ON THE RECORD: Going Home to Oklahoma With Kristin Chenoweth and Discovering a "New" Ivor Novello Operetta

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Going Home to Oklahoma With Kristin Chenoweth and Discovering a "New" Ivor Novello Operetta
 
This week's column follows Kristin Chenoweth as she goes home to Oklahoma for a concert and looks at a lost and unproduced Ivor Novello musical rescued after 60 years.
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Kristin Chenoweth: Coming Home [Concord]
Kristen Chenoweth — Broken Arrow, Oklahoma's gift to musical theatre — returned home last August for a special concert at (where else?) the new Kristin Chenoweth Theatre in the Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center. The concert, under the title "Kristin Chenoweth: Coming Home," was telecast on PBS in November and has been released on CD by Concord Music Group.

Chenoweth, a performer of many talents, more or less astonished New York audiences when she burst upon the scene in Kander and Ebb's 1997 musical Steel Pier as a 28-year-old, 4'11" spitfire with a stratospheric voice. More roles continued, including a Tony-winning turn in the short-lived 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and the star-making role of Glinda in the 2003 musical Wicked. Then came plenty of television (including an Emmy for "Pushing Daisies") along with concerts, recordings and special appearances. Happily for theatregoers, Chenoweth seems to be primarily a creature of musical theatre; she always chooses to return to her adopted turf, like a homing pigeon returning to the roost. At present, we can look forward to the Roundabout revival of On the Twentieth Century, in which she stars opposite Peter Gallagher, beginning Feb. 12 at the American Airlines.

Chenoweth is still a 4'11" spitfire with a stratospheric voice, but she's no longer the same fresh-faced youth who dazzled us in Steel Pier and Charlie Brown. (Although then approaching 30, she looked a good ten years younger, which made that voice even more astonishing.) Many fans still enthuse over her boundless talent, while others sometimes question whether we are not seeing the same tricks over and over again (including a tendency to occasionally slip into a "cute" persona). This is overshadowed, though, by Chenoweth's voice and musicality. At the singer's Carnegie Hall concert "The Evolution of a Soprano" last May — about half of which was included in the August program in Oklahoma City, and on the new CD — that masterful voice clearly was in control.

"Coming Home" does, understandably, present more of Chenoweth's small-town Oklahoma flavor. (A big town by Oklahoma standards, but small compared to — say — Yonkers.) She is back in her element, with "her" people, and not unreasonably gives them what they want. "This is the most nervous that I've ever been," this veteran award-winning star of stage and screen emotionally tells the hometown crowd, "because this is my family." Chenoweth starts with a piece of pure musical theatre singing: "I Could Have Danced All Night," ending not in the G which Julie Andrews sings on the cast recording but with a high C. She follows this with Kander and Ebb's "Maybe This Time," building to a finish that makes Liza Minnelli sound absolutely reserved. She immediately reverses herself, though, with a tender version of the Kander, Ebb and Minnelli pop song "My Coloring Book" and a warm-hearted "Fathers and Daughters." Then come the pair of inspirational songs that were so effective at Carnegie Hall, "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Upon This Rock." (Her joke about the first, mentioning how she liked the song so much she decided she wanted to go meet Stephen Foster, falls flat; most of this audience, it seems, never heard of him.)

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Chenoweth gives us a nice rendition of "Over the Rainbow," followed by two from Wicked: "Popular" (in her multi-lingual "Around the World with Glinda" arrangement) and "For Good," which she performs with local girl Axyl Langford. Most special of the selections, for me, is Chenoweth's rendition of "All the Things You Are" with a piano-only accompaniment (presumably from music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell). Chenoweth is accompanied by Campbell and an 11-piece orchestra, the young Ms. Langford, three featured singers and the Broken Arrow High School Choir.

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I can't say I've ever had much interest in the works of Ivor Novello, a Noël Coward contemporary who similarly enjoyed great success as a songwriter and actor from 1916 until his death in 1951. Novello had an early song hit, at the age of 21 — the World War I song, "Keep the Home Fires Burning" — but is best known for his lushly romantic operettas written from 1935, including The Dancing Years, Perchance to Dream and King's Rhapsody. His final work was something of a spoof of his own style, the 1951 hit Gay's the Word.

Next up was another romantic operetta, Valley of Song, but Novello died three weeks into the run of Gay's the Word and left the piece unfinished. That was 1951. The work was more or less completed by Novello's longtime lyricist Christopher Hassall, but has gone unproduced until now. Last January, a London group called WestEnders presented the premiere production of Valley of Song at the Finborough Theatre, a tiny fringe house in the Earl's Court neighborhood.

This is, indeed, an old-fashioned operetta about a Welsh choirmaster who loves his best soprano except she moves to Venice to become an opera star but is victimized by a villainous nobleman so she moves back to Wales but the choirmaster has gone off to fight — it's 1914 — but finally they get together for one last number and they realize that "music shall always be part of the Valley of Song." No, this isn't my cuppa tea, as they say. Yet I put the thing on and was kind of wafted away by the melodies. I wouldn't call Valley of Song the high point of my CD listening year, mind you; but I happily listened to it a couple of times. I expect that operetta fans might be favorably surprised, and Novello fans will likely be very pleased.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"; "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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