Here we have a handful of studio cast albums, for shows that were presented on stage with other casts or shows that haven't seen a full production yet. As a listener, it's what's on the disc, not who was on the boards, that counts.
LATE NITE COMIC
There was no original cast album of Late Nite Comic, the short-lived and much-revised 1987 Broadway show which starred Robert LuPone. However, the following year, a recording was released by Original Cast Records which featured the show's songwriter, Brian Gari, singing most of the songs and joined by Julie Budd, Robin Kaiser and Michael McAssey (who was in the actual cast). Some material cut or revised before Broadway was restored for that album. Now, a full two decades later, the same record label has released another version, with some excellent musical theatre performers who bring out new colors in the material and lots of personality.
In this new version, the title character is played in turn by no fewer than nine performers - who aren't all cut from the same vocal cloth, but what a line-up: Chip Zien, Brian D'Arcy James, Daniel Reichard, Jason Graae, Sal Viviano, Martin Vidnovic, Howard McGillin, Mario Cantone and Rupert Holmes. Though part of me would like to hear the arc of the character represented by a sole performer, I'd be hard pressed to choose among these talents, each of whom truly shines and is well matched to the assigned material. For example, Mario Cantone is merrily maniacal on "Obsessed" and Rupert Holmes is touching in two versions of the wistful and attractive title song about how it's lonely at the bottom, reminiscent of his own similarly toned song, "Studio Musician."
There are some very entertaining renditions here as we look in on a piano bar entertainer named David at various points in his up and down journey toward being a comedian, and his on-again, off-again romance with a dancer. That role is shared by Liz Callaway, Liz Larsen and Julia Murney, all of whom bring out the character's vulnerability and tenacity. Liz Larsen and real-life husband Sal Viviano deftly toss off a lighter moment in a duet cut from the musical and not on the prior album, "They Live in L.A."
The score is a bit of a mixed bag, with some songs feeling more "pop" than theatrical and some more inspired in their rhymes and specific characterizations and attitudes. There's a lot of variety here, beyond just the many names on the vocal landscape - mood-wise, there's youthful yearning, lively tunes and a generous dash of cutely hard-edged show biz sarcasm when the gruff, tough, know-it-all comedy club owners boast of being "The Best in the Business." That song is sung by folks who've been among the best in the business of making us laugh: Mary Testa, Tony Roberts, Paul Shaffer and Seth Rudetsky, each of whom reappears elsewhere.
This very full album (clocking in at more than 72 minutes) includes a final track called "Late Nite Saga," also heard on the CD version of the 1988 LP , with Brian Gari singing his own dishy piece de resistance that's partly about his resistance. It's a revealing mix of lamenting, comic and caustic comments and catharsis relating the behind-the-scenes tale of woe about how the actual show came to be and came to be troubled. Also among the 23 tracks are instrumentals: an overture, entr'acte and an extended instrumental section for a partially sung number called "Dance" than runs almost 13 minutes. Like the first recording, this one depends too heavily on synthesized sounds but brings back the musical work for the original production by Larry Hochman (arrangements and orchestrations) and James Raitt (dance music and vocal arrangements).
I've always had kind of a soft spot for the score of this show whose title might mislead you into thinking it's mostly jokey. There's definitely some effective humor, but at its heart it's the heartfelt songs that are its enduring strength. There's a tear lurking behind the Comic's punch lines and bravado. So, thanks to the frequent excavator of scores of scores, Original Cast Records, for that and to all concerned for donating the profits to The Actors Fund. This late look at Late Nite Comic, a show that might have been a footnote in Broadway history, is worth the revisiting.
If they give out Charm Awards somewhere, Dreamland would be a sure winner. The only problem is how to categorize it. A love story told through plenty of dialogue with classic pop and theatre songs woven in (note those song cues!), it's more of a radio play than a cast album. There are some incidental sound effects, too, and the overall effect is delightful and endearing. Knowingly cornball at times, and quirky with a dash of melodrama, it remains unabashedly romantic and old-fashioned.
In our guy meets gal/ guy loses gal/ guy (spoiler alert!) gets gal story, the well-cast stars show their fondness for the sweet songs of yesteryear; they're very comfortable with the repertoire. Brent Spiner, known to theatre fans for the revival of 1776 and the recent Life x 3 and to TV viewers from "Star Trek," made an album of old standards some years ago. He has a modest but very likeable voice and easygoing way with a song and dialogue. (He also wrote the story and is one of the producers of this enterprise.) Our love-hungry, befriendable Everyman hero projects a rumpled kind of fellow with a little insecurity and a big heart. The smooth Spiner sound is warm and consistently dulcet.
The leading lady is Maude Maggart who has made a name for herself in cabaret singing songs from the first few decades of the 20th century. (Her latest show, also on the topic of dreams, opens at New York's Algonquin Hotel on the first of April.) Maude is at her best and most relaxed here, melodies floating through her with ease. Dreamy is indeed the right word. In some scenes where the man is recalling times from the past, her singing voice is heard with echo as if in his misty memory and that adds to the ethereal sound her voice naturally has. She also proves herself to be a natural actress, quite effective in scenes where she's called on to be playful, agitated or sincere. A vocal group is also heard, mostly in the background. Additional character voices for dialogue scenes are provided by actor Mark Hamill and others.
Songs from Broadway shows include "Somebody Loves Me," "Some Enchanted Evening," "Stranger in Paradise," "Come Back to Me" and the plain old statement of Cole Porter's, "I Love You." But the innocence and marshmallow center of the heart of this story is perhaps best illustrated by "You Were Meant for Me," the movie song from 1929 (it appeared in three different movies in that year). The honeyed nostalgic mood is enhanced more than subliminally by the vocal group drifting through, sometimes under dialogue or heard just briefly. Not surprisingly, it's the songs related to the Dreamland ambience that do the job best: Johnny Mercer's "Dream" and Frank Sinatra's radio theme from the 1940s, "Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day)."
A dream of an orchestra with lots of strings - including a ukulele and a harp! - is on hand, with retro sound. John McKinney is the arranger, orchestrator and conductor and also a co-producer. Sound designer Dave Way is the third member of the producing team.
In the wrong hands, this endeavor could have been treacly or self-consciously labored. But, with humor and what feels like a natural and willing fit for old radio-style drama and non-condescending fondness for songs where romance is the be-all and end-all, it all works.
The CD is currently available at www.therealbrentspiner.com/.
MID-LIFE!: THE CRISIS MUSICAL
Cosmetic surgery, setting and achieving new goals - they're all ways of dealing with middle age, but two other methods might work better: sense of humor and denial. So it seems with the revue that casts its Lasik-surgery-enhanced eye at aging: Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical. Topics include the expected focus on the physical changes (handling love handles, shrinking hairlines, growing prostates) but it's the funnybone that gets the most attention: this is funny stuff. Canny, clever, pun-filled and fun-filled takes on growing pains don't grow tired because the topics are varied enough and there are rewarding little surprises along the way within what seem to be predictable list songs.
Music, lyrics and book by brothers Bob and Jim Walton are well crafted with their share of clever rhymes and peppered with wit and sting. In many cases, just when things start to become too silly, something heartfelt is thrown in, and vice-versa. Like many single-topic revues, Mid-Life's crisis comes when it starts to feel repetitive with the same old same old(er). Certainly some numbers are stronger and more original than others as aging gracelessly has long been the fodder for jokes; some winking punch lines resemble the best of those wisecrack birthday cards you see. Set to music - bouncy, catchy music brightly orchestrated for a small band – things feel zippy and fresh. Its best moment is about senior moments, "What Did I Come In Here For?" There is a little spoken material included, weaving in and out of songs, and notes indicate that two sketches and songs from the show are not on the album.
The musical has been produced around the country (currently in Florida, its 19th mounting) and was developed to be done with solo piano accompaniment. This recording has a studio cast with six singer-actors, including David Hibbard and Laurie Walton (Bob's talented wife) who were in the 2004 presentation at the New York Musical Theatre Festival when it had some different material and was known as The Eyes Are the First Thing to Go. Joining them for this premiere cast recording are Karen Mason, Mylinda Hull, Marcus Neville and Kevin Pariseau, all Broadway-experienced performers with comic skills whose sharp timing enhances the material. They are a fine ensemble and each has moments to shine, though only three of them have full-fledged solos. Each of those is a highlight: Karen's "When He Laughs" expertly mixes a reality check with new-found feelings; David's "Turning Forty" chronicles the habits of his father he seems to have suddenly taken on; Marcus' "My Lost Love" is an example of smartly underplaying cute word play. There's a so-so male-bonding song where the guys team up for sports and a better female-bonding number relishing the just desserts their unfaithful men get.
Most of this is light and frothy, good-natured, and thankfully does not wander to the extremes of wimpiness, crass or maudlin as other songs and revues on the topic have done. Though mostly tame enough not to cause a blush and easygoing enough not to be emotionally painful, the material and cast don't duck some real feelings. Mid-Life finds the middle ground and unlike some comic material, on repeat listening this zingy show about aging ages quite well.
More information on the show can be found by visiting www.midlifethecrisismusical.com.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
The frequently recorded score of Annie Get Your Gun (for starters, original star Ethel Merman was brought into recording studios for three different versions) is a feast. Rich with big, fat musical comedy moments and bursting with joyful showstoppers and a few golden ballads, who can resist another shot at the sharp-shooters' story? This 1963 studio cast album, with the advent of the new-fangled sound of "Stereo!" providing a reason to have at it again, has always been one of my favorites.
It's hardly the most theatrical or consistent, but it was a pleasure to hear the hit-packed score in the voices of the studio leads, Doris Day and Robert Goulet. Though ostensibly declared to be a cast album-style theatrical presentation, some of the tracks find these two, who were regularly recording solo albums at the time, in recording studio mode in their more intimate, shaded approach to cozying up to the microphone and thus the listener. To me, it's the best of both worlds: there's that side plus some real big singing on the ones requiring some brio and brashness.
Related to this and also on the plus side, there were new orchestrations created by Philip J. Lang - who'd been one of the original production's orchestrators but was replaced. (He got the job back 17 years later - there's no business like show business, as the score's hit said.) These orchestrations are quite different from other dressings of these Irving Berlin songs (hooray for that sparkling overture!). There's humor in some of the details, crispness in the selection of orchestrated figures assigned to various instruments, different tempi, and some prominent use of strings to make some moments feel cushiony and tender. It's also nice to have another version of one perky ditty missing on some other recordings: "Who Do You Love, I Hope" written for secondary characters and sung here with freshness and cheer by Kelly Brown and Renee Winters. (We can't complain about the absence of the showstopper "An Old-Fashioned Wedding," since it wasn't quite in the air at the time of this recording; it would be added just for the 1967 revival.)
The late Robert Goulet (to whom DRG Records dedicates this first CD issue) was at his best here, finding just the right combination of grandstanding male ego bombast, crooning tenderness and humor, which is appealing even if it is more self-knowing too soon for his particular character. Unlike some presentations of the score, this leading man did not suffer from blandness or stiffness, or pale in the presence of the female lead. It's a good 50/50 match with some thoughtful phrasing and enough macho strut to fill the bill. Doris Day's Annie is a welcome cousin to her characterization in the film Calamity Jane where she was another backwoods, feisty gal who sang some songs with grit, rather than the trademark Doris demure daintiness many of her records exhibited. However, she slips numerous times into doing what came naturally in her "Day job" as the ladylike, breathy sweetheart recording star. Also, the tougher, deliciously unsophisticated accent, pulled off so well in "I'm an Indian, Too" and elsewhere, seems to suddenly appear when ballads come along. Still, they are satisfyingly pretty and polished renditions.
I miss the vocal blend that can be a highlight in the choral work in "Moonshine Lullaby" and, likewise, the children's chorus sounds disappointingly blah and non-theatrical in both their appearances (I guess it's safe to criticize child performers when they'd be middle-aged by now?).
The sound is bright and warm on this reissue. The original liner notes from the Columbia vinyl record are included, along with the interesting text of an interview done about a decade ago between Ted Chapin of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization (the show's original producers in 1946) and his father, Schuyler Chapin, who headed the record label's Masterworks department at the time and had this as his second assignment. I know some musical theatre fans avoid studio cast albums as being watered down unless they're the only choice available; this one has more going for it than most and the sensibilities of the show are there with some refreshingly invigorated takes.
UNDER THE RADAR
In development for several years, winning awards as a screenplay first and just recently given a staged industry reading in New York, here's a musical on a big scale with big emotions - and a big score, too. Its two acts take up two CDs, available separately. Jonathan David Sloate created the music, lyrics and book (a little dialogue is included).
Immediately upon hearing the intense, pounding opening of the overture, you know you're in for angst and high drama with The New Picasso. What follows reinforces that first impression: oh, the music is churning! ... the characters are yearning! ... the flame of love is burning! ... the emotional tide is turning! This story of a man with a passion to be a great painter who has his share of troubles with professional rejection and personal/ romantic troubles, encouraged finally by a departed loved one to stick to it and believe in himself, thus has a bit in common with Sunday in the Park with George. However, often its intensity, florid flavor, and leaning toward musical melodrama is more in the vein of Sunset Boulevard and this non-cheery, sometimes dreary show, in its declamatory and tragic numbers recalls the anguish of characters in Les Miserables, if less miserable.
Often grand and sweeping, it also has some quiet, sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve numbers that are tender. There are some very attractive melodies ("Wind-Up Doll," "Girl of My Dreams") and some powerful and elegant ones ("I Believe" is, I believe, both at the same time). Lyrics don't impress as much, being less engaging when they sometimes fall into one of two extremes: too plain or too hyperbolic. Some don't fully or artfully develop - and in a few cases don't scan well. When they do find the right balance, they can be convincing and even riveting ("All the Lonely People"). There's talent evident in the work of this writer, with a gift for melody and capturing a strong if generalized sense of emotion in the musical choices.
Some of the tracks were recorded with a 59-piece orchestra in Prague - not what you might expect on a demo recording. With impressive commitment, sensitivity and fervor playing the lead character Jon is Max von Essen and he's featured on half the vocal tracks. His performance is often exciting and vocally dynamic - throbbing and sobbing to be sure, but with several especially rewarding subtle moments. Robert Cuccioli is the "ever-scheming" art dealer, clearly the villain of the piece and he sings and fumes with diabolical rage, going full throttle. His performance recalls his work in Jekyll and Hyde (his co-star from that musical, Christiane Noll, has a small but striking role as the mother, with the anthem-like "Live Your Dream," heard in both acts). Brooke Sunny Moriber has some lovely moments on the act one disc as the childhood sweetheart (her character apparently disappears in the second act or has no singing there). The other main female singer, Ashley Amber, appears in both acts and is given a variety of material which she handles well, including a sentimental but rather effective duet with Max von Essen, "Tell Me with Your Heart."
Despite the length (31 tracks total on the two CDs, including instrumentals and reprises), it's not always easy to follow the story in detail, as the lyrics don't always "tell" the story with specifics as often as they are explosions and confessions of characters' various desires and frustrations. This creates some frustration for the listener. A one-paragraph plot summary is simply repeated on the back cover and inside (on both discs), with song lists and cast members with their credits also repeated. A visit to the show's and writer's websites turns up the same text yet again. Probably best appreciated by musical theatre fans with a preference for earnest or grandiose tones, this is a musical described on the album as an "epic tale of betrayal, obsession, resurrection and the quest for love's ultimate redemption: The Soul." It does feel epic to the max - and Max turns in a star performance.