Three very different musicals, but all on the light side:
There's an old saying suggesting that, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. The 1980 movie musical Xanadu was widely considered to be ... well, rather crummy. Many were underwhelmed with the befuddling mishmosh that was the romance/mythology/roller skating disco combo. The stage piece, thanks to winking and re-thinking, has become the tart lemonade of Broadway in a very broad way. The cast album performances lay on the spoof and schtick pretty thick, and the fun will wear thin for those not in on - or into - the joke. Those who love '80s pop music but find Mamma Mia! too intellectually stimulating and dramatically complex will be pleased, as will those who love to hate (or hate to love?) the original film's songs, which are retained and energetically performed, but with an eye for mocking exaggeration. The cast members use their talent and they are talented folks - to make fun and make it fun, but quite often it feels like the wrapping paper has more to offer than the item being wrapped. It's only January, so it's probably way too early to place money on a bet that this will be the guilty pleasure of the year for show albums, but we're immersed knee-deep in chemically altered cheese, which can have its own rewards if you're so inclined.
Kerry Butler, as the ancient Greek muse is amusing and spot on with her re-creations (turned up a couple of notches) of breathy Olivia Newton John tics, phrasing and accent. (Don't all visitors from Mount Olympus dropping in on California have an Australian accent?) She turns on a dime with solid comic timing, changing from perky to petulant. Cheyenne Jackson sounds fresh and strong, playing things more sincerely than campy, a neat contrast to the brasher sounds from others. Bringing on the ham and egging each other on, Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman are shamelessly snarky and sneering. They are easy to like even if their (intentionally) shrieky rants are not easy on the ears. Tony Roberts gamely goes along with the perhaps unenviable double duty of following in Gene Kelly's dancing footsteps (it was the legend's last film) and then playing head god Zeus. In that role, with the interpolated "Have You Never Been Mellow?" as a production number, the angry deity is told to chill out.
The cast is unflaggingly vigorous and emphatic throughout the album, though less interesting during the relentless dance rhythms and repeated simplistic lyrics where we don't have the benefit/distraction of seeing the dancing or having some zinger dialogue lines tossed in. There is a bit of dialogue here and there, leaving one wanting more of a taste of Douglas Carter Beane's new book. His several pages of irreverent and impudent liner notes in a booklet that also has color photos are a treat.
Funny how loud and/or full of characterization singing can be when tongue is planted firmly in cheek. It's a cheeky experience all right, with plenty of silliness and twisted nostalgia for those with a soft spot for the era and the songs.
Like a not very well considered shopping spree at a mega-store with both good and questionable merchandise, Walmartopia is a mixed bag of all kinds of items. There are lively tunes and lumbering ones; there are sharp, subversive lyrics and songs that miss the mark, as well as performances that range from pleasingly punchy and pungent to preaching, overreaching and occasionally screeching. This show is satirizing the corporate giant Wal-Mart, not so much the shop-til-you-drop experience for customers, but its treatment of employees and eye on low costs at all costs.
Starting at a theatre in Wisconsin where its writers - husband and wife team of Andrew Rohn and Catherine Capellaro work, Walmartopia was part of the Fringe Festival in New York City in 2006, and just finished a run in Greenwich Village, re-cast and with major changes in the material. The album reflects the new version, and contains a synopsis and the lyrics with some dialogue. There is a five-piece band, and all but two actors in this company of 15 play multiple roles.
The show bounces around in tone, a real case of identity crisis. It begins realistically with scenes about underpaid, underappreciated employees with incidents taken from actual workaday experiences (out sourcing, employee reviews with demerits, a forced staff cheer to instill morale, references to the sexual discrimination in advancement). Satire ranges from spot on and subtly subversive to wildly exaggerated buffoonery, with sympathetic realistic scenes traded for a kind of cautionary/science fiction style in scenes set in the future where evil empire Wal-Mart has literally taken over the country.
Just a glance at song titles like "Heave-Ho," "A New Age Has Begun," and "One Stop Salvation," hints at the heavy-handedness of some of the goings-on, but its heart is in the right place and, though things get wild and loony, there is a method to the madness. This show has some important things to say and, although some of the message is lost in the mess, it's worth listening to and thinking about the concerns addressed. The intentions and integrity of the show's creators are honorable and often come through loud and clear. OK, sometimes too loud and too transparent, but I do admire its goals and successful moments. The central figures of the mother and daughter employees at the store and bucking the system (Cheryl Freeman and Nikki M. James, respectively) are meant to be a reality check and sympathetic but come off as too bland and grumpy. A presumed attempt to be empathic through fervent singing of some generic lyrics comes out strident and humorless. John Jellison and Steven DeRosa fare better as two of the comical bad guys but sometimes veer into overkill in what feels desperate. Bradley Dean, in two roles, has a couple of nice opportunities to show skill at more human-scale emotions.
While it was and remains a flawed and frustrating work, it's also an intriguing one that has potential and its own rewards. I like quite a bit of it and admire it even more.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's an old score from the 1960s whose backers' audition has been released on CD. It was sent to us some months ago, but not generally available until more recently.
1962's All American had growing pains like most Broadway shows. Songs came and went, there was tweaking and tinkering and trimming and late ideas. But first, the funding had to be raised and this recording is an actual backers' audition where composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams introduce the songs and perform them themselves (very enthusiastically!). In this presentation, which of course was never meant to be heard by the general public, they sometimes sound rushed and not relaxed. Over eager? Nervous? Understandable. But it's charming and instructive to hear them put forth their own material. If you don't happen to know the score, you'd be able to sense its entertainment potential with the happy and sweet way they sing as Strouse pounds and plunks out the tunes on the piano. There's also a sense of urgency as you hear pages turning, a bit of stumbling over words here and there, stretching for a high note, though both sing effectively enough for the purpose. They get a few laughs from comments, such as describing a character as a cross between Satan and a famous theatrical agent.
The spoken introductions, tracked separately so you easily skip past them when you want to, are more than just quick set-ups. The plot situations are described in some detail, usually as a summary but sometimes they actually read through bits of the dialogue. Their bookwriter was Mel Brooks, and the liner notes say some of the trials and tribulations mentioned were the seed for the idea for The Producers. (The show closed after 80 performances, far fewer than the hit Strouse and Adams recently had, Bye Bye Birdie.)
What is of special interest is that we get to hear five appealing songs that were cut from the score and one, "Which Way," that was not included until after the opening, so it is not on the original cast album. For collectors, and especially those who like Strouse's nimble melodies and Adams' warm and wise way with words, just the presence of these rarities make this a little treasure.