Kyle Scatliffe's portrayal of the menacing farmhand and unrequited suitor Jud Fry in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is a showstopper—and not always in a good way. The six-foot-five Scatliffe cuts an imposing figure, with a booming baritone voice to match, and he gives a big (sometimes too big) performance that more than succeeds in imbuing his role with a mix of creepiness, vulnerability, and malevolence.
But... well... he's, um, black—a daring bit of casting that forces an uncomfortable racial subtext onto underlying material that doesn't support the weight. "The mark of a great work is that it can handle reinterpretation," director Peter Rothstein said by phone. Yeah, true. And Rothstein's reinterpretation is both innovative and admirable. But given his accomplishments with the rest of the production, it was also unnecessary.
If you're into this sort of musical, the 5th Avenue's Oklahoma! is as big, bold, and professionally executed a production as you're likely to see, a rare chance to experience a Broadway classic performed to near-Broadway standards: sets, lighting, costumes, performances, and all.
The lead romantic roles of Curly and Laurey are charmingly played and beautifully voiced by a goofy Eric Ankrim and a coy Alexandra Zorn, while Kirsten deLohr Helland gives the most well-rounded performance of the night—acting, singing, dancing—in the comic role of Ado Annie, the girl who "cain't say no." Scatliffe could have turned it down a notch with his sometimes-twitchy portrayal but is otherwise more than up to his role as the villainous Jud.
But the show really shines in its ensemble numbers, with a large cast delivering the extraordinary vocal performances a Richard Rodgers score demands. Seven decades later, the title song may strike some as corny, but it's a lot harder to sing than you might remember, and hearing this talented cast's finely tuned, exhilarating rendition, Oklahoma! earns its exclamation point.
Meanwhile, thanks to Donald Byrd's updated choreography and the talented performers from his Spectrum Dance Theater, the dance numbers are worth the price of admission alone. Byrd's choreography is toe-tapping when it needs to be, as in his energetic staging of "Kansas City" (audiences love a good tap dance), but the highlight of the evening comes during the "dream ballet" finale of the first act, in which Byrd's dancers deliver an edgier, sexier, darker performance than anything you might expect from a Rodgers and Hammerstein extravaganza.
Unfortunately, that's where the bold casting gambit fails.
"This is extraordinarily racist," my 14-year-old daughter leaned over and whispered during the ballet, which, though beautifully choreographed and executed, came off as the symbolic rape of a petite white woman by a large black man—a racial stereotype that was hard to shake throughout the production.
I've got no problem with multiracial casting, especially in musicals. No, it's not authentic—there wouldn't have been much social mixing between the races in 1906 Oklahoma, let alone an interracial love triangle. But then, cowmen and farmers wouldn't spontaneously break out into song and dance, either, so suspension of disbelief is part of the territory. But this particular casting decision is simply distracting.
The darkly comic number "Poor Jud Is Daid" takes on a new, less comic meaning when a white Curly holds up a rope to a black Jud, urging him to hang himself. And the quick show trial and exoneration of Curly after he kills Jud—well, that part at least would be authentic to the era, but it makes for a dissonant transition into the hopeful finale.
Rothstein says that Oklahoma! is "more complicated than given due" and he hoped that audiences would give it a fresh look. Mission accomplished. But given the production's other virtues, I'm just not sure Jud's "fresh look" was all that necessary.