CD Reviews

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1998-2002)

Gypsy – Original Broadway Cast (Sony/Columbia)

One of the all-time great cast recordings, this always had great sound but takes a quantum leap here. The excitement of the greatest Broadway overture ever and of Ethel Merman at her peak comes crashing through with renewed force. After all these years, the Merm remains unbeatable as Mama Rose. This recording's big drawback is that the supporting cast pales a bit beside her.

Bonuses: We get two Merman demos – the original version of "Some People" and a medley of "Mr. Goldstone" and "Little Lamb." The other bonus tracks are disposable. If you already own the earlier CD release, this one is a worthwhile upgrade.

Half a Sixpence - Broadway Cast
(RCA Victor)

This charming show turned British pop singer Tommy Steele into England's top musical comedy star. The London Cast is hard to find on CD, but it is far more spontaneous and beguiling than this Broadway version.

What went wrong? The story of Arthur Kipps, a shop worker who unexpectedly inherits and then loses a fortune, is certainly a solid basis for a musical comedy, and Steele is delightful in the lead. But the Broadway producers opted for brash new orchestrations and had composer/lyricist David Heneker add the rousing "The Party's On the House" while deleting six other numbers that were deemed "too British" for American audiences. These changes may have pleased some people, but they make for a weaker listening experience. Less than optimal sound does not help matters. It is pretty clear that RCA did not put much energy into polishing this release, giving it only an AAD remastering (rather than the now standard ADD treatment.) Granted, this is not My Fair Lady, but what is the point of a half-hearted remastering?

Oh well, its still better than the overblown screen version – and its always good to hear Steele whack that banjo in "Money to Burn" or clown through "Flash, Bang, Wallop!" Thanks to Steele and acclaimed choreography by Onna White, the show had modest success. If you've never heard the score, it is certainly worth picking up a copy, but most collectors will probably prefer the London version.

High Society - Original Broadway Cast (DRG)

If you are a Porter fan – as I am – you will definitely want this CD. You may find yourself wondering how this show could have failed. Well, the reasons were compelling.

The1956 film version had the sure-fire combination of Philip Barry's delightful comedy The Philadelphia Story and a score by Cole Porter. Several producers have tried to adapt this for the stage, and a West End version had a brief run. Trouble is, how do you come up with people to equal Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong?

The 1998 Broadway version had a fine cast, including stage stalwarts John McMartin, Melissa Errico, Stephen Bogardus and Randy Graff. Critics justifiably raved about Anna Kendrick's show stealing performance as Errico's scheming little sister. The score was generously padded with great songs from other Porter scores, but the book did not work and the direction was not strong enough. And like I said, unpleasant comparisons with the film cast were unavoidable.

With winning renditions of about twenty Porter tunes, including some fun rarities, the cast album is actually more enjoyable than the show was. The performances are all on the mark, and at times quite wonderful. You'll love McMartin's tipsy uncle, Errico and co-star Daniel MacDonald warbling the ballads, and the sheer comic spark of Miss Kendrick. Some new lyrics by Susan Birkenhead have been added so all the could fit this particular plot. However, it is the genius of Cole Porter that makes this recording work.

How Now Dow Jones - Broadway Cast (RCA Victor)

This comical look at Wall Street had a relatively brief run, primarily because the plot was too much (or should I say too little?) to swallow. It involved a stock market panic that begins when the girl who announces the Dow Jones average tampers with the figures to make her skittish broker boyfriend marry her. However, a great cast and some amusing songs make this newly remastered CD well worth a listen.

Tony Roberts made his Broadway debut singing the showstopping "Step to the Rear." Marlyn Mason is quite good as "the voice of Dow Jones," and Brenda Vaccaro is a hoot in "He's Here" and other numbers.

Movie composer Elmer Bernstein's melodies are fine, and Carolyn Leigh's comic lyrics are delightful. Highlights – the cynical "Shakespeare Lied" gets a riotous performance by Sammy Smith, and the opening "A-B-C" cheerfully spoofs the stock market.

Jane Eyre – Original Bway Cast (Sony Classical)

What a crashing bore! Who the hell ever believed that Charlotte Bronte's morose gothic romance could work as a Broadway musical? A grand opera possibly, but something with such a lugubrious approach is at least ten years out of date for Broadway.

John Caird had a hand in translating Les Miz, but this score proves he has no idea how to write a dramatically involving lyric of his own. Paul Gordon's melodies are florid but empty, and most of the numbers are too brief to really register. The few sustained numbers quickly slip into repetitive pretension. Cabaret singers may try "Brave Enough to Love," but it is pop pap with no soul.

How sad that such glorious singers are burdened with this ponderous treacle. Marla Schaffel handles the title role with tremendous skill, and James Barbour (as the tormented Rochester) displays one of the grandest Broadway baritones of our day. The supporting ensemble makes some lovely sounds, but you can only do so much to give passion to ponderous material.

When will these heavy-handed semi-operatic adaptations of old novels come to an end? No wonder so many theatergoers are unwilling to take a chance on new shows anymore. It is simply too pretentious . . . and worst of all, dull!

John Murray Anderson's Almanac

An excuse to hear Hermoine Gingold, Billy DeWolf and Cyril Ritchard cut loose? Talk about musical comedy heaven! These selections come from Almanac and several lesser-known reviews. The quality of the material is uneven, but the best bits make this recording worthwhile. Gingold is particularly effective, camping it up shamelessly – her opening number about introducing performers is a genuine hoot. So is Ritchard singing "Lizzie Borden" ("Oh you can't chop your mamma up in Massachusetts. . ."), a tune few recall as coming from a stage review.

The remastered sound is so intimate that it seems to put these performers right in the room with you. Even though some selections are easy to skip, it is great to have this rare material on CD. The booklet has helpful notes to explain where each of these selections comes from. If classic 50s comedy gets you going, you will enjoy this release.

The King and I1999 Animated Soundtrack

Shall we barf (voom, voom, voom)? I nearly did listening to this disgusting, saccharine perversion of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein score. The singing is breathless and gooey, as are the orchestrations. Some very talented vocalists are forced to do unspeakable things here, and it's all so unnecessary.

The premise behind this misbegotten project was to create a King and I "suitable for children." What the hell does that mean? As a five-year-old, I fell in love with the live action film. Those who think you have to talk down to kids might appreciate this witless approach, but those who know enough to treat children as human beings with minds will be repulsed. Please avoid this one – unless you want your hard-earned money to encourage the making of similar abominations. I didn't give this one away – I smashed it to pieces. lest it plague anyone else.

Kiss Me Kate – Original Bway Cast

1998 Sony Remastering

The original Kiss Me Kate recording always sounded good, even as an analog record album. The new re-mastering is a trifle clearer, and the few extra seconds of track are certainly welcome. However, while the rarely seen photos in the booklet are fun, I could have lived without the interpolated 1950s Lehman Engel recording of the real overture – John McGlinn's recent recording of the same orchestration was far better.

This remains one of the essential items in any cast recording collection and is nicely packaged here, but if you already have this glorious cast on the old CD release, there is little point in buying the new edition.

Kiss Me Kate - 1999 Cast (DRG)

Despite one glaring omission, this recording does a first-rate job of preserving both the best and worst of the acclaimed Broadway revival of Kiss Me Kate. Let's cover the worst first. When I saw the show at the Martin Beck Theatre, the visual elements and some heavy miking made it possible to almost ignore Don Sebesky's new orchestrations. On this recording, we wind up noticing those orchestrations when we should be concentrating on Cole Porter's songs. Robert Russell Bennett's singer-friendly originals did not need replacing!

Okay, now to the best – the sensational cast! Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie's sexy chemistry is palpable, and if anything, they are in even better voice than when I saw them. Amy Spanger's performance loses a lot minus her steamy visuals. On the other hand, Michael Berresse is quite delightful as Bill with or without his eye-filling presence. As a musical comedy buff, I found the highlight of the production – and of this recording – to be Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren as the gangsters singing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." This is easily the best version of this song ever recorded.

The glaring omission is "From This Moment On," sung on stage by Broadway veteran Ron Holgate. Seems the Porter estate didn't want the song considered part of the regular score. But when you have a great Porter song and a Tony-winning actor singing it, why leave them off your cast recording? And without so much as a word of explanation in the notes? BOO!

If you loved this revival, you will certainly want this recording in your collection. At a time when so many musicals are so somber, this Kate reminds us of the joy that was once to be found on Broadway.


You may not have heard of this show, but it is never too late to get aquainted with a delightful musical comedy – and Kuni-Leml is a charmer. This show was commissioned and first presented by New York's Jewish Repertory Theatre in 1984, it was successfully revived in 1998 (the cast featured on this CD). Based on a classic 19th century Yiddish stage comedy, it has an appeal that reaches beyond any single time or ethnicity.

The story: A rich conservative Jew tries to force his daughter Caroline to marry Kuni-Leml, a man she has never met who has been chosen by a matchmaker. Caroline convinces Max, the young tutor she truly loves, to masquerade as Kuni-Leml and marry her instead. When two Kuni-Lemls show up, all sorts of confusion ensues. Caroline further complicates matters by plotting with the matchmakers daughter Libe, who disguises herself in order to marry the real Kuni-Leml. (Are you still following me?) In the tradition of Yiddish comedy, everyone is reconciled in the end – but I won't ruin it by saying how its done.

The score by composer Raphael Crystal and lyricist Richard Enquist is literate, melodious and enjoyable. Every number develops plot and/or character - something all too rare in new musicals. Rarer still is the warm humor that permeates every number. In the age of the deadly serious mega-musical, it is refreshing to find songs that make one smile! Song by song, the score weaves an overall aura of genuine charm. The entire cast is delicious – but I particularly enjoyed Jennifer Rosin as Caroline, Jonathan Hadley as Max and Danny Gurwin in the title role.

With eight characters and a simple but elegant four-piece orchestration, Kuni-Leml would be perfect for smaller theatre groups. While it has special appeal for Jewish audiences, its themes and classic farce will probably delight most anyone with a brain and a heart. Dedicated collectors will want to check out this CD.

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