CD Reviews

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000-2002)

Tallulah Bankhead

Give My Regards to Broadway - AEI

Who needs Tallulah imitators when we can enjoy the genuine article? AEI has assembled this delicious collection of numbers that the irascible Bankhead performed on her radio series The Big Show in the early 1950s. She was no singer, but her personality makes this fun listening and her all-star cohorts make some of these tracks downright delicious. She joins Bob Hope for a new version of "Put It There," and "Anything You Can Do" with Marlene Dietrich is hilarious. Throw in appearances by Danny Kaye, Clifton Webb, Jerry Lewis and Jimmy Durante, and you have a CD that fans of 20th Century showbiz will not want to miss.

Some comedy skits are included, as well as a track of T.C. Jones doing his renowned impersonation of "Miss B." If Tallulah is your thing dahling, grab a copy of this!

Tenderloin - Encores 2000 Cast - DRG

This is the perfect example of what the Encores concert series does best – give under-appreciated scores a long overdue reconsideration. Tenderloin was a well-crafted show with far more to offer than any number of recent long-running hits, but it was the handiwork of the same creative team that had wowed Broadway with Fiorello one season earlier. No one seemed willing to accept this new show on its own terms, and it closed after a few months. Aside from a cast LP prized by collectors, it has been pretty much forgotten.

The release of that cast recording on CD a few years ago inspired several regional productions as well as this concert version, which I had the pleasure of attending in the spring of 2000. The result is not just interesting - it is solid fun, and in many ways superior to the 1962 recording. Tenderloin's story of a sincere minister battling vice and political corruption in 1890s New York seems quite up to date. Perhaps audiences in the 1960s were less willing to admit that such things are as prevalent as ever – the events of intervening decades certainly dispelled such naivet .

David Ogden Stiers was perfectly cast as Dr. Brock, making it clear that this sincere crusader is anything but a self-righteous boor. Most theatre buffs probably have not heard of Patrick Wilson yet, but if his performance here is any indication they will. He gives "Artificial Flowers" just the right note of faux pathos, and his lilting tenor voice is a genuine pleasure to hear. (He is also extreeeemly easy on the eyes!) Debbie Gravitte is a knockout as the madam of a Bowery pleasure palace, turning the little known "Gentleman Johnny" into a surprise showstopper. The sound quality is excellent, the chorus ravishing, and Rob Fisher's orchestra uncovers every bit of period gold in Bock and Harnick's underrated score. The bad guys have the most fun thanks to the rip-roaring "Little Old New York" and the witty "Picture of Happiness," but Brock's churchgoers get the catchy "Dear Friend" and period-style gems like "My Miss Mary."

After the concert, I overheard a man grumble to his wife, "Well, I liked it, but it's no Fiddler." True, but then what is? Tenderloin is fine theatrical entertainment in its own right, with lots to offer schools and theatre groups looking to offer audiences some "Good Clean Fun", (with some slightly bawdy bits along the way). Oh for the days when something this enjoyable could be dismissed as run of the mill on Broadway! If you love classic showtunes, I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of this fine recording and judge for yourself.

Titanic - Original Broadway Cast (RCA Victor)

Maury Yeston's score for Titanic was the finest the American musical theatre had presented in a decade or more. Soaring, melodic, literate and brimming with emotion, it made an impossible subject sing and restored majesty to the Broadway musical stage. The original cast CD captures the excitement and epic scope of the show, as well as immortalizing a remarkable ensemble of gifted singing actors. I only wish a two CD set with every note of the score had been put out instead of this slightly truncated – but still outstanding – one disc recording.

Yeston breaks out a full palette of 1912 musical styles, always translating them through a fresh 1990s perspective. "Sail On Great Ship" and "We'll Meet Tomorrow" echo the choral works of Elgar, "The Latest Rag" has the feel of Joplin, "What A Remarkable Age" is very Gilbert & Sullivan, and the rapturous love duet "Still" echoes vintage Victor Herbert.

Michael Cerveris dazzles in the difficult opening solo, and the chorus soars through "There She Is" and "I Must Get On That Ship." Brian d'Arcy James and Martin Moran make "The Proposal/The Night Was Alive" genuinely moving with their superb singing and understated acting – no wonder the scene was so talked about. I loved Jennifer Peich as Kate McGowan, and many of her best moments are here for posterity – you go girl!

David Garrison did some of his best work ever as the hateful Bruce Ismay. Allan Corduner's steward scores well, as does the deliciously manic Victoria Clark as social-climber Alice Beane. And I will personally stand and cheer anytime that Larry Keith and Alma Cuervo choose to once again break my heart by singing "Still" – the kind of rendition a composer dreams of and musical buffs live for.

Titanic and Ragtime signified a renaissance of the great American musical score, and both turned out original cast recordings that live up to their greatness. If you don't have the cast album to Titanic, stop stalling and get it. "Fortunes winds sing Godspeed to thee!"

Triumph of Love – Original Broadway Cast (Jay)

Oh how this one hurts! Triumph of Love was a sincere and polished professional effort that simply didn't work. When you take a literate and workable plot, give it a melodic score and people it with some of my favorite performers, it breaks my heart to see it go wrong.

I think the problem is that almost every number tells you what the characters are thinking. Such intellectualizing is okay once or twice in a score, but is downright deadly in non-stop doses.

The story involves a deposed prince and his philosophizing tutors trying to reclaim his throne. The prince wins the love of a boy who is (of course) the disguised Princess who now sits on that throne. (Are you still with me?) The plot is less a farce than an intellectual chess game, which makes for lyrics that emulate classical philosophy by taking far too long to say anything. With some songs one winds up wondering what the hell the point is. Then out of nowhere comes "Teach Me Not To Love You" with a rapturous melody that lets the cast sparkle.

And what a cast for musical theatre buffs! Susan Egan (Broadway's original and too often underestimated Beauty) as the princess, the handsome Christopher Sieber as the deposed prince, the delicious F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) and the one and only Betty Buckley (1776, Cats) as the tutors – all sing and act the hell out of this material, with equally superb performances by the lesser known supporting cast. "Serenity" is the sort of introspective theatrical ballad that can die from its own seriousness, but Miss Buckley takes the listener on a moving journey through her character's mind and heart. Small wonder it stopped the show nightly.

If you like any of these performers (and I sure do!), you will want this CD for the collection. I know I'm glad to have it – and three cheers to John Yap for producing yet another technically sterling CD of a cast that could all too easily have been lost.

Valentino - Studio Cast

Composer and co-lyricist Charles Mandracchia sings the title role on this CD – a bad sign – but he has a good voice and has surrounded himself with a fine cast of unknowns who handle his appealing melodies well. In fact, the tunes are so good that the overture is one of the best selections on this disk – also a bad sign. Mandracchia and lyricist Francesca DeJosia forget one of the basic rules of writing – they tell when they should show. A musical needs to give us colorful characters, not songs about them – invoke emotion in the audience, not just tall a us about a character's feelings. And rhyming "romance a lot" with "Lancelot" during the big love song? Did Alan Jay Lerner live in vain?

Rudolph Valentino's life could certainly be the basis of a great musical. So it is all the more frustrating that this Valentino gives us no sense of what the man was like. Although the real Rudy was actively bisexual, his love duets here are only with women – and they are decidedly anonymous. Nothing in the lyrics is specific to these characters. The score also ignores the fact that both of Valentino's wives were lesbians, and that his untimely death was a source of long-standing controversy.

A prolonged opening number tells us over and over again that his hometown was Castellaneta, but it does nothing to develop plot or character. There are no liner notes to explain the plot, but the show apparently follows his rise to stardom, and even musicalizes the famous seduction scene from The Sheik. Rudy's mother keeps re-appearing to complain that he is changing, but nothing in the score shows that any change taking place. When fame gets to be too much, Rudy's mamma 'steps out of the light' to tell him "life's worth living" and "Mamma will be your guide." (Clich anyone?) The final number suddenly announces his death, saying that he was a "weaver of dreams" – but it sheds no light on his appeal.

This is a sincere professional effort, but a disappointing one. It would take a much tighter focus and some biographical honesty for Valentino to sing successfully. At the same time, I hope to hear more from a melodically gifted composer like Mandracchia.

The Wizard of Oz - 1998 Cast Recording

Now that home video makes one of MGM's most beloved films more available than ever, one questions the need for stage adaptations. However, productions of Ozhave appeared everywhere from Louisville to London as people (often with tykes in tow) turn out in droves. Starting two years ago, Madison Square Garden presented the Paper Mill Playhouse version of the Royal Shakespeare Company's adaptation (are you still with me?).

The new recording features the 1998 cast, who by and large do a good job. Jessica Grove proves that even "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" can benefit from a fresh approach. Lara Teeter as The Scarecrow and Judith McCauley as Glinda are fine. I love Ken Page, but his Cowardly Lion is so over the top that it makes Bert Lahr sound understated!

Mickey Rooney still has the irrepressible charm that made him MGM's top box office star half a century before. While his voice has aged a bit since Sugar Babies, his energy level is still a marvel. The divine Eartha Kitt sounds like she's having the camp time of her life as both Miss Gulch and The Wicked Witch. She's given some campy new lines ("Who's the wise guy who turned my sister into a house?"), and gets to sing the first verse of "The Jitterbug," the most famous song ever cut from a hit film. The delicious Kitt is the primary reason most buffs will want this recording.

You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown

Original Off-Bway Cast (Decca)

One of the most frequently produced musicals of all time, this show took far too long to get the first-class CD release it deserved. Yes, the 1999 Broadway recording (on RCA) has a great cast and some charming new songs, but this original 1967 version is irreplaceable. Gary Berghoff (who later found fame as Radar on MASH) was Charlie Brown, and his flawless cohorts make this a must-have recording – most notably Bill Hinnant as a show-stealing Snoopy.

Showtune buffs will enjoy hearing composer/lyricist Clark Gesner in bonus tracks taken from the private recording that inspired this show. Another first class remastering from the Decca CD label.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Broadway Revival Cast - RCA Victor

The 1999 Broadway adaptation of this 1960s favorite failed to find a new audience. That's a shame, since the best of the original Clark Gesner score was augmented with several excellent new songs by Andrew Lippa. The cast was, in a word, sensational. Kristin Chenoweth (see Steel Pier above) got a richly deserved Tony as Sally her showstopping "A New Philosophy" bubbles as brightly here as it did on stage. Roger Bart picked up a Tony of his own as Snoopy, and his fresh take on the showstopping "Suppertime" shows why.

Anthony Rapp is just right as Charlie Brown, B.D. Wong is wonderfully funny as Linus, Ilana Levine gives Lucy just the right edge and Stanley Wayne Mathis is delightful as Schroeder. If you are thinking of producing You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, this version should prove just as effective and enjoyable as the original text, and this CD makes a great addition to any show lover's collection.

Z - The Masked Musical

Oh, how I wanted to like this recording! I have long insisted that the story of Zorro could be a sensational basis for a musical. I am sad to report that Z is most definitely not that musical.

Composer/lyricist/librettist Robert Cabell has turned out a lavish demo of the score, with Roberto Blades, Deborah Gibson, and Ruben Gomez heading a cast that includes Kaye Ballard, Robert Evan, Jeff McArthy, Phyllis Newman, Mark Kudich and Christiane Noll. (Many roles are shared, so it is not always clear who is playing who, but the cast does what it can.)

And therein lies this recording's fatal flaw. Such strong casting makes every weakness of the score painfully apparent. People expect some smiles with their swashbuckle, but Z is relentlessly somber, with ballad after heavy ballad. Despite occasional idiomatic touches of Mexican guitar in the arrangements, the music is all mediocre pop-rock. The lyrics are mired in clich s – "It takes two to tango"? Oy!

Lighten up guys! Zorro is supposed to be fun, not six hours in church! Perhaps the book has all the fun lacking here, but I doubt it. While some of the names in the cast will tweak the interest of collectors, this CD is not worth your time or money. In fact, without a major infusion of humor, I think this project will have a limited appeal in any form.

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