CD Reviews: 2002

Reviews by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2002)

Bea Arthur: Between Friends (DRG)

A warm, laugh-filled evening with one of Broadway (and television's) most beloved comic stars has been smoothly translated into an extremely entertaining recording. Bea's songs range from sardonic comedy to touching ballads - with a surprising take on "Pirate Jenny" along the way. Fun anecdotes from her career and a few well-placed dirty jokes keep the audience laughing. (Poor little Pia Zadora!) Missing one or two numbers that were added for New York, this live tour performance leaves you feeling like you're at a terribly exclusive party with the original Vera Charles. Highly recommended!

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Touring Cast - Fynsworth Alley

It was a solid commercial idea to build a revival of this raunchy gem around the ever-popular Ann-Margret, but good commerce is not always good art. This long-running tour stayed far away from Broadway, and this CD makes it all too clear why. Margret does not sound her best, and most of her supporting cast is uninspired, robbing the luster from in this fine score. The exception is that fine Broadway veteran Ed Dixon, who milks the hilarious "Sidestep" for all it is worth. Otherwise, fans of Whorehouse will be disappointed – and I daresay Ann-Margaret's fans won't be too thrilled either. A major disappointment.

Billion Dollar Baby

Studio Cast - Original Cast Records

A superb cast makes this almost forgotten dance musical worth a listen. Debbie Gravitte and Marc Kudish (whose names appear elsewhere on this page) are first rate, and Kristin Chenoweth stops in to sing the charming "Dreams Do Come True." We even get co-lyricist Adolph Green as the narrator. Morton Gould's score is the perfect 1940s vision of what the 1920s sounded like, with several good songs and a jubilant Charleston ballet. A field day for serious buffs, and a show ripe for a serious reconsideration.

Do I Hear a Waltz? - Regional Cast - Fynsworth Alley

Some very talented people are strangely miscast in this recent Pasadena Playhouse revival of the only Rodgers & Sondheim musical. Happily for musical buffs, Carol Lawrence has a blast as the horny hotel owner, but Alyson Reed is charming but strangely ineffective, and Anthony Crivello simply is not up to the vocal demands of a role designed for Sergio Franchi. (As a result, the delightful "Bargaining" had to be deleted.) Overall, this is so inferior to the original cast that I wonder why anyone thought this recording was worth the effort.

Donna McKechnie: Inside the Music - Fynsworth Alley

This dynamic performer gives her all in a touching, delightful look back on her long theatrical career. Highlights include a sensational tribute song to Fred Astaire and the deadly soprano cut from A Chorus Line. With patter written by playwright Christopher Durang, everything fits together. Rumor is that this long touring production will play off-Broadway later this year. Donna's fans will love this show – and this excellent recording.

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (DRG)

The most exciting musical theater event of 2002 is easily the most exciting recording too. This is literally the performance of a lifetime, with Stritch recalling her more than half a century in the theater. The legendary names she conjures from her past add up to a royal who's who, from Merman and Berlin to Sondheim and Prince. A glorious m lange of story and song, this is still pure magic on CD (despite the deletion of a few choice anecdotes – which one assumes will show up on a future overpriced "exclusive" edition.) Collectors will have to have this set!

Foxy Studio Cast - Original Cast Records

Bert Lahr's last musical, this show died a surprisingly quick death back in 1964. The Johnny Mercer-Robert Dolan score has plenty of comic numbers (in particular, the bawdy "Bon Vivant"), but it deserved more than this cast of well-meaning unknowns delivers. A role written for a star requires someone with star quality – and there is no hint of star quality in this line-up. However, die-hard buffs may find it hard to pass up a listen to this infamous flop score.

Juno Original Broadway Cast - Fynsworth Alley

This 1959 clunker has been one of the rarest cast recordings of all time. The esteemed Ken Mandelbaum calls Marc Blitzstein's score "the greatest ever heard in a postwar flop," so I grabbed this CD the day it was released. While it is far from bad, I cannot honestly say it lives up to Mandelbaum's assessment. Juno may have worked well on stage, but the recording is more a curiosity than a genuine pleasure. It certainly took nerve to musicalize this dreary tale of Irish rebels battling British oppression. It offers pain, suffering, death, and far too many chances to hear the gravel-voiced Melvyn Douglas pretend to sing.

But given it a chance, this recording grows on you. The joyful "On a Day Like This" and "Darlin' Man," or the enchanting "Bird Upon the Tree" and "Hymn" are pleasures to the ear. And I must confess my Gaelic heritage left me smiling at the schmaltzy "It's Not Irish." Strange as the subject matter may be, Blitstein's gift for melody is undeniable. The rest of the score may get me yet, and you just might like it all from the get go. Hats off to the folks at Fynsworth for having the guts to re-master and release this. If nothing else, this CD is a lot cheaper than the $75 price tag copies of the analog album have commanded in recent years.

Miss Spectacular Studio Cast - DRG

If you keep in mind that Jerry Herman wrote this to be a Las Vegas floor show, it all makes sense. Lots of flashy production numbers, two hearty ballads and one somewhat "adult" comedy song do not add up to a Broadway effort - but would probably have delighted the desert gamblers. It is all very Jerry, and if some of the lyrics are less than his best, he can still turn out melodies that creep into your brain and keep reappearing for days. Debbie Gravitte belts the inevitable 2/4 opening and the bombastic title tune. Karen Morrow and Davis Gaines score with socko love songs, and Faith Prince has a blast with the clumsily comic lament "Where is My Prince?"

Steve Lawrence sounds great in a musical tribute to "Vegas" that could easily become that town's answer to "New York, New York." My favorite is "Ziegfeld Girl," sung with relish by Michael Feinstein. What I wouldn't give to have Herman score a full musical on Ziegfeld that would be something! As it stands, this recording gives Herman fans like me a long overdue chance to hear his latest score - not his greatest, but it is miles above most of the stuff parading as new musicals these days. (See the next review for an example.)

Thoroughly Modern Millie Original Cast (RCA Victor)

Tonys notwithstanding, this fun but uneven show fell far short of what it might have been – a fact that this recording bears out. Some things simply don't make dramatic sense (like the male ensemble singing the title tune – how does that fit in?), but most of the cast manages to make it all worth listening to. Highlights include Marc Kudish singing the hilarious "Speed Test" (a reworking of a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song) and the ravishing "I'm Falling in Love With Someone." Gavin Creel sounds far better here than he did on stage, and leading lady Sutton Foster's socko belt gives this recording some of its best moments. Former Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee Ralph was a major casting mistake. This aging beauty cannot sing, act or dance with any distinction – a triple threat.

Composer Jeanine Tesori's vocal arrangements are sensational – would that her tunes were half as memorable. Oh, they are pleasant enough, but they sound . . . well, rather alike. Dick Scanlan's lyrics have a broken record habit of repeating their title phrases, and despite a professional polish there is a short supply of rhyming wit. As a whole, the new songs are pleasant but instantly forgettable, completely outclassed by the older songs that make up almost half of the score.

The hilarious Harriet Harris and her oriental cohorts do their best, but their bi-lingual songs depend on visual gags and come across as merely strange on CD. However, there is still plenty to enjoy here – and its good to know that American-born musical comedies are once again Broadway's bread and butter! I daresay this recording will find its way onto showtune lovers listening lists for years to come. It certainly has its share of fun moments, and beats the heck out of any fatally serious mock opera based on yet another dreary old foreign novel. Though not thoroughly tops, this Millie is still worthwhile.

My Fair Lady

2001 London Cast - First Night Records

Broadway's greatest musical gets a very enjoyable treatment here. Jonathan Pryce is perfect as Higgins, and the supporting cast is tops. Martine McCutcheon is not always up to the vocal demands of the title role, and although convincing as a flower girl, never quite pulls off the transformation to a lady. But the recording works, with charming new orchestrations by William David Brohn to sweeten the pot. Lady lovers will want to give this a listen.

Oliver - Original London Cast (Decca Broadway)

It took far too long for this classic recording to make its way to CD, but this exquisite Decca remastering makes it worth the wait. Ron Moody and Georgia Brown headline a flawless cast – which includes Barry Humphries (now better known as Dame Edna Everage) as Mr. Sowerberry. Far better than any other Oliver on record, this release has a raw energy that makes it an essential in any serious show lover's collection.

Subways Are for Sleeping

Original Cast - Fynsworth Alley

Imagine Jule Styne teaming up with Comden and Green, only to turn out an unimaginative score. Well, that's what happened here, and the charming performances of Carol Lawrence and Phyllis Newman can't overcome the surprisingly uninspired material. Sydney Chaplin, whose recordings do nothing to explain his once stellar Broadway career, is as mediocre as ever here. Collectors like me will want this one on hand, but I doubt this will become anyone's idea of the next forgotten show to revive.

Sweeney Todd - NY Concert Cast

Sondheim fans can relish this glorious memento of the electrifying concert cast gathered by the New York Philharmonic. George Hearn repeats his definitive take on the title role, with Patti Lupone relishing the twists and turns of Mrs. Lovett. As the naive sailor, Davis Gaines offers a sumptuous "Johanna," and Neil Patrick Harris is a real charmer as Tobias. Audra McDonald dazzles as the old woman, and Metropolitan Opera veteran Paul Plishka seethes with evil as Judge Turpin. Conductor Andrew Litton keeps everything in flawless line – a magnificent take on one of Sondheim's greatest creations. (The new home video with the Los Angeles Philharmonic uses most of the same cast and is also well worth your time & money.)

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