Flops on CD: I to M

Reviews by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)

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Is There Life After High School?
Original Cast Records

I saw this charmer twice during its brief Broadway run. Craig Carnelia came up with an excellent score, reflecting on the way high school memories echo through our adult years. Cheered by audiences, the production soon closed after surprisingly negative reviews. This recording will make you wonder why. Such fine songs as "The Kid Inside," "Thousands of Trumpets" and "Second Thoughts" thrive thanks to a cast of Broadway favorites, including Harry Groener, Alma Cuervo, Sandy Faison and Maureen Sillman. Solo moments "Diary of a Homecoming Queen" and "Nothing Really Happened" are delightful – it is no wonder that several of these songs became cabaret standards.

A nostalgic trip for anyone who has survived life in an American high school, this is a perfect show for college and community theatres. The CD edition improves the once-uneven sound quality of the LP, and includes a bonus track of Carnella performing a solo version of "The Kid Inside." Lots to love here!

Jennie - RCA Victor

Mary Martin's only musical flop boasts a good Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz score and a great supporting cast. Loosely based on the early career of actress Laurette Taylor, a weak book and an over reliance on special stage effects did this one in. Martin's charm shines through on the recording, especially in "Before I Kiss the World Goodbye" and the jaunty "Waitin' For the Evening Train." Ethel Shutta (best remembered for singing "Broadway Baby" in Follies) is delightful in "For Better or Worse," and Jack De Lon scores with the rarely heard "When You're Far Away from New York Town." Probably unrevivable, but it is always fun to hear Mary Martin doing her thing.

Kelly - 1998 Concert Cast

Talk about awful scores! Based on the true story of an 1800s Bowery con man who tried to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge for profit, Kelly's costly one-night run back in 1965 made it a legend. Lyricist/librettist Eddie Lawrence (the original "Sandor" in Bells Are Ringing) insisted that the show was ruined by pre-Broadway re-writes, and continued promoting the score after composer Moose Charlap's death. Lawrence even issued a hideous demo on LP some years ago. When The York Theatre Company showcased Kelly as part of their fascinating "Musicals in Mufti" concert series for neglected Broadway scores, the infamy of the show and a stellar cast led to SRO performances – and this CD.

Lawrence's faith has been misplaced. Kelly has a truly lousy score – as bad as its reputation suggests, and then some. Talented performers and the clarity of digital sound only make the shortcomings more obvious. The title character opens the show serenading the Brooklyn Bridge – an appalling number sung superbly by Broadway hunk Brian D'Arcy James. The rhymes stink, the music is awful, the whole concept simply does not work. "I'll Never Go There Anymore" is the best of a bad lot, thanks in large part to a charming rendition by Sally Mayes. Stage veterans Jane Connell, George S. Irving, John Shuck and Marcia Lewis try their best, but they can only do so much. The tenacious Eddie Lawrence plays one of the leads, and his acting is still decidedly better than his writing. The most interesting performance on this disk is provided by Sandy Stewart, who was in the 1965 production. Her voice has only gained in warmth. Like the rest of this cast, she is more than this material ever deserved. Dedicated theatre buffs may want to have this recording for the sheer novelty value.

Kwamina - Angel

Richard Adler's score has merit, but it winds up sounding terribly pretentious. Sally Ann Howes plays a British doctor running an African clinic. She clashes with tribal culture while falling in love with Kwamina, a local black physician. The score teeters between showtunes for Howes and tribal songs for the black characters – an uneasy mix. The supporting cast includes such solid singers as Brock Peters and Robert Guillaume, but Terry Carter is forgettable in the title role. This score has its admirers, but I doubt that a production of this show would find an audience today.

Late Nite Comic - Original Cast Records

A musical about a stand up comic trying to establish a successful career while dealing with a tempestuous romance? Sounds like a good idea. But backstage turmoil and substantial pre-Broadway revisions took their toll, and Late Nite Comic was harshly dismissed by the critics in 1987. However, several of its songs have enjoyed an afterlife in cabaret, and the composer produced a nicely sung cast LP to preserve the score, now available on CD.

Composer/lyricist Brian Gari performs most of the songs himself, ably assisted by cabaret stars Julie Budd, Michael McAssey and Robin Kaiser. There are few comic numbers – a surprise considering the topic. But the music has a pleasant pop feel – especially the bawdy "Relax With Me Baby." The CD includes "Late Nite Saga" – a self-indulgent but fascinating reflection on what happens when a show goes wrong. Late Nite Comic might prove attractive to a company looking for a small show with a contemporary sound. As for Mr. Gari (grandson of the legendary Eddie Cantor) I would be willing to bet that we haven't heard the last from this tireless self-promoter.

Legs Diamond - RCA Victor

Listening to the socko opening number "When I Get My Name in Lights," you may wonder why this show failed. Don't worry – by the time you're halfway through the otherwise forgettable score, you'll understand why this disaster ended Peter Allen's hopes for a Broadway career.

The three things you are spared in a pure audio format – Allen's hopeless acting (a screaming Aussie queen as a butch gangster?), the cumbersome sets, and a chorus so unattractive that it was dubbed "the Kennel of Broadway." Sensational singer Julie Wilson doesn't get even the shadow of a memorable song. When this CD was was discontinued, it took NY stores several years to sell it off, even at steep discounts. You might enjoy the opening song and the overall camp value, but I would discourage anyone thinking of staging this show – it is beyond repair.

Mack & Mabel - MCA & Angel

Showtune buffs have long adored the classic MCA 1974 original Broadway cast recording with knockout performances by Robert Preston, Bernadette Peters and Lisa Kirk. That album kept the show alive for decades, and a Torville & Dean routine using the spiffy overture made the score a cult favorite in Britain. Now we also have a fine 1995 London cast recording on Angel with Howard McGillin, Caroline O'Connor and Kathryn Evans. The songs are among Jerry Herman's finest – "I Won't Send Roses," "Wherever He Ain't" and "Time Heals Everything" are pure Broadway gold, and I love "When Mabel Comes In the Room." The London version adds a nifty title song (using the same melody as the delicious "Look What Happened to Mabel").

Get the Broadway cast first – it is irresistible. After you fall in love with it, get this London cast recording too. Anyone considering a production should be forewarned – to date, no one has been able to make this show work. The downer ending (Mabel dies and Mack's career fades) is just too much for any score to overcome.

Magdalena - CBS

Robert Wright and George Forrest, accustomed to adapting the melodies of long-dead composers (Kismet), collaborated with Brazil's Heitor Villa-Lobos while he was still alive. Magdalena is more a ponderous South American opera than a Broadway musical. The complex plot involved natives in the jungles of Columbia contending with a gluttonous general who steals their Miracle Madonna statue. A cast headed by Dorothy Sarnoff and John Raitt could not pull it off, and the show closed quickly.

Thanks to the popularity of Villa-Lobos, interest in the score grew over the years, resulting in a 1987 concert version and this recording. What a collection of voices! Faith Esham and Kevin Gray dazzle in the romantic leads. George Rose is the evil general, and Judy Kaye has a blast as the greedy mistress who literally feeds him to death in "Piece de Resistance." Magdalena is so vocally demanding that even a top-notch opera company would find it a challenge. This recording is highly recommended to opera buffs and fans of Villa-Lobos. Broadway musical fans may enjoy listening to Rose & Kaye, but will probably find the score hard to appreciate outside of a staged production.

Meet Me in St. Louis - DRG

This production was a bad idea – the minimal plot of the classic MGM film (will a St. Louis family move to New York?) was doomed to fail on stage, and a wildly lavish staging weighed things down. With the delicious movie version available on home video, why bother? Producers kept it running at a loss until it failed to win any Tonys, whereupon it swiftly folded. However, the DRG cast recording offers plenty of fun, with a great cast and an expanded Hugh Martin-Ralph Blane score.

Donna Kane is wonderful in the Judy Garland role, with George Hearn and Charlotte Moore thoroughly enjoyable as her parents, Milo O'Shea ingratiating as her grandfather, and Betty Garrett irresistible as their housekeeper. Along with polished renditions of "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," we get several less familiar but enjoyable numbers. Jason Workman is especially effective in "Diamonds in the Starlight," and I confess an inexplicable affection for the silly production number "Banjos." Much better on disc than on stage, Meet Me in St. Louis might benefit from a simpler staging.

My Favorite Year - RCA Victor

Lincoln Center Theatre's first original musical had a score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who were fresh from their success with Once On This Island. There are some fine moments – especially the epic opening "Twenty Million People." This melodious and witty number introduces us to the insane world of a network comedy show and the major players in the lead character's life. Musical theatre exposition at its best, this is a pre-echo of what the same team would do in Ragtime a few years later. The rest of My Favorite Year's score is not nearly as breathtaking, but it has some good moments.

Evan Pappas is perfect as a young TV gag writer who finds himself chaperoning a broken-down movie star he once idolized. Tim Curry tries his damnedest as a thinly veiled parody of the aging Errol Flynn. Lanie Kazan is hilarious as the writer's overwhelming Jewish mother (at her best in the amusing "Welcome to Brooklyn"), and Andrea Martin steals the show as one of the gag writers. If you are adventurous, this CD is worth having just for the super opening number. Amateur theatre groups with a solid cast of comic actors might make this show tick.

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