The 5th Avenue’s new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is a wonderfully disconcerting pleasure to enjoy and digest. Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong has referred to Oklahoma! as “. . . truly the quintessential American musical.” The 5th Avenue embraces this truth by weaving a quintessential American tension throughout the production. This tension comes in the name and captivating presence of Jud Fry, played by Kyle Scatliffe. It’s clear director Peter Rothstein was unwilling to allow the 5th’s expression of Oklahoma! to digress into a sentimental homage to the good old days of the American musical. Instead, he has found a way to translate the foundational integrity of Oklahoma! while exploring a theme that is contemporary and satisfyingly unsettling.
In the 5th Avenue’s production of Oklahoma!, Jud Fry becomes more than a foil for the protagonist; he actually becomes a representation of the American narrative’s deepest fear. Jud Fry is a symbol of everything and everyone who will not submit to the dominant narrative. He is chaos lurking in the shadow, he is instability refusing to bow to the logic of the room, he is otherness unable or unwilling to assimilate. Jud Fry is the irritant, perpetually challenging the validity of our American dream. Whether it’s a wedding, a community dance, or just simple daily living, Jud Fry lurks in the corners of the room, challenging the united chorus of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Kyle Scatliffe’s magnificently tormented portrayal of Jud Fry keeps Oklahoma! from being the feel good musical of the year. His existence is woven into almost every ecstatic moment and heartfelt resolution. All joy is tempered by the simple truth that not everyone has joined the narrative of hope and love. No matter how loud and passionately the cast sings “Oh what a beautiful morning,” we are reminded that there are some who will never enter into the beauty of that song. This is the magic of Oklahoma!. No matter how hard we try to define society with one overarching agreed upon song, there is always someone refusing to sing that song. Consequently, when Oklahoma! ends, the audience is left both with a beautiful song in their head and a tinge of sadness in their heart. “That would have been a lovely wedding, if only Jud Fry hadn’t showed up.” How dare he ruin our happy ending.
Although I’m focusing the majority of this review on Oklahoma’s well crafted tension, it is important to note that the story is far more than Jud Fry.
Oklahoma’s set design, lighting, and staging are mesmerizing. The opening scene’s use of framing and perspective clearly articulates that the audience is about to be drawn into an experience. I am repeatedly awed by how 5th Avenue productions succeed in both spectacle and simplicity. Instead of competing with the actors, the scenery fuels the mood and motion of the story. Oklahoma! is full of scene transitions that figuratively and literally frame the story’s arc. This is most evident when the audience is ushered into the claustrophobic confines of the smokehouse. The elevated staging evokes a sense that one is watching the drama unfold from beneath the floorboards. This magical, oppressive scene underscores the darkness that is lurking just below the surface.
The acting, singing, and dancing is exemplary. Particular note should obviously be given to the rich choreography and elaborate ballet dream sequence. It is a true treat to see modern and traditional forms of dance integrated into each number. Although the choreography has a passionate and distinctive voice, it does not compete with Oklahoma’s historical context. It is a true joy to engage a musical that includes the best music, lyrics, and dance theater has to offer.
To be honest, I simply don’t have time to articulate all that is right with the 5th Avenue’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! I enjoyed the humor, the love story, and the nuanced subtleties expressed by a cast and crew who clearly trust the power of one of America’s preeminent musicals. If you haven’t yet discovered the magic of the 5th Avenue, then let me welcome you to Oklahoma!