BWW Album Review: OKLAHOMA! Revival Is Doing Much More Than Fine
In case you haven't heard: this ain't your grandmother's Oklahoma! Or your high school's, or your community theater's, with ruffled skirts and cheery cowboys and pioneers. The 2019 revival is anything but light and peppy, and that's a very good thing. The cast recording for this revival is unusual, unexpected, and, occasionally, shocking, giving modern audiences an analogue for how the original shocked audiences in 1943.
From the first notes of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," the style of this Oklahoma! is pretty clear: acoustic, country, and stripped back. This famous opening number was groundbreaking in its day for being a simple solo, and Damon Daunno's Curly embraces that rustic simplicity while throwing in a few tweaks and riffs that make the song his own. More surprising is when Rebecca Naomi Jones's Laurey makes "Laurey's Entrance." There's more grit and edge to her voice than you would expect of a Laurey - though she hits the high notes beautifully - and it's one of those moments of clarity where a version you never thought of turns out to be the best one imaginable.
What's intriguing about this Oklahoma! is that it doesn't "change" the show, but rather teases out the subtext that's always been there. For instance, the chipper love songs "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're In Love," in Daunno and Jones's hands, become downright sexy. Daunno croons his way through the songs with a smooth alt-country swagger, while Jones is a smart, full-voiced heroine. Jones's "Many a New Day" may be a bit polarizing and non-traditional (it's lower and belt-ier than you're used to hearing), but it suits this less dainty, more realistic-sounding character. This isn't a pair of mild ingenues - these are adults finding their way in the world.
Daunno and Jones's comic counterparts are the delightfully James Davis and Ali Stroker, as dim-bulb cowboy Will and exuberant Ado Annie. There's a gleeful wackiness to their performances that feels (and sounds) both familiar and fresh. Their duet of "All 'Er Nothin'" is funny and sweet and just over-the-top enough. It's Stroker, though, who gets the scene-stealer of the entire album, with her energetic, no-holds-barred "I Cain't Say No."
Oklahoma!'s villain, Jud Fry, is tough to pin down: is he a figure deserving of our pity for the contempt with which he's treated, or a creep deserving of that contempt and more? In the hands of Patrick Vaill, it's both. It's hard not to feel bad for him when he's being manipulated, almost seduced into imagining his own death by Curly in "Pore Jud Is Daid," but in today's world, "Lonely Room" can't help sounding like the entitled, bitter manifesto of an attacker in the making. It's a well-rounded performance that makes you uncomfortable in all the right ways.
It's not just the vocal performances that make this album a standout, but the orchestrations, done by Daniel Kluger, as well. Gone is the sweeping Golden Age sound, replaced with a stripped-down, country-tinged style. While it's subtle and unobtrusive in some songs, the updates are much more evident on a handful of tracks, particularly the "Dream Ballet." It's a slightly eerie, wholly modern take, prominently featuring steel guitar and really highlighting the conflict and raging emotions of the story moment. That's true of this Oklahoma! as a whole. It's not a story that preens, flirts, and flits, but one that seduces, questions, and, yes, occasionally rages. In this album, that's more evident than ever. You're doing, fine, Oklahoma!, and better than ever.