Also see Rob's Top Ten Vocal Albums of 2008

After ringing in a new year, what cast albums released during the previous year are still ringing in our ears? Some are disappointments, mere curiosities, or items diverting enough for a "glad I heard it" reaction, but not something we pull off a shelf or play list more than once in a blue moon. Others are the "keepers"—the ones that continue to stand out from the pack and pack a theatrical punch that doesn't lose too much of its impact on repeated listenings. Here are those top ten cast albums released for the first time in the calendar year of 2008. Those CDs reviewed in the course of the year get brief summaries, with links to the original reviews. Those we hadn't covered previously because we skipped some weeks and the pile grew higher or simply because an album came in the mail later than expected, are covered in more detail. So, here are those not just good but rather glorious, beginning with the recently released The Glorious Ones.

[The CDs here are not listed in any particular order—this is not a ranked list.]

THE GLORIOUS ONES
ORIGINAL (LINCOLN CENTER) CAST

JAY Records

Emotion, intelligence and flamboyance intersect and co-exist in a top cast album for The Glorious Ones. The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is handled with aplomb and care in this recording with the seven-person cast of the recent Lincoln Center production. The tale of the life and longings of a troupe of actors has its various moods and attitudes: ardent, comical, soaring, reflective, rambunctious. Set in 16th century Italy, this life upon the wicked stage and celebration of performing is both simple and complex. Though not plot heavy, it's not a simple piece and takes some thought and attention to fully absorb. The ambience and flavor do jump out right away, but the musical landscape and lyrics have multiple layers, sometimes requiring a couple of go-rounds to really appreciate. An attractive (and photo-filled) booklet with all the lyrics and spoken sections plus explanatory stage directions is very helpful.

The leader of the troupe is the ideally cast Marc Kudisch, adept at cavorting in a swashbuckling strut and turning on a dime to use his strong voice to evoke strong emotion without just blasting it out brashly. He can be quite tender. The score's standout and reprised centerpiece, "I Was Here," about crying out for immortality through creative expression, becomes his—and the show's—mantra. An irresistible duet of mutual onstage admiration for co-stars by Jeremy Webb and Erin Davie is also a major highlight: "Opposite You," recorded earlier on a CD of the same name by the married theatre stars Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. "My Body Wasn't Why" and other tracks feature the compelling and commanding voice of Natalie Venetia Belcon.

The small orchestra of nine players under the direction of pianist David Holcenberg is marvelous, with Michael Starobin's creative, full-of-subtext-and-mood orchestrations in good hands. There's quite a bit of group singing and the composer is credited with the vocal arrangements. Flaherty and Ahrens (she also did the book, based on the novel by Francine Prose) again present us with an involving score filled with yearning and the determined human spirit. What's going on beneath the surface, as characters let us look beneath the costume and make-up or posturing is often the most interesting thing to look at—and listen to. A bonus track orchestral suite of just over four minutes is enough to let us drink in the power of the melodies divorced from their lyrics.

GYPSY
2008 BROADWAY REVIVAL CAST

Time Life Entertainment
Original Review

Curtain up! Light the lights! (yet again) for the oft-recorded score of that landmark and rich Broadway score of Gypsy by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, now officially a half-century old as we enter the new year of 2009. Future decades will, no doubt, find more major productions and recordings and even more discussion of which version is most compelling. With the central role such a juicy one and open to different approaches and nuances beyond just the steam rolling stage mother from Hell, comparisons are invited and interesting. Clearly, you can't say a Madame Rose is a Rose is a Rose.

The indomitable Patti LuPone dominates this recording, not surprisingly, with her ferocious and sometimes fascinating approaches to the songs. Even if full-tilt Patti doesn't happen to be your cup of tea, there's plenty to recommend this recording to make more than just one more Gypsy. The rest of the cast is strong, with some fine singing and acting coming through. No once-over-lightly here; the pleasure is often in the details more than the broad strokes. And the glitz and tackiness of low-rung vaudeville is relished in the instrumental and vocal work. The whole thing feels exciting and powerful and has great presence—thanks are due to record producer Robert Sher.

In considering whether this cast album belongs on anyone's Top Ten List or CD shelf, we must try to judge it on its own merits, not dwelling on the fact that we've heard it all before. In fact, we haven't—this new Gypsy has some old Gypsy not on most (or any) version. There are extended versions of songs and numbers cut from the original (and subsequent) productions. Some of the material has shown up in various forms on disc before, though not always on cast albums. (For example, Petula Clark once recorded the cut "Mama's Talkin' Soft," heard in a snippet in "Rose's Turn" among snippets.) This favorite score of many, is also one of my lifetime top faves, no matter how many new scores come along. And for the lady playing the title role—as is sung in the ditty about the oft-appearing Caroline the Cow, "I like everything about her fine." Fine and dandy is this Gypsy.

SOUTH PACIFIC
2008 LINCOLN CENTER REVIVAL CAST

Masterworks Broadway
Original Review

To employ a line from one of its songs, "Keep talking happy talk" about the well-received Lincoln Center production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic work, South Pacific, as it makes for a satisfying cast album. The attentive love and care for the material is there, but it sounds quite vital, too, and is involving. Like Gypsy, there are now quite a few versions of this score on disc, including the very recent Carnegie Hall concert cast. Here is the score in all its glorious glory, with the orchestrations sounding rich and full and very theatrically full of life. Even if one prefers other cast versions of many of the songs, the ones presented here are engaging and entertaining. They're respectful and respectable, noble and full of the positive energy of the "Cock-Eyed Optimist" and the magic of "Some Enchanted Evening" leading to permanent happiness. These expressed determined beliefs in things working out and the glass being more than half full are convincing rather than platitude laden and overly idealistic. There's some reserve and when there's trouble in paradise, the pain and anguish come through, too. But oh, the joys of letting this great score in good hands rush over you like wave after wave of the South Pacific Ocean of melody and characterful lyrics.

ANNIE
30th ANNIVERSARY COMPLETE RECORDING

PLUS STORY & SONGS FROM THE SEQUEL
Time Life Records
Original Review

Here's the ultimate Annie set, with members of the cast of the recent tour of the show that jumped from the funny papers to the musical theatre stage way back in the 1970s. You get the whole score of Annie, well done without being a copycat version of earlier recorded versions, featuring a winsome young Marissa O'Donnell in the title role. Then, there's an odd banquet of material from Annie 2, but not a start-to-finish set of songs as heard in the final version before it closed quickly with troubles and perplexed creators. Major rewrites were done, and we get songs that survived and those that died along the way, including three lyrics tried for the same melody. One is sung by the original Annie herself, Andrea McArdle in a very satisfying guest star turn. Carol Burnett, the comically evil Miss Hannigan in the movie version, narrates the unequal sequel's ever-thickening plot—and does so in character. Though the unfamiliar, previously unrecorded songs are hardly the best work of the writing team, the Charles Strouse melodies are often agreeable and the Martin Charnin lyrics fun, interesting and sometimes interestingly puzzling.

Fascinating more than classic or brilliant, the sequel's songs are generally well performed, as are those from the popular Annie score. Hooray for the deluxe booklet and the caring production and extras provided by producer Robert Sher (as with the new Gypsy album on the same label).

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
NEW YORK THEATREWORKS CAST

Jay Records

OK, so there's this redheaded orphan girl and she's quite feisty but likeable. She arrives and the man who receives her was expecting a boy and is ready to send her back, but he relents and her neediness and winning ways and optimism win his heart. No, it's not Annie, it's Anne, the other redheaded orphan girl. Moving into a new area, she becomes Anne of Green Gables. The musical of the same name is based on the classic book of the same name, which spawned sequels as novels and has been musicalized in the past. This spiffy version is by Gretchen Cryer (lyrics and book—and a fair amount of dialogue is included) and Nancy Ford (music). The youthful feminism of this girl ahead of her time who thinks girls can and should do anything and won't take "no" for an answer is sort of a relative to the writing team's central strong woman character in I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. (They also tapped the young female sensibilities in two musicals they wrote for the popular American Girl dolls, recorded but not widely known as they are sold only in the stores.) But if you're expecting this family entertainment to be preachy or overly earnest or sugar-sweet, you need not worry. Perhaps the more curmudgeonly and cheer resistant will be less charmed, but I find this score and its recording here very effective and lovable.

Though the teens Anne and her friend Diana are played by adult actresses, Piper Goodeve and Jessica Grové carry it off very well (especially on disc; on stage, it took a little credulity stretch). The pluck and talkativeness of the loose cannon Anne as performed might remind you of Sutton Foster's performance of the determined and sometimes giddy Jo in the musical adaptation of another girl-friendly classic novel, Little Women.

The songs are strong, with those about bonding sticking to the ear immediately: "Kindred Spirits" and "Making Up for Lost Time." The cast of eight includes Heather MacRae, fun as the gossipy neighbor you love to hate. One needs someone to stir up trouble, and she stirs the brew so that the plot thickens and the girl has a chance to stand up for herself but be marked as a troublemaker. Especially nicely done is the maturing of the main character, as she is ready for college and more reflective as the tale ends. The heartstrings are pulled and the funny bone is tickled, but it does not feel manipulative of our emotions. A gentle, innocent story with warmth and high energy tunes, this is a pleasure.

The accompaniment is by three musicians playing cello, woodwinds and piano (at the keyboard is Christopher McGovern, also conducting for the recording). A life-affirming story not without its sadness, with characters who are not whitewashed as perfect, the musical version works and makes a cheery and high energy listening experience.

ADDING MACHINE
OFF-BROADWAY CAST

PS Classics
Original Review

Add The Adding Machine to my list of favorites from 2008 that linger in the mind and have impact right off the bat, too. This musical version of the Elmer Rice play is quirky, non-traditional, haunting and darkly funny. It's also unsettling as it challenges some "traditional" values—religion and the afterlife, blind work ethic, conformity to marriage and settling down (hoping for happily ever after). Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith have adapted the play and a musical language and tone have been found for the work drones and colorless marital partners' robot-like lives. The nagging wife and a worker's mind-numbing adding of figures, penny by penny, are intentionally "annoying" as performed by actresses who bring out the nails-on-a-blackboard kind of vocal sounds. when they occasionally switch to the more attractive sides of their voices, it's like a vacation in paradise and very effective. The metaphysical aspects of the story, somewhat open-ended and full of surprises, bring out other musical and dramatic colors. With the included dialogue, this becomes like an intriguing radio play—part "Twilight Zone," part claustrophobic cautionary tale, all parts impressive.

THE BODY BEAUTIFUL
2007 YORK THEATRE REVIVAL"MUFTI" CAST

Original Cast Records

The answer to musical theatre lovers' prayers sometimes comes in a church basement in Manhattan where the York Theatre Company exposes new musicals and brings back worthy old ones that disappeared quickly the first time around. A similar agenda of exposure, preservation and excavation is the raison d'etre of the record label Original Cast Records who recorded the company's limited run revival of The Body Beautiful. This 1958 score, with its story of boxers and cuddly juvenile delinquents, has many enjoyable, high-energy songs by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. It's a light, bright, spunky, occasionally clunky endeavor that still has charms and is fully embraced by the committed performances of its cast (including recent cast members of various Broadway shows: Brad Oscar, Cady Huffman, Capathia Jenkins and Megan Lawrence). To employ the lingo of its subject matter, this is not the knockout punch of a heavyweight contender like the writers' later works Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothschilds, or as memorable and sharp as their Fiorello!. But it's fun and sweet and the songs are well-crafted and unpretentious entertainment.

Laura Marie Duncan's attractive and lively voice spices up several numbers, including the title song, and there's likeable work by Mike McGowan who sings with her on the sentimental ballad candidate, "Hidden in My Heart." This number is heard again as a bonus track, in a pop version by Mindy Carson. Two other bonus tracks come from a valued, old compilation of rescued items, 18 Interesting Songs from Unfortunate Shows: "Summer Is" and "All of These and More" are among the stronger numbers in the show and are especially vibrant here because of the participation of Broadway favorite Susan Watson. The album concludes with four songwriter demos—sound is lo-fi, enjoyment is high (theirs and ours). Three are cut songs, making this release even more historic and collectibly crucial. A limited edition LP of the original Broadway cast, of disappointing sound quality, floated around for a brief flash in time and the full songwriter demo and recordings of other pop records sampling the score have been seen and heard. But finally we have a full version of this score in good, modern sound.

The York cast is accompanied by a three-piece band led by pianist John Bell, an especially felicitous choice. His talent has been noted in other productions; his attentive musical work is well suited for this kind of musical, one that feels very much of its time but, with the affection that shines through, radiant rather than relic-like. The swell Bell is also a co-producer of the York cast tracks (with the production's director, David Glenn Armstrong). Released on the 50th anniversary of the Broadway production that only lasted 60 performances in its day, it's great that that the York gave it a run for its money and hooray, too, for Original Cast Records' owner, Bruce Yeko, who is executive producer here and who just purchased Footlight Records, rescuing it as he has rescued so many woulda-been lost-to-memory little musicals.

The Body Beautiful is a worth-catching and catchy, pleasing score from glorious songwriters (still, happily, very much with us) who have a beautiful body of work. Nice to have this early-forgotten score in fighting shape right here all these years later.

TAKE FLIGHT
ORIGINAL LONDON CAST

PS Classics
Original Review

A brand new musical from the team of David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. is always something to celebrate. Their subject this time is air travel and its early pioneers and challengers. History lessons as musicals can be tricky: the suspense may be gone because we know the history, a built-in Spoiler Alert gone bad. The feeling of "So who needs suspense?" becomes the ultimate compliment. The well-crafted Take Flight does things right by the Wright Brothers who become comic relief, and Amelia Earhart is the heart of the piece.

This is a lovely and intelligent score, well performed with integrity, even if it sometimes feels low key and dragged down a bit with exposition and dialogue. But it is true to its mission to give us a sense of its times and people. PS Classics continue their excellent record of presenting recordings with class and taking great care to detail in sound and production. With heartbreaking moments and explorations of selfishness over relationships, the piece eventually becomes about the human spirit and the story and character's motivations feel more universal. And it really comes through in the performances by an ensemble cast.

LITTLE FISH
PREMIERE (WEST COAST CAST) RECORDING

Ghostlight Records

Michael John LaChiusa has given us another admirable, multi-faceted score that engages and challenges the listener and has moments of intensity and searing theatricality. Full of surprises and unexpected twists and turns in its musical choices and styles, even taking several such side trips within one song, there's a lot coming at your ears. The orchestrations are often fascinating and invaluable, creating rich subtext and filling in moods; they are by the creative Bruce Coughlin (album co-producer with what's become a reliably top-drawer production duo for Ghostlight: Kurt Deutsch teamed with Joel Moss). Brad Ellis is music supervisor, and music director is David O, who plays keyboards, as does Coughlin—in his case, several kinds of electronic keyboards providing a whole universe of sound possibilities. Only four other musicians are in the band, playing woodwinds, guitar, bass and percussion.

The tale of a woman whose emotional plate is, and has been, quite full is told in song as memories clash with the present. Having a tough go of getting off her nicotine addiction, her agitated state becomes even more high strung as her day-to-day life and flood of memories become quite the challenge. In this central role is Alice Ripley, an intense singer who plays the raw nerve to the Nth degree. Steely and strident at times, she projects a strong if troubled woman with a chip on her shoulder, a pain in her neck (metaphorically) and a heart on her sleeve. She rages and rants and at first I found her resistible rather than having what I'd think would be the requisite vulnerability. A warts-and-all character in your face, she nevertheless engenders sympathy as we begin to understand her. (Perhaps those who've suffered through cigarette or other withdrawals/addictions would be especially and immediately empathetic.)

The reasons (besides longing for a smoke and its effects) for her angst become clearer as we meet the high-maintenance, low-cuddly-quality characters in her life: solipsistic shared boyfriend; insulting ex-boyfriend; irritating potential roommate and her martini-sotted, blathering boss; friends whose more serene lives she can't help but envy. The admirable cast playing these roles and doubling as ensemble includes Chad Kimball and Gregory Jbara. Dina Morishita as the best pal makes a fine impression, scoring nicely with the song about the value of friendship, "Remember Me." It also touches on the desire to leave something behind for posterity, like "I Was Here" from The Glorious Ones, but also emphasizes the need for one-on-one powerful friendships. ("The only way we live beyond our lives/ Is to connect/ And carve ourselves into the souls of those we love.")

The title of the show allows for an effective metaphor of the leading character as a fish struggling against the current (and current events). The phrase becomes a put-down and later, a supportive and tender image of the valiant underdog (underfish?) in the title song: "But because we're only little fish/ It's safer that we swim in schools/ Against the tide or with the flow." The images are reinforced as the character finds solace from the overload and noise of her daily life by taking up swimming and enjoying being in the water. Another extension comes with a twice-sung number about bits and pieces of life that seem innocuous but can become dangerous: "Flotsam." This complex and captivating album is not just metaphors and interesting turns of phrase and jolts and swaths of melody: it's full of humanity, too.

Perhaps it's a bit of a "cheat" to list two versions of the same score, but as I narrowed down my list, I kept coming back to the fact that I was fond of two versions of a certain score.  

THE LITTLE MERMAID
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

Disneyland Records
Original Review

THE LITTLE MERMAID
STUDIO CAST (GUIDE VOCALS) AND KARAOKE TRACKS

Stage-Stars Records
In contrast to Little Fish, there's a lot of fish and semi-fishly creatures making a splash in The Little Mermaid, where Flotsam is a character, and cheer and/or humor are never in short supply. Experienced as a cast album, divorcing oneself from the familiar film or experience with the production values of the no-expense-or-effect-spared stage production, The Little Mermaid is a big treat for the ears. Filled with wonderfully entertaining singing actors like Norm Lewis, Eddie Korbich, John Treacy Egan and Sherie Rene Scott, the cast delivers with splash and panache. As in olden day operettas and early musical comedy, the ingénues with the oh-so-sincere bigger roles have to play it straight and sweet and are less colorful. Sierra Boggess doesn't overdose us on sugar but could use a little more oomph; her prince is Sean Palmer, whose voice and style are royally entertaining. He gets a couple of the numerous swell new songs with lyrics by talented and witty Glenn Slater filling in for the late original lyricist Howard Ashman who wrote the have-stood-the-test-of-time movie lyrics. Alan Menken's music is richly presented with Danny Troob's big, fun orchestrations. Even for those of us who had the movie songs flooding over us over the years, here it sounds quite fresh ... at least as fresh as the fish in "Les Poissons" as they're sliced, diced and cooked. The new songs are more than delicious extra treats; they really flesh out the score add depth to this under-water tale. And oh, the sound quality is super!

Much as I've admired the albums of musical theatre scores put out by Stage-Stars Records, I never really thought I'd have them on a Top Ten list besting out original scores performed by more experienced performers and full orchestras. But bear with me. Though the stated purpose and marketing intention of this company is to present karaoke instrumental tracks and what's called "guide vocals" for the learning of songs and accompaniment for little productions and rehearsals, the singers they hire are often excellent. Whereas some of their albums are unevenly cast, this one is tops all around. They've outdone themselves and the youthfulness and enthusiasm of much of the cast works in favor of the youth appeal of the material.

Musical director Jason Wynn (who also neatly takes on the role of Flotsam) has managed to take the sparkly and varied score about sea creature comforts and "scale" it down for the learning-friendly clear accompaniment tracks and still retain the heart and joy and dynamism. Christina Bianco in the title role is appealingly girlish and full of wonder—just spot on. Like several others on the album, she's someone whose work I've admired in New York City cabaret shows over the last year or two. The coup of the casting is the company having enticed the bundle of caustic, sarcastic dynamite, Sharon McNight, cabaret award-winning performer and Tony nominee/Theatre World Award winner (for Starmites). The sassy and outrageous strutting performer is ideal for the showy role of the evil-but-hilarious Ursula, all cackling laugh and crackling energy. She bites into it like the juicy plum role it is and scores a major home run, making me laugh out loud at lines I know by heart as if they were freshly ad-libbed asides. Billy Ernst makes an endearing prince, and cabaret singing comedian Booth Daniels (of the team Booth and Pat) shows his vocals and theatrical chops as he chops up the seafood blithely and slightly sadistically as the chef in "Les Poissons." Stage Stars regular Kristopher Monroe is at his musical comedy best, turning in an especially fully realized and bubbly fun-filled, pun-filled numbers ("Positoovity" and "Human Stuff," a couple of the terrific new songs written for the stage version).

Like other shows in their growing library, the package contains a disc of the vocals (with personality-plus renditions that still keep one "on track" by attending to musical values and tempi) in addition to a second disc with just the instrumental accompaniments. In singer-friendly keys, the guides are generally clear and should suit the many wannabe little mermaids in school, community theatre and backyard and basement productions. A surprising choice, admittedly, I enjoy this rendition for its freshness and spunk and professionalism as much as I do the grand and glorious Broadway or movie versions.

SPECIAL MENTION

HONK!
DEMO CAST
First Night Records
Original Review

Not newly recorded, but released for the first time, is a demo made early on for the score of Honk!, a delightful family musical that also has had two cast recordings over the years. Based on the old story of "The Ugly Duckling," the lyrics are filled with puns and it's all full of heart. Not just for kids by any means, this Drewes and Stiles score is cute, clever and wacky. In moments of unexpected twists and turns, tenderness comes up for air and the life-affirming qualities, child-scale, shine through brightly. It's frothy and funny, never feeling forced-grin giddy or heavy-handed in its message of acceptance. The performances are full characterizations by a professional cast with lots of cartoon-style broad personalities, with the songwriters among the company.


Next time: A look at the top vocal albums of 2008. And then it's back to business as usual ... and, as usual, we have plenty to listen to with you as there are 2008 leftovers awaiting review and much awaiting release in early 2009.


- Rob Lester


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