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Sweet AppreciationI'd like to start with three CDs which are tribute albums in one way or another. The first, Sweet Appreciation, is probably the most obscure, honoring, as it does, Rusty Magee, a composer/performer well known and respected within the theatrical world of New York City, but largely unknown outside of it. Which, as Sweet Appreciation amply displays, is more than a bit of a crime.

Sweet Appreciation is a live recording of a tribute Rusty's wife Alison Fraser put together at The West Bank Café, where Rusty had, along with Lewis Black and Rand Foerster, created a 'laboratory-theater-cum-frat-house' performance space. The show was a celebration of Rusty's work and life, especially in light of his recent struggle with cancer. Although the show largely focuses on events that will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of listeners, it somehow manages to be highly accessible and entertaining. To hear Lewis Black reminisce about the shows they created and endured is to feel like one is a part of a not-so-secret, quasi-underground, devil-may-care theater collective. Be warned, however: this is the first Broadway/Cabaret album to come across my desk with a "Parental Advisory/Strong Language" label affixed to its cover, thanks to Black's salty language.

A large portion of the album is made up of performances of Rusty's songs by Fraser, Rebecca Luker and Mary Testa. Rusty, who won the New York Outer Critics' Circle James Fleetwood Award for promising composer for his music and lyrics for Moliere's Scapin and whose music has appeared in various Broadway shows, on Comedy Central, Showtime, The Movie Channel, and The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss on Nickelodeon, is a songwriter well-worth looking into, especially by those who enjoy songs with a wry sensibility.

Mary Testa shines on "Pain" (from The Czar of Rock and Roll) and "I Can't Recall" (from The Green Heart), two numbers that tackle love from a humorous, intellectual standpoint. Rebecca Luker is delightful on two of Rusty's more tender numbers, "The Green Heart" and "Coming Apart" (both from The Green Heart) and Alison delivers a highly evocative "New York Romance," a number that could be Sex and the City's theme song.

The highlight of the album is a nearly thirty minute improvised free-form concert given by Rusty, who had no idea this event was happening when he walked through The West Café's doors on May 19, 2002. From his covering of pop tunes (usually with a humorous twist) to the created-on-the-spot "No-Reason-At-All-To-Sing-The-Blues Blues," his set is spontaneous performing at its best. For more information on the CD and Rusty, visit www.sweetappreciation.com.

Wallowitch and RossThe CD Wallowitch and Ross is a two tiered tribute. On the one hand, it is a tribute to a bygone age when songs were written in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek style and performed in an appropriate manner. On the other, it is a tribute to a partnership that has lasted 35 years: the personal and professional teaming of John Wallowich and Bertram Ross.

Cabaret aficionados will no doubt be familiar with John Wallowitch [for a TB interview visit wallowitch.html ], whose songs have been recorded by Blossom Dearie, Dixie Carter, and Karen Akers, and whose style is decidedly of the 'café society' variety. Bertram Ross's name should be familiar to lovers of modern dance, as he was a star of the Martha Graham Dance Company, acting as Graham's partner and the originator of key roles in her pieces Seraphic Dialogue, Clytemnestra and Acrobats of God. Together, Wallowitch and Ross have been performing as a team for decades. While Wallowitch has released several CDs, mostly containing his own compositions, the pair has not been preserved on disc until now.

Wallowitch and Ross is decidedly 'old-fashioned' in its approach and its material, focusing as it does on a great deal of numbers that have largely fallen out of the American Songbook. The majority of the album is comprised of old-time comic specialty numbers, such as "Some Little Bug is Going to Find You," a turn of the century song on the various dangers inherent in food (which is eerily current), "I With I Had Died at the Altar," and "Too Good for The Average Man," a humorous Rodgers and Hart ode to the classes. A few modern songs that are stylistically similar are also present, including Murray Grand's "The Pussycat Song" (which could be sung by Miss Slokum on Are You Being Served?) and "Up Yours," as well as Wallowitch's "Did Anyone Ever Really Know Joan?," his ode to film-noire ala "Laura."

The album includes seven Irving Berlin songs that are rarely, if ever, heard in today's politically correct climate, relying, as they do, on ethnic generalities that are more than a little eye-brow arching, such as "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars" (humorously interpreted by Ross), "Tokio Blues" and "I'll Take You Back to Italy."

The big regret of the album is that it was recorded during Ross's ongoing battle with Parkinson's, the effects of which have left a stamp on his voice. While he is delightful on his faster solo numbers (such as the aforementioned "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars"), during which his quick wit and comedic personality still shine through, on ballads and duets with Wallowitch, the effects are pronounced. Still, it is wonderful to have the two of them preserved on disc.

NOTE: This Moment, a moving and humorous documentary on John and Bertram by Richard Morris, has been issued as a DVD, and is available by e-mailing KarmicRelease@aol.com.

Mandy Patinkin Sings SonheimMandy Patinkin has had a long-standing association with the works of Stephen Sondheim. From his stage appearances in Sunday in the Park with George and Follies in Concert, to his CDs, most of which include at least a couple of Sondheim songs, Patinkin has been a loving interpreter of Sondheim's work. Recorded live at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, his latest CD, Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim is a two-disc tribute to the master songwriter.

The album is a bit of an oddity as it is essentially a series of medleys that almost, but not quite, take the listener on a dramatic journey. While some of the pairings are inspired, the overall effect is more than a touch frustrating as the songs are never allowed to resolve. While it is a cliché to call Sondheim's songs mini-plays, that description is more than a tad accurate, and the lack of breathing space in Patinkin's mega-medleys becomes more than a bit mind-numbing with their non-stop intensity. His rendition of "Send In the Clowns" and "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" are remarkable in their simplicity, but by not allowing a moment of closure and instead barreling through to the next song, their dramatic impact is diminished. Some of his choices are intriguing at best, especially in regard to his choosing songs usually performed by women and the lyric changes he makes to accommodate that shift. "Liaisons," with its flip-flopping orientation, and "In Someone's Eyes," (a horribly rethought "In Buddy's Eyes" that loses a great deal of its impact through its shift of specifity) are especially ill conceived.

While Patinkin is usually harshly critiqued for his shimmering falsetto, it is decidedly the strongest part of his voice on this album. His lower register is surprisingly inconsistent and oftentimes feels forced to ill effect. While there are moments of inspired beauty on the album, the overall effect is too labored and manufactured to be a complete success.

The Grand TourThe Grand Tour is Jerry Herman's most intriguing work, being, as it is, the only truly masculine piece he has written. Based on the play Jacobowsky and the Colonel, The Grand Tour tells of S.L. Jacobowsky (Joel Grey), a Jewish man trying to stay one step ahead of the ever-encroaching Nazis. In his travels, he meets Colonel Tadeusz Boleslav Stjerbinsky (Ron Holgate), a Polish aristocrat who has a list of undercover agents in occupied Poland that needs to be delivered to an agent in France, and his love interest, Marianne (Florence Lacey).

Although the show had an extremely short run on Broadway in 1979, The Grand Tour contains some of Herman's best songs. The opening number, "I'll Be Here Tomorrow," has become Herman's anthem (and, indeed, an anthem for many living with AIDS) and provides Joel Grey with one of his all-too-few chances to sing a serious emotional song. Longtime Herman favorite Florence Lacey delivers the stirring "I Belong Here" with gusto and Ron Holgate shines on one of Herman's most romantic songs, "Marianne." Overall, the show provides a strong mix of comedy (such as "Mrs. S. L. Jacobowsky," which contains some of Herman's cleverest lyrics) and lush romanticism, and is a joy to finally hear on CD.

Bells Are RinginTwo soundtracks from the movie versions of popular Broadway shows have recently been released (or re-released) on CD. The first, Bells Are Ringing, is considered by many to be superior to the original Broadway Cast Album, due to Andre Previn's astonishingly lush and brassy orchestrations and Dean Martin's performance as Jeff Moss, the playboy/playwright who captivates phone service girl/busy body Ella Peterson, played on film as on stage by the delightful Judy Holliday. As with most film adaptations of Broadway shows, songs were lost in the transition, the most surprising being the standard "Long Before I Knew You," one of Jule Styne/Betty Comden & Adolph Green's most romantic of songs (a fragment of it, however, still exists in "The Party's Over," making its exclusion all the more pronounced). Two new songs, however, were added to the soundtrack and do a lot to make up for the losses: "Do It Yourself" (which replaces the vastly inferior "Independent") showcases Martin at his swinging best and "Better Than A Dream" (which has since been incorporated into subsequent productions of Bells Are Ringing).

The cast, which includes Hal Linden ("The Midas Touch") and Eddie Foy Jr. ("It's a Simple Little System"), sounds wonderful. Judy, in fact, sounds arguably better and more rested than on the original cast album. While DRG has done a wonderful job re-mastering the disc (which, contrary to what is printed on the CD, is not the first time it has been available on CD, as it was previously released by Capitol Records in 1989), one wishes that they had augmented the skimpy 33 minute album with bonus tracks of Judy Holliday singing "Is It A Crime?" and Dean Martin's "My Guiding Star," both of which were recorded but not used in the movie. The album does contain, however, highly informative liner notes about the trials and tribulations of the show's translation to film taken from Hugh Fordin's book, The World of Entertainment.

Flower Drum SongIn honor of the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, Decca released the film version's soundtrack for the first time on CD. Remarkably, the film preserved the original Broadway production remarkably intact. Only one song, "Like A God," was cut in the process and while the songs were shuffled into a new (and highly improved) order, nothing new was added. The film also kept the show's original star, Miyoshi Umeki, whose restrained yet knowing innocence was fundamental to the success of the stage version. Less successful is the replacement of The World of Suzie Wong star Nancy Kwan for Pat Suzuki as club performer Linda Low, especially since B.J. Baker dubbed Kwan's vocals. While Marilyn Horne dubbed Reiko Sato's vocals for "Love, Look Away," the result is so beautifully touching that it is forgivable.

The album's chief strength and reason for possession are Alfred Newman's inspired arrangements, which far outshine long time R&H orchestrator Robert Russell Bennet's plodding originals. The "Overture" alone is worth the price of the album, as is the "Dream Ballet," which, like the rest of the album, alternates between lush romanticism and swinging jazz. The only flaw with the album is that, while the orchestra tracks all sound pristine and clear, the vocal tracks are disappointingly muddy. While this doesn't do the album irreparable harm, the contrast between the two is striking and distracting.

The album contains a booklet nearly as lush as the score, complete with new liner notes by David Hwang (author of the revival's heavily revised book), and rare production photos. As an added bonus, the CD contains a rare recording of Rosemary Clooney singing an exceedingly lovely version of "Love, Look Away."

Li'l AbnerAdapting comic strips to the stage has always been a crapshoot. For every Annie or You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown there is a It's A Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, Annie Warbucks or Snoopy. In 1956, Broadway saw the opening of what is probably the most successful translation of a comic strip to the stage, Li'l Abner . Unlike Annie, which dumbed down the material (and has done so even more with recent productions that have excised any sociopolitical content) or Superman, which turned the comic into, well, a cartoon, Li'l Abner kept all of creator Al Capp's satirical edge intact. Capp, who used the mythical hillbillies of Dogpatch, USA to poke fun at contemporary targets, had a subtlety not present in today's similarly edged comic strips (Boondocks, Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore to name a few). Amazingly, both the subtlety and the satire translated perfectly into the musical format.

The show (music by Gene de Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, directed by Michael Kidd) has finally been re-released on CD, after being out of print for over a decade. When it tackles traditional musical comedy themes and subjects, the show is perfectly enjoyable, with beautiful romantic ballads ("Love in a Home" and "Namely You," sung by Daisy Mae and Li'l Abner; Edith Adams and Peter Palmer, respectively), and pleasant personality numbers ("If I Had My Druthers," sung by Palmer, and "I'm Past My Prime," by Adams and Stubby Kaye). However, when the show takes aim at more serious targets (nuclear testing, big business, the military, the economy, conformity and right-wing politicians), the songs and the show display an intelligence rarely seen in musical theater (especially in the '50s). One number in particular, "The Country's In the Very Best Of Hands," with its scathing (yet playfully so) satire directed at farm bills, a housing boom, economics, and how both political parties belittle the other to the point of not being able to get anything done, remains topical even after 45 years (which is more than a little depressing).

Even if one was lucky enough to obtain the 1990 CD release of Li'l Abner, the new release has more than enough extras to warrant its purchase. In addition to bonus tracks by Percy Faith (which includes "The Way to a Man's Heart," a number cut from the show) and Rosemary Clooney, the CD contains a rehearsal recording of "Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet," (the song was not recorded for the original cast album due to its length), "What's Good For General Bullmoose," and an extended version of "The Matrimonial Stomp." "There's Room Enough For Us," which was added to the show after the original cast album was recorded, is also included from the original movie soundtrack. Also, since the show was recorded in binaural stereo (voices on one channel, orchestra on the other), the show is in mono except for the instrumental tracks (a mono version of the overture is included as a bonus track).

My Fair LadySony has also released the original 1956 mono recording of My Fair Lady . While the show was re-recorded in stereo a few years later in London with largely the same cast, there is no matching the original. The album and its performers sound less polished and more like the characters they are portraying, which is incredibly refreshing. Rex Harrison, for instance, sings more and talks less on "I'm an Ordinary Man," and Julie Andrews displays more differentiation vocally between her high and low class selves. The album also contains two bonus tracks: a post-recording conversation with Goddard Lieberson, Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews and Lerner & Lowe, which is decidedly cheeky, and a 1961 interview with Lerner and Lowe that was previously unreleased.


-- Jonathan Frank


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