Those of us who haven't crossed the sea to see Trevor Nunn's rapturously- received, 1998 revival of Oklahoma! can now listen to it -- at least, courtesy of the new cast recording (First Night). It's a fine serving of the score, which indicates that this production is not just another revival of just another classic.
This new Oklahoma! seems little different than any other for about 13 minutes of disc time. Then, midway through the "Kansas City" dance, arrangements veer away from the originals, and we find ourselves caught up in what must be the most show-stoppingest version of "Kansas City" ever. (Credit choreographer Susan Stromann, who knows how to build a number; her dance arranger, David Krane; and director Nunn, who wisely imported them from Broadway.) This gives the album a fresh -- and unexpected -- shot of adrenaline, which it pretty much maintains thereafter.
The performers are generally first-rate, though none appear to stand out. Shuler Hensley received universal accolades for his Jud, but it's impossible to judge his performance from one-and-a-half songs. The lovers (Hugh Jackman and Josefina Gabrielle) are bright-voiced and sympathetic; the comic couple (Jimmy Johnston and Vicki Simon) are comic and energetic; and music director John Owen Edwards has the orchestra and chorus well in hand. All of which places this disc ahead of the primitively-recorded 1943 original cast (which boasts the glorious voice of Alfred Drake), the proficient-but-unexciting 1979 revival, and numerous other renditions of the score.
Nunn's approach to the recalcitrant lovers, who spat their way through "People Will Say We're in Love" like high school juniors sitting in the cafeteria, apparently works well on stage; his lovers are far more human and lifelike than your typical Curly and Laurey. I can imagine Dick & Oscar rolling their eyes at this rendition, though. They provided no less than six good comedy songs; did Nunn have to take their one, lone ballad and hoke it up? The boy actually yawns while the girl is singing the refrain! As Hammerstein's mentor Jerome Kern might well have said, whatever you do, boys, don't mess with the sell chorus. This doesn't seem to bother anyone who's seen the show in performance, though.
The disc's high spots, for me, are the aforementioned "Kansas City"; "All Er Nuthin'", which is a delightfully perfect example of musical comedy writing (and also includes a "new" dance section); the equally expert song scene "Pore Jud Is Daid"; and the rousing title number, featuring Jay Blackton's knockout vocal arrangement with which they were wise enough not to tamper. In fact, Nunn has happily chosen to retain far more of the original orchestrations than is typically the case nowadays. Changes occur only where necessary, mostly to accommodate the choreographer. William David Brohn's additional orchestrations fit in nicely with Russell Bennett's, but I wonder how Rodgers would react to some new, distinctly Coplandish passages. (Rodgers' 1939 cowboy ballet "Ghost Town" was knocked out of the Ballets Russe repertory and into oblivion by Copland's admittedly superior 1942 "Rodeo.") I also find the new "Out of My Dreams" ballet to be far less powerful than the original "Laurey Makes Up Her Mind." (The highly dramatic 1943 ballet, patches of which turn up in climactic moments of the new version, remains unrecorded, by the way. It is unclear exactly who is responsible for it, although I would guess it was written principally by Rodgers himself.) Oklahoma!, which the Royal National Theatre opened at the Olivier on July 15 and Cameron Mackintosh recently transferred to the Lyceum (scheduled through June 26), will arrive on our shores sooner or later. If Mackintosh has his way, the RNT cast will hit town this fall. Otherwise, the transfer will be delayed until Nunn can find time to cast and mount a new production, which could take a couple of years.
Properly launched, this Oklahoma! could run for years on Broadway and the road. While I'm all for supporting the work rights of American actors, it seems to me that permitting the English in for four months can ultimately result in thousands of work weeks for American Equity members. Let us remember that the Royal National's equally-admirable Carousel, which was remounted on Broadway in 1994 with an all American cast, was far less effective here than in London, resulting in a disappointingly brief, ten-month run.
We'll see Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma!, no doubt, one way or the other. In the meantime, though, this is an Oklahoma! to get ahold of.