'Tis spring, when a young reviewer's thoughts turn to London recordings (this is what happens when you don't get to Puerto Vallarta as planned). For the next two Sound Advices, we are going to examine some recent releases that have come from Great Britain.
The first comes from Michael Ball (currently appearing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London), who has released another easy listening musical theatre album entitled Centre Stage. Unlike his previous entry in the genre, the aptly titled Musicals that contained many an eye-rolling song choice (trying to listen to Ball sing "Don't Rain On My Parade," complete with Streisand-esque vocal inflections, and not laugh is an exercise in futility), Centre Stage is a much more balanced and effective effort. While Musicals' most contemporary represented show was Sunset Boulevard, Centre Stage focuses more on currently running shows including Aida ("Every Story"), The Lion King ("Can You Feel The Love Tonight"), Mamma Mia! (an understated and highly effective "The Winner Takes It All"), Rent ("Seasons Of Love," which, while very Vegas-lounge inspired, is surprisingly entertaining and listenable), and Riverdance (just being able to finally understand the lyrics to "Lift The Wings" is enough of a treat, and Ball is at his anthem-loving best with it).
While Centre Stage contains a few too many songs deserving of a permanent moratorium (the world really is not in need of another "Music Of The Night" or "Phantom Of The Opera," especially when recorded with the original arrangements), Ball does provide a few surprises, including a powerful "The Boy From Nowhere" from Matador. Although I was sure that "Send In The Clowns" would be this album's big misstep, he manages to make the song his own (no mean feat), although it is not nearly as powerful as his tender "Not While I'm Around." While none of the songs come close to displaying the emotional depth he displayed in Passion, Centre Stage displays Michael Ball at his power ballad best.
Ruthie Henshall has finally done it. Her previous albums, while pleasant enough, did little to no justice to her smoldering voice, sensual star quality and vocal versatility, focusing as they did on material done to death by theater and cabaret performers. With her new CD, Pilgrim, Henshall has recorded an album for which the word 'eclectic' does not begin to do justice. How many other singers would record an album containing numbers from a children's fantasy film (the beautiful and tender "Hushabye Mountain" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), an obscure Tim Rice/Alan Menken effort ("Never Again" from their all-too-rarely done King David), much less songs from movies in development (the wonderfully performed "Chasing The Clouds," written by Trisha Ward for a possible adaptation of Sleeping In Beauty)? Not to mention songs written and performed by Madonna ("Live To Tell"), Kate Bush (the highly effective "The Man With The Child In His Eyes," illustrating why the Bush songbook is definitely overdue for a resurgence), Barbra Streisand ("Wet") and Enya (the title song, "Pilgrim").
While the album is largely a contemplative and meditative effort as befits the title, it does contain a few moments where Henshall's music theatre belt shines through. Fans of obscure musicals will rejoice that Henshall has included "This Time Around" from the short run musical version of Peggy Sue Got Married. Lovers of quality albums will simply love to travel on any of Pilgrim's paths.
There are few pop writers and performers more theatrical than the Pet Shop Boys. Their concerts and songs display a highly evolved sense of theatrical story telling, most notably displayed in their Performance tour and in songs like "West End Girls," "Rent" and "Tonight Is Forever." Thus, it is only natural that they would try their hand at writing a full-fledged musical. Songwriters Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe joined forces with playwright/screenwriter Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing, Gimme Gimme Gimme) to create Closer To Heaven , a musical set in a dance club that focuses on a barman, Straight Dave, who questions his sexuality (until the right guy comes along, of course). Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, Closer To Heaven (the title of which may be a play on a popular gay dance club in London) did not find much of an audience and closed about the time the cast album was released in mid-October.
The album is pure Pet Shop Boys, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. Fans of the group will appreciate the Euro-beat style and arrangements of the show, but may find (as I did) the vocals by Paul Keating (Straight Dave) and Stacey Roca (Dave's 'girlfriend') more than a bit disconcerting, as they lack the edge and wryness associated with Tennant (especially since a number of the songs were previously recorded by Tennant). Frances Barber, playing dance club hostess Billie Trix, is more in keeping with the style of the piece and gets the lion's share of the best numbers, including the wonderful 'Grace-Jones-meets-Dietrich' number "It's Just My Little Tribute To Caligula, Darling!" (coming soon via a drag queen near you) and the surprisingly tender "Friendly Fire."
The album is well worth getting as it makes for a delightfully high energy and very enjoyable listen, coming across as a special musical episode of Queer As Folk. People looking for pop songs for auditions would also be advised to check it out, especially for "Call Me Old-Fashioned" (well performed by Paul Broughton, playing band manager, Bob Saunders) and the closing anthem, "Positive Role Model" (performed by Paul Keating and incorporates samples from Barry White's "You're The First, The Last, My Everything").
It took a decade for Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman's Tony nominated musical version of The Secret Garden to reach London. Luckily, it took a lot less time for the cast album to come out. The Secret Garden, which inexplicably lost out to The Will Rogers Follies for Best Musical and Best Score Tonys (but did manage to pick up an award for Best Book, Best Sets and Best Supporting Actress for Daisy Eagan), is admittedly one of my favorite musicals from the '90s, with its haunting melodies and a book that explores the necessity of letting go of the past and the ghosts that inhabit it in order to move on with one's life. The London version of the show underwent a multitude of changes, which are readily apparent on the cast album. Some of them are head-smacking 'why on earth didn't somebody think of that sooner' ideas, while others reside firmly in the 'what on earth were they thinking???' camp.
On the positive side, the London version has gone through some major structural changes that tighten up the action considerably and give it a much more organic dramatic and thematic arc. "The Girl I Mean To Be" no longer opens the second act. Instead, it is the first number sung by Mary Lennox, the orphaned 11-year-old girl whose evolution from spoiled brat to well mannered girl is the cornerstone of the show. Being a classic 'I want' song, it makes more sense for "The Girl I Mean To Be" to be placed where it is; before she has even an inkling the titular mythic garden exists. Dickon, the free spirited nature boy, no longer sings "Winter's On The Wing" as a solo and promptly vanishes, but sings it to Mary, introducing himself to her, and Mary to the forces of nature. "I Heard Someone Crying," which used to occur upon Mary's introduction to the gloomy Misselthwaite Manor before she met any of its inhabitants, alive or dead, is now part of the storm sequence that builds to her discovery of Colin, the reclusive son of Mary's hunchbacked uncle, Archibald Craven
The show has been thematically eviscerated, however, losing a great deal of its magic. The original version took its cue from a line in the show in which Mary, after asking what happens to people when they die and if they all become ghosts, is told by her gloomy uncle, "They're only a ghost if someone alive is still holding on to them." This idea was expanded upon and the world of The Secret Garden was inhabited by the spirits of those who died, but are being held on this plane by those they left behind. These spirits included all those Mary lost to cholera in India (her parents, Ayah, a Fakir and assorted party guests) and Lilly, the wife of Archibald. These spirits acted as a Greek Chorus, guiding Mary and Archie to a peaceful resolution, and are largely absent in the revised version, being reduced in number to three: Lilly, Rose, and Albert (the latter two being Mary's parents). Their overall presence is sorely missed, especially in regards to their vocal contribution to the opening scene, the storm, and the closing reprise of "Come To My Garden," where the number of voices singing had touchingly decreased as each spirit was released in turn to find peace. The cutting of a quartet between Lily/Archie and Archie's brother/Rose is incomprehensible as is the addition of a chorus of gardeners and housemaids used throughout that sounds a little too much like Oliver! meets Annie. There are also quite a number of changes lyrically and melodically throughout the show that make no sense, as they fail to improve upon the original choices.
The cast is a bit of a mixed bag as well. On the plus side, all of the supporting characters are wonderful and usually more understandable than their Broadway counterparts. Linzi Hateley (previously seen in the RSC's infamous version of Carrie) makes for a wonderful Martha, the maid who befriends Mary, and delivers "If I Had A Fine White Horse" with equal parts comedy and tenderness. Craig Purnell is equally effective as Martha's brother Dickon, and Freddie Davies makes for delightful (and actually understandable!) Ben, the head gardener. Natalie Morgan handles the part of Mary Lennox with a delightful deftness and Luke Newberry gives surprising poignancy to her newfound cousin, Colin.
Less effective are Philip Quast (Archibald Craven) and Meredith Braun (Lilly). While it is hard to compete against their original Broadway counterparts (a suitably driven Mandy Patinkin and an ethereal Rebecca Luker), both have vocal failings that prevent the parts from having the effectiveness they deserve. Philip is at his best in the driven powerhouse anthem "Where In The World." But on the more tender numbers, especially in his duet with Meredith, "A Girl In The Valley," his vibrato is surprisingly and distractingly under-pitch and has a tendency to become shrill on the upper notes. Meredith is more airy than ethereal, especially in the most beautiful number in the show, "How Could I Ever Know," and overall lacks the vocal presence of her predecessor.
The album is worth getting, however, as a record of a completely rethought production, for its strong secondary cast, and especially for the new orchestrations by William David Brohn (orchestrator for the Broadway version as well) which actually improve upon the original.