Sound Advice Reviews
Taking two trips to Oklahoma!
The landmark musical Oklahoma! is 80 years old, but its charms sound young and fresh in two new releases. A deluxe studio cast version gives us, finally, a complete version of the score: songs aren't truncated; the dance music and scene-change music are here, and all with the original orchestrations. Meanwhile, with her solo album solely dedicated to items from that score, singer Audrey Silver is captivating with inventive interpretations.
RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN'S OKLAHOMA!
I've never been to the state of Oklahoma, but I've had countless happy trips revisiting the score of the classic musical Oklahoma!. So imagine my delight in hearing about–and then hearing–a complete recording with more chances to relish those ravishing Richard Rodgers melodies when they're heard again and expanded upon in what was written to be played for the dance sections of songs (typically truncated on recordings). There's the "Dream Ballet," an opus in itself. We also get the Entr-Acte and exit music, too. And let's be glad that that 1943 stage maneuverings didn't allow for the quick scenery set-ups of the modern era because the numerous tracks labeled "Scene Change," designed to cover those necessary waits, contain some of the liveliest and loveable re-statements of the tunes otherwise heard adorned by Oscar Hammerstein's characterful lyrics in their first appearances and vocal reprises. And, in sumptuous, clear sound, those delightfully detailed original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett with all their specific orchestral colors and flourishes are a joy to focus on. This is like a big Thanksgiving banquet with one's longtime favorite foods, cooked and seasoned well, many in larger portions with second helpings offered.
Perhaps because of the quantity of instrumental sections, the large orchestra's playing seems to sort of be the "star" more than any individual singing actor (good as they are) in this sterling studio cast presentation. The Sinfonia of London isn't mixed so as to seem like merely background accompaniment during the vocal sections. The orchestra here sounds like the singers' equally present and potent partner, embracing the music's lilt, nudging and reinforcing mood and tempo changes, accenting humorous turns of phrase. Conductor John Wilson is a perfect choice to lead this, having delved into the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre for recordings and the BBC Proms concerts, including one devoted to Oklahoma! with Nathaniel Hackmann singing the lead male role of cowboy Curly as he does here. (He has also played the role in a full stage production.) His rewarding performance–starting with "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'"–has the requisite robust sound as well as the pretty, gentle tones for the crooning, with neither swagger nor sweetness overplayed.
Sierra Boggess sings richly as Laurey, avoiding the leading female role's trap of too frequently playing the coy card. The first rendition of the duet with co-star Heckmann, "People Will Say We're in Love," is kind of grand and open-hearted, beautifully sung but missing some of the discretion and caution about expressing their attraction. Elsewhere, she seems radiant and comfortable floating through "Out of My Dreams" and asserting that she looks not back, but ahead to "Many a New Day." Some key spoken lines of Hammerstein's libretto are heard along the way, too, as in the discussion within "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" about whether that romantic rig is real or if smooth-talking Curly is just taking Laurey for a ride metaphorically.
This is a splendid company, especially for a studio cast recording. The quality of singing voices can be the priority and there are some sublime vocals here, with appropriate personality and attitudes coming through in the acting. While there's nary a hint of hamminess to make the characters seem cartoonish, some may opine that there are potential opportunities for sharp humor, feistiness, and nuance that are not fully exploited. Listening to Rodney Earl Clarke sing the role of Jud does not quite engender the imposing mix of chills and pity some have brought to the role, but he has his own subtler power. Louise Dearman is a fun and suitably saucy Ado Annie. She's well matched in the duet "All 'Er Nothin'" with the charming performer playing her boyfriend, Will–jaunty Jamie Parker, who coincidentally shares his character's surname.
Quite dutifully respected are the indications of the way some words were meant to be pronounced–baked into the published text (like "I got to 'Kansas City' on a Frid'y/ By Sattidy I larned a thing or two") or "I Cain't Say No" where "pit" rhymes "I forget" when spoken as "I furgit." The role of peddler Ali Hakim has sometimes been done with a very thick ethnic accent, but Nadim Naaman doesn't go there (and he's still amusing). The chorus is enthused and mighty, never muddy with their diction. Along with the strong-willed declarations of the characters Aunt Eller and Andrew Carnes (handled with aplomb, respectively, by Sandra Marvin and Leo Roberts), they add to the jauntiness of "The Farmer and the Cowman" in the full-length rendition of the number, with its frisky dance music.
The music comes with liner notes giving much background on the musical, the recording, and its participants, with photos and all the lyrics. Even if you're a collector whose pile of the many issued Oklahoma! cast albums seems "as high as a elephant's eye," this highly recommended 99-minute-long new entry is irresistible.
Maybe the cover provides a hint on how the songs from the musical Oklahoma! will be covered by singer Audrey Silver. The show title's usual exclamation point is not there. Her Oklahoma is relaxed: serene and understated. She takes on songs written for various characters, female and male, but it's not about presenting herself as if she is those folks in the musical or adopting everything about their attitudes. The recording's pianist, the formidable Bruce Barth, has formed arrangements that lets us experience the familiar fare in refreshing and rewarding new ways. The score is one of the New York City-based vocalist's very favorites, and the fondness and respect come through, with some maturity and grace imbued in the more reflective treatments. Liberties taken with notes are judicious. And some instrumental breaks are adventurous jazz explorations, taking off from the basic architectures of Richard Rodgers' rock-solid melodies, here loosened and liberated.
There are ten tracks showcasing the warm-voiced singer's ease and adeptness. They include two treatments of Oklahoma!'s title song, which is transformed to suggest a very different kind of appreciation of "the land we belong to," with hushed reverence. The first version begins with the sound of the wind, creating ambiance and soundscape as it foreshadows the lyric's opening reference ("where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain "). Also heard is the singer playing a Native American flute. In her preparation for the project, she read the play Oklahoma! is based on, Green Grow the Lilacs. It was written by Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs, taking place in what was then called "Indian territory" with characters stating they had "Indian blood" and she wanted to acknowledge the pre-statehood Native American presence.
Of all the selections, only the opening "Oklahoma" is under four minutes in length, with five pieces passing the five-minute mark, permitting the luxury of time to linger over lyrics and/or for the musicians to have longer time in the spotlight. The pianist is joined by guitarist Peter Bernstein throughout, with Adam Kolker (alto flute, bass clarinet) present for four tracks, Kahlil Kwame Bell (percussion) playing on two, and a string quartet (Sarah Zun, Adda Kridler, Kaya Bryla, and Maria Jeffer) on three numbers. This makes for an effective and artful variety of accompanying sounds, styles and moods. "Kansas City" gets a laid-back tempo with a very cool guitar/piano interplay in the middle.
"The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" has been favored by other jazz artists over the years, some changing its time signature, some coming along for the ride at a brisker clip than the "slow clip-clop" of the horse-driven buggy. With an approach that allows her to stress words in the lyric not usually getting the emphasis, Audrey Silver finds her own lane, speed limit and comfort zone. It's a road-tested "Surrey," having gone down a similar route on an earlier Silver/Barth collection, Very Early, from 2016.
The score's romance-centric numbers stay in rosy territory, but aren't all dewy-eyed innocence; they suggest a more open-eyed, experienced perspective. Especially welcome is the cut song written for Oklahoma!, "Boys and Girls Like You and Me." It had a further history of almost-inclusion, planned to be interpolated into movies with scores by other writers (Meet Me in St. Louis; Take Me Out to the Ball Game) before belatedly finding homes back in Rodgers & Hammerstein scores for stage versions of their State Fair and Cinderella. It gets a cozy home here, too.
"I Cain't Say No," while far from its rambunctious roots, shows the performer's playful side, with the accompaniment providing punctuation on the action words "smack" and "snaps." While these alterations are full of surprises, they don't "smack" a listener in the face as sacrilegious, but one "snaps" to attention. The heart and essence of Oklahoma! are here, despite the reupholstery. It's daring and different, but the risks in Audrey Silver's personalized Oklahoma pay off. It deserves its own exclamation point to praise it. And that's coming from a devotee of many traditional handlings of this score.