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HairsprayUnless you have been vacationing on some remote island sans Internet or any other form of theatrical correspondence, you are by now more than a little familiar with Hairspray, the new hit Broadway musical based on the 1988 movie that was shock-guru John Waters' first 'mainstream' film. A Valentine to Waters' hometown of Baltimore as seen through a Pucci colored lens of 1960s music and styles, Hairspray explores the integration of two groups of outsiders: the overweight (Tracy Turnblad and her mother, Edna, as portrayed by the divine Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein, respectively) and the African Americans (led by Motormouth Mabel, the supreme Mary Bond Davis, who resides in both outsider camps). Both groups struggle to achieve equality by gaining acceptance in Baltimore via The Corny Collins Show, a combination of American Bandstand and the Mickey Mouse Club.

Musically, the show is catchy and delightfully recreates the early '60s through a score of pastiche tunes with music by Marc Shaiman (best known for a slew of film scores and the Broadway parodies in the South Park film) and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. While all of the songs sound familiar, due to the utilization of traditional '60s doo-wop and R&B hooks, chord structures, and vocal harmonies, the lyrics bring the show more up to date and into John Waters territory, thanks to their tongue in cheek (and often times double and triple entendre) humor.

To a person, the cast is incredible and suffuses the album with equal parts talent and personality. As the perennially perky Tracy, Marissa simply sparkles in all of her numbers. From the energetic opener, "Good Morning Baltimore" (which fuses a Sound Of Music/Beauty and The Beast sentimentality with such non-Disney items as rats, drunks and flashers), to the exuberant "I Can Hear The Bells," (in which she maps out her entire relationship with heartthrob Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison) in four minutes flat), to the infectious closer, "You Can't Stop The Beat," the girl does not let up for an instant. Fierstein shines in all of his moments, particularly in his 'coming-out' anthem, "Welcome To The 60's," and the tenderly comic duet "(You're) Timeless To Me" (sung with Edna's husband, Wilbur, played by the oh-so delightful Dick Latessa). Morrison as Link nails the teen-heart throb bit down with "It Takes Two" and "Without Love," two of the most subversively clever numbers of the show.

The secondary characters are equally delightful. Kerry Butler is superb as the perennially picked upon Penny Pingleton (a character that nearly got cut in the translation from screen to stage). To hear her let down her hair and rock out on "Without Love" with her African American paramour, Seaweed (Corey Reynolds), is a treat for the ears. Reynolds also shines on "Run And Tell That!," a terrific R&B send up about the joys of all things dark and delicious. Linda Hart tears up the scenery as the show's villain, Velma Von Tussle, whose number, "(The Legend Of) Miss Baltimore Crabs" is an uber-Disney Villain song that establishes both a sense of conflict and a person to root against. Clark Thorell brings the perfect amount of TV smarminess to host Corny Collins, and Mary Bond Davis gets to cut loose on two great numbers, "Big Blonde and Beautiful" and "I Know Where I've Been."

The only flaw on the recording is that as the central character, Tracy/Marissa gets shortchanged in the anthem department in the second act. While the first act portrays her as the driving force for most of the action, the second act shifts Tracy to the backseat with only one big group number ("You Can't Stop The Beat"), a duet ("Without Love") and one solo reprise ("Good Morning Baltimore") for our favorite hair hopper. One more song, perhaps a solo follow-up to "I Know Where I've Been" in which Tracy gets to clarify what she has learned and what she is going to do with the knowledge, would have cemented what is already a bravura performance.

Overall, however, the show is as infectious as the "Cooties" Amber Von Tussle (played by Laura Bell Bundy with perfect bitchiness) insists live in Tracy's hair, and the songs get more delightful with each repeated listening. The fact that the next mainstream, family friendly musical came from the mind of John Waters makes it all the more delicious.

Miss SpectacularIt is hard to believe that it has been nearly two decades since Broadway saw the opening of a new Jerry Herman musical (for the record, it was La Cage Aux Folles 1983). Aside from the occasional revue or revival, the only thing new from Jerry Herman's once prolific pen was the TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus. Thankfully, we finally have something fresh from the chief living proponent of the 'classic' American Musical sound, albeit in concept album format: Miss Spectacular, which displays all of the sparkle, pizzazz and musical hooks associated with a Herman score.

Miss Spectacular was commissioned by Las Vegas impresario Steve Wynn for a proposed production set to take place at his Mirage casino. Unfortunately, the proposal fizzled, but not before a concept album chock full of Broadway and cabaret stars was recorded. The CD, which was recently released on DRG Records, is a throwback to the 'well-written' old-fashioned musicals of yesteryear both stylistically and thematically. The story tells of Sarah Jane Hotchkiss, 'a simple girl from Topeka,' who dreams of making it big by traveling to Las Vegas and winning the crown of Miss Spectacular, thus becoming the spokesperson for the Hotel Spectacular. Throughout her quest, her daydreams, triggered by the sounds of coins jangling, are brought to life ala Lady in the Dark via full-blown production numbers.

The songs are prototypical Herman numbers, written in his usual style and formula (which is not to be construed as being a bad thing, as it conveys a feeling of comfort). The singers are all top notch and in great voice. Debbie Gravitte lends her powerful pipes to the show's title song as well as its precursor, "Miss What's Her Name," a song written in the best Mack and Mabel tradition. Michael Feinstein displays his old sparkle on "Ziegfeld Girl" and Faith Prince sings a number more in keeping with Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, the saucy "Where In The World Is My Prince?" Karen Morrow shines on the show's best ballad, "No Other Music." The album is rounded out by numbers by Christine Baranski (the obligatory Herman anthem, "I Wanna Live Each Night"), Steve Lawrence (the lounge-y "Las Vegas") and Davis Gaines ("My Great Dream").

While Miss Spectacular won't win any points for ground breaking originality, it is a tuneful and delightful throwback to the classic Broadway sound. Hopefully, it will find Herman on stage (be it on Broadway, or more likely with this show, Las Vegas) where he belongs.

MillieAnother musical featuring a young woman from Kansas with dreams of making it big has not only hit Broadway, but nabbed a Tony for Best Musical as well (proving once again that one can do so without having the best score, music or director). Yet another stage adaptation of a movie, Thoroughly Modern Millie at least has the benefit of being based on a movie musical. Like the movie, the stage version incorporates new material with preexisting songs, and like the movie, the results are mixed.

The score combines six and a half preexisting numbers with over a dozen new songs by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan, all of which, unfortunately, fail to coalesce into a unified whole. While some of the new songs are tuneful and highly entertaining ("Forget About The Boy," sung by Millie and her fellow secretaries, or Millie's eleven o'clock number, "Gimmee Gimmee," being the prime examples) others fall far short of the mark (both of Muzzy's numbers, for example). While interpolating existing standards into the movie's score worked for on film, on stage it is less effective and in only one case adds to the show. While "The Speed Test," for example, is a comic highlight of the show, thanks to bravura performances by Sutton Foster (Millie) and Marc Kudisch (Trevor Graydon), it would have been more effective if the authors had written a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche rather than set new lyrics to one of their existing numbers. And as they (and Victor Herbert, whose songs "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" and "Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life" are also featured) are among the easiest of writers to parody, it smacks of laziness on the part of the creators.

The cast, however, rises above the flaws of the material and is to a person delightful to listen to. As the title character, Tony winner Sutton Foster gives her all in an old school belting manner. What she lacks in subtlety she more than makes up in power and joy and she and co-star Gavin Creel (Jimmy) are exceptionally winning in the almost Jerry Herman-esque "I Turned the Corner." Marc Kudisch (Trevor Graydon) shines on his duets with Foster ("The Speed Test") and a very Patti Cohenour sounding Angela Christian (Miss Dorothy). Sheryl Lee Ralph (Muzzy) does the best she can with the two most mediocre numbers on the album, "Long As I'm Here With You" and "Only In New York," and Harriet Harris (Mrs. Meers) is incredible in the Disney villain-style anthem "They Don't Know" and in the comic highlight of the show, "Muquin" (which would require a spoiler warning to explain further).

Into the WoodsIn 1988, Into The Woods suffered the same ignominy caused by Millie: namely, while it won twin Tonys for its book and score, it lost out for for Best Musical (to Phantom of the Opera). The 2002 revival at least partially rectified that slight by winning the Tony for Best Revival (as well as a few design awards), and the show has been preserved on disc by Nonesuch Records.

For those familiar with the original production, any subsequent offerings of the show are bound to come up short, for the original was truly one of those rare shows in which every member of the cast merged to make a flawless ensemble. While the revival's cast will do nothing to erase memories and impressions (not to mention expectations) from the original, it does have its own strengths and joys.

Much has been made of Laura Benanti's portrayal of Cinderella and rightfully so, as she brings an intelligence and freshness to the part that is simply stunning. Her rendition of "On The Steps Of The Palace," one of the best soliloquies ever written for the musical stage, is a tour de force display of acting and vocals, undermined, unfortunately, by the incomprehensible addition of Little Red and Jack to the last few lines of the song.

Kerry O'Malley has been woefully under-recognized as the Baker's Wife, and hopefully repeated listenings to the cast album will serve to rectify this situation. While she admittedly lacks the force of personality and sarcastic edge Joanna Gleason brought to the part, the subtly of O'Malley's portrayal is not to be dismissed. She makes the Wife a much more vulnerable character who acts as the counterpoint to Cinderella, which adds to the poignancy when she finally achieves what she has been envying, namely Cinderella's Prince. Thus, her rendition of "Moments in the Woods" is made all the more touching in its telling of innocence lost and knowledge gained.

While nobody can ever hope to surpass Bernadette Peter's iconoclastic portrayal of The Witch from our collective minds, Vanessa Williams does an admirable job in the part. While she lacks the comic sparkle Peters' brought to the role (particularly in the first act), she brings a greater sense of humanity to the part, especially in the second act. Her rendition of "Last Midnight" (now sung as a warning/lullaby to the Baker's infant son) is chilling and provides the highlight of the show. As the Narrator/Mysterious Old Man, John McMartin brings a delightful and welcome comic persona to the show.

The rest of the cast ranges from good to adequate, depending on how wedded one is to the originals. While Molly Ephraim (Little Red Ridinghood), Gregg Edelman (Wolf/Cinderella's Prince) and Christopher Sieber (Wolf/Rapunzel's Prince) all do fine jobs in their respective parts, they lack the darkness and the sexuality of the originals (largely due to directorial/book changes). Adam Wylie (Jack) suffers from pitch problems on the CD and Marylouise Burke (Jack's Mother) still sounds as if she's counting the beats to every song. While Stephen DeRosa sounds great as the Baker, the part lacks sparkle or personality.

Overall, the album plays like the show: the first act has been dumbed down and suffers accordingly but the second act is tighter and full of strong choices. "Your Fault," in which the remaining characters argue about who brought the calamity upon their collective heads, possesses a clarity and intensity that outshines the original. The aforementioned "Last Midnight" is absolutely incredible, and the finale, with its funereal orchestrations and tempo, is chilling. While the new recording does not, and indeed cannot, measure up to the original, it does contain elements that make it a worthy successor and an item of interest to Sondheim fans.

Thou Shalt NotThe cast album of Thou Shalt Not is a bit of an oddity in that it does not come across as belonging in any way, shape, or form to a theatrical presentation. Instead, Harry Connick Jr.'s Tony-nominated score sounds like a collection of songs written in conflicting styles (half the score sounds like New Orleans' Basin Street jazz, the other half comes across as a 1940/50's film noire score) that do nothing to tell a story or establish character.

Based on Émile Zola's dark novel of passion, adultery, and murder, Thérèse Raquin, Thou Shalt Not ran for three months on Broadway, thus ending director Susan Stroman's winning streak. As the CD booklet contains no details of plot and the songs themselves give no clue as to their artistic function, the album plays like a collection of independent songs. The songs are a mixed bag, as for every song worth listening to there exists an equally forgettable number.

Debra Monk gets the lion's share of the good songs; a highly enjoyable (and raunchy) saloon song, "My Little World," and "I Got My Eye On You," both of which are worth looking into by jazz and cabaret performers looking for new material. Norbert Leo Butz also shines, thanks to an understated performance of "All Things," in which he displays a remarkably light touch with largely mediocre lyrics. The ensemble gets to have most of the fun with the infectious group songs, but the leads of the show, Craig Bierko and Kate Levering, lack the finesse necessary to carry off their numbers.

The First Nudie MusicalIf Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom were to film a musical porno movie, the results would probably mirror The First Nudie Musical, one of the strangest movies ever put out by Paramount Pictures and recently released on DVD. Indeed, a great deal of the movie (which contains numbers featuring dancing dildos, prostitutes dressed like a fusion of "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" and "Big Spender," and various other 'perversions') plays like one long Mel Brooks skit.

Written by Bruce Kimmel (who also co-directed and co-starred), the 1975 film tells the tale of Harry Schecter (Stephen Nathan) who, in an attempt to save his film studio, decides to create the first pornographic musical. He is aided by his secretary, Rosie (Cindy Williams), and hindered by the director foisted upon him (Bruce Kimmel, who gets to utter the funniest line in the film (one that can not be published here, I'm afraid). The movie is in the Eating Raoul school of cinema; films that are so campy and bad they are actually hysterical. The songs by Kimmel are oftentimes funny ("Perversion" is a great Tom Leher-esque number as done by a Googie Gomez clone and "Dancing Dildos" needs to be seen/heard to be believed). As to be expected, the movie contains a great deal of nudity (and it is astounding to see it reflect the pre-silicon/workout days of the mid-seventies), so the movie may not be everybody's cup of tea.

The DVD includes a plethora of special features, including commentaries, deleted scenes, an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, and (for the first pressing at least) a CD of the songs from the movie.


-- Jonathan Frank


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