I grew up singing the songs of Oklahoma!. My dad, an old soldier, used to croon the opening lines to “People Will Say We’re in Love” not as “Don’t throw bouquets at me,” but as “Don’t throw grenades at me.” But never having seen it performed, I didn’t know the plot. I relied on 5th Avenue Theatre’s production for that.
To wit: A goofball white cowpoke, Curly, competes with the surly black farmhand, Jud, for the affections of the beautiful farmgirl, Laurey. She gives enough thumbs-up signals to Jud and enough hard-to-get nonsense to Curly to encourage them both in their romantic pursuit of her—but as the musical unfolds we learn that Curly is earnest and cheerful and hard working, and Jud is angry and increasingly menacing, with a chip on his shoulder and a disturbing interest in pictures of naked women.
Laurey is attracted to both; a dilemma her psyche attempts to work out in the famous dream ballet scene at the end of the first act. Laurey’s danced courtship with Curly is all pirouettes and rainbows. Her dream dalliance with Jud, however, is a darker thing entirely: a rape, or something close to it, thanks to the brilliantly, violently physical choreography of Spectrum Dance Theater’s Donald Byrd.
The 5th Avenue’s most significant update to the beloved 1940s musical was to make it a reflection of the racial dynamics of the Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the century. As a result, this production of Oklahoma! could make a person think it was a play about the tragedy of the black experience in America—which renders the whole giddy last scene of the show offensive and off-putting; almost part of another play.
Because—spoiler alert!—when Jud-as-black-man brings all his years of frustrated serfdom and unrequited lust to a last violent encounter with Laurey, he’s no longer just some isolated loner/loser; now he carries the African-American experience of forced servitude and presumptively threatening sexuality onto the stage. Considering Jud’s destiny in the next scene, and the trumped-up trial that follows—the plot, if Jud is black, has entered the realm of tragedy.
All of which message would be fine— great even—if it weren’t trapped in a musical where everyone gathers for a few laughs from the show’s clowns and a big showy reprise of the victory song, “Oklahoma!” at the end.
Thru Mar 4, 5th Avenue Theatre, $29–$139