An ‘Intoxicating’ Singer, Whether It’s Green Day or ‘Oklahoma!’
“That felt so vulnerable,” Rebecca Naomi Jones confessed during a recent rehearsal break at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. She had just worked through an intense a cappella rendition of “Out of My Dreams,” one of the trickier ballads in the musical “Oklahoma!,” in which she’s playing the ambivalent ingénue Laurey in the director Daniel Fish’s stripped-down revival.
Ms. Jones, 37, could have been referring to the song’s vocal perils — it has been transposed to a lower key than in the original score, giving it a dusky, even gritty quality — or to the way Mr. Fish’s staging in this instance leaves her exposed, virtually alone onstage without even the band to back her.
Or she might have been talking about the acting challenge of assaying the character in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 chestnut who “is going through the most — she has the most questions,” as the show’s music director, Nathan Koci, put it.
“There’s so much about Laurey that is tough — she’s got strong ideas and opinions throughout the play — and there’s also so much talk of fear,” said Ms. Jones, whose agile, alert face is framed by untamed curls and anchored by a pair of limpid brown eyes. “There’s so much about trying to decide, and in this production we’re exploring this natural sensuality she has that she’s not yet comfortable with — that she’s afraid of.”
Stew, the writer/composer of the rock musical “Passing Strange,” in which Ms. Jones made her Broadway debut a decade ago, recalled duetting with her on a song of his called “Scared,” saying, “I literally got scared, because she went so deep into this song I thought I knew everything about, I felt in need of a life vest.”
Michael Mayer, who cast her as Whatsername in the musical of Green Day’s “American Idiot” and as Yitzhak in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” talked about her “human, almost mortal kind of frailty, coupled with this fierce determination that is so appealing. She can go from sort of Bambi in the woods to someone who’s like, ‘Don’t you mess with me,’ and do it in a flash — I find it intoxicating.”
Shaina Taub, the composer of “As You Like It,” the Public Works production in which Ms. Jones starred last year as Rosalind, pegged this quality to her voice, saying she’s “not afraid to show her emotions, and not afraid to make sounds that are not pretty sounds, even though her voice is really beautiful. She peels back the layer of polish and shows us the layer underneath.”
But such lability can be a liability. Ms. Jones, who has built a career largely creating roles in musicals with rock or pop scores, has seldom lacked for meaty work in both straight plays and musicals — including most recently “Fire in Dreamland,” “Significant Other,” and “Marie and Rosetta” — but hasn’t yet had the signature role that would catapult her into the ranks of Sutton Foster, say, or Audra McDonald.
“Sometimes it can be hard for people to know exactly what to do with her; she can do so many things,” said Mr. Mayer.
To illustrate the dilemma another way: She sang both female leads in early concerts and demos of “Hamilton,” but she’s never appeared in the musical, perhaps because it’s equally easy to imagine her as either beatific Eliza or spiny Angelica.
Laurey in “Oklahoma!” (which opens Oct. 7) has the potential to change all that. In Mr. Fish’s intimate, contemporized staging (first seen at Bard SummerScape in 2015, with Amber Gray as Laurey), Ms. Jones is making both a departure and an arrival. It’s her first major role in a Golden Age musical, but reconceived in a way that gives ample room for the kind of idiosyncratic personal stamp she brings to all her work — what Mr. Mayer called her “attraction to what’s unusual about a character.”
“I definitely never approach something like, ‘I’m going to bring my unique me-ness to it,’ ever, ever, ever,” Ms. Jones insisted in an interview. “I always think, ‘How can I make this the most real for myself in this room?’”
That search can’t help but produce startlingly original results, at least in part because of her background. She was raised in Tribeca by an African-American father who worked as a vocal coach for doo-wop and oldies acts, and a Jewish mother who made sure she was bas mitzvahed (though Ms. Jones noted a tad sheepishly that our rehearsal-break interview was taking place on Yom Kippur).
A singer from an early age, including in the Metropolitan Opera chorus and in choirs at Grace Church School and Berkeley Carroll prep school, she studied classical theater at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and fell into musical theater largely because “if you’re brown and you sing, that’s where the work is.”
It was auspicious, then, that her big break came in “Passing Strange,” in which she and the ensemble cast had the chance to develop multiple roles alongside creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and to flex acting muscles as well as singing chops.
“We all were encouraged to think of ourselves as artists in this way that I had forgotten to do, just because of the strictness of conservatory training,” said Ms. Jones. “It helped sort of shake me into my own voice — my own singing voice as well.”
In Mr. Fish’s “Oklahoma!,” which has been reorchestrated for a small chamber country band and staged with near-immersive immediacy, she has similar room to make her mark. “He wants the scenes to bleed into one another,” Ms. Jones said of the director’s approach. “We’re not ignoring that we’re all in this room together, and I think it changes the vibe.”
Mr. Fish said it was her “depth, strength, and groundedness” that got her the role in “Oklahoma!,” and that since then he’s been impressed not only by her facility with “the acrobatics of the part” but by the things she’s taught him about a show he practically knows by heart.
“There’s a speech in Act One where the peddler says, ‘How about you, Miss Laurey? Must be wanting something,’” Mr. Fish said. Laurey’s reply, in part, goes, “Want things I’ve heard of and never had before … Things so nice, if they ever did happen to you, your heart would quit beatin’. You’d fall down dead!” Mr. Fish said he hadn’t clocked the delicate freight of this exchange till Ms. Jones got her skilled hands on it.
“All of the main themes of the show are there, and I learned this by watching her do it,” Mr. Fish marveled. “If you come down too heavy on it, it doesn’t work, but if you ignore the depth and humanity, it’s just frill. It’s a moment where the show is both floating and going deep. She’s able to do all of that.”