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Full Monty, Mamma Mia, , Alexander's ... Day

Full MontyBack in the olden, golden days of Broadway, the musical comedy genre was the toast of the Great White Way, with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin as its prime proponents. Nowadays, musical comedies rarely arrive on Broadway unless they are cloaked in the guise of revivals. While new musicals arrive on the scene like clockwork, they are predominantly dramatic quasi-operas, musical revues, or adaptations of movie musicals. Therefore, it is more than a little ironic that the first true new musical comedy to appear on Broadway in ages comes from the big screen as well; a musical version of the 1997 little indie that could, The Full Monty.

The film told the story of some down to earth Sheffield, England steelworkers who have been made redundant and have fallen on desperate times. As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures, in this case inspiring the lot to become an unlikely band of male strippers promising to display "the full monty," (translation: the whole kit and caboodle.) For the transition to Broadway, Sheffield has become another depressed city, Buffalo, New York, and Terrence McNally got tapped to write a book which expands the roles of the supporting characters and bolsters the female quotient of the show.

After turning down the project, Adam Guettel (Myths and Hymns) suggested that his longtime friend and Broadway newcomer, David Yazbeck, be hired to write the music and lyrics. Best known for his Emmy winning stint on David Letterman and for co-writing the theme song for "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego" (as well as being the co-creator of "the ground breaking yet cloying Puzzle Place for PBS," according to his bio) David also has a strong reputation for writing and performing edgy, lyric-driven pop, as evidenced by his 1997 NAIRD award winning album, The Laughing Man. As a songwriter and/or producer, he has worked with a variety of artists ranging from the British cult band XTC to Tito Puente and that gamut of styles is displayed in The Full Monty's recently released cast album, co-produced by David.

The producers for The Full Monty have mentioned that they were looking for a fresh voice to write the music, one that would have a new sound and attract a younger, hipper audience with its pop feel. I'm not sure what exactly they had in mind when they said this, as the music for The Full Monty has as much relevance to the current hit parade as Rent does to alternative music (ie: almost nil). Now this is not a bad thing, at least to my over thirty year old ears which wince at what passes for melody and lyrics in 90% of today's music. David has written a variety of songs that alternately encompass modern tight pop harmonies, Latin rhythms, R&B funk, and even 70s pastiche. This is a high-energy score that manages to be catchy and driving while remaining accessible and non-offensive to audiences of all ages (except, perhaps, for the liberal sprinkling of off-color words and phrases).

Lyrically, the songs are light years beyond what is usually heard on the radio, where songs are designed to describe an emotional holding pattern. The self-awareness and cynically humorous edge to the majority of the lyrics make them stronger than most of what has been seen on Broadway recently as well, and it is hard not to admire a man who would pen "You're a man, and that's a bonus/'Cause when you're swinging you cojones/You'll show 'em what testosterone is." He has a deft touch with comedy, as evidenced by "Big-Ass Rock," a Tom Leher-esque suicide number which punctures the buddy/friend songs of the 70s, and "You Rule My World," in which Dave (the overweight worker wonderfully played by John Ellison Conlee) and Harold (the ex-foreman played by Marcus Neville) sing a ballad to the loves of their lives (and no, I'm not going to ruin the joke for you).

The cast is uniformly excellent and all are in great voice on the album. André De Shields will be nominated and probably win his overdue Tony for his part, showcased on the album with "Big Black Man." Kathleen Freeman is likewise a strong contender, although her number, "Jeanette's Showbiz Number," is the weakest song on the album. It tries too hard to be clever and is redeemed solely by Kathleen's strong performance. Emily Skinner rocks out in the Latin-esque "Life with Harold." Jason Danieley and Roman Frugé shine in the show's only true ballad, "You Walk With Me," and Patrick Wilson is winning as the father turned instigator of the events, especially in the power ballad, "Breeze Off the River."

Overall, I found cast album of The Full Monty to provide a fun, high-energy breath of fresh air. This is not high art and has no illusions of being such. The Full Monty is a return to the mindlessly enjoyable true musical comedies, as exemplified by the current revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate, but with a modern sensibility (and language: if you are easily offended by profanity or sexual humor, this is definitely not the album for you).

Mamma Mia!Last year, a friend gave me a cast album from a show he saw and fell in love with in London. When I saw what it was, I nearly laughed in his face and, I have to admit, made some snide comments about his musical tastes. After I listened to it I ate a major helping of crow, and to my surprise the CD became one of my most listened to albums of this past year. I, of course, am talking about that ultimate guilty pleasure cast album, Mamma Mia! .

If you were to ask me to come up with the worst idea for a music I could think of, right up there with a musical version of The Stand would be this: weaving together twenty-two songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA into a traditional book musical. I mean, let's face it; shows which interpolate songs not intended to be in a musical have not exactly been hits recently (the court presents High Society and Play On! as evidence). And while I enjoyed listening to ABBA in the 80s, I never thought the songs screamed to be on stage, much less interpreted by other singers. Oddly enough, Mamma Mia! manages to do the near impossible: creating a coherent story while allowing the songs to retain their nostalgic flavor.

The plot of Mamma Mia! is simple: Sophie (Lisa Stokke) is about to be married and wants her father to give her away. The only problem is, she has no idea who he is. Going through her mother's diary, she finds three likely candidates and invites them to the wedding. Not exactly the scenario I ever envisioned while listening to such classic ABBA songs as "Dancing Queen" or "Super Trouper," I must say. But somehow it works, largely due to a talented cast and a creative team who found the perfect balance between nostalgic kitsch and an entertaining story. As Sophie's mother, the ex-pop singer Donna, Siobhan McCarthy is delightful, and I continue to get a kick hearing her sing "Money, Money, Money" (largely due to the fact that she performs it with a proper English accent) as well as one of my favorite songs, "The Winner Takes it All."

The album isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The dialogue portions are horribly mixed and sound as if the actors were standing fifty feet from the mikes. But overall, it's a very enjoyable recording that is highly infectious and perfect for long car trips or house cleaning sessions.

Alexander ... Very Bad DayIf you have attended a cabaret show of Andrea Marcovicci or Karen Mason in the past year you may have heard what is arguably one of the loveliest songs written recently, the poignant lullaby "The Sweetest of Nights and the Finest of Days." What you may not know is that the song, with music by Shelly Markham and lyrics by Judith Viorst, is from a musical adaptation of Judith's classic children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Originally commissioned by the Kennedy Center, where it recently concluded a two-week run (for a complete schedule visit the Kennedy Center site). Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day tells the tale of one boy's aforementioned hideous day.

An album containing the songs from the show has just been released, featuring Nancy Dussault, Betsy Ann Faiella, Jason Graae, Mark Arthur Miller, Wayne Moore, Mona Lisa Young and John Pagano as Alexander. Shelly Markham is featured on three bonus track which were added to bolster the nine tracks written for the show.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a children's show that will appeal to parents and 'grown-ups' as well. The performances are strong, and the songs are sweetly compelling. Nancy Dussault does a wonderful job with "Sweetest of Nights" and Jason Graae (playing Becky) is delightfully whimsical singing "I Love Love Love my Brand-New Baby Sister."

The CD will be available shortly at Amazon.com, and is currently available by calling Cabaret Connection (1-888-666-DIVA) or by attending one of Andrea Marcovicci's cabaret show's at the Algonquin.


-- Guest columnist, Jonathan Frank


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