This season’s only (currently running) musical revue, Swing!, bravely takes advantage of the recent resurgence of swing dancing, a theme that could have easily led to two hours of dusty schmaltz and reminiscence. However, for those of you who cringe at the thought of yet another revue, find solace in my words.
In the hands of Titanic choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett this slick little show has turned out to be a refreshing treat, as reflected by its cast album recently released on Sony Classical. Leading a stellar cast of musicians, dancers, and vocalists, cabaret superstar Ann Hampton Callaway vocally ignites the record with her breathtaking version of Johnny Mercer’s sultry “Blues in the Night.” Callaway unquestionably has the hottest voice on Broadway, bar none, end of story. Whether scatting up a storm with Everett Bradley (“Bli-Blip”) or yanking at your heart strings with “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Ann’s luminous presence makes this disc a necessity for all, not just cabaret and jazz/blues fans. Yet the other stars don’t let Ann steal all the limelight; Michael Gruber, Everett Bradley, and Casey MacGill are wonderfully charismatic as the leading male vocalists. Sometimes-musician MacGill has a history with big band (his award winning album Jump) and it certainly shows in his dapper performance.
Second only to the afore-lauded “Blues,” Laura Benanti’s “Cry Me a River” (a duet with a muted trombone) is simply heartbreaking. If nothing else, this disc certainly makes one respect and admire the inherent ability of blues and jazz to allow performers to truly emote. The vivid, scorching melodies by legends such as Duke Ellington and Earl Hagen are performed to perfection by the Gotham City Gates, Swing!’s house band.
There’s no doubt about it, these cats can jump, jive, and wail with the best of them. Perhaps some of the extended instrumental tracks grow tiresome on disc, and perhaps certain tracks such as “Boogie Woogie Country” come off as a tad ridiculous and out of place. But with such awesome performances, I just can’t hold it against them.
When Aida first opened in Atlanta in the fall of 1998, it was basically a campy, convoluted romp through ancient Egyptian folklore (which would have been a spectacular flop had it gone straight to New York). But when I saw it, I knew that the score showed some inkling of promise. Last March, Island Records released the concept album of Aida, which features performances from Elton John and many other rock and pop vocalists.
For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with the recording. It seems like most star-studded show albums suffer from the pop orchestrations inflicted upon them (remember that West Side Story charity album?). Messrs. John and Rice make no effort to masquerade their score as high art, and the result is a polished and quite enjoyable album.
The first half of the disc contains the best of the tunes, including Elton John and LeAnn Rimes’ power ballad “Written in the Stars,” sure to be a favorite on the talk show circuit this spring, and “My Strongest Suit” (the infamous fashion show song) with its unabashed refrain of “Overwear, underwear/anytime, anywhere.” The last portion isn’t quite as memorable as the first, save the soulful anthem “The Gods Love Nubia” and Shania Twain’s beautiful “Amneris’ Letter,” the most genuine and moving song in the lot.
My only beef with the disc is its unnecessary length. Catchy or no, the four-minute-plus length of almost all the songs bogs down the overall listening experience.
Besides being a theatrical institution unto itself, Charles Strauss and Martin Charnin’s Annie is a nod to the Broadway of yesteryear. In the twenty-three years since it first opened on Broadway, the strains of “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” have graced every community theatre and high school talent show at least once, thus validating the excellence of the classic score. The recent ABC-TV movie not only introduced a new generation to the piece, but also gave a bevy of Broadway’s finest the chance to shine for a national audience, making the subsequent album is a definite point of interest.
Alicia Morton (Les Miserables) stars in the coveted title role, and she certainly will be a promising starlet to watch in the future. Starring opposite her are Kristin Chenoweth (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown), Alan Cumming (Cabaret), Kathy Bates, Victor Garber (Art), and Audra McDonald (Marie Christine). Chenoweth and Cumming are delightful as Lily St. Regis and Rooster Hannigan, respectively, and their trio “Easy Street” with the surprisingly well sung Ms. Bates is a hoot.
The relationship between Oliver Warbucks (Garber) and Grace Farrell (McDonald) was an interesting aspect of the film, and it is wonderful to hear them duet in “NYC” (which features a cameo by original ‘Annie’ Andrea McArdle). Both give great performances, and I especially enjoyed Audra’s reprise of “Tomorrow.”
I am not familiar with the arrangements on the original cast album, but I found Martin Erskine’s orchestrations to be very pleasant. Some of the dialogue scattered throughout the disc was obviously lifted from the film and sounds rather hollow, but it is only noticeable upon closer inspection.