The Oakland Symphony finished their season in style last Friday, May 19, at the Paramount Theater with a concert version of Guys and Dolls, a musical by Frank Loesser that premiered in 1950. Although unstaged and heavily cut, this was an opportunity to hear the music in all its sparkle and lushness, neither confined by the pit nor upstaged by costumes or clever dialogue. (And one must add that the choir did manage full costumes and the song lyrics really were clever – and crystal clear.)
I love concert versions of staged works. It’s a look under the hood, where one can appreciate how the music drives the action. Having the full Oakland Symphony on-stage made that a rich reality.
Associate Conductor Bryan Nies opened Friday’s concert with the overture to Oklahoma, a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Like opera overtures or Shakespearean prologues, this gave us an “overview” of the story, with a dramatic arch built out of the well-known songs of the musical. Nies’ conducting was smart and assured and the luscious strings and tight brass painted ripe corn and summer days, a compelling bit of Americana.
They followed with the Waltz from Carousel, a slow dance that was fat and glittery, almost a Big Band reply to the waltzes of Austria.
After that warm-up Michael Morgan took the podium. “Guys and Dolls is subtitled ‘A Musical Fable of Broadway,’ and like all fables there is good and evil, represented here by the Salvation Army Mission and the gamblers.” He turned and began the Overture, and like the Oklahoma overture it was all there: golden brass and intimate winds. As Morgan swayed and danced the orchestra delivered jazz and nostalgia, sarcastic themes and sophisticated orchestration. As they did, the chorus worked their way on to the rear risers, matrons and showgirls waving at each other and gamblers prancing or slouching.
That chorus was a high point of the night, and their enthusiasm was palpable.
Morgan turned between numbers to narrate, summing up the dialogues and keeping us focused on the music. And those soloists! Annie Sherman was superb as the strait-laced Sister Sarah Brown, singing, “I’ll know when my Love comes along” with sweet high notes and a thrilling vibrato. While that blonde bombshell in a tight red dress may have distracted some from the demure role she was playing, her simple lines and soaring vocals caused more than a few in the audience to grow misty.
Ben Jones was her counterpoint as Sky Masterson, a sturdy harmony in that song and a solid artistic presence throughout. His baritone was clean and dreamy in “My Time of Night” and then he got down and even a little dirty in “Luck be a Lady,” and the men’s chorus gave it sizzle (and it is rare when a chorus is so tightly knit as to “sizzle”).
The star of the show was, of course, Adelaide, the older showgirl who is tired of waiting for her gambler man to finally propose. Tami Dahbura inhabited that role as if born to it, heavy on the early-twentieth century New Yorker accent and with every note and vowel superbly placed. In “Adelaide’s Lament” her notes bloomed without ever over-singing, and her broad humor had the kind of timing one sees on Broadway. Not surprisingly, she is currently in the Broadway touring Kinky Boots. She got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the night.
Also topping a cast of excellent soloists, J. Raymond Meyers brought a clean and effortless tenor as Nicely-Nicely, first in the betting sheet trio, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” and then in his own solo, “Sit down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” And again, the Oakland Symphony Chorus (as a crew of sinners and saints) gave this song the bling that it deserves.
Bryan Nies returned after intermission to lead the Overture from Gypsy, and the orchestra sounded almost arrogantly hip in this strutting work by Jule Styne. The brass were fabulous all night, but in this overture William Harvey added some trumpet squeals that were hair-raising.
Then Morgan returned and in nine more numbers they brought home the bacon.
What a night!
Photos from top: Annie Sherman (photo credit Mike Gan), Tami Dahbura, J. Raymond Meyers and Ben Jones – photos courtesy of the artists.