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Some of the most adventurous musical theater takes place not on Broadway but off or off-off Broadway. Here are some examples, followed by a musical that may not be Off-Broadway but is certainly offbeat.

Rita GardnerRITA GARDNER
TRY TO REMEMBER:
A LOOK BACK AT OFF-BROADWAY

Harbinger Records

This CD feels like a present. It's a look at some of the highlights in the history of Off-Broadway musicals. To make a good thing better, everything is sung by a performer who has a special place in the history of Off-Broadway. Rita Gardner played the only female character in the original cast of the longest-running musical of all time. In 1960, she opened in The Fantasticks at a tiny theater on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. Four decades later, she returned to the fabled venue to present her concert of songs from various Off-Broadway musicals, including The Fantasticks - which was still running!

Although the live recording was made elsewhere, it drips with lingering nostalgia, and Rita sounds vibrant and immensely likeable on this guided tour down theatrical memory lane. Her spoken song set-ups and anecdotes put the times and tunes in context. and the well-paced presentation works well on disc. It's great to hear her bright, passionate and distinct voice. The vibrato may be wider and perhaps some musical twists and turns don't seem as effortless, but this lovely lady is robust and radiant. Forget any idea of an older singer cheating and faking it. She sings with full voice.

Naturally, The Fantasticks is prominent, with four of its numbers taking prime position - two at the top and two just before the end. You'll hear all the same vocal qualities Rita exhibited on that classic original cast album - yearning, determination, vocal power and yes, youthfulness - in her character's introductory "Much More." It leads into "I Can See It," which was not hers in the show. "Try To Remember" segues into the tender "They Were You" before returning to the famous request that gives the CD its title. Rita speaks warmly of her co-star, the late Kenneth Nelson whom she also worked with in the Jerry Herman revue Nightcap, and we get two charmers from that. One was their duet "Your Good Morning" (she entertainingly sings both parts) and the other is "No Tune Like a Show Tune" whose own tune was recycled for Mame as "It's Today."

Though showing tremendous affection for her theatrical endeavors, the star is not all starry-eyed about her past. She freely admits being disappointed in losing out on a part she did in workshop, then shrugs it off and happily breezes through the title song from Taking My Turn. Although she makes time for recalling her days in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and gives its intense "Carousel" another whirl, the act is an overview of Off-Broadway in general, not just her own resume. So Rita salutes other evergreens like "Lazy Afternoon" and "What I Did for Love" and, with her sterling pianist/musical director Alex Rybeck, zips through a five-minute medley with snippets from many shows. With Alex sometimes singing with her, they have a field day sampling everything from Little Mary Sunshine to Rent.

In addition to Alex's nimble playing and theatrical arrangements that add so much, credit is due those who nurtured this project through various versions. So, thanks to its director Barry Kleinbort, who produced the CD, and Mark Keller, producer of the live show. Mark is also executive producer for the recording of this reflective recital which includes two selections from Colette Collage (Rita was on that studio cast album) by the same writers who gave us The Fantasticks: Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones . These contrasting choices are "I Miss You" and, as an encore, "Joy" - a word that sums up the experience of hearing this album.

Rita Gardner's CD will be available in stores soon. For now, you can order directly from Ken Bloom at Harbinger Records for $12 each, including shipping. Just send a check to: Ken Bloom, Harbinger Records, 344 W. 49th Street, New York, NY 10019 or pay through Paypal to kabloom100@aol.com.

See What I Wanna SeeSEE WHAT I WANNA SEE
2005 Off-Broadway CAST

Ghostlight Records (a division of Sh-K-Boom)

With carefully designed theatrical force, See What I Wanna See comes at you like a sharp kick in the gut and as you're reeling, you're surprised to find it is starting to touch your heart more and more. The emotions and events are huge, but within that reality, there are tiny, constantly changing rhythms and shadings that make up a phrase. The cast album is a marvel of precision, with everything working together to achieve richly detailed moment-by-moment dramatic impact. What some might do with a string section in four bars of music is done here with a single instrument and two or three notes to crystalize a reaction or underline a character's intent.

Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations are constantly inventive without becoming exhausting or ever feeling like a barrage of effects. He's a magician with many tricks, but not slick ones. The musical direction of Chris Fenwick has energy and attention to the complexities. As it takes place in three distinct time periods, with wildly different types of characters, the music has great variety. It ranges from operatic to jazzy, from spare to lush.

Under stress and uneasy, the troubled folks in the two main sagas are often in conflict with themselves, each other and the truth, and this allows for the appropriate frequent shifts and hesitations. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa capitalizes on this tension and volatility and has synthesized it as musical expression. When the story allows a character to land on one emotion, it can be an explosion or a catharsis that feels inevitable, and thus can be quite thrilling. On the part of the listener, an investment must be made: concentration and a willingness to examine some of the darker, more complex and less comfortable aspects of human nature.

Actor-singer Henry Stram's performance is impressive and, for me, anchors the show. He finds the humanity and sympathetic aspects of the two men he plays, both in tight spots - and it really comes through in his performance on disc. Marc Kudisch's edgy tough guys, each with a gentle soul emerging, are well realized. Those who mostly know his comic side may be surprised at what a serious singer he can be. His big number in the second act is one of the best examples of hitting the target with many different emotions within one song. Aaron Lohr is charismatic and powerful, with a swagger and coiled rage that burns through effectively on the recording. Mary Testa is sensational, delivering needed humor and then turning around and turning in an elegant and restrained "There Will Be a Miracle." It's the one I'd put on "repeat play" as the stand-alone standout. Idina Menzel's powerhouse singing sometimes overwhelms the others, but her sass and loose cannon energy work in many moments in the murder story, and her more low-key contemporary actress character is endearing. Each of these performers has a fearlessness that pays off as they dive into this emotional material, and director Ted Sperling should get a great deal of credit here. His prior experience as a musical director serves him and the piece well.

For me, this is a show and score that becomes more appreciated each time I dip into it. Experienced first in the theater, the show could be confusing with a great deal to take in: using the same cast for three different tales, presenting different scenarios of events within a day with versions that couldn't or shouldn't co-exist in reality, and a whole other story after intermission. My own main reactions went from respect to admiration to, on later hearings, feeling more fully engaged, both intellectually and emotionally. Others may be swept up all at once. The last story is about redemption and faith with characters who are far more sympathetic than those in the other sections. Some might find that a more welcoming place to start. There is something very seductive about the music and some of the characters, as performed by this strong cast. It's impressive how the moods are captured and the storylines are encapsulated so efficiently in the album, so well produced by Sperling and Joel Moss, with label head Kurt Deutsch as executive producer. This is an Off-Broadway show that can put you off balance, but it's well worth the jolt.

SuburbSUBURB
WORLD PREMIERE (Off-Broadway) RECORDING

STUDIO & YORK THEATRE CAST

Good things are worth waiting for and the recording of Suburb is one of the best. This funny, warm, contemporary musical about the pluses and minuses of suburban life is finally moving into record stores. It was produced at the York Theatre five years ago and some members of that terrific cast are heard here along with tracks recorded even earlier. Nominated for the Drama League, Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Awards as Best Musical, it has seen other productions, and the recording being available beyond some tracks on the internet should increase its property value. Simply one of the most delightful small musicals, the album is entertaining and sharp from start to finish.

Lyricist David Javerbaum (currently at work on the musical based on the film Cry Baby and last year's winner of the Ed Kleban Award for musical theater writing) is a first rate lyricist. His rhyming is deft, and the songs are full of wit and keen observations. He doesn't come up short when heartfelt moments are called for in the plot. The melodies by Robert S. Cohen are bright and infectious with several lovely ballads that aren't afraid to have some comedy in them. The singers are up to the task of bringing them out with performances that have zip and flair and believable characters, whether singing "you are the cream in my cream cheese and chive" or of "the usual faces with the attache cases." An excellent duet to show the vulnerability of two men at opposite points in life, "Ready or Not," is done brilliantly. James Sasser appealingly plays a young husband who thinks he's ready for a mortgage and fatherhood, while Ron Butler is touching as the widower afraid of giving up his house and "giving into gray." Alix Korey as the loud, pushy real estate lady has a showstopping big number in which she claims to be "The Girl Next Door" despite having "30 years more and 20 more pounds on my frame." The final song, the sincere "Someday," shows her character's sensitive side in a quartet that also features the radiant singing of Nancy Anderson. Adinah Alexander and Jessica Wright shine, too. The other fine performers are Reathal Bean, Sandy Binion and Eric Rockwell.

Several group numbers sing the praises and terrors of backyard barbecues, shopping at the mall, and the cozy (or claustrophobic?) neighborhood routines. Two especially effective ensemble pieces about travel are standouts: "Commute" imitates the hypnotic rhythm of a train with the cast's individual musings and worries spilling out. A song for kids going to school has the cast sounding progressively older with each chorus, going from sweetness to bravado to cool as the verbs change from "walkin' to school" to "skatin'" and "bikin'" to "drivin'." The piano work by Kimberly Grigsby on this track is especially collaborative in making it work, while pianist Jeffrey R. Smith succeeds with the adult version of travel on the train track. (Smith is on all but five numbers; both these pianist/musical directors are tops throughout.)

It's too bad an overture of these very melodic songs wasn't done. Also, it would have been fun to have more of the dialogue (by both songwriters) preserved on the disc as there are some great bits. But at 66 and a half minutes, the disc is quite full. It's a very accessible CD with performances that should please those looking for something in the great musical comedy tradition. Its modern sensibilities and humor make it cornball-free. And the songs, like a perfect house in the suburbs, are welcoming and very solidly constructed. (More information is availble at the show's website, www.suburbthemusical.com)


UNDER THE RADAR

This week's entry might not be picked up by radar because its protagonist apparently comes from another star.

StarboySTARBOY
AN ANIMATED MUSICAL

DVD or CD SOUNDTRACK

Quirky and perky, Starboy is this week's musical theater discovery. Though billed as "a rock musical," it has a sweet poppy sound that won't alienate those who are allergic to harder rock. Actually, much of it is quite gentle. No screaming guitars or thundering drums are here, just a warm and fuzzy cousin of the musical comedy genre. It hasn't been Off-Broadway yet but has been performed as a live show at The Whitney Museum and the "Not for Broadway" Festival at Dixon Place in New York and elsewhere. Starboy has been around for a short while as an animated DVD feature and now has just been released as an audio soundtrack CD, with songs and linking narration, sound effects and dialogue. It's the brainchild of New York singer-songwriter Lee Feldman, who has a few albums to his credit, and animator Joe Campbell.

Our story begins, according to the lyrics, where, "on a distant star many light years away, people are dying and the food isn't satisfying to even the least discerning of the people on the star." Starboy is just your average flying superhero who lives with his uncle, a not very communicative mathematician. Our hero decides to leave their apartment to go to Puerto Rico to save the sponges. You see, the sponges have been leaving messages on their phone machine. ("Even sponges love their daughters," we are told.) There's also a phone message to call NASA, but apparently that can wait. Starboy falls madly in love with a girl who is madly in love with contrapuntal music and wants to cry but says "it's not appropriate in a Greek diner in Brooklyn, New York." Shy Starboy sings his mini-lament about feeling too "stupid" to meet her, with a loveable loser Charlie Brown quality. It's rough when you're two-dimensional and have your heart set on a real person.

The CD and DVD are being marketed as a kid-friendly story as well as to the general audiences with a taste for something off the beaten path. Lee Feldman sings his character voices with an innocence appropriate to the story. His music is simple and direct, and smile-inducing. The whole project is inventive. The animation art has a wonderful primitive and original quality. The colors are bright the images flow into each other with a dreamy, lazy quality that works well and blends detailed line drawings with collage-style art and candy-colored hues. A generous free preview of the visuals and music can be found at the website www.starboy.us and it's a trippy experience.

This project has a big, old-fashioned heart and I'd love to see this short piece, about a half hour long, expanded. It's fun, and the keyboard and percussion sounds keep the pace varied, with a nifty and ingratiating theme song, a high-energy dream sequence and a love ballad among the score's happy excursions before a tragic turn. With spear fishing and God among the songs' topics, this quaint, modest little musical with catchy tunes is unique.

That's our look at Starboy and some stars of Off-Broadway. More star treatment next week.


-- Rob Lester


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