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AmourIn a simpler, pre-ironic era, one in which light airy musical comedy confections could succeed on Broadway through charm and a simple, gentle story, a show like Amour could probably last a season, as it did in Paris under the title Le Passe-Muraille (The Man Who Can Pass Through Walls). Unfortunately, times have changed and last year Amour ran a disappointingly short seventeen performances, plus thirty-one previews, before closing in November. In another era, a show with a Tony nominated score would naturally be recorded, but with so many major record companies displaying a shrinking interest musical theater, it is a minor miracle that it has been preserved by Sh-K-Boom Records.

Based on a short story by Marcel Aymé, Amour tells of a mild-mannered civil servant, Dusoleil (Malcom Gets), with a crush on his neighbor, Isabelle (Melissa Errico), a woman trapped in an unfortunate marriage. When Dusoleil suddenly obtains the ability to walk through walls, he uses the ability to become a Robin Hood-esque character known as Passepartout with the hope of impressing the woman of his dreams.

Amour marked the Broadway debut of the legendary French composer Michel Legrand, writer of such classic songs as "The Windmills of Your Mind," "The Summer Knows," and the songs from the film Yentl. Jeremy Sams translated Didier Van Cauwelaert's original French libretto and lyrics, and together Legrand and Sams created a work that is equal parts wit and daffiness, a Looney Toon of a show in which characters ramble in a manner that is more river of consciousness than a stream.

To a person, the cast is exquisite. Malcolm Gets (My New Brain) not only sounds better than ever, but his rapid-fire quirkiness is perfectly suited to the material. As his amour-interest, Melissa Errico (My Fair Lady, High Society) gets the majority of the lovely 'longing' numbers and nails each and every one of them, especially the tender "Somebody." The supporting cast (Lewis Cleale, John Cunningham, Christopher Fitzgerald, Norm Lewis, Sarah Litzsinger, Nora Mae Lyng and Bill Nolte) help make this one of the best ensemble casts to be featured on a cast album, and the five person orchestra creates the illusion of a much larger band.

True to the show's delicate, low-key nature, there are no 'rafter-ringing' moments on the album. Instead, the songs tend to be more character driven or ensemble in nature, and are thus less likely to exist outside of the show or in the odd cabaret space. The show also tends to get a tad, well, hypnotic. Amour's score relies heavily on songs in which the melody is basically a musical phrase that is repeated over and over again, sometimes modulating up or down a step, but always returning to the original phrase (think Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas/If You Go Away"). Couple this with a beat that varies only slightly from song to song (variation in tempos are achieved more through the length of the notes versus a change in beat) and the effect can be more than a little soporific. In fact, it wasn't until I listened to it in a 'stop and start' fashion that my attention stopped drifting off and realized that the ending was not as happy as I had believed, and is decidedly Gaelic in nature. Still, it is a highly pleasant offering that deserves greater exposure and will assuredly get it in regional and community theaters looking for intimate musicals.

I Had a BallWith so few new musicals being produced (and even fewer getting recorded by major labels), record companies seem to be trying to make up for the deficit by releasing a plethora of CDs featuring less than successful and largely unknown musicals. While a great many of those shows turn out to have been forgotten for a very good reason, every now and then one is released that is a surprising gem. One such diamond in the rough is Decca's release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of I Had a Ball , which features music and lyrics by Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman, writers of such popular tunes as "All of Nothing at All" and "Tenderly."

I Had a Ball opened on Broadway in December of 1964 and ran for 199 performances before closing due to the antics of its headliner star, Buddy Hackett (the album is worth getting for the liner notes alone, which are by the 91-year-old Jack Lawrence and give ample examples of why Hackett's recent demise did not bring out the outpouring of tributes one would have expected). The premise of the show, created by its producer, Joe Kipness, is slight: a Coney Island fortune-teller/con man, Garside (Hackett), discovers that he can see the future in his crystal ball and decides to play matchmaker with disastrous results. The music, however, is anything but slight, thanks to a solid cast that includes Richard Kiley (Man of La Mancha) as the newly released con Stan the Shpieler, Luba Lisa (the only one to receive a Tony nomination) as Miss "Under-the-Boardwalk" Addie, and Karen Morrow as Jeannie, who gets the lion's share of the great numbers in the show.

While the book of the show sounds creaky and problematic, the score is highly enjoyable and would be perfect for an Encores! or Reprise! style concert offering. The orchestrations strongly recall Frank Sinatra albums from the era (no surprise, as Sinatra recorded a number of Lawrence and Freeman's songs) and there are many numbers worth looking into by singers looking for new material from that era. Highlights include Morrow at her powerhouse anthem best with "I've Got Everything I Want" and the title song. Kiley is equally impressive with the driving "The Other Half of Me" and the more tender "Fickle Finger of Fate," and one wishes the two had been given a duet. Hackett is fine on his comic patter number, "Dr. Freud" (in addition to being a fortune teller, Hackett's character is also a 'psychiatrist' and keeps a couch and a picture of Freud in his tent), his only number in the show apart from a tiny intro and two short reprises. Orchestra versions of two numbers cut from the show due to Hackett's limitations as a singer ("Lament" and "Be a Phony") are included as bonus tracks, as are two cover tracks recorded by Karen Morrow in 1964 ("Almost" and "I Had a Ball").

Kooky TunesFew people outside of New York City would recognize the name Keith Thompson, who has been writing songs for revues and cabaret shows for roughly two decades. Hopefully, Kooky Tunes, a live recording of a revue dedicated to his songs, will do something to change that. Containing almost two dozen songs that largely fit into the 'kooky' category, the album is surprisingly entertaining, thanks in no small part to the extremely talented cast of Jay Rogers, Patrick DeGennaro, Perry Payne and Vanessa A. Jones. Jay Rogers (When Pigs Fly) is the comic standout of the group, no big surprise as a number of the songs in the show were written especially for him: the hysterical "The Dresser Drawer Blues" (with lyrics like "I wish I was a dresser so I could go digging through your drawers"), "A Fairy Outing" (imagine Beatrice Lilly coupled with Glinda the Good), and "Yes, This is My Real Voice" (which needs no explanation to any one who has ever heard Rogers sing). The rest of the cast has ample opportunities to shine. Payne delightfully delves into the tabloid heartbreaker of "The Bigfoot Song." Jones gets down and dirty with "Gourmet Meal" and DeGennaro has great fun with "Haulin' Happiness" and gives a stirring rendition of "What If?," one of the few serious numbers in the show.

BrownstoneThough it won the Richard Rodgers Award for 'Best not-yet-produced Musical' and had a successful run at the Roundabout Theater, if Brownstone: The Musical is known at all it is for the song "Since You Stayed Here," which has been recorded by Bette Midler and a host of cabaret artists. A quasi-cast recording has finally been released by Original Cast Records, which will hopefully bring the show the recognition it deserves. While it is hardly groundbreaking in terms of story or delivery, it is charming and entertaining.

Brownstone, which has been a work-in-alteration since its 1979 Playwrights Horizon workshop, musicalizes the lives of five youngish inhabitants of a brownstone in New York (although the locale has shifted to Brooklyn in recent years, perhaps due to the rent realities of Manhattan). The characters include a writer (Brian d'Arcy James) and his wife (Rebecca Luker), an edgy lawyer (Debbie Gravitte) restless to escape from the confines of the city, a somewhat flaky woman (Liz Callaway, who appeared in the Roundabout 1986 production) who recently evicted her boyfriend, and a newcomer to the city (Kevin Reed, who was in the 2002 Berkshire Theatre Festival mounting). The characters and their situations will be familiar to any apartment dwelling listeners, and the songs capture the frustrations of close living beautifully.

"Camouflage" perfectly embodies the attempts of neutrality and disassociation urban dwellers make to survive emotionally. "There She Goes," sung by Gravitte and Callaway, is a comic look at the impressions and prejudices we have about that stranger down the hall. "The Books," sung by Luker, is a powerful and wistful number that will hit home to anyone with a library facing the concept of moving. While "Since You Stayed Here" has received all of the previous recordings (except for "Didn't Leave it Here," which was featured on Unsung Musicals III), "You Still Don't Know" (sung by Luker) is another gorgeous ballad deserving of attention.

Broadway Musicals of 1925While most Broadway musical experts will debate the birth date of the 'modern' American musical as being 1927, the year Show Boat berthed on Broadway, a few will argue that 1925 is a strong contender for the honor, as that was the year that Rodgers and Hart sprang to fame with The Garrick Gaities and the song "Manhattan." But that was only one of over thirty musicals to hit the boards that year, which saw four blockbusters open in the space of a week: No, No, Nanette (Vincent Youmans/Irving Caesar), Dearest Enemy (Rodgers/Hart), The Vagabond King (Rudolf Friml/Brian Hooker) and Sunny (Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II). Scott Siegel reacquainted Town Hall with that golden year through The Broadway Musicals of 1925 , recently released on CD.

Featuring the talents of Howard McGillin, Nancy Anderson, Justin Bohon, Stephanie J. Block and Walker Jones, the album is more entertaining than I expected, as I am not a big fan of the chief show that year, No, No, Nanette (and no, it has nothing to do with my being raised by Red Sox fans). While the majority of the songs fall in the 'entertaining fluff' end of the musical spectrum, there are more than a few surprising finds. Nancy Anderson is by turns seductive and bawdy in "That Means Nothing To Me" from the largely forgotten Naughty Cinderella (Keith/Sterling). She also scores (in a completely and surprisingly different voice) with the wry and modern sounding "When We Get Our Divorce" from Sunny, sung with great humor as a duet with Justin Bohon.

Stephanie J. Block does wonders with the plaintive "That Certain Feeling" from Tip Toes (George and Ira Gershwin). Walker Jones shows great comic sensibilities in all his numbers, including "Murderous Monty" (with Block from the Gershwin's Tell Me More) and "Paddlin' Maddelin' Home" (Sunny). Howard McGillin's delicate yet powerful touch brings to perfect life each of his numbers: the unamplified "Song of the Vagabonds" (The Vagabond King), Irving Berlin's masterpiece, "Always" (from The Cocoanuts, which starred the Marx Brothers), and even makes "Tea For Two" from No, No, Nanette a palatable brew. As always, Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band provide expert accompaniment and Scott Siegel's introductions are informative and humorous.


-- Jonathan Frank


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