The very first recording I reviewed when I began this column three years ago was the 1998 Royal National Theatre version of Oklahoma!. Trevor Nunn's production, at long last, has finally reached our shore; it begins previewing Feb. 23 at the Gershwin, in preparation for a March 21 opening. With no new American cast album presently announced, First Night Records has domestically released their 1998 CD. That is to say, the same disc is now available stateside at non-import prices. It's a fine serving of the score, which indicates that this production is not just another revival of just another classic. (The recording features Hugh Jackman, Josefina Gabrielle, and Shuler Hensley, the latter two of whom are scheduled to open in the Broadway production.)
This new Oklahoma! seems little different than any other for about thirteen minutes of disc time. Then, midway through the "Kansas City" dance, the 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 Stroman, who knows how to build a number; her dance arranger, David Krane; and director Nunn, who wisely imported them from New York for his production.) This gives the album a fresh-and unexpected-shot of adrenaline, which it pretty much maintains thereafter.
Yes, I'm a traditionalist, and I generally prefer to hear things the way they sounded when the composer was standing in the back of the theatre taking notes. But why should a choreographer like Susan Stroman be restricted by the tempos and counts that Agnes de Mille and her dance arranger came up with in some dusty rehearsal hall sixty years ago? Oklahoma! is a big dance show, the show that truly interpolated dance into musical comedy. Yes, you can reproduce de Mille's work altogether, as in the previous Broadway revivals of Oklahoma!. But if you choose to go ahead with a new and accomplished choreographer, then it makes little sense to restrain her or him. (That is, unless you're dealing with shows like On the Town and West Side Story, where the composer carefully wrote his own ballet music.)
The CD'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 "Pore Jud Is Daid"; and the rousing title number, featuring Jay Blackton and Robert Russell Bennett's knockout vocal arrangement with which they were wise enough not to tamper. Nunn has wisely chosen to retain far more of the original orchestrations than is typically the case nowadays. William David Brohn's additional orchestrations fit in nicely with Russell Bennett's. I wonder how Rodgers would react to some new, distinctly Coplandish passages, though; Rodgers's 1939 cowboy ballet Ghost Town was knocked out of the Ballets Russe repertory and into oblivion by Copland's admittedly superior 1942 Rodeo. At any rate, I look forward to seeing this Oklahoma! at the Gershwin.
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