Musicals on DVD 9

Reviews by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2011)

Anything Goes - 1954 TV Cast (e-one Video)

For reasons lost to history, this 1954 TV production reset the action from the 1930s to the roaring 1920s. Otherwise, this sticks reasonably close to the original stage plot about romance and mistaken identities on a transatlantic cruise. Ethel Merman and Frank Sinatra are both in top vocal form, Bert Lahr delivers the laughs, and Cole Porter's wonderful songs are well served. Handsomely remastered from Merman's personal kinescope copy, this a real musical comedy treat, and far superior to the two disappointing film versions of this perennial favorite.

Broadway: The American Musical (PBS Home Video)

As I explain elsewhere on this site, this six episode documentary is marred by a handful of factual errors, but it makes up for them by offering a dazzling collection of rare interviews and rarely seen performance film clips sure to please anyone interested in Broadway musicals. The DVD set includes several hours worth of added footage, including fascinating performances and interview clips that did not make the final cut. There is also a behind the scenes glimpse at Wicked on its road to Broadway. Drawbacks considered, this set is a must-have for serious fans.

Broadway's Lost Treasures (Acorn)

This set offers performance clips from Tony Award telecasts. It took years of legal wrangling to clear the rights with the unions, songwriters, etc. Three discs concentrate on musicals, offering the richest parade of classic moments that can be found in any commercial release -- Zero Mostel in Fiddler, Joel Grey in Cabaret, Jerry Orbach in various hits, the whole gang from Annie, 42nd Street, Ragtime. If musicals are your thing, you want this full set. A fourth disc offers scenes from plays, with another stellar list of talents in great titles. The must-have of all must-haves for theatre buffs!

The Busby Berkeley Collection (WB/Turner)

When the major studios were dismissing screen musicals as a dead art form in the early 1930s, along came Broadway choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose new vision and innovative camera techniques would revitalize the medium. After years of delay, five of Berkeley's landmark Warner Brothers films have been handsomely restored for DVD. No commentaries, but each film includes an excellent documentary. Full disclosure: your truly is in all of the documentaries in this set, so perhaps I'm prejudiced. (Note: Because of release timings, the documentary for 42nd Street is on the disc for Goldiggers of 1933.) Vintage shorts are included too, making this a feast for film buffs. If you are curious to see me in action, or if you just love Berkeley's unforgettable production numbers (which this set repeats on a bonus disc), this set is well worth the investment.

The Desert Song - 1955 TV Cast (VAI)

Nelson Eddy looks and sounds a bit more relaxed here than in most of his big screen appearances, and with much of the stage plot and original score intact, this TV Desert Song is far more satisfying than any of the feature film versions. Gale Sherwood is excellent as Margo, who falls in love with a masked terrorist (the Red Shadow) without realizing he is really her seemingly gentle friend Eddy. Sigmund Romberg's romatic score is almost complete and sung rather well, and the remastering is first rate, making this one of the best operetta broadcasts available on home video.

Hollywood Musicals (St. Clair Vision)

Here is the kind of rip-off DVD collectors have to watch out for. Ten screen musicals are offered in this set -- some rarely seen, most taken from inferior prints, and all are offered with no tangible attempts to improve the sound or picture quality. The flashy packaging proclaims that these films have been "Carefully Remastered." Baloney! Royal Wedding is the only major hit here, in a badly worn print, thrown in with forgotten flicks like Ziegfeld's tedious Glorifying the American Girl and Ezio Pinzas big screen flop Mr. Imperium. The bonus features are either old newsreels items or clips of the films strung into narrated shorts -- in other words, meaningless filler that cost nothing to add on. Shame on St. Clair Vision for fostering this highway robbery on the public.

Hollywood Singing & Dancing - PBS (Great Musical Treasure LLC)

Hosted by Shirley Jones, this is the most comprehensive single documentary on Hollywood musicals.  Packed with sensational clips, and covering the genre from its birth in the late 1920s right up to the present day, I would love this informative and jubilant celebration of screen musicals even if I wasn't featured in it.  But I am, and could not have been happier with the results, or prouder to be included in this stellar PBS line up of performers, filmmakers and historians. The DVD release includes two hours of great bonus material, including archival behind the scenes footage from several Hollywood classics. Great fun for any fan of musical films.

Kiss Me Kate - 1958 TV Cast (VAI)

Original Broadway stars Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison recreate their peerless performances as the battling exes, Julie Wilson is musical and comic dynamite as Lois/Bianca, Bill Hayes is a handsomely knavish Bill, and the bumbling gangsters with a penchant for Shakespeare are played winningly by Jack Klugman and Harvey Lembeck in this stylish, thoroughly delightful Hallmark Hall of Fame production.  Most of the score is intact, and the libretto is edited with unusual finesse. Much as I enjoy the outstanding MGM big screen version, it is a dream come true to see Kate's original leads at the peak of their talents, supported by a solid lineup of show biz veterans. Handsomely re-mastered, this is essential viewing for any musical theatre fan, and a grand excuse to revel once more in Cole Porter's timeless hit musical.

Liza's at the Palace (MPI)

Don't let the first few numbers fool you. Minnelli starts out sounding vocally frayed, but her performance gradually grows stronger, and by the time her gifted male back-up quartet (Jim Caruso, Johnny Rodgers, Cortes Alexander and Tiger Martina) joins her for a tribute to Kay Thompson, Liza is in fine form and this concert becomes a brilliant reminder of a lost era. Recorded in high definition in Las Vegas, this is the full Tony-winning show presented at Broadway's legendary Palace Theatre -- where Liza's mother made history, and where audiences found Liza could still deliver a memorable evening of glitz and heart. Memories of Thompson (who was her godmother) help make this show remarkably personal, and Liza is a past master at turning real-life tragedies into memorable stage moments. By the time she appeases her adoring fans with powerhouse renditions of "My Mammy," "New York, New York" and a solo with piano of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," you will understand what all the fuss was about. And if some of those final vocals appear to have been sweetened with a bit of post-dubbing, what of it?  This is now standard procedure with concert videos. In the end, Liza's at the Palace is one hell of a show, and that is what Minnelli at her best has always been about.

Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (Sony)

The last performance of Rent's original Broadway run is captured stunning high definition. Excellent picture and sound quality give viewers the ultimate front row seat to an historic event, and the solid final cast does full justice to Jonathan Larson's words and music. Added features include some interesting backstage documentaries, and fans of this show will cherish seeing Rent alumni join in a final encore of "Seasons of Love." Infinitely superior to the big screen version, this is a handsome memento of a landmark production.

Three Little Words (WB/Turner)

One of the best MGM musicals not produced by the Freed Unit, Three Little Words is a highly fictionalized look at the real life songwriting partnership of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Fred Astaire is in top form, as is dancing partner Vera Ellen, and Red Skelton gives one of his best big screen performances as Ruby. Great songs, and an unknown Debbie Reynolds makes a memorable appearance as young Helen Kane. An excellent documentary (which I had the great pleasure of appearing in) and some vintage short subjects make this DVD a full evening's entertainment. Very highly recommended.

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