In the department of Sooner Or Later, some belated recording and things moving from the back burner: a musical from the 1930s finally gets its due, a singer reunites in the recording studio with past co-stars, a 1994 British cast appears again on CD in the USA, and a karaoke company catches up with a musical that happens to be catching up with New Yorkers again this month. Better late than never.
FACE THE MUSIC
It's one of those old shows with a score by one of Broadway's giants that never got a recording until now. Some of Irving Berlin's songs from the 1932 musical comedy Face the Music show up on various albums, but its most-often recorded one, "Soft Lights and Sweet Music," is a straightforward, mild love song that gives no hint of the high energy, often off-kilter zip that the show has in abundance. Sixty-five years old, the score shows little sign of senior citizen status, with the youthful energy and spunk provided by the cast who performed the show onstage in the most recent Encores! season at City Center in Manhattan. The series' original music director, Rob Fisher, returns as conductor and leads an orchestra that sounds sparkling as they play the original orchestrations. The liner notes by David Ives, who adapted Moss Hart's script, tell us that the full orchestral and conductor's scores did not survive, so there was some necessary jigsaw puzzle work done with what was found, including changes made for a touring production and a post-tour return to Broadway. Be that as it may, the accompaniment does seem seamless and DRG Records has presented us with a recording that sounds bright and shiny. Cast, musicians, record producer Hugh Fordin and associate producer Bruce Pomahac let us face the music with joy, thanks to their dedication. It's a very light-hearted show with a healthy dash of satire, but all concerned really fluff up the fluff so that it's irresistibly cheery.
The story of an opulent musical revue being produced in the midst of the Depression allows for some numbers to be presented as segments from that troubled show within the show. Others are plot songs. Those who like to dish about theatrical disasters will get a special kick out of the ensemble number complaining, "Well, of All the Rotten Shows," with snarky lines like "What an awful mess!/ Who would ever guess/ That a thing like this/ Could reach an opening night?" Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson, who have charm and spirits to spare, are winning as two of the entertainers. They get a lot of the chipper, charming, sunny material while others add the spice and wacky factor. For example, feisty Eddie Korbich and entertainingly screechy, peachy Mylinda Hull are a rowdier song-and-dance pair, scoring with their self-satisfied "You Must Be Born With It" and "I Don't Wanna Be Married (I Just Wanna Be Friends)."
Top-billed Judy Kaye has less singing to do but but gets to lead a dilly of a comic rouser, "If You Believe," and participates in the oxymoronic "A Toast to Prohibition" and the finale that hauls everyone into court when the show is raided. As her husband, the corrupt police chief who backs the show, there's good, blustery work by Lee Wilkof, original lead in Little Shop of Horrors, which brings us to our next item.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
A production that toured Britain in 1994 has suddenly shown up on CD from First Night Records, which has a history of reissuing cast albums in shorter versions. This Little Shop of Horrors has 11 numbers from the score plus a 12th track called a "mega mix" that dices and splices some of the songs. This version is quite enjoyable, noticeably less campy than other interpretations. It's not as wild, but not quite mild. A more "relaxed" factor is present in lieu of manic energy.
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's score is always fun to hear, and this Seymour and Audrey, Marc Joseph and Su Pollard, are likeable and invested in their roles. Billy Miller as the man-eating plant sounds less bloodthirsty and threatening than we're accustomed to encountering. Marc is endearing, if less nerdy, as our befuddled, naive hero and has good chemistry with the other players including Morgan Deare as a gruff Mr. Mushnik. "Be a Dentist" has a perky quality absent its sadistic side. "Somewhere That's Green" comes off as a more traditional ballad in the attractive and no-frills reading by Su, who is solely billed above the title.
The accompaniment is on the thin side with a patina of pop that sounds kind of pre-fab (the credits list Alex Yates as doing drum programming, but, although there are credits for mixing, producing and assistant musical director, it's not clear who is actually playing an instrument). No information is given beyond the basic credits here, the cast and song list. The thick booklet here is actually a catalogue of other CDs from the company.
Those who find the main versions of this too intense and or caffeinated will find pluses here, but anyone with a strong fondness for the score will be happy to experience this alternate take. With some songs not included, it's a littler Little Shop but it still catches the essence of this popular, pop-inflected musical.
Her resume includes stage work with a growing list of male singer-actors, but little chance to record with them. So, soprano Laurie Gayle Stephenson is making up for lost time by putting out an all-duets album. Her prior CD, Till You Find Your Dream, like this one, was almost all Broadway songs. This one has one from a motion picture, Quest for Camelot's "The Prayer" where Laurie shares vocals with sturdy-voiced Steve Amerson who reappears for the one Rodgers and Hammerstein item, "I Have Dreamed."
Laurie has a full, wide-ranging soprano with a prominent vibrato on some selections. Plowing through the repertoire, there's more attention to soaring melody lines than lyric interpretation and personalization. This is true for Laurie as well as most of her male partners. An exception is a more invested-sounding Max Von Essen who impresses with the CD's title song, from The Woman in White. That selection is one of four Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies among the 14 tracks; Laurie toured in concerts of Webber's oeuvre and spent two years on Broadway as Christine in Phantom of the Opera. She shows off her skills in "All I Ask of You" with Gary Mauer and is joined by strong-voiced Davis Gaines as she very ably takes on on Phantom's title song. It's great to hear her face the music and ace the music with that ascending, ascending section at the end. "Seeing Is Believing" (Aspects of Love) is ardently sung with Brad Little.
Other JAY Records solo artists, theatre singers Ron Raines and Doug Labrecque, also appear to advantage. Laurie was in the original Broadway company of The Secret Garden, graduating to the lead during the run, and she reprises the show's "How Could I Ever Know" joined by another original cast member, Howard McGillin. Like much of the album, it's powerfully sung but overly earnest.
This is a conservative, traditional album: the original orchestrations from musicals are used (and they sound grand as played by the National Symphony Orchestra, with five different conductors sharing baton duties) and the singing likewise follows the mold. It plays rather like a concert hall presentation with little of the intimacy or small moments the studio can provide. It's pretty much one ardent and dramatic proclamation of love (often undying love) after another. Each man steps up to the plate to be the true love du jour and there's a certain similarity to tone, both in vocal qualities and tone of the material. The formality of the singing works against the playfulness of Irving Berlin's contrapuntal cutie, "You're Just in Love" with J. Mark McVey and Cole Porter's "It's De-Lovely" with Ciaran Sheehan.
But there's vintage Broadway romance here and the orchestra swells excitingly - it's always a treat to hear a large orchestra on a vocal recording, and producer John Yap shows his usual care for sound quality and precision. No stinting here. It's a lush album, and there's some glory in Laurie and her no-holding-back ways.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's another karaoke CD that will appeal to those who want to learn the songs or are performing the show.
Though it's long past the Broadway run, Stage Stars has gotten to Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' delightful Dr. Seuss-derived Seussical. And it's just what the doctor ordered for this summer, really, as the kid-friendly show is opening again in New York City this coming week in a special, compact version Off-Broadway as part of the series by Theatreworks at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (this recording is not related to that production).
This 2-CD set has all the instrumental-only tracks on one disc, with strong melody lines and sprightly instrumental figures. (The bouncy, quirky style of the score lends itself more naturally, perhaps, to the synthesized sounds.) The point is the melodies are easy to follow on these tracks, in the best kind of spoon-feeding sense. And that's what karaoke is meant to do.
But as usual, Stage Stars is more than tunes fed on spoons. With the talent and enthusiasm of its theater-experienced singers doing the "guide" vocals on a separate disc, it is more like an alternate cast album. There's no blandness or phoning in of characterization - these youthful-sounding players really get into the characters, eccentricities and all. Vicky Modica as Gertrude McFuzz is delightfully brazen and loopy. Christina Bianco is a marvelous Mayzie, and young Brian D'Addario is spot on as little JoJo plaintively singing one moment and then brimming with optimism and joy in "It's Possible." Particularly impressive and in character is Kristopher Monroe, who has also stood out on other CDs in the series. He makes a mischievously merry Cat in the Hat and is thoroughly captivating and entertaining. Jason Wynn returns as musical director and also nails Horton the Elephant, packing the pachyderm character with personality and a real sweet quality. The ensemble work here is particularly good and spirited.
This set includes lyrics in a booklet, and the graphics will show up on a screen with a compatible karaoke CD-G machine, too. The songs are in the original show keys and tempi, with 18 tracks in all. And it made me smile. But the main point is to be able to sing along and you can do that, too.