We cast our net for cast albums this week and came up with variety, including two new scores inspired by famous chilling tales from literature. But the fear factor is a small factor. Also, British cast recordings from half a century ago, dusted off.
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
Yes, this adaptation of the Washington Irving story spends some of its time with hauntings and the horrors of the Headless Horseman, and that's well executed, but there's a healthy balance of romance and a splash of humor, too. This new cast album is an impressive affair: a deluxe endeavor that becomes a full theatrical listening experience including some dialogue. It's a 2-CD set with the voices of a 21-member New York cast and a 28-piece orchestra recorded in Arizona, where its composer-lyricist James Crowley is based. He is also the conductor, musical director, orchestrator and album producer. Following earlier workshops and development, the show had a staged reading one day last year at The York Theatre in Manhattan. And now we have a vibrant recording that shows the many merits of this score, fully brought to life with grace, earnestness and very few problems.
The score is strong and engaging, recorded with care and class. It's a bit schizophrenic in its giving almost equal weight to the supernatural and the super-romantic. The curse in the story and its specter of death hang heavy in the beginning and make up a major part of the second act. With classic sounds of foreboding music that telegraph terror, the actors and orchestral treatment manage to steer clear of a hammy approach resembling camp or treatment that would induce giggles. Lyrics about that man riding in search of his head - told in rhyme, of course - may hit the ear as odd at first. But they're serious ... dead serious. And it works. Also rewarding are the unabashedly tender love songs; they are mostly well sung, though in some sections the singers sound tentative.
The double disc also includes a fair amount of dialogue from the script by Robert Stempin. It makes listening kind of like hearing a radio play, especially in view of the spooky parts that invite the use of a listener's imagination. The very beginning is particularly well executed in that way, with an extended prologue, a scene including sound effects and a conversation between a schoolmaster (the commanding Randy Blair) and a student played by 12-year-old actor Joey LaVarco who acquits himself well, sounds natural and reappears later to good effect.
The main characters, forming the love triangle, hold my interest. Perry Ojeda, who came to our attention some years ago in the revival of On the Town as Gaby, is an excellent and immensely appealing leading man. His Ichabod Crane is brimming with yearning sincerity and determined heroism. Charisma comes through on disc, and he sounds very focused. However, on a purely musical level, divorced from characterization, his voice can sound thin or "pushed" at times. Among his best moments are playing the nervous suitor in "Six O'Clock Tonight" and the sheer will he exerts in the final scenes. His duets with Elise Marie as his beloved Katrina are sometimes troubling. Their blend can be uneasy, though they valiantly rhapsodize through love duets in a traditional style: "In Your Eyes" and "What Will the Stars Reveal Tonight?" She seems more confident elsewhere and has an overall pretty and unmannered sound. Oddly, her acting in the spoken sections varies greatly, sometimes stilted and other times quite believable.
Playing Ichabod's nemesis and rival for his lady's affections, Jamie O'Brien as Brom has a deep and powerful voice and uses its rich tones to great advantage. He holds his own in the acting department, too, maintaining a forceful character. The ensemble work is good, with some brighter group numbers in their flavor and orchestration at times recalling some of the happily busy Alan Menken-composed ensemble pieces in Disney films. The comic relief moments are wise additions for refreshment: a "Choir Rehearsal" with the hopelessly off-pitch church singers trying the patience of Ichabod, and Ellora deCarlo and Jim Brigman acing the playful "If I Marry You."
The show's website gives the project's detailed history, bios, song samples and all the lyrics. (The CD packaging provides a list of songs indicating what characters are singing plus a detailed plot synopsis and credits, but no lyrics.) This oft-told tale remains haunting and might be daunting to adapt, but the development process has paid off with a recording that is captivating and should serve to sell the show to producers and regional theaters. With its big orchestra and included dialogue, plus good sound quality, it also makes a strong case for presenting new musicals on disc without cutting corners and going the bare bones route. This is received gratefully.
Go figure. In the mid-fifties in London, a lightweight homegrown show called Grab Me a Gondola ran hundreds of performances longer than the imports of two big American hits that have stood the test of time: Wonderful Town and Pal Joey, the latter originally produced in 1940 and revived successfully on Broadway in 1952. Grab Me a Gondola's cast recording, conducted by Frank Cordell, was never transferred to CD until now, where it's combined with some songs from these other two shows by their British stars, first as 78 rpm singles, recorded with Cyril Ornadel and his orchestra. (Full British cast albums weren't recorded for them.) If you'd otherwise hesitate in grabbing Gondola because its lightweight, dated score is not quite a must-have, maybe the generous bonus tracks will sway you. There are also two singles by Shani Wallis, who was London's Eileen in Wonderful Town.
A rather goofy spoof of celebrity culture vultures, Gondola's slim story was inspired by a publicity stunt by real life moviedom's blonde bombshell Diana Dors. She arranged to be accidentally-on-purpose photographed during the Venice Film Festival being thrown into the canal wearing a mink bikini. Thus we have a story taking place at the same festival with a flashy film star and mink bikinis on hand. There are 15 tracks, all vocals, taken from the LP, which had only been released in mono, though the album was recorded in stereo and so is now released in stereo for the first time (owners of the vinyl take note).
Hardly a classic or a comic gem, the recording still has a lot to enjoy, especially the breezier numbers with a touch of satire or campiness. The music is by James Gilbert, with lyrics a joint effort by Gilbert and the bookwriter, Julian More. Their title song is quite a happy hoot with its very, very enthusiastic chorus singing lines like, "Grab me a cab - No! Grab me a gondola!" They sure sound peppy and it's a jaunty melody with a splashy orchestration and a big finish. If you have a taste for the combination of quirky and perky, this opening track will float your boat.
More lively singing comes in two other zippy pieces: the show's boisterously belting star, Joan Heal, singing of her desire to play Shakespeare in "Cravin' for the Avon" and the celebration of "Star Quality" with Guido Lorraine, playing a smooth-talking prince who happens to come along. The varied score gives us a rock and roll song, a rather run-of-the-mill love ballad, a pseudo-Italian flamboyant ode to wine, and some brassy numbers. "Jimmy's Bar" is notable for serving up a bunch of celebrity names of the period and some clever rhymes to go with them.
Attractive-voiced Denis Quilley, a familiar figure to those who follow British musicals, is the leading man. Playing a columnist writing on celebs, he is featured in five of the numbers, as is the leading lady. He leads a sharp song digging at the ethics of media coverage, "What Are the Facts?" Suffice to say that, in talking about the ways to deal with facts of a news story, the lyric rhymes "report" with "distort" and recommends getting a star a little drunk to get a juicy story.
Let's move on to Pal Joey, whose classic song, "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," coincidentally is referenced in a Gondola number. The famous ballad has the advantage here of the appealingly throaty sound of Carol Bruce. However, she sings it with less nuance than others have found, and the sexier lines were changed. She is on three of the four tracks, playing the older woman, Vera. She had already played the role on tour in the U.S., and unsurprisingly sounds very comfortable in the role. Her "What Is a Man?" is more interestingly phrased, and her duet with Sally Bazely on "Take Him" is just OK, marred a bit by the latter's over-articulation. "That Terrific Rainbow," the intentionally raucous number, is handled by Jean Brampton who maybe gets a little too harsh-sounding. But it's always good to hear selections from this major Rodgers and Hart score.
There is a heftier sampling of Leonard Bernstein/ Betty Comden and Adolph Green's wonderful Wonderful Town. As Ruth, Pat Kirkwood is game and chipper, though she seems to be missing the gene for being sardonic and wry that the character needs. But her "Swing" works well and finds her quite uninhibited. Denis Bowen smoothly sings the ballads "A Quiet Girl" and "It's Love" in a straightforward way that doesn't feel especially "acted," but his voice is easy on the ears. Best of all is the final cast member represented, ingenue Shani Wallis, with her solo of "A Little Bit in Love" truly lovely: it floats along with an open, airy sound. She digs into two duets with Pat, "Ohio" and "The Wrong Note Rag."
The two commercially released singles by Shani that end the album as extra bonus tracks are nice to hear. The nostalgic old tune, "(The Gang That Sang) Heart of My Heart" is well sung in her youthful voice, and she's joined by a dare-you-not-to-sing-along vocal group to represent the old "gang" recalled in the lyric. "Bell Bottom Blues" is pop fluff that is cute enough. These two 1954 recordings include accompaniment by Wally Stott and his orchestra. Here, the sound quality reveals some surface noise from the rare singes, whereas on the cast recordings, it's not an issue. The sound there is acceptable, clear with voices out front, but not very rich or dynamic.
With 28 tracks in all, the CD is a generously endowed flashback to the fifties. The booklet has black and white photos: several scenes from Grab Me a Gondola, and a few individual photos of the other shows' stars, as well as helpful notes on the main show. It's good to catch up with these zingy relics.
UNDER THE RADAR
A follow-up to the little anti-sophisticated Minnesotan musical Don't Hug Me reviewed last year, here's another foolish Yule-ish story from the cold country. Several numbers have something to do with Christmas, but from just listening to the songs you wouldn't really glean that there's a plot that parallels Dickens' A Christmas Carol with ghosts helping a man reconsider his life and choose a fresh start. There is, however, a song referring to the character Tiny Tim ("You Can Call Me Tiny"), wherein the little boy seeks adoption, offering to do whatever chores are demanded. It's sung by the capable Emily Trempe, the strongest singer here. (Most voices are modest or intentionally gruff.) Her other solos are "I'd Rather Be Naughty" and "What Would Barbra Streisand Do?" which is not as funny as the title suggests. "The Wheel is Turnin', But the Hamster is Dead" is another amusing title, and this one has more meat to it, a complaint about men in which Emily is joined by Annie Heller.
If you have limited tolerance for "regular guy" proudly lowbrow or crass humor, you'll find some of this sophomoric. A reprised polka about Grandma, after eating, passing gas called "The Christmas Cheese Polka" is a song of Noel nuttiness light years away from Noel Coward or Cole Porter wit.
The melodies, often cheerfully melodic like the catchy "It's Christmas Time So Please Give Me Some" are by Paul Olson, with lyrics by his brother Phil Olson who is in the cast. He plays the unhappy husband whose holiday sentiment can be summed up as "Bah, humbug!" and he sings about Santa being overweight and, alas, "Stuck in a Chimney." Christmas is on hold, as he promises to try the Jenny Craig diet. In another solo, he later admits cross dressing in a somewhat curmudgeonly voice.
Musical accompaniment is simple and there are 17 songs plus the reprise. Every track is under three minutes in length, with about half under two minutes. The musical variety pack, arranged and orchestrated by the composer and Wade Clark, also include a beguine, a rap, and sprightly Christmas-tinged numbers, occasionally quoting a bit of an established holiday song. It's harmless fun, provides some smiles and the website indicates that the production needs are simple.
That's all for now. We'll be skipping next Thursday because of the holiday - Labor Day, that is, not Christmas.