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It is hard to believe that another year has passed us by, which means that it is time for that most venerable of traditions, the highly subjective, rarely respected list of The Best Albums of 2002. As is always the case, this was not an easy list to compile, especially since just when I thought I had it signed, sealed and delivered, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a box full of new releases just making it under the wire. Thus, this year we have not one but two lists: one for the Best Theatrical/Show Albums of 2002 and one for Best Vocal Albums of 2002 .

As was the case last year, the criteria for inclusion on these lists are the following: First of all, the album has to be a new release versus a reissuing of previously recorded material (thus making roughly 80% of all theatrical releases this year ineligible). Secondly, the album had to be released in 2002 (thus making some of my favorite discoveries of the year, such as Julie Reyburn's Fate is Kind and Michael Holland's Darkness Falls, ineligible). The chief deciding factor, however, is how often the album graced my CD player, or better still, how many times I forced others to listen to it as it was an album I felt others just had to have.

Here is my list of the Best Theatrical/Show Albums of 2002!

HairsprayThe top theatrical album this year, in my oh-so-humble opinion is Hairspray, which not only manages to live up to its hyper-sensationalized publicity but delivers the most entertaining and catchiest cast album in quite some time in the process. From "Good Morning Baltimore" to "You Can't Stop the Beat" (which remains infectious despite its non-stop media saturation), Hairspray has remained as enjoyable on its 20th listening as it was on its first.

The Last Five YearsThe Last 5 Years, on the other hand, has proved itself to be one of those rare musicals that becomes more emotionally gripping and engaging through repeated listenings. While the album is entertaining on first exposure as a series of 'he said/she said' solos that detail a disintegrating relationship (his in a linear fashion and hers temporally reversed), one really needs to listen to it multiple times in order to fully appreciate the way the show is interwoven musically and thematically. Since both sides of the story, such as her "See, I'm Smiling" and his "I Could Never Rescue You," are sometimes separated by an entire show, the full conversation only becomes apparent after repeated exposure. The Last 5 Years is a brilliant piece of writing brought to vivid life through incredible performances by Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott and has become one of my favorite albums of the year.

Elaine Stritch at LibertyBy now, the Broadway spotlight has long since faded from one of its most exciting shows of the year, Elaine Stritch at Liberty. The cast album of the show, however, remains one of the best live albums ever recorded and is a perfect rejoinder to those who believe playing one's self requires no acting ability and makes no emotional impact.

BuffyWith all the attention being paid to the current renaissance of film musicals, it is surprising that almost no ink has been spilled on the fact that one of the best musicals of 2001 (the soundtrack being released in 2002) happened to occur on television; a medium that has not been exactly kind to the genre. The Buffy The Vampire Slayer musical episode, Once More With Feeling, managed not only to blow away the layers of dreck that had long encrusted the TV musical but was more organic and tuneful than many a recent Broadway offering as well.

One of the more surprising hits of the season was A Year With Frog and Toad, which transferred from The Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota to the New Victory Theatre in New York for an extremely limited run and will be transferring to Broadway soon. The show is based on the Newbery and Caldecott Honor winning books by Arnold Lobel about the adventures of the dapper Frog (Jay Goede) and the worrywart Toad (Mark Linn-Baker, who is the husband of Lobel's daughter, Adrianne). Unlike recent adaptations of children's books (Suessical anyone?) Frog and Toad manages to successfully translate the delightful world of the books, thanks in no small part to a score (music by Robert Reale, book and lyrics by Willie Reale) that fuses vaudeville, ragtime, jazz, country, and traditional showtunes into a unified and appealing whole.

Highlights include "It's Spring," in which Frog tries to wake up a very grumpy Toad from hibernation, and "Getta Loada Toad," in which a very shy Toad refuses to venture from the water due to his feelings of poor body image, much to the delight of all around who are intrigued to see why "Toad looks silly in a bathing suit." The appealing ensemble is fleshed out by Danielle Ferland (Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods), Kate Reinders (soon to be appearing as Dainty June in the upcoming revival of Gypsy), and Frank Vlastnik (recently seen in Sweet Smell of Success), who nearly steals the disc as Snail, a character that spends most of the show delivering a letter from Frog to Toad.

The album is not widely available at present (an oversight that will soon be rectified, I imagine, when the show hits Broadway).

DreamgirlsOne of the biggest travesties in musical theater history was partially rectified last year with the release of the 2001 benefit concert of Dreamgirls, which finally preserved the entire show in all of its conversationally intercut glory. While the cast as a whole is not as ideal nor as suited for the material as were the originals (Audra McDonald in particular is just too legit for the part of the Diana Ross-esque Deena Jones), the album sounds great (thank you Seth Rudetsky and Tommy Krasker) and the cast is obviously having a great time. Heather Headley's delightful comic turn as Lorrell is especially delightful (and shows her off infinitely better than her recent solo album).

Klea BlackhurstTribute shows are a tricky beast, as they not only have to live up to the subject but find a personal spin as well. In Everything the Traffic Will Allow, Klea Blackhurst not only did justice to her subject, Ethel Merman, but also crafted an incredibly entertaining cabaret show in the process, one that Time Out called one of the best shows of 2001. Her show was preserved on disc and makes for an incredibly entertaining listen. Throughout its 74 minute length, Klea displays a remarkable balancing act with nary a misstep: she manages to embody the energy and spark of one of the biggest stars (and voices) Broadway has ever produced, but does so without resorting to impersonation (the fact that Klea has a big, brassy voice and a solid comic spark aided in no small part). She also manages to provide valuable information on her subject without swamping us in details, and keeps us entertained all the while.

The show features songs from all fifteen Broadway shows that Merman was in, from her 1930 debut in Girl Crazy to her turn as Dolly Levi in 1970, and Klea is remarkable on all of them. From the brassy, belty "I Got Rhythm" (Girl Crazy) to the quietly introspective "Just a Moment Ago" (Happy Hunting), Blackhurst makes each song her own, all the while evoking the spirit of the legendary women she is lovingly referencing. For more information visit www.kleablackhurst.com

Broadway Musicals of 1940
Broadway Musicals of 1951
One of the more enjoyable 'one night only' theatrical events in New York has been Scott Siegel's Broadway by The Year series, in which Broadway and cabaret performers bring to life a year of Broadway history. This year saw two of the stronger offerings of the series released on CD: The Broadway Musicals of 1940 and The Broadway Musicals of 1951

The Broadway Musicals of 1940 is the better of the two, thanks to a delightful mix of the known (Pal Joey, Panama Hattie) and the obscure (Higher and Higher, Meet The People) and an incredible cast that features Bryan Batt, Natalie Douglas, Rob Evans and Julie Reyburn.

The Broadway Musicals of 1951 is no slouch in either department, however. Highlights include songs from known entities such as King and I (Davis Gaines' rendition of "Shall We Dance" being the most enjoyable number I have ever heard him perform), Paint Your Wagon (Leslie Kritzer delivering a bravura performance in "How Can I Wait?") and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Alison Fraser simply astounding on the heartrending "Make the Man Love Me" and the hysterical "He Had Refinement"). From the more obscure end of the spectrum comes numbers from Seventeen (a bouncy "Reciprocity," sung by Rebecca Eichenberger), Courtin' Time(the premier recording of "A Man Never Marries a Wife"), Bagels and Yox (another premier recording, "Chi-Ri-Bin, Chi-Ri-Bom," hysterically sung by Chip Zien), Make a Wish (Alison Fraser wowing the audience once again with "When Does This Feeling Go Away") Top Banana (Chip Zien having fun with a solo turn of the title tune), and Flahooley (Leslie Kritzer's devastating take on "Here's to Your Illusions"). As usual, the commentary provided by Scott Siegel is insightful and entertaining and the arrangements by Ross Patterson are delightful.

The final album on this list has proven to be the most difficult of choices to make, as there are a lot of CDs this year that fall into the 'good-with-reservations' category. Thoroughly Modern Millie has not worn well on my ears, for example. The more I hear it, the more I'm convinced it, like The Producers, is a case of 'great cast exceeding mediocre-to-good material'. While I enjoy Sweet Smell Of Success a great deal more, the ingénue numbers in general and Jack Noseworthy in particular make it a highly uneven album. Taboo is my guilty pleasure album of the year, but one can hardly call it a great or 'best' album. Harlem Song has a lot going for it, but again it is a 'good' album versus something that is exciting or will get a great deal of play by me.

La BohemeIf this is sounds like a qualitative/round-about way of justifying a choice, it probably is. However, the tenth Best of 2002 slot goes to Baz Luhrmann's Production of Puccini's La Boheme. While the majority of the attention that La Boheme has received has been for its look and staging (as well as whether or not an opera should be in a theatrical venue; a moot point since Joe Papp produced a production of the show at the Public Theater in 1984 with Linda Ronstadt in the lead), the simple truth of the matter is that this production, with its rotating cast of young leads, sounds about as good as it looks. While it is not a definitive recording by any stretch of the imagination, it is a very fresh sounding, well-sung rendition and the cast does an excellent job of connecting emotionally to the material.

As with the stage production, the album features a rotating trio of couples in the leading roles of Rudolfo and Mimi and two pairings of the secondary characters, Marcello and Musetta. My favorite pair vocally, Alfred Boe and Wei Huang, shine on the first two acts and the two are simply delightful in "Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi." The third act features David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva and the forth act rounds out the rotation with Jesus Garcia (who has more than a touch of young Pavarotti in his voice) and Lisa Hopkins. While having a variety of voices playing the parts makes things a touch jarring, they are all excellent singers adept at doing more than making 'pretty' sounds, delving into the heart of the lyric as well.

The orchestrations, containing roughly half the instruments usually played, remain lush and vibrant, and the score packs an emotional wallop. While one wishes that the show had been recorded in its entirety instead of being a 67 minute highlight disc, given Baz Luhrmann's penchant for follow-up albums, it would not be surprising if another companion recording was on the way.

Also see ... the Best Vocal Albums of 2002.


-- Jonathan Frank


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