Here she is boys, here she is world, here's ... the latest recording to tackle that Hamlet of musical theater, Gypsy, thus giving theater lovers all over the world the chance to judge for themselves the tempest in a teapot that is the most recent incarnation of Mama Rose: Bernadette Peters.
For those who have been living under a rock or have suffered a total theatrical news blackout for the past six months, the casting of Peters as what is undoubtedly the strongest female part ever to be written for the musical stage has resulted in a maelstrom of controversy, the likes of which is usually reserved strictly for political candidacies. On the surface, Peters is an odd choice for the role, which is usually associated with strong belters (ie: its originator and impossible to dispel ghost, Ethel Merman) or gruff character actresses (such as Tyne Daly, or even Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler). However, as the part has been steadily becoming more of an acting part than a singing one (as can be evidenced by listening to the cast albums/soundtracks in chronological succession), the choice is not as odd as one may originally think. The bigger concern is, given Peters' well-documented problems with the vocal demands of the role, how her performance would sound on disc divorced from her work on stage.
Thankfully, the show in general and Peters in particular come across very strongly on disc; much more so, in fact, than on opening night when I was in the audience. Peters acts the hell out of every number, even if her kewpie doll style of singing gets in the way at times and makes for some odd vowel production. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is an exercise in heartbreak masquerading as manic energy. And both "Some People" and "Rose's Turn" benefit from her strong acting choices and determination. Her performance on disc will divide listeners as it does viewers of the show, but it is proof that the show in general, and the part of Rose in particular, can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
While the disc will never be considered the (or even 'a') definitive recording, it has elements making it a worthy inclusion to one's library, chief of which being John Dossett's portrayal of Herbie, the best and most effortless of any on record. Also worth noting is the inclusion of material not previously released on other versions of Gypsy, including the entr'acte and the "Toreadorables" number from the second act, lines and setups for various numbers, and the final Rose/Louise scene.
If you can name that song in five notes or less, (much less give the answer to that geographical quandary) then have I got a show for you: Avenue Q, the 2003 Lucille Lortel Award winning musical that has not only transferred to a new address (to Broadway's Golden Theater from Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theater) but has released what is at present the most entertaining cast album of the year.
While the show and its cast album are quick to point out that "Avenue Q has not been authorized or approved in any manner by the Jim Henson Company or Sesame Workshop which have no responsibility for its content," Avenue Q is definitely an adult themed homage to said neighborhood. More street smart than its PBS housed sibling, Avenue Q imparts lessons that are no less truthful than its TV counterpart. Their themes, however, are not something Mr. Hooper would want you to hear.
The story is simple and well communicated on the album: fresh out of college Princeton wonders "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" as he wanders into the neighborhood of Avenue Q. There he meets the neighborhood superintendent Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman) and the various denizens of Avenue Q, all of whom have important lessons for our young protagonist. Kate Monster helps him discover that "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." The hermitlike Trekkie Monster (think of him as the Nookie Monster) teaches that "The Internet is for Porn." Gary Coleman tells us all that "You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)" and teaches us the word of the day - "Schadenfreude" (the highly Germanic concept that we take pleasure in others' pain) - and the Bad Idea Bears teach us that it's a good idea to take a girl home when she's had a few too many Long Island Iced Teas.
To a person, the cast is incredible. On stage, the vocal gymnastics performed by John Tartaglia (who plays Princeton and Rod, the gay Republican investment banker), Stephanie D'Abruzzo, (who plays Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut), and Rick Lyon (who not only created the puppets but plays the Ernie-esque slacker Nicky, Trekkie Monster, and a few other characters) were astounding enough, although they were aided in the character differentiations by their multiple puppet identities. On disc, however, the distinction between the characters is achieved strictly through auditory cues and the result is amazing.
The actors playing 'people' are equally strong. Natalie Venetia Bacon shines as Gary Coleman and sings with great glee and gusto. Ann Harada (Christmas Eve) utilizes every un-P.C. Asian vocal stereotype imaginable as exemplified by "The More You Ruv Someone," which takes a decidedly Judy Garland turn. And Jordon Gelber is equally delightful as Eve's fiancé, Brian ("It Sucks to Be Me" and "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today"). Unfortunately, Jennifer Barnhart's work is not well represented on disc, as she performs the spoken characters and silent puppetry (but since she was incredible on stage, it seemed unfair not to mention her in this review).
As you may have guessed, this is not an album for children or those with a low tolerance for strong language and sexual content (indeed, this is one of the few cast albums to receive the Parental Advisory sticker). It is, however, perfect for those who appreciate well-written, catchy tunes (thanks to Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) that update those innocent days on that golden boulevard where puppets and people taught us all valuable lessons.
Zanna, Don't! can be essentially described as a gay Grease. Set in a high school on a Bizzaro world where romance is facilitated by the titular fairy godfather, gay is the norm, the chess team contains the school studs, and mechanical bull riding is practically an Olympic sport, the show is a fluffy confection that is sweet and enjoyable but not particularly filling or ultimately satisfying. The songs, which range the gamut of styles from catchy pop tunes ("Straight to Heaven") to country ("Ride 'Em") to overwrought amateur theatrical protest numbers ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell") to light R&B ("I Ain't Got Time") to banjo picking folk ("Fast," which sounds too much like any number of Schoolhouse Rock numbers). Over a quarter of the songs have 'love' in the title and all of them deal with the topic, which gets a little tiresome and repetitious. In fact, divorced from the book, the show isn't nearly as entertaining on CD as it was on stage, largely due to lyrics that rely on weak rhymes (pairing "lover" with "another" and "clues" with "you," all in the same sentence) and the titular character (played by Jai Rodriguez, best known as the Culture Maven on TV's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) being saddled with lethargic exposition numbers.
Still, the show is bouncy, the cast is energetic (especially Anika Larsen, who's "I Ain't Got Time" is the album's highlight) and the tunes are catchy in that pop-song 'hook' kind of a way.
Catchy is definitely not a word used in conjunction with My Life with Albertine , which is one of the most densely layered and weighty musicals to be released on disc in quite some time. The show details Proust's obsession and relationship with a young woman named Albertine (the fantastic Kelli O'Hara, who shows more promise on this disc than in any previous work) while vacationing at Balbec-by-the-Sea, with Proust being portrayed by two 'characters': the Narrator (the always solid Brent Carver) and Marcel (Chad Kimball).
The score is comprised of a series of numbers that rely more on orchestrations than lyrics to lend emotional weight. Indeed, many of the songs are practically tone poems turned cacophony, thanks to layer upon layer of orchestration, with lyrics seemingly treated as an afterthought. Thus, numbers are oftentimes given more weight than they can stand or merit (prime example being "Balbec-by-the-Sea," which lyrically recalls something from High Button Shoes but is arranged to have as much weight as Sweeney Todd's "Soliloquy," or "The Street" which is "Who Will Buy?" as told by Krzysztov Penderecki). There is beauty to be found in the simpler numbers, such as "Is it Too Late?", the song that sets the stage and is beautifully delivered by O'Hara, and "But What I Say ..." (sung by Carver, Kimball and O'Hara), but even those songs more closely resemble classical art songs that rely on music to set the emotional tone rather than lyrically driven theater numbers.
While familiarity with the story of The Ring is helpful (but not essential), the score is strictly original (Warrender being charged by Seattle Opera to create the work sans any Wagnerian influences or quotes).
Also re-released is Redhead, a whodunit set in the turn of the last century that was one of Gwen Verdon's biggest Broadway triumphs. The show, which beat out Flower Drum Song for the 1959 Tony Award for Best Musical (as well as earning Tony nods for its first-time director, Bob Fosse, and for both Verdon and her leading man, Richard Kiley), featured music by Albert Hague (Plain and Fancy), lyrics by Dorothy Fields (Sweet Charity) and a book by Dorothy and her brother Herbert, David Shaw and Sidney Sheldon (yes, that Sidney Sheldon).
The story, which was considered to be highly complicated in its day (critic Brooks Atkinson complained that it was "as complicated as an income tax return"), centered around the murder of an actress in her dressing room by a redheaded man. The case was so sensational that it gets depicted in a tableau at the Simpson Sisters Wax Museum, where Essie (Verdon) just happens to work (and, apparently, have psychic flashes). To win the attention of Tom (Kiley), the theatrical partner of the murder victim, Essie claims to have been visited by the strangler and, as they say, mayhem ensues.
The score is exceedingly pleasant in that 'Golden Age of Broadway' way with some beautiful love songs ("Look Who's In Love," a bouncy duet between Verdon and Kiley that needs to be rediscovered), classic music hall numbers (Verdon's manic patter number, "Erbie Fitch's Twitch"), comic numbers ("The Right Finger of My Left Hand," in which the 'old maid in the making' Essie bemoans her unwed state), and classic character songs (Kiley's "I'm Back in Circulation"). The CD, which was briefly issued in the early '90s, sounds crisp and dynamic and has been augmented by three cut numbers: "You Love I" (sung by Jennifer Piech and Mark Price), "It Doesn't Take a Minute" (Liz Callaway) and "What has She Got?" (Faith Prince).
Still, there is a lot to like about the material. As Gwen Verdon, the originator of this variation of the 'hooker' with the heart of gold, was too old to believably portray the part on film, Shirley MacLaine made for a brilliant casting choice and nails each number. Rounding out the cast are Sammy Davis, Jr. as Big Daddy (giving a mean and swingin' "Rhythm of Life"), Chita Rivera, Stubby Kaye and John McMartin (the lone actor to cross over from the original Broadway production) as Charity's love interest, Oscar. While the duet between Oscar and Charity, "I'm the Bravest Individual" was cut in the transition from stage to screen (as was "You Should See Yourself," "Baby Dream Your Dream," "Too Many Tomorrows" and "Charity's Soliloquy"), a revamped version of the title song was given to McMartin (actually, to many of him, as the song is overdubbed to the point of insanity). Another mistaken song replacement was the jettisoning of "You Should See Yourself," which perfectly sets up Charity's character, with "My Personal Property," which is more travelogue than song. All that, combined with the album's paltry length (the elements on the CD are the same that appear on the original LP, and adding even twenty minutes of the movie's score would have made a huge difference), make it hard to justify its purchase, especially since one could buy the DVD and save a few bucks.