ON THE RECORD: A Superb SOUTH PACIFIC and Diahann Carroll’s PORGY AND BESS

News   ON THE RECORD: A Superb SOUTH PACIFIC and Diahann Carroll’s PORGY AND BESS
 
This week’s column discusses the Carnegie Hall concert recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and Diahann Carroll’s take on Porgy and Bess.
http://images.playbill.com/photo/c/d/cd1_1145032672.jpg

SOUTH PACIFIC [Decca Broadway B0006462]

Record companies see fit to occasionally give us new recordings of old musicals, which is a hopeful indication that old shows never die and all that. However, one all too often finds that the attempts at recreation—and in all too many cases, the improvements—leave us wanting to store away the new CD and pull out the original. This happens so regularly that one might well be hesitant at listening to the newest entry, the Carnegie Hall recording of South Pacific.

Let us gladly state, therefore, that the Carnegie Hall recording of South Pacific is smashingly good. I wouldn’t say that it is preferable to the Mary Martin-Ezio Pinza version; but I wouldn’t say that it isn’t. The Mary and Ezio recording has its advantages, including the authenticity of top performers creating roles that would prove to be classic. The new CD counters that, due in large part to the efforts of musical director Paul Gemignani.

Gemignani has been around so long, and played such a large part in the Broadway musical since he took over A Little Night Music in 1973, that it seems unnecessary to praise him here and now. But South Pacific is not the type of musical he specializes in. Just about everything we hear on this new disc, vocal and instrumental, is impeccably performed. Gemignani seems to have this music under his skin, and he makes sure that his players capture every nuance in Russell Bennett’s masterful orchestration. Like the booming bass drum that drives the “Nothing Like a Dame” section of the overture, and the glistening harp in the “Some Enchanted Evening” section. That seven-note flute filigree, in “Bali H’ai.” The harp that drives the intro to “A Wonderful Guy.” The brashly muted trumpet accents in “Carefully Taught.” These notes are all written on the score in pen and ink, of course; but Gemignani spotlights them, bringing out and accentuating every color.

The other hero of the evening is Brian Stokes Mitchell, as Emile de Becque. One can’t compare Stokes today to Pinza in 1949, of course; all we have of Pinza is the early recording, which includes considerably less material than is heard on the new CD. But Stokes seems to be every bit as strong, with the added advantage that his French planter doesn’t boom out his songs like an opera basso with a strong Italian accent. Let it also be said that you don’t sit there thinking, here’s Brian Stokes Mitchell again. You can put on just about any recording of Alfred Drake or John Raitt and instantly recognize the singer. This South Pacific doesn’t sound like the fellow from Ragtime or Kiss Me, Kate or Sweeney Todd— he made an unforgettable Sweeney at Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Festival—or even Mail. It’s just a wonderful performance from a singing actor, and if you hear it on the radio you might need the announcer to tell you who it is.

Reba McEntire makes a charming Nellie Forbush; very different-sounding than Mary Martin, yes, but why not? Most of what we hear is delightful, but she seems to need a little more work on her enunciation than allowed during the brief Carnegie Hall rehearsal period. Take “I’m Going to Wash that Men Right outa My Hair.” She doesn’t sing “men,” exactly, not every time (and the word is repeated repeatedly in the song); but she shure ain’t saying “man.” Something somewhere in between, which throws me every time I listen to the track. (The chorus girls are clearly singing “man.”) There are other words and phrases that come out oddly—like a strange emphasis on the last syllable of yellow-bellow-jello. I suppose all of this would have been refined once she had the part down, but when you’re doing a one-night-only concert there’s little time for such refinements. The ever-reliable Jason Danieley and Lillias White give their typically strong performances as Lt. Cable and Bloody Mary. Alec Baldwin, with star billing equivalent to Stokes and McEntire in the decidedly non-starring role of Luther Billis, gives a fine though not especially stellar reading.

Gemignani and Stokes are not the only two musical heroes of the recording, mind you. Everything starts with Mr. Rodgers, and continues with Mr. Bennett. Is this the best set of orchestrations in Bennett’s long and eventful history? That’s impossible to judge, as many of Bennett’s musicals went unrecorded and he was quick to point out that he tried to do the same-caliber job on hits as on flops. But South Pacific is a pretty exceptional job. Unlike Bennett’s usual practice of farming out a quarter or more of the charts, he saw fit to score almost the entire show himself. (The one exception is Don Walker’s “Carefully Taught.” Coincidentally enough, this is the only place where I question the musical handling; too forced for my taste, with the drummer directed to push way too hard.)

“A Wonderful Guy” and “A Cockeyed Optimist” are perfect theatre orchestrations, delicately understated but thoroughly supportive. “Twin Soliloquys,” too; Bennett, with his harp and strings, puts us “on a hillside, looking on an ocean, beautiful and still.” The underscoring that follows (“Unspoken Thoughts”) is a pure-and-simple swell of emotion. The section preceding the vocal of “Younger Than Springtime” is perhaps the most ecstatic musical underscoring ever heard on Broadway. The invaluable and unheralded Trude Rittman wrote it, using two Rodgers themes (known to us as the accompaniment to the words “your own special home” and “I touch your hand and my arms grow strong”). Bennett’s setting of Rittman’s arrangement is positively rapturous.

One would prefer the omission of audience response, but a live concert is a live concert. More problematic is the dialogue spread throughout the piece. If the dialogue must be recorded, so be it; but in that case, give posterity what Hammerstein and Josh Logan wrote, not a cut-and-altered concert adaptation. The full dialogue would push the recording onto a second CD, with little advantage. But couldn’t they have just edited out everything they say when the orchestra isn’t playing?

These are exceedingly minor quibbles, though. Here we have one of the very finest non-original cast albums of a Broadway musical, and one that brings this phenomenal score into the modern, stereo world. Dick and Oscar meet Gemignani and Stokes (and Reba), and everything comes up roses.

The whole CD is capped, and how, by “This Nearly Was Mine.” It is performed with the optional repeat (which was not included on the Pinza recording). But they don’t simply repeat the orchestration; somebody had the unlikely but perceptive idea of taceting most of the instruments. What we get is the harp and a string quartet, with some fills from the winds. This might not work in a theatre, with the players hidden away in the orchestra pit. Here, with Brian Stokes Mitchell on the live recording of the June 2005 Carnegie Hall concert, it is – well, you can call it breathtakingly heartbreaking or heartbreakingly breathtaking, take your pick.

PORGY AND BESS [DRG 19078]

Diahann Carroll burst into the spotlight in 1954, with a featured role in Harold Arlen’s House of Flowers; went on to an especially well-received engagement at the Persian Room in 1960; and earned herself a custom-written role in Richard Rodgers’s 1962 musical No Strings, which brought with it a Best Actress Tony Award. Within a few years, Carroll was starring in a sitcom.

Carroll’s two original cast performances are well-known to musical theatre fans, and in each case pretty marvelous. DRG recently gave us the Persian Room recording, which demonstrated that Carroll was obviously ready for stardom. Now DRG has gone back to 1959 for Diahann Carroll and the Andre Previn Trio: Porgy and Bess. This was an outgrowth of the 1959 motion picture version of the opera; Carroll played Clara (of “Summertime”), with Previn serving as musical director. They combine to give a fine jazz rendition of the Gershwin-Heyward-Gershwin score.

If I don’t think much of Carroll and Previn’s “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” let me say that everything else is tip-top. Carroll performs Bess’s songs as well as we might expect from the singer who introduced “A Sleepin’ Bee” and “I Never Has Seen Snow.” The songs are performed in the jazz idiom, but Carroll—who won a Metropolitan Opera scholarship at the age of ten—manages to retain the nuances and vocal flourishes that Gershwin intended. If every track (save the one mentioned) is delightful, I find myself especially drawn to the usually overlooked “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down.” Ms. Carroll makes a festival out of what is, in effect, a throwaway chorus; so you can imagine what she does with the rest of Porgy and Bess.

—Steven Suskin, author of the newly released “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

Today’s Most Popular News: