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TabooThe Broadway cast album for Taboo, easily the most talked about (as well as gossiped about and second guessed) show of last season, has finally been released on CD, thus preserving the two strongest elements of that beleaguered show: the score and the cast. The manner in which the show's producer, Rosie O'Donnell, went about promoting the show is certain to become a textbook case study on the do's (and mostly don'ts) of theatrical production, and her biggest mistake was in not having this cast album available immediately upon the show's opening, as it is undeniable that doing so would have generated enough buzz and word of mouth to have kept it open beyond its disappointing 100 performances.

However, the biggest problem of the show was rather insurmountable: in the transfer from London to Broadway, the show was sanitized to the point where even my middle-aged mother from North Dakota (who lists Taboo as her second favorite show after Assassins) was disappointed by the lack of grit and threat. The show is essentially a nostalgic look at the London club life of the '80s that spawned such over-the-top personalities as Boy George (played on both continents by the incredible Euan Morton) and Leigh Bowery (played by the show's musical creator, George O'Dowd, aka Boy George). In London, the main focus was on a heterosexual-ish pair of lovers enmeshed in that world, with the more interesting Boy George and Leigh Bowery as sideline characters. On Broadway, Leigh and George were wisely brought front and center. In the process, however, the show and its score were given an almost Disneyfied patina of gloss that dampened any sense of danger or illicitness that gave the show its spark. A prime example of this is the number "I'll have You All," the song that introduces us to the living piece of art that was Leigh Bowerey. In the original London production the number was performed by Leigh in a dirty men's room as he tried to pick up the protagonist of the show, Billy (changed to Marcus in New York). On Broadway, it's essentially a kick-line number celebrating male genitalia and tearoom sex. This may help explain why the number on the Broadway cast album, which sounds essentially the same in terms of style and orchestrations, lacks the sparkle and punch of the original version.

As one can imagine, the shift in the show's focus meant a major overhaul in the score. While the majority of the songs made the transfer across the pond, many were assigned to different characters, in most cases with little, if indeed any at all, changes in the lyrics, thus displaying the only weakness in the score: namely, that the songs, as strongly written and enjoyable as they are, are essentially pop songs versus character specific theater songs (for fun, try redistributing the songs of Assassins or Caroline, or Change amongst the various characters. Now do the same to Boy From Oz or Mamma Mia!).

However, the cast is incredible and does a remarkable job of plumbing the songs for every inch of emotional depth. Euan Morton is eerily effective at recreating the iconic, haunting tenor that was Boy George in the '80s in numbers like "Karma Chameleon" and "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" but is never strictly a mimic or an impersonator, as is evidenced in his performance on the heartbreaking ode to being an outsider, "Stranger In This World." Sarah Uriarte Berry as Leigh's assistant Nicola does an incredible job on the deathbed aria, "Il Adore" (a number that, ironically enough, was Big Sue's only solo in London). Jeffrey Carlson gives the show its moments of raw rock as the transsexual 'punk' wannabe Marilyn and shines on "Genocide Peroxide." As Leigh, Boy George is in some ways stronger on disc than on stage (perhaps because he is used to being a recording artist versus an actor). The two real standout performances, however, are Raul Esparza (as the club improsario, Philip Sallon) and Liz McCartney (Big Sue). Both performers knock every one of their numbers out of the ballpark and are vast improvements over anything heard on the original London recording. Raul's devastating and emotionally raw performance of "Petrified" and Liz's bravura "Talk Amongst Yourselves" are standouts on what is a highly listenable album.

Fiddler on the RoofI know that I am going to be burned at the stake with a scarlet "H" branded on my chest for this heresy, but I enjoyed, for the most part, Alfred Molina's toned down, conversational approach to the part of the archetypical Jewish milkman, Tevya in the current revival of Fiddler on the Roof more than I have ever enjoyed listening to Zero Mostel's performance on the original cast album. (For the record, however, my favorite recording and performance remains Topol's on the film's soundtrack). While having Molina's performance and delivery more closely resemble Pacino or De Niro took a while to get used to (I had the mental image once of God replying to him a la Brando in The Godfather), I preferred the more realistic touch to the part's usual broad, shtick-filled delivery - at least on stage. Listening to the recently released cast album did not always produce the same response. On certain parts of the disc Molina's conversational, direct-to-God take on the part works, such as in the opening number, "Tradition," (which remains one of the best opening numbers ever written for the stage in terms of perfectly setting up the themes and conflicts to follow). However, on numbers such as "If I Were a Rich Man," which needs to be more 'cry to the heavens' than Method introspection, his flattened delivery falls, well, flat.

There are other items to enjoy on the album, however. Since Fiddler on the Roof contains one of the most enjoyable scores every written for the stage, any album containing its songs is at least listenable. On this disc, "Evening Prayer," in particular, remains as beautiful and moving as ever. Also, Randy Graff, as Tevya's wife Golda, and Molina bring an emotional honesty to "Do You Love Me?", making it the most effective moment on the disc. Stripped from his 'Woody Allen by way of Roberto Benigni' visual hyperkineticism, John Carian's performance of tailor Motel is actually listenable.

Most significantly, the album contains the first collaboration between Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock in decades, "Topsy-Turvy" for the matchmaker Yente (played by Nancy Opel). That said, the number really isn't an improvement upon the number it replaces, "The Rumor," and doesn't serve to advance the plot or state anything that Tevya hasn't already declaimed (essentially that the traditions of the old world are giving way to those of the new). The disc also is the most complete Fiddler recording to date, containing the "To Life" dance break, "The Leave-taking" (in which the townspeople abandon Anatevka), "Chavaleh," plus a larger portion of "Tradition" and of the wedding ceremony between Tzeitel and Motel, as well as more complete inclusions of Tevya's soliloquies with God than have appeared on earlier cast recordings.

If we Only Have LoveOver twenty years ago, Karen Akers made her Broadway musical debut in Maury Yeston's Nine. Last year, Akers revisited songs from Nine in Theatre Songs at the Algonquin, a cabaret show comprised of nothing but songs culled from the theater. Her latest album, If We Only Have Love, contains eleven musical theater numbers, most of which were in Theatre Songs. Listening to her revisit "My Husband Makes Movies" and "Be On Your Own" (plus "Unusual Way," which Akers recorded on a solo CD), it is astonishing to hear just how little Akers' voice has changed since Nine (indeed, unlike most performers, the years have impacted her lower register versus her upper, which is obvious only on her newly recorded version of "My Husband Makes Movies" as its subterranean octave leaps have been modified). Her voice, and more importantly her delivery, has become warmer and more inviting over the years, making her revisiting of the songs from Nine and other previously recorded numbers ("Send in the Clowns," "Somewhere," "I Have a Love," and "I Know Him So Well," the latter of which is effectively paired with "Anthem") all the more delightful.

While the majority of the album is devoted to musical theater standards, it is the lesser performed numbers ("Patterns" from Baby, "A Sleeping Bee," from House of Flowers, and "My Childhood" and "If We Only Have Love" from Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris) that are the most engaging. The only flaw in the album is that it does not include more rarities, as opposed to her Algonquin show, which included such lesser-performed gems as "But Alive"and virtually unknown numbers like "Smart Women," from Craig Carnelia and Marvin Hamlisch's Imaginary Friends. But that is nitpicking as If We Only Have Love is a superb album from a one-of-a-kind singer.

Fine and DandyOver the last few years, PS Classics has been picking up the slack caused by the lack of interest larger labels have shown towards recording cast albums. This year, the folks at PS Classics have launched a new not-for-profit arm of their company dedicated to preserving unrecorded shows from the past. Their inaugural release is Fine and Dandy a 1930 hit by Kay Swift and Paul James that somehow escaped recording up to now. Kay Swift's life would make for a wonderful movie (a book on her life, Fine and Dandy: The Life and Work of Kay Swift by Vicki Ohl was published this month). She was the first female Broadway composer as well as a staff composer at Radio City Music Hall when it first opened. She was romantically linked to George Gershwin and helped him arrange and copy the score for Porgy and Bess. Later on, she wrote the score for Cornelia Otis Skinner's 1952 one-woman hit, Paris '90. Three of her songs have become standards: "Fine and Dandy," "Can This Be Love?" and "Can't We Be Friends?"

The show, which is part vaudeville, part social satire but all musical comedy, is a light, tuneful confection that resembles Me And My Girl or lighter gems in the Cole Porter oeuvre. Its original star, Joe Cook, was one of the most popular entertainers of the day and for this recording, PS Classics assembled a top notch cast that includes Carolee Carmello, Gavin Creel, Andrea Burns, Mario Cantone, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mark Linn-Baker and Deborah Tranelli, all of whom are used to stunning effect. While most of the songs are frothy confections, such as the title song (sung by Carmello and Cantone) or "Let's Go Eat Worms in the Garden" (sung by Creel and Carmello), some of the numbers are downright lovely, such as "Can This Be Love?" (beautifully sung by Carmello, who is also powerful on the driving "Nobody Breaks My Heart," a number that deserves greater exposure). The album also contains extra tracks featuring jazz/cabaret performers Natalie Douglas ("Up Among the Chimney Pots"), Jack Douglas ("Whistling in the Dark," a number cut from The Little Show), John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey ("Can't We Be Friends?"), and Ann Hampton Callaway ("Once You Find Your Guy") that were also written by Kay Swift.

BounceAs it is Stephen Sondheim's first new musical in nearly a decade, Bounce comes with more baggage than any show should have to bear. After five years of workshops, regional mountings in Chicago and Washington D.C. (whose lackluster receptions put the brakes on a New York transfer) and a recently aborted Actor's Fund Benefit concert, the show (which has gone through two name changes as well: Wise Guys and Gold!) has finally been released on CD by Nonesuch, giving fans of musical theater a chance to listen for themselves. While the album is not dreadful by any means, neither does it give any indication that Bounce measures up to the (admittedly high) bar raised by the man many consider to be the living master of the genre.

Bounce tells the based-on-fact tale of two brothers, Wilson (played by Howard McGillin) and Addison (played by Richard Kind) Mizner, who keep alternating between rags and riches, thanks to fortune (both good and ill) and various shady schemes concocted by Howard. Along the way, each finds love: Howard with Nellie (Michele Pawk) and Addison with Hollis Bessemer (Gavin Creel). One would think that the Mizner's tale would be a natural fit for both Sondheim and the show's book writer, John Weidman, as it explores the underbelly of society as viewed through American history, topics that the two men explored so brilliantly in Assassins. That actually is the biggest problem with Bounce: a strong sense of 'been there/heard that' pervades the piece, and unfortunately all of the elements were explored more strongly the first time around.

Musically, the show sounds remarkably like Assassins, which is no surprise as it takes place during the time frame of 1896 through 1933, years that saw a number of the Presidential assassination attempts chronicled in Assassins; and thus the two shows share many period musical styles. However, one also hears 'ghosts' of previous Sondheim numbers throughout Bounce, which gets to be very disconcerting after a while. Admittedly, it is hard to tell how much of that is due to what Sondheim wrote versus what Jonathan Tunick orchestrated, as the majority of the 'echoes' comes via the orchestrations. Still, hearing elements of the arrangement of "The Right Girl" from Follies in Bounce's "Talent," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" in its title number, and having the arrangement of "Boca Raton" sound as if it were lifted directly from Sunday in the Park with George makes for a very déjà vu filled listening experience.

Whatever Bounce's flaws, one cannot fault the cast, all of whom are spectacular. It is too bad that that show won't reach Broadway as it has been too long since Howard McGillin has graced the stage with an original part, and he and Michelle Pawk truly make beautiful music together. And Richard Kind, best known for his TV work in Spin City and Mad About You (but who has performed at The Guthrie Theatre, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Second City), is surprisingly strong and emotionally connected as the put-upon brother.

Bossa NovaFor over two decades, jazz guitarist/singer John Pizzarelli has had a love affair with the Latin musical form, bossa nova. Thus, it is startling that it has taken this long for him to release a CD devoted to this genre of music. Aptly entitled Bossa Nova, the album is a salute to the legendary João Gilberto, whose landmark album, Amoroso, started John's exploration of the form. John's strong but understated jazz guitar playing and unassuming but lively vocals are accompanied by his regular group (pianist Ray Kennedy and bassist Martin Pizzarelli) plus several other musicians who join in on selected tracks.

As can be expected, most of the songs are Brazilian. Five of the numbers were written by the master himself, Antonio Carlos Jobim, including a softly swinging "The Girl From Ipanema" that strips the song of its lounge clichés. Other Brazilian highlights include a warm and sexy "Estate" and the romantic "Desafinado," (which includes more than a trace of winking irony as the song is about singing off key).

Not all of the pieces are Brazilian, but the translating of those songs into the bossa nova form is surprisingly effective. Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm" easily lends itself into a bossa nova and is enhanced by the potent tenor sax of Harry Allen. James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face" benefits from a Latin beat, a brisker setting, and a flute choir. While it took a while for me to warm to a setting of Stephen Sondheim's "I Remember" that adds an evocative string arrangement by Don Sebesky to the background (probably because Dianne Reeves has performed such a definitive jazz version of the song), through repeated listenings the number has become as warm and inviting as the rest of the album. Overall, this is an incredibly romantic and sensual album that retains the playful quality that is John Pizzarelli's hallmark.

Strange WeatherOne of the biggest challenges a performer faces is the discovery of his or her own 'voice': the quality that essentially comes from within the performer that is unique and organic to the person. The process is usually an evolution rather than a destination, and sometimes it causes one to take a few back or to travel a less effective side road along the way. Such is the case with Jack Donahue, whose latest CD, Strange Weather sees the performer exploring the world of jazz rather than inhabiting it. As a performer on stage and on his previous disc, Lighthouse, Donahue showed an incredible ability to interpret a lyric that was nearly second to none. On Strange Weather, however, he seems to have bought into the hoary cliché that jazz singers do not need to concern themselves with lyrical interpretation. Thus the album makes for a bit of an exercise in frustration. On the one hand, there is Donahue-the-incredible-lyric-interpreter pouring his soul and intelligence into the numbers on the disc that are not particularly 'jazzy' in style, such Jay Leonhart's discourse on artistic patronage, "Robert Frost," and Alec Wilder/Loonis McGlohon's "Blackberry Winter" (the latter of which is given the best interpretation I have ever heard). On the numbers that are given a more typical jazz arrangement by Grammy winning jazz artist Peter Eldridge, however, Donahue seems more concerned with the style given to the song over the substance that lies within, and as a result lyrical interpretation takes a backseat, such as in the standards "Let's Do It," "Smile" (which has been reinterpreted as a breathy dirge), and "Lost in the Stars" (which starts off strong, but one can pinpoint the exact moment where lyrical interpretation gives way to style).

One Last FlutterFor over two decades, the comedy trio Fascinating Aida has been delighting audiences with their tight harmonies and vicious wit. While they describe themselves as " 'Absolutely Fabulous' meets Noel Coward, as sung by the Andrews Sisters," their blend of social satire and tight harmonies are truly unique. Their latest album (and quite possibly their last as the group has announced their retirement), One Last Flutter, reunites the group's two core members, Dillie Keane (the group's originator and songwriter) and Adele Anderson (who has been with the group almost from the start and is a frequent collaborator with Keane on the songs) with Marilyn Cutts (who was one of the first sopranos in the group).

As with their previous albums, One Last Flutter is chock full of biting numbers that skewer everything from Botox (in "The Enemy of Beauty," which preaches the benefits of immobility), the current socio-political climate ("Suddenly New Zealand" and "Stick Your Head Between Your Legs"), menopause ("Is It Me or is it Hot in Here"), pretentious art ("Yes But is it Art?," sung by the group's pianist, Russell Churney), and being a regional actress ("Ealing Broadway Baby"). This time around, however, the trio intersperses the humor with some surprisingly touching numbers, chief of which is "Little Shadows," in which a woman reminisces on a childless life. While hopefully this does not represent the end of the group, if it does, One Last Flutter would make a touching and effective swan song.

CompanyLast month, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs presented their 18th annual MAC Awards Show. Two of this year's winners have albums that have not been reviewed but deserve attention: Jeanne MacDonald (who won "Best Female Vocalist") and Maria Gentile (whose song "Kindness Makes Me Cry" won "Song of the Year").

This has been an incredible year for Jeanne MacDonald, who not only won a MAC Award this year, but received the Nightlife Award for "Best Female Vocalist" and a rave review in the New York Times. Her album, Company (named after a touching number by Rickie Lee Jones and Alfred W. Johnson and not the song by Sondheim) is one of the best cabaret/vocalist albums out there. While her pure, crystalline vocals and emotional honesty are prime contributors to her appeal, they do not adequately tell the whole story. Basically, MacDonald has 'it;' that rare, indescribable quality that raises a performer beyond what is quantifiable and into something that cannot adequately be written about. Her instincts on song selection are impeccable, but many of the numbers are standards associated with other performers. However, MacDonald makes every song her own and infuses it with an originality and, for lack of a better word, essence that makes it an alchemic miracle; a transformation of base material into something new and rare. Every song is a 'highlight,' thanks in no small part to understated arrangements by Rick Jensen, but if I had to choose three they would be a light, almost spiritual (in tone not style) "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," a version of "There's a Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd" (from Ballroom) that is by turns jazzy, introspective, and celebratory, and a wistful "Lazy Afternoon" (from The Golden Apple).

Maria GentileIf you have hung out at the piano bar area of The Duplex for any length of time, you may already be familiar with Maria Gentile as she works there as a performing server. Cabaret viewers who attended The Duplex's acclaimed New Mondays series may have been fortunate enough to have seen Gentile and her writing partner, Caren Cole, present some of their original compositions, one of which ("Kindness Makes Me Cry") won this year's MAC Award for "Song of the Year." Gentile's album, That ... Which is Real, is a collection of eleven original compositions sung by Gentile, who possesses a roughened rock/folk voice that pierces right to the heart. Her lyrics are sharp and honest, especially on her 9/11 tribute, "Amputated Skyline," which is one of the most effective numbers tackling the topic that I have heard, due in no small part to its evocative simplicity. Other highlights include "I'd Rather Never Know," a touching number on a dying relationship, and "If I Was a Boy," a heartrending number seeking a distant father's love.

West Side Story
A Star is </td></tr>Born
Two Hollywood soundtracks with strong Broadway connections have been re-released: West Side Story and A Star is Born (the Judy Garland version, mind you, notthe Barbra Streisand remake). The originally released material on both discs sounds vastly superior than on previous releases, thanks to advances in restoration technology. More importantly, both albums contain material never before released on disc. While West Side Story's additional material is relatively minor (the overture, intermission music, finale, and end credits), the newly discovered material for A Star Is Born impacts nineteen of the albums twenty-six tracks. While most of the additional material is instrumental, new vocal tracks include an alternate take of "It's a New World," "When My Sugar Walks Down The Street," and "The Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo Commercial." The sound quality on the previously unreleased material is excellent overall, especially when one considers that Warner Bros. did not keep source materials, making any sort of restoration an exercise out of a detective movie. Given the new material and cleaner transfers, both discs are 'must haves' for any movie (and theater) lover's collection.


-- Jonathan Frank


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