Three major flaws in the 5th's otherwise vigorous production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic:
5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900, 5thavenue.org. $29-$119. Runs Tues.-Sun. Ends March 4.
1) Many cast members do a terrible job with their accents: just generic Southern hick, sometimes so absurdly twangy as to get in the way of intelligibility, at best condescending, at worst offensive. As a Texas-raised friend observed, "Where did they get the idea people in Oklahoma talk like that?"
2) Do you recall the scene in The Birdcage where Robin Williams does rapid-fire parodies of choreographers' signature moves? "An eclectic celebration of the dance! Fosse Fosse Fosse! Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham . . . " A similar three-second sendup of Donald Byrd's Oklahoma! choreography would be a sort of spasmodic groin thrust, like a Jack Russell terrier in the throes of passion, which he asks the male dancers to do more than once. Inexplicably awful moments like this stood out among much lovely dance work, fluently performed by members of Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater.
3) Much is made in this production of the presence of African-American actors in the cast, particularly Kyle Scatliffe as the heavy, Jud. It's left ambiguous, though, whether we're therefore supposed to read Jud as a black character. If so, it raises serious plausibility issues—obviously it would have been unthinkable for a black Jud to be allowed to squire a white Laurey to a box social in Oklahoma in 1907. And if not, so what? Color-blind casting's been routine in opera for decades, and nobody makes a virtue of it. Funny to think the musical-comedy world has some catching up to do as regards progressive attitudes.
That said, Scatliffe is fantastic—a mite overheated, maybe, but what a stage presence—and the strongest vocally among some excellent singers. Eric Ankrim and Alexandra Zorn, as Curly and Laurey, sound charming together, though it took a while to warm to this Curly. (Ankrim isn't shy about playing him much younger and slightly more abrasive than usual.) And the chorus' sonic grandeur in the title anthem, since the show's 1943 premiere one of the genre's most thrilling, was a genuine goosebump/tear-up moment.
N.B.: The 5th is holding public discussions about the production's portrayal of Jud, which has proven provocative, at 5 p.m. Feb. 18 & 25; 4:30 p.m. Feb. 19 & 26; and 7 p.m. Mon., March 5.