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Susan EganBest known for originating the role of Belle in the stage version of Beauty And The Beast (except for fans of the WB, who know her as a cynical Vegas dancer in the show Nikki), Susan Egan has finally released her first solo album, So Far. And what a risky album it is, being comprised of songs she has done in musicals stretching back into her high school and community theater days. In fact, upon looking at the track list, my first reaction was to roll my eyes and question whether the world really needed another version of "A Wonderful Guy" or "How Lovely To Be A Woman." Surprisingly enough, the answer is a resounding "Oh yeah!" especially when interpreted by Egan, who has a remarkable ability to make even the hoariest of chestnuts sound fresh and new.

Egan does wonders with "The Story Goes On" from Baby, a song long solely identified with Liz Callaway, and infuses it with an understated sense of awe and wonder. She gives a delightful spark (and, in fact, a touch of Meg from Hercules) to "A Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific and a touching simplicity to "It Might As Well Be Spring." While most of the arrangements appear to be influenced by (if not outright taken from) the original stage productions, the highlight on the album for me, "Sooner Or Later" (from Dick Tracy/Putting It Together), gives us an idea of what would happen if Sondheim wrote a James Bond theme.

Other highlights include the world premier recording of "A Change In Me," which was added to Beauty And The Beast when Toni Braxton took over Belle, and "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret," which give a glimpse into Susan's portrayal of Sally Bowles on Broadway (although having her suddenly slip into an English accent on the album is more than a little disconcerting, especially since it isn't obvious until several lines into "Maybe This Time"). Overall, So Far is a wonderful album by one of Broadway's best (and underutilized) singers.

SignatureAnn Hampton Callaway has taken a similar risk with her latest album, Signature, which celebrates the singers that influenced her by containing a signature tune from each of them. This is a huge risk, as it invites comparison to the originals, which include Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. Happily, Ann is more than up to the challenge and has put out one of her strongest albums to date with a CD that is sensual and playful by turns.

Ann has always been one of the warmest and wittiest of performers both on stage an on record and Signature showcases her at her best singing songs both touching (a haunting "Tenderly") and playful ("Mr. Paganini," which displays why Ann is one of the few singers since Ella Fitzgerald who can make scat-singing palatable, and "Twisted," which has a Greek chorus of 'Schizoids' as back up singers). As always, Ann is one of the rare few able to penetrate the heart of a lyric while remaining true to the playful nature of jazz, making Signature highly recommended.

Bea ArthurAfter an absence from Broadway of over thirty years, Bea Arthur is currently back on the boards with her one-woman show, Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends . The show was recorded live while was in its pre-Broadway tour (and called And Then There's Bea) and the subsequent album captures Bea Arthur in all her wry-witted, bass-voiced glory. The show is comprised of stories that are hysterical (and often times historical) and songs that usually have nothing whatsoever to do with the discussion at hand (not that it matters). To hear Bea sing "Some People" is to mourn the loss of what could have been the ultimate Mama Rose. To hear her sing "Fifty Percent" is to have your heart broken in an entirely different manner. Billy Goldenberg (who wrote "Fifty Percent" with the Bergmans) provides the subtle solo piano accompaniment and the album provides over an hour of sheer delight. Until somebody gets the bright idea to record the show for video/DVD, this is the next best thing to being there.

Great Cabaret PerformancesDRG Records has also released two compilation albums that are well worth getting. One, Great Cabaret Performances, celebrates twenty-five years of cabaret recordings by DRG and is a wonderful sampler for those looking to expand their cabaret library (and who isn't?). Performers include cabaret legends Karen Akers, Barbara Cook, Amanda McBroom, Julie Wilson (who sings what may be the definitive version of "I'm Still Here"), and Nancy LaMott. Stars with jazz backgrounds (Ann Hampton Callaway, Billy Stritch, Jay Leonhart) and from Broadway (Dorothy Loudon, Faith Prince, and Elaine Stritch) are also well represented and provide a marvelous mix of talent. Unless you already possess the twenty CDs from which the songs are pulled (something even I can't boast of), you are bound to make some exciting discoveries from the CD.

Richard RodgersThis being the centennial of Richard Rodgers' birth, DRG has also released Richard Rodgers Centennial Celebration with The Sound Of His Music , which contains songs culled from a variety of DRG sources. They are evenly split between cast albums (Pal Joey, State Fair, Babes in Arms and The Boys From Syracuse) and solo albums by vocalists ranging from Barbara Cook to Josephine Baker to Shirley Bassey (indeed: her version of "The Lady Is A Tramp" is worth the price of the album alone!). Other performers include Karen Akers, Portia Nelson, David Campbell and Patti LuPone, making this an extremely eclectic celebration of a remarkable composer's work.


-- Jonathan Frank


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