In terms of squandered potential, one of the greatest disappointments in the world of musical theater is the original cast recording of Dreamgirls. In order to achieve the highest fidelity possible, the album was limited to 24 minutes per side. Even if the producers had used the more common 35 to 40 minutes a side, the resulting album would still have been an inadequate representation of what was one of the most emotionally charged and original pieces to grace the stage.
While the original album is a treat for the ears (and indeed my favorite CD to clean house to), in fails to capture the true sense of the show. One going to see Dreamgirls after hearing only the original cast album would be in for quite a shock. Unlike the OCA, the show contains very few uninterrupted numbers. Instead, recitatif and snippets of other scenes are interwoven through just about every number, giving the piece a cinematic and conversational feel. (The fact that Tommy Tune used a similar approach with Grand Hotel is highly ironic, as he and Nine beat out Michael Bennett and Dreamgirls for Tony Awards in 1982). Thus, listening to the original cast album provides little of the impact that Dreamgirls had on audiences.
Luckily, after twenty years Nonesuch has partially remedied that by releasing a two CD set that preserves last year's live benefit performance of Dreamgirls at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. This one night only gala performance featured Tony winners Heather Headley, Audra McDonald and Lillias White as The Dreams, a trio of friends with dreams of stardom and the talent to take them there (with a little help from an unscrupulous manager).
For the benefit and the album, Lillias White reprised her performance of Effie Melody White, the powerhouse singer who gets pushed aside for not being the slim, glamorous beauty needed for commercial success. Having played Effie on Broadway and on tour, Lillias has the part down and makes it her own, pulling out the stops on the gut wrenching anthem to relationship masochism, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Heather Headley is a revelation as Lorrell Robinson; who knew she could be funny? She is clearly having a great time using comic muscles never given the chance to be flexed in either The Lion King or Aida. Somebody needs to give her a funny show and quick! She tears into "Ain't No Party" with great gusto and shows a sly sense of humor throughout the show. Audra McDonald is a mixed blessing as Deena Jones, the 'Diana Ross'-esque lead singer. Vocally, she is too classical sounding, as her vibrato is not in keeping with the sultry Motown stylings of the character. However, she acts the hell out the part bringing all the hurt, fire, steel and, yes, fun, of the character to full force.
The men are all strong as well, especially Norm Lewis as the manipulating manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. Darius de Haas does as well as one can with the thankless part of C.C White, Effie's songwriting brother, and Billy Porter, while vocally not in the best health due to illness, nonetheless gives a wonderfully over-the-top performance of James Thunder Early, the godfather of soul chaffing under Curtis' reins.
The album is well produced and does a good job of splitting up the tracks so that one can skip the scene-heavy moments and go right to the songs; a necessity to ensure repeated listenings. The orchestra, led by Seth Rudetsky, sounds incredible and captures the drive and spirit of Henry Kriegers' music. While the album does contains flaws consistent with a one-night only live concert (some less than perfect notes and entrances), they are not enough to disrupt the enjoyment or the magic of finally hearing Dreamgirls the way it was meant to be heard.
While the year is too young to be thinking of 'best of' lists, I know one CD that will be appearing on said list in ten months, Cy Coleman's incredible It Started With A Dream. Coleman is responsible for some of the liveliest shows written for the stage (Sweet Charity, City Of Angels, The Life, Little Me, and On The Twentieth Century being just a few of his works) as well as standards like "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet To Come."
On It Started With A Dream, Coleman not only provides some nimble, jazzy piano playing (augmented by a wonderfully unobtrusive orchestra) but most of the vocals as well. Considering that he provided the music and not the words for all these songs, he has a remarkable affinity for the lyrics and possesses a pleasant set of pipes. He is joined by Lillias White on the title track, (lyrics by David Zippel) a rousing number from an upcoming musical adaptation of Wendy Wasserstein's Pamela's First Musical. Tony Bennett does wonders with "The Colors Of My Life" from Barnum, a vastly underrated and under-recorded number. Most of the album consists of obscure gems, like three songs he wrote with Christopher Gore, "Nothing To Do But Dance," (a delightfully upbeat sarcastic rumba) "I Really Love You" (a very David Frishberg-esque number about a long distance love affair) and "Atlantic City" (which Bob Fosse was so taken with that he wanted Gore and Coleman to turn it into a full-length show).
There is not a dud on the entire album. Even the familiar songs are made fresh, thanks to rarely included verses ("Witchcraft"), imaginative pairings ("I Love My Wife/It Amazes Me") or great arrangements/performances ("The Best Is Yet To Come"). One song sure to become a showbiz anthem is "Somebody," a light gospel inspired number that was to have been recorded by Pearl Bailey (who, unfortunately, was unable to get a record contract). Not to sound like a broken record or scratched CD, but this is a must-have album.
Seattle performer Katie Tomlinson has released her first solo CD, Original Passions, a collection of pop and musical theater songs, several of which are by Seattle writers. It is those songs, interestingly enough, that are the most effective on the album. "Should You Forget Me," written by David A. Austin for a version of A Christmas Carol, is an appealing number that starts off sounding like something out of Jane Eyre before building into almost Wildhorn proportions (but in a good and effective way). Austin also wrote "In Avalon" (from Little Mermaid, the rock musical fable), in which he duets with Katie. Tomlinson possesses a strong, laser-tight voice that works well with the more pop-tinged numbers, especially the Bangle's "Eternal Flame" and Billy Joel's "And So It Goes." She and Tracy Coe rock out on a driven and effective "Take Me Or Leave Me" from Rent.
Overall this is a highly enjoyable first album with very few flaws. Actually, the only major flaws are contained in the first two tracks (hence I would advice skipping them upon first listen so they don't prejudice you against the rest of the album.) The CD opens with "Big Time" by Frank Wildhorn/John Murphy and previously recorded by Linda Eder. The arrangement for "Big Time" closely resembles the original, which is not a good idea as it sharply brings to mind comparisons between the two. Thus, the use of synthesized brass really stands out, especially as it is the only song that uses synthesized instruments. The second track, "Only Love" (from Wildhorn/Knighton's The Scarlet Pimpernel), suffers from an arrangement that, while containing real strings, has them constantly echoing the melody line. This makes Katie sound out of tempo with the orchestra every time she makes an interpretive choice. For more information on ordering the album, visit www.katietomlinson.com.
Interestingly enough, the 'third song's the charm' applies to Louise Pitre's album, all my life has led to this. The first two songs on the album are pleasant enough, but her voice sounds tight and constrained. It isn't until the third song, "Y's Rien a Voir" (translated as "There's Nothing To See") that she seems to be relaxed and released, giving the song a connection and freedom that is breathtaking. Perhaps it is due to the fact the song is in her native language, as the songs on the album that have the most emotional impact are in French and their meaning transcends the language barrier, grabbing the listener by the throat and heart. That is not to say that the songs in English songs aren't enjoyable; au contraire. "To Love Again" (based on Chopin's nocturne in E Flat, Opus 9, No. 2) is beautiful in its melodic and lyrical simplicity. "Limelight," an anthem to performing, is stirring and stunning. The two songs she performs in Mamma Mia!, "The Winner Takes It All" and "Slipping Through My Fingers" are likewise highly effective (and as it is doubtful that a Broadway Cast Recording of Mamma Mia! is in the cards, fans of the show should find this album at least a partial stopgap. Now if we could just get Karen Mason and Judy Kaye to record their songs ... ). The album ends with my favorite track for a sheer guilty pleasure, "The Winner Takes It All" in French (translated as "Bravo! Tu As Gagne").