim) jealous.
5th Avenue honchos David Armstrong and Bill Berry’s casting concept intrigued Rothstein.
He sees the likable leads Laurey and Curly as “complex human beings. They can be ugly at times — Laurey calls Jud a mangy dog that ought to be shot. Curly urges Jud to kill himself ['Poor Jud is Dead']. The words have more weight when there’s a trigger such as race on the table.”
But would a black man have dared pursue a white woman in that racially polarized era? Making that believable, Rothstein agrees, is essential to his task.
On an upbeat note, the rollicking “Kansas City” number is staged as a chance for black and white fellers to kick up their heels and teach each other a move or two.
And the title song, with its familiar yippie-i-ay chorus, will still evoke community factions joining to celebrate new marriage, new statehood, a new American era.
Says Rothstein, “I want people to leave the show exalted, but I don’t want to put a pretty bow on it …. We’re asking, can America pursue the radical optimism of a nation that believes in freedom and equality?
“If I can make the audience root for Laurey and Curly, and still feel compassion for Jud, that to me is a compelling evening of theater.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org