Musicals on DVD 4

Reviews by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2007)

Gigi (WB/Turner)

The picture and sound quality are tops, and although the original DVD release had no special features, a more recent two disc edition is a Gigi-lovers delight, with an excellent "making of" documentary, fascinating commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger and star Leslie Caron, and the complete 1949 non-musical French film Gigi, which, although unrestored, is a charmer.  In my opinion, this was not only MGM's finest musical, but the greatest original screen musical of all time.

Going My Way (Universal)

Released as a double feature with Holiday Inn, this Academy Award winning film looks and sounds great -- but deserved a classier release. There is no commentary and the special features are not in the least special -- meaningless production notes, etc. Bing Crosby and Barrie Fitzgerald are pure magic, and the songs are still wonderful, but catching the TV reruns that occur every year around Christmas time will serve just as well.

The Gondoliers - Opera Australia (Image)

This production originated at Canada's Stratford Theatre, and is as witty as it is visually arresting. The cast has the vocal and comic chops required, making this particularly enjoyable. Gilbert & Sullivan fans will be delighted, and those new to the genre will get what all the fuss is about. The plot has two Venetian gondoliers learning that one of them is a king. A few comic lyrics have been updated with local Australian humor, which will do little to detract from the rest of the world enjoying this one. The Stratford cast did a video version that has not (as of this writing) made it to DVD -- hope that changes, because that was a first rate performance too.

Another TV version of The Gondoliers was done as part of the so-called "Complete Gilbert & Sullivan" series -- it sinks like a brick thrown into the Grand Canal, and should be avoided.

Gosford Park (Universal)

This brilliant upstairs-downstairs murder mystery set in a 1930s English country manor house is not a musical, but it did much to resuscitate the international reputation of British composer Ivor Novello. His songs and shows were considered "too British" for American audiences, so this was the first chance many in the US had to hear his melodies. The impossibly handsome Jeremy Northam portrays Novello and sings several of the composer's most memorable songs with sensitivity and style. (Northam's unseen concert pianist brother assists with some of the piano playing.) The irony is that Novello himself could not sing at all, and would never have entertained at a private party as he does in this film, but that does not make Northam's performance any less delightful. The commentary tracks and "making of" featurette are packed with fascinating information, a multi-course feast for history buffs and Anglophiles.  Even if the film were not such a rip-roaring overall treat, it would be worth catching just for the songs.

La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein (Virgin Classics)

This is one of a series of Offenbach operettas restaged and videotaped by French opera troupes in recent years, and what fun it is to see this 1867 hit still winning laughs. Felicity Lott has a vocal and comic field day as a randy duchess who's obsession with men in uniform leads her to make a dimwitted private (handsome Yann Beuron) commander of her wartime army. The comedy is appropriately broad, the singing is deliciously lush, and both the sound and widescreen picture quality of this live performance are outstanding. Excellent subtitles make the fun readily accessible. If you are looking for an introduction to Offenbach, this is a great choice.

The Great Ziegfeld (WB/Turner)

Despite being way too long, this is one of the few musicals to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, in large part due to solid performances by William Powell as Ziegfeld, Luise Rainer as Anna Held and lovely Myrna Loy as Billie Burke. Fanny Brice is memorable playing herself in two scenes. Unfortunately, while the restoration is attractive, WB was in one of its cheap moods, and did not bother including a commentary track -- merely a meager "making of" featurette and a premiere night newsreel. Yet another film you may as well catch on a TV rerun.

Guys and Dolls (MGM)

Broadway buffs get to see original Broadway cast members Stubby Kaye and Vivian Blaine recreate their show stopping moments; unfortunately, viewers also have to endure the meager singing of Marlon Brando and at times Frank Sinatra looks annoyed to be stuck playing Nathan Detroit. This film deserved better leads, but the overall production is handsome and at times highly entertaining. Frank Loesser's new song "The Eyes of a Woman in Love" is very pleasant, but it was foolish to replace the glorious "I've Never Been in Love Before." The standard DVD edition has no special features, but a special edition includes frills galore -- none of which make this the great film it could have been.

Gypsy with Bette Midler (Hallmark)

The film version starring a dubbed Rosalind Russell is not nearly as bad as some people suggest, but it can't hold a candle to this excellent TV production, which includes the uncut stage libretto and score, as well as a cast where everyone handles their own singing. Bette Midler is a socko Rose, Cynthia Gibb is a surprisingly good Louise, Peter Riegert is excellent as Herbie, and excellent cameos go to such top talents as Ed Asner and Christine Ebersole. The magnificent original choreography by Jerome Robbins is in place, and it never hurts to have costumes by the incredible Bob Mackie. There is a full length commentary track by the producers with lots of fun behind the scenes information, which is more than most TV musicals on DVD ever get. From the hilarity of "You've Got to Get a Gimmick" to Midler's searing "Rose's Turn," the classic score is flawlessly delivered. Very highly recommended.

Hamlet with Richard Burton (Image)

The 1964 Broadway revival of Shakespeare's classic tragedy was packed with musical stage stars. Filmed live during its final performance at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the results did not live up to Richard Burton's expectations, so he exercised a clause in his contract and blocked the release. All copies were thought lost until one turned up -- in Burton's closet! He is electrifying in the title role, Alfred Drake is suitably hateful as the murderous King Claudius, Eileen Herlie is Queen Gertrude (a role she previously played in Olivier's film version), John Cullum is a powerful Laertes, and George Rose has a scene-stealing blast as the First Gravedigger. The cast also includes Hume Cronyn as a loveable Polonius, Barnard Hughes in several small roles, and director John Gielgud as the mellifluous voice of the unseen ghost. There are some minor technical glitches that most fans will happily overlook to get this priceless look back at a legendary production.

Hans Christian Andersen (MGM)

Danny Kaye is quite delightful, as is Frank Loesser's score, but since MGM went cheapskate and offered no special features on the DVD release, you are just as well off seeing this on a holiday TV rerun.

The Happiest Millionaire (Disney)

Yes, it is far too long, and the plot crashes to a halt long before the final scene, but a star-studded cast and a tuneful Sherman Brothers score make this a "coulda been" that is still worth seeing. The jaunty ""Watch Your Footwork" is so good you'll wonder why the rest of the film isn't. John Davidson never looked more dashing (his "Are We Dancing?" is excellent), and Tommy Steele's jubilant renditions of songs like "Fortuosity" suggest he would have had a major Hollywood career if big musicals not fallen out of fashion in the late 1960s.  High Camp Alert -- non-singers Geraldine Fitzgerald and Gladys Cooper are a shameless hoot in the bitchy duet "There Are Those." The "Road Show Edition" DVD offers scenes left out of the standard edition, as well as an overture and intermission music -- but in fairness, the added material only make the wait for the ending that much more endless. Not so much as a featurette or trailer -- catch this one for the songs.

Hello Dolly (20th Century Fox)

Not the film it could have been, but with songs by Jerry Herman, choreography by Michael Kidd and some dynamite vocals by Barbra Streisand, there is plenty to enjoy here. The lavish sets and costumes add plenty of period charm, and the title tune includes a justly celebrated duet by Streisand and Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, the special features on the DVD are limited to a 1969 featurette and trailers for other Fox releases. Not much more than one gets during a TV rerun.

High Society (WB/Turner)

MGM's musical version of The Philadelphia Story boasts a fine Cole Porter score and a stellar cast. Just to see and hear Bing Crosby team up with Louis Armstrong for "Now You Has Jazz" is worth the price of admission; likewise, the screen sparkles when Crosby joins Frank Sinatra in the memorable "Well, Did You Evah?" No commentary track, but Celeste Holm helms a "Porter in Hollywood" featurette. Lots of fun.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney)

An underestimated animated masterpiece, this film has one of Stephen Schwartz's best scores -- the opening "Bells of Notre Dame" is a breathtaking combination of exposition and soaring composition. A great commentary track and some enjoyable special features, including a look at how the infectious song "A Guy Like You" works when dubbed in various languages. Highly recommended!

It's Always Fair Weather (WB/ Turner)

Gene Kelly's last major MGM musical boasts some unforgettable dance numbers and an entertaining plot. Intended as a sequel to On the Town, it evolved into the story of three army buddies who reunite ten years after World War II. Initial differences almost ruin things, but a common challenge finally re-ignites their friendship. Few sights could match the trio of Kelly, Dan Dailey & Michael Kidd strutting their stuff with trash can lids strapped to their feet, or Kelly tap-dancing through busy city streets on roller skates. Along with outtake numbers and cartoons, there is a highly entertaining "making of" documentary, with the author of Musicals101 among a stellar line up of experts. If you don't know this film, you are in for a real surprise.

Jerry Herman's Broadway (Varese Sarabande)

This all-star concert was taped live at the Hollywood Bowl, with the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by Broadway veteran (and frequent Herman collaborator) Don Pippin. Bea Arthur revisits Mame's "Man in the Moon," George Hearn recreates "I Am What I Am" from La Cage, and Carol Channing descends Hello Dolly's staircase one more time. Wonderful performances by the likes of Michael Feinstein, Leslie Uggams and Lee Roy Reams (his solos are show stealers!) add to the fun, and Herman himself sings and plays piano for the finale. A veritable orgy of pleasure for showtune buffs.

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