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Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

I, for one, am feeling like a kid in a candy shop. After a dearth of cast albums, we are suddenly up to our armpits in new releases. And, as befits the (albeit almost concluded) summer wedding season, we have all the bases covered: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

Bat BoyFor something new we turn to Bat Boy, the Musical. Based on an article from that fount of reputable journalism, The Weekly World News, Bat Boy tells the tale of a half boy/half bat creature found in a cave near Hope Falls, West Virginia. After attacking a local girl, he is captured and brought into the care and custody of the local veterinarian and his family, who teach him civilized ways and (for the most part) try and integrate him into polite society. But is the town ready for a half human/half beast that forces them to confront their deepest fears? And what is the shocking secret of his true origin? And is this really the stuff musicals are made of?

Well, yes. Bat Boy is one of the most truly original shows I have had in my CD player recently. I was expecting a camp, pastiche ridden show ala Little Shop of Horrors but found something more along the lines of Alan Menken's Weird Romance. While the songs at times recall other shows stylistically, Bat Boy possesses its own unique voice and instead of being a pastiche of other shows, is more inspired by their sources. The music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe are biting and they alternate between moderate camp (such as "Another Dead Cow," in which the local ranchers question the cause of their dwindling herds) and tender, well written ballads, (the poignant "A Home For You", amazingly sung by Kaitlin Hopkins as the adoptive mother of Bat Boy) with some stirring anthems tossed in ("Let Me Walk Among You," sung by Deven May as the title character). The show definitely has more than a touch of outrageous camp sensibility to it, (the forest god, Pan, teaching Bat Boy and his paramour Shelley (Kerry Butler) how to love? That's a moment I need to see on stage to believe!), but given the source, how could it not?

Bat Boy's heart, however, contains a poignant story of acceptance, not only of others but also of ourselves, and its lifeblood of strong performers and winning material makes this an album worth sinking your teeth into and savoring.

WorkingSomething old is represented by a plethora of revivals and re-releases from Fynsworth Alley, first of which being the long overdue CD transfer of Working. Based on the book by Studs Terkel and adapted/directed by Stephen Schwartz, Working opened on Broadway in 1978 and explored the largely blue collar workforce's workday through songs and monologues. Working was filmed for a 1983 Great Performances broadcast (which is available through Broadway Theatre Archive) and was revised in 1999 for a production at the Long Wharf Theatre in order to bring it into the era of computers.

The songs are penned by a veritable Who's Who of Broadway, cabaret, and pop composers. Craig Carnelia supplied "The Mason," "Just a Housewife," and "Something to Point To," which have all become cabaret standards, as well as "Joe." Micki Grant wrote "Lovin' Al," and the driving "Cleaning Women." Mary Rodgers/Susan Birkenhead provided "Nobody Tells Me How," sung by an aging third grade teacher unsure how to adapt, and is probably more topical today then it was 23 years ago. Stephen Schwartz penned the opening number, "All The Live Long Day, " "Neat To Be A Newsboy," (the only truly dated song, but one of my favorites for the 'bongs'), "Fathers and Sons," which is one of his most poignant songs, and the waitress' anthem, "It's An Art." And James Taylor wrote "Un Mejor Dia Vendra" (whose Spanish lyrics are by Graciela Daniele and Matt Landers, and I wish were translated somewhere in the liner notes) and "Brother Trucker." As few of the professions have fallen by the wayside, the album remains remarkably fresh. While some of the songs' styles haven't held up as well ("Brother Trucker" and "If I Could Have Been"), the underlying sentiments still invoke a knowing sense of appreciation and the album remains highly listenable and enjoyable.

The performers are all strong on the CD, but this is one of those rare cast albums which is definitely an ensemble piece. The songs are the stars of the show, not individual singers. As a result, no one performer stands out, but rather all are equally strong and make the album work as a seamless, fluid whole.

The CD contains five bonus tracks, chief of which are "I'm Just Movin'," added for the 1999 revival, and "Hots Michael At The Piano," which was cut from the original and is performed by its writer, Craig Carnelia. Working is a highly enjoyable collection of numbers, and is worth getting for its own merits, or for singers looking for well written, character driven songs.

Bells Are RingingFynsworth has also released CDs of two revivals: Bells are Ringing and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Bells Are Ringing was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (with music by Jule Styne) for their friend Judy Holiday and tells the story of Ella, an answering service operator, and the hijinks and romance which ensue when she meddles into the lives of her customers. The original production of Bells Are Ringing opened on Broadway in 1956 and ran for 924 performances. The recent revival ran for a much shorter time and was not so nearly well received. Its star, Faith Prince, was unflatteringly (and perhaps unjustly) compared to the incomparable Judy Holiday and the set and staging were largely panned. On disc, however, Faith gives a winning performance and makes the character of the somewhat ditsy do-gooder her own.

Admittedly, Bells is not the strongest of shows, book-wise or musically. But it does possess two of Comden/Green and Styne's best songs, the standards "The Party's Over" and "Just in Time," both of which are well represented on the new album. Faith nails her role and vocally is stronger than her predecessor. The uptempo numbers, especially "Is It A Crime," are well served by her near manic energy and she also displays a wonderfully tender and self-aware wistfulness to "The Party's Over." Surprisingly, Marc Kudisch is less effective on the album. He sounds off, as if he were singing through a cold, and never quite nails the rhythms in "I Met A Girl." The supporting characters are all very capable (if saddled with lesser numbers) and the orchestra sounds great. The bonus track, featuring an a capella version of the music and lyrics of Dr. Kitchell, should be skipped at all costs, and the hidden track, in which Faith records a portion of a jazzed-up version of "Is It A Crime," is only marginally better.

While the revival album is not the definitive version (the original still wins that award hands down), it is enjoyable and a worthy addition to your library, especially if you are a fan of classic musical theater.

The Best Little Whorehouse in TexasLess noteworthy is the new version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas , which records the current touring production starring Ann-Margret. Whorehouse opened on Broadway in 1978 and was a surprise hit, running 1,584 performances (and would have run longer if not for a run-in with the musician's union). An extremely bowdlerized movie version hit the scene in 1982 starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds (and the less said about the 1994 sequel the better!). Based on a true story, Whorehouse tells of the final days of the Chicken Ranch, the titular house of ill repute, and its proprietress, renamed Miss Mona for the musical. The show has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, largely due to the infectious songs by Carol Hall, and I was looking forward to hearing the revival, which is due to arrive in Seattle next year.

Unfortunately, the revival just does not compare to the original. Ann-Margret has the attitude for Miss Mona, the hostess with literally the mostest on the ball, and her kitten-with-a-whip phrasing lends a nice spark to the uptempo numbers, especially "A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place." But her voice is very threadbare and unfortunately the holes are blatantly obvious, especially in the ballads. She also sounds considerably older than her co-star, Gary Sandy (Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd), which is at odds with lyrics and situations in the show. Gary sounds great on his one song, "Good Old Girl," (actually sounding better than the original). The supporting actors are also strong, especially Roxie Lucas, who gives a heart breaking rendition of "Doatsy Mae," in which a typical waitress imagines what life would have been like if she were to let her inhibitions loose.

The large problem with the new album is that it sounds too clean and sanitized. There is no sexiness, even in the anthem of unbridled carnality, "Twenty-Four Hours Of Lovin." The chorus sounds as sexually charged as an Up With People concert and the orchestra lacks any edge. The only reason to buy this album is to hear a number Carol Hall wrote for the production, "A Friend To Me," which is one of the more powerful songs I have heard all year. Her rendition (the obligatory bonus track) is almost worth the price of the album.

Forbidden Broadway 2001Gerard Alessandrini has been borrowing again for the latest of his spoof fests, Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey. Unfortunately, he's starting to borrow from himself. This, the sixth of his Forbidden Broadway albums (not including the 20th Anniversary 'best of' album) is the weakest of the bunch. The problem is that he's repeating himself, and he usually did things better (and funnier) the first time around. While the "Time Warp"-inspired "Let's Ruin Times Square Again" has moments of inspired comedy ("There's a Gap on the left, an HMV on the right"), the whole topic was handled better in Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up Its Act. And how many times can we hear about the Disneyfication of Broadway (especially when the theme was nailed in "Be Depressed" on Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back)? The "Ya Got Trouble" parody was previously recorded on Forbidden Broadway Volume Three, and how many jabs at Liza and Ethel do we need? (Though Patti LuPone keeps providing inspiration for some of Alessandrini's best numbers, this time a hysterical number set to "Being Alive," retitled "Being LuPone"). Also, a large percentage of the numbers were dated before the album was even recorded, such as Cheryl Ladd in Annie Get Your Gun ("I've No Business in Show Business"), Miss Saigon (haven't we been 'Viet Numbed' enough?), and Saturday Night Fever ("Staying Away").

There are some inspired moments which prove that Alessandrini still has it. Sondheim singing the "I got the everybody-loves-me-but-nobody-will-produce-me blues" is long overdue. The Angela Lansbury number bemoaning the state of Broadway ("If music is no longer tuneful, if lyrics are no longer witty, if theater is no longer thrilling, then I don't want to go") is surprisingly subtle as it chronicles that this sentiment has always existed on the Great White Way. And yes, impersonations of Heather Headley and Gwen Verdon are spot on and hysterical. But over all, the album is a pale shadow when compared to his previous albums and never reaches the level of biting, yet loving, satire present in Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back or Cleans Up Its Act.

Elegies ...I saved the something blue for last, as it also is the best: the concert version of Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, which was recorded live at a benefit for the Momentum AIDS project. This was not an easy CD to listen to, as it comes with a great deal of baggage and history for me, and I am sure for a great number of people who have lost friends and loved ones to AIDS. With music by Janet Hood and book/lyrics by Bill Russell, Elegies is inspired by Spoon River Anthology, in which deceased characters tell about their lives through poems, and serves as a verbal version of the AIDS quilt. Through songs and monologues, characters from all walks of life share how they have been affected by the disease. By turns unbearably depressing, remarkably uplifting, and surprisingly celebratory, it is a highly personal work both for the writers and the listeners.

I have seen the show too many times, heard the songs performed at too many memorials, and have shed too many tears over Elegies, but the show has not diminished in power one iota. Janet Hood's music ranges from gospel tunes to haunting pop ballads, Bill Russell's lyrics and monologues are superb, and the two have created songs of incredible power. From the wistful title song (sung by Alice Ripley), to the agonizingly raw "I Don't Know How To Help You" (Stephanie Pope), to the shattering "My Brother Lived In San Francisco" (devastatingly performed by Emily Skinner) or the song that literally had me pull the car over so I could cry, "And The Rain Keeps Falling Down" (damn that Brian D'Arcy James), there is not a weak song on the album. The cast is stellar and includes Kane Alexander, Norm Lewis, Bryan Batt, and Alton Fitzgerald White (among forty or so others). Unlike the 1993 London recording, the concert version includes six of the monologues.

Elegies is not an easy album to listen to, but it is an important, beautiful, and powerful celebration of lives cut short, and is a must-have CD.


-- Jonathan Frank


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