CD Reviews

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1997-2003)

A Chorus Line - Original Bway Cast (Sony)

A Chorus Line has finally received the first-class remastering it desperately needed. And we're supposed to be grateful? Why the hell did we have to wait twenty-five years for decent sound and all these extra bits of the score? Buffs have always complained about the muddled sound of the original album and it was no secret that several numbers were recorded but held back. If Columbia could give us all this now, they could just as easily have done it when the score was first released on CD. The cynical, calculating creeps – what a waste of our time and money, making us buy the same damn recording over and over! What are they holding back to "surprise us" with next time around?

Oh well, it is a thrill to relive so many great ACL moments, so I'll let it go. This upgrade is more than worth the investment.

A Class Act - Original Cast (BMG/RCA Victor)

Composer Edward Kleban wrote the lyrics for A Chorus Line, a monumental hit that eclipsed his other work. Some have suggested it even blocked his future creative efforts, for none of his later work made it to the stage – until 2001, when some of his unheard songs were showcased in A Class Act. The unusual format imagines Kleban's ghost correcting things said at his memorial. This CD captures the acclaimed original Manhattan Theater Club cast, which changed somewhat when the show transferred to Broadway. Kleban's songs are well-crafted and lively, but it's a bad sign that a snippet of "One" is miles above the rest of the score. Although a lyricist myself, I could not help asking the fatal question – why should I care?

MTC assembled a solid cast, led by the book's co-author Lonny Price, who is thoroughly believable in the very complicated role of Kelban. Randy Graff, Carolee Carmello, Jonathan Freeman and David Hibbard add a great deal of professional polish, but they can only do so much with such self indulgent material. The the overall effect of the score is not all that exciting. Kleban did not push this material into a public performance while he was alive – I can' help thinking it was ill-advised to do so more than a dozen years after his death.

Annie Get Your Gun – 1999 Broadway Cast (Angel)

I have tremendous respect for director Graciela Daniele and music director John McDaniel. I also have tremendous respect for producers Fran and Barry Weissler – which is not surprising, seeing as I was once their assistant. However, I really wonder what these four were thinking of when they decided to tamper so mercilessly with Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. I can understand calling in Peter Stone to re-write the book. However, this score gave us "There's No Business Like Show Business" and landed more songs on the hit parade than any other musical of its time. Why mess with it?

Was the Berlin family asleep when this score was being butchered? Don't they have any respect for a show that has kept them in clover for half a century? I'm all for taking a fresh approach to a familiar score, but not when the results are so clearly inferior to the original version."The Girl That I Marry" is in snippets, "They Say It's Wonderful" loses its touching opening verse, and the innocuous "I'll Share It All With You" and "Who Do You Love I Hope" are re-instated to kill time – which they do, relentlessly. "My Defenses Are Down" (an all-time favorite of this author) gets a tacky (but admittedly witty) Las Vegas arrangement, and the usually show-stopping "I Got The Sun In The Morning" falls flat. On the few occasions when they leave Mr. Berlin's score alone, it sparkles as brightly as ever. "Moonshine Lullaby" and "I Got Lost In His Arms" are among the prettiest tracks Ms. Peters has ever recorded, and the opening choral version of "There's No Business Like Show Business" is joyously right. When Wopat and Peters cut loose with "An Old Fashioned Wedding" and "Anything You Can Do" it is old-style Broadway all the way – albeit not as exciting as the raving critics had led me to believe.

Bernadette Peters may be thirty years too old to play Annie Oakley but you wouldn't know it on this CD. She is in peak vocal condition, making the most of every lyric. As for Tom Wopat, let's just say he's okay as long as the songs make minimal demands. Otherwise, he simply skips the high notes and warbles on, doing limited justice to Berlin's tunes. The supporting cast is fine, most notably Broadway veteran Ron Holgate (1776, Grand Tour) as an exuberant Buffalo Bill. Pity the approach of this production so often obscures the talents of the cast.

Applause - Original Cast (Decca)

One of the most overdue CD remasterings, this often overlooked Tony-winning show boasts a frequently exciting score and the powerhouse (if often off-key) performance of Lauren Bacall in her unlikely but acclaimed musical debut. Her "Welcome to the Theatre" is pure magic, and showtune buffs will always love Bonnie Franklin leading the chorus in the rousing title tune. The early 70s rock touches in the orchestrations can't hide the fact that this score is pure Broadway.

Composer Charles Strouse is featured in a very enjoyable addendum of songs recorded for a demo but cut from the show – "Smashing, N.Y. Times" is a real gem. The booklet notes say that he and lyricist Lee Adams are working together again – can't wait to see what they come up with! In the meantime, this restored recording of Applause is a grand treat.

As Thousands Cheer - Off Bway Cast (Varese Sarabande)

This small Off-Broadway production was a real jewel, and the cast CD offers 15 Irving Berlin songs performed to perfection – in contrast to the mishandled Annie Get Your Gun reviewed above. While I love big period orchestrations, an exquisite one-piano arrangement lets the singers and songs be the issues here, joyful to the ear and the soul.

Each of these performers knows how to make the most of vintage material. Howard McGillin's sexy charm is always a plus, and it is great to hear Judy Kuhn cut loose in several light-hearted numbers. B.D.Wong plays a wide range of characters with brio and the delicious Mary Beth Peil makes "Heat Wave" as torrid a showstopper as ever. Paula Newsome's passionate "Suppertime" is a standout. The versatile Kevin Chamberlin's hilarious Noel Coward skit did not make it on to the recording, so there isn't nearly enough of him here.

Highlights include "Harlem on My Mind" and "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," as delightful here as they were on stage. The well-known "Easter Parade" was missing from the production due to rights issues, but has been added for the CD (and subsequent licensing). To all theatre companies considering this show -- include both songs in your production! If you love classic musical comedy, this recording is a must have. Things like this help to keep a show buff's faith alive.

Babes in Arms - 1999 Encores Cast (DRG)

The wonderful Encores! concert series at New York's City Center continues to delight musical theatre lovers, and their recording of Babes in Arms shows why. Rodgers & Hart's superlative score includes "Where or When," "I Wish I Were In Love Again," "Johnny One Note" and "The Lady is a Tramp" – more hits than some composers had in a decade! While the superb 1990 concert recording has been treasured by collectors, this CD is just as delightful, and has a fair amount of additional material. Buffs with a taste for classic showtunes will not regret owning both recordings.

City Center gathered a first rate cast of unknowns, a perfect approach for this show about vaudeville kids putting on a show to get their folks out of debt during the depression. (Yes, this is where Mickey, Judy and MGM got the idea.) David Campbell and Erin Dilly are perfect as the young lovers at the heart of the action, and Melissa Rain Anderson's belt dazzles in "Johnny One Note." Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone are great as the supporting duo, and the chorus sounds like they just escaped musical comedy heaven. Rob Fisher and his Coffee Club Orchestra once again prove themselves masters of period orchestrations – the overture is truly glorious, and the singers get flawless support throughout.

I am eternally thankful that Encores and the folks at DRG keep these great Broadway scores alive and singing.

Bells Are Ringing - Revival Cast (Fynesworth Alley)

This short-lived revival did not fare well with the critics, but it sure as heck left behind a delightful cast recording. In fact, its even better than the classic 1956 version! Faith Prince is a comic treasure as Ella Peterson, the answering service operator out to brighten the world "with a laugh, and a smile and a song." Pity she did not win a Tony for this, the best performance of her career so far. Marc Kudisch sings Jeffrey Moss with far more style and power than anyone else I've ever heard in the role, and the super supporting cast includes such veteran musical comedians as David Garrison and Beth Fowler (who both have a ball with the schmaltzy "Salzberg"). Special kudos to Martin Moran, who is a hoot as the dentist who composes on his air hose.

The new Don Sebesky orchestrations are period perfect ("Mu-Cha-Cha" never sounded better!), and the enthusiastic ensemble often make this so-so score sound better than it really is. Bells fans will be delighted! (As with several other Fynsworth Alley recordings, be sure to let the last track play out – there are some fun bonus outtakes.)

Breakfast at Tiffany's - Studio Cast (Original Cast Records)

This ill-fated show won immortality when producer David Merrick closed it in mid-previews. The press acclaimed him as the ticket-buying public's best friend but the authors who had completely rewritten the show on tour and wanted a fair hearing on Broadway were furious. The score by Bob Merrill, book by Abe Burrows (rewritten by no less than Edward Albee) based on a Truman Capote bestseller, and the casting of TV stars Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain had garnered a healthy advance sale. But Merrick's action made the show a legendary flop.

Its a safe bet that Breakfast at Tiffany's will never get a better hearing than it does on this two-CD recording. All the songs are included in narrative order, with the booklet explaining which numbers were used in which version. Bob Merrill's score is more capable than brilliant. Standouts include the title waltz, "I've Got a Penny," the raunchy "Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Just Go Everywhere),"  "Hot Damn," and the ten o'clock belt fest "Same Mistakes." These songs are clearly stage worthy, with a rich and unmistakable "Broadway" sound something which this author considers a major plus. If every now and then one of Merrill's rhymes makes me wince ("bachelor" with "natch'ller"?), at least this score is not afraid to have fun. Good grief, remember when musicals were expected to have fun?

Faith Prince is perfect as the eccentric Holly Golightly, and former Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider does a solid job as the friend who adores her. Hal Linden sounds great as Holly's abandoned husband, and Sally Kellerman reprises her original stage role as Holly's man-hungry pal Meg. Jonathan Freeman, Ron Raines, Carol Woods and Patrick Cassidy provide deft support in featured roles, making this a recording most buffs will want to own. (Will any of these fabulous performers every get the new hits they deserve? I'm almost past hoping!) The CD market being what it is, producer Robert Sher had to push for six years to get this from the studio to store shelves he has cause to be proud. Is Breakfast at Tiffany's a lost masterwork? Not exactly, but the score as heard here is the kind of professional product New York theatergoers once took for granted. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, this Breakfast is well worth the tab.

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