Musicals on DVD II

Reviews by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2007)

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (Image)

If Broadway musicals are your passion, this DVD set has your name on it. The incomparable Stritch is in great form, recreating moments from her often turbulent stage career and offering some surprisingly frank recollections. From her romance with Marlon Brando to her triumph in Company and beyond, she shares her struggle with the ups and downs of alcohol addiction and a unique life in show business. Director George C. Wolfe and author John Lahr helped shape these memories into a riveting evening of theatre, and Rob Bowman made a small orchestra sound several times its size. Even if you already have this show on CD, this DVD version is simply too delightful to miss.

Finian's Rainbow (WB/Turner)

An underestimated pleasure! Young director Francis Ford Coppola may have made a few minor missteps in his attempt to make the dated 1947 plot more relevant to 1968 audiences, but overall, the results are very entertaining. This solid cast has a blast with Burton Lane and Yip Harburg's delicious score. Fred Astaire is a joy in his last musical screen role, playing an Irishman who has stolen his country's legendary crock of gold and taken it to America, hoping it will grow in the "rich" soil near Fort Knox. His breezy song and dance take on "When the Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich" is a particular treat. Petula Clark is delightful as Astaire's comely daughter, and Tommy Steele gives his best-ever screen performance as a romantically inclined leprechaun sent to retrieve the gold. Coppola's commentary track is rather self-serving, but will be of interest to serious film buffs.

Die Lustige Witwe/The Merry Widow (Art Haus Musik)

This ravishing stage production of The Merry Widow was taped live at the Zurich Opera House in 2004. Dagmar Schellenberger is lovely in the title role, and Rodney Gilfrey is hunky perfection as the romantically challenged Danilo. The supporting cast is musically and dramatically excellent, the sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the refusal of the two leading characters to admit their obvious love for each other still works its timeless magic. Mostly faithful to the original text, new touches include a fun female reply to the male complaints about "Women, Women, Women." If you only know the Widow through her Hollywood screen versions, this production will be a revelation. Sung in German, the English subtitles are tops, as are the sound and widescreen picture quality. This is miles above any other version currently available on DVD. One suspects that composer Franz Lehar would be quite happy with this handsome presentaion of his most popular work, and I suspect most fans of The Merry Widow will love it too.

Once Upon a Mattress - 2005 (Disney)

This anxiously awaited remake of a stage and TV classic was a genuine winner, with Tracey Ullman a riotous Winifred, Denis O'Hare perfect as the frustrated Prince Dauntless, Edward Hibbert a scene-stealing Wizard, and the glorious Carol Burnett (who co-produced) hilarious as the conniving Queen. Burnett even finds a fun excuse to reprise a bit of her old showstopper "Happily Ever After." Handsome sets & costumes, (Burnett's eye-poppers were designed by Bob Mackie, of course) plus Kathleen Marshall's outstanding choreography and well-balanced direction make this a worthy successor to the previous small screen versions of Burnett's career-making Broadway hit. This was the first time a TV musical was presented in widescreen format. The DVD includes two fascinating comparisons of numbers as they looked in rehearsal and then fully staged. There is also a too-brief behind the scenes featurette, but overall this is well worth seeing.

Royal Wedding (WB/Turner)

Because of a moronic copyright snafu, MGM long ago lost copyright control over Royal Wedding. As a consequence, all sorts of third-rate pirate DVD editions have flooded the market, with poor picture and sound quality. A bit late in the day, Turner Entertainment finally released a top quality remastering of this exceptional film (in a twin set with the pleasant but less well known Belle of New York). The performances of Fred Astaire, Jane Powell and company can be relished anew (their "How Could You Believe Me" duet is still a comic treasure), and the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner songs sound as magical as ever. This is a must-have for serious collectors, and a great gift for any Astaire fan. Even the uninitiated will get a kick out of seeing his legendary dance on the ceiling. There is no commentary track (a real loss), but Robert Osborne's fascinating TCM interview with director Stanley Donen is a worthwhile added feature.

Show Business: The Road to Broadway

Ever wonder why some Broadway musicals make it and others don't? This film offers a vivid behind the scenes look at how four musicals made their way to Broadway in one season: Taboo, Caroline or Change, Wicked and Avenue Q. Anyone with an interest in the theatre must see this documentary, which dispenses with narration and lets the images speak for themselves -- and oh, how they speak! Viewers can finally see what professionals already know -- that Broadway truly is a crapshoot where success hinges on intangibles. As this year-long journey unfolds, you can almost hear the dice roll as hundreds of lives and millions of dollars hang in the balance. Not to be missed!

Tintypes (Kultur)

Great fun! The popular songs of the early 20th Century are woven together to tell the story of an era of American expansion, heavy immigration and uneasy social evolution. That might sound heavy, but fear not -- Tintypes is a warm, delightful and well-crafted revue performed here by its original 1981 Broadway cast, including future Tony winners Jerry Zaks and Lynne Thigpen. Each performer embodies a type of the period, and such iconic figures as Teddy Roosevelt, Emma Goldman and Anna Held come to life along the way, with endearing results. Example: the giddy juxtaposition of Held's "It's Delightful to be Married" with the feminist viewpoint of "It's Fifty-Fifty." Narration is minimal, allowing the songs and a few quoted headlines tell the story. Taped in a studio, this performance has fine sound and picture quality. Most musical theatre fans will enjoy seeing this fine cast romp through a rich variety of period numbers. The DVD edition includes no additional features, just one great little show.

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