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Ordinarily, each Thursday we look at CDs with some theatrical connection - often original cast albums from stage shows. This time, none of the items is quite that, but all are thoroughly theatrical: two musical plays prepared expressly for records with spoken sections, both reissues that happen to involve leading male characters named Paul. Also we have a single by a musical comedy superstar. But first, songs with today's musical theater performers, called This Ordinary Thursday.

This Ordinary ThursdayTHIS ORDINARY THURSDAY:
THE SONGS OF GEORGIA STITT

VARIOUS ARTISTS
PS Classics

Even if you didn't recognize the voices and names of the people singing on This Ordinary Thursday, you'd have to guess they were actors, too. They establish characters and attitudes quickly, own them, and then thoughtfully build the dramas. It's a singing actor's approach, and there is much to sink their theatrical teeth into here.

The 12-song CD spotlights Georgia Stitt's various talents, meaning not just her music and/or lyrics, but also her work as arranger or conductor on some tracks, and more often than not as pianist. There is talent and attention to detail everywhere, with lots of details to attend to - these aren't simple little ditties. Character songs that paint emotional pictures, most are lyrically and musically dense, some telling stories. "Less is more" is not the watch cry here; there's a lot to take in.

Many of the arrangements tend to be propulsive, with a strong (sometimes relentless) ever-increasing or insistent pulse throughout. The material is instrinsically powerful and dramatic and doesn't need to be oversold, but I can imagine that much here will prove popular in concerts and cabaret acts now that they are out on CD to hear.

Fine work by musicians abounds. I particularly like the celli as played by Dorothy Lawson, Rebecca Evans and a musician I especially admire, Peter Sachon. Another reason to celebrate: on a few tracks, contributing signature work on keyboards or as arranger is the major musical theater figure, Jason Robert Brown. He happens to be Georgia's husband, and "These Two," the wedding song for these two talents is included. Georgia set to music what began as a poem by Howard Schwartz; Keith Byron Kirk, who sang it at their wedding four years ago, repeats it here. He's accompanied by an elegant string quartet for a gem of a track.

The charming and upbeat "I Get to Show You the Ocean" was written for baby daughter, Molly, to describe the pleasures of being in the water. (I guess that may make her the unsinkable Molly Brown?) This sunny number is brought to life with bounciness and glee by Faith Prince. With the long but very satisfying title song, Susan Egan shows immense warmth and captures an appreciation for life's big and small moments. The structure gives her the chance to be thoughtful, exultant and grateful. She faces and aces it all. Veteran arranger Don Sebesky contributes a rich tapestry of sounds for "Life Is Not a Camera," and Carolee Carmello is a marvel here, turning in a masterfully moving performance of a wife whose obsession with the art of his work - he's a photographer - comes at a cost. This excellent song so well executed brings the same kind of pathos and anguish felt by characters in musicals such as Nine and Sunday in the Park with George.

Kelli O'Hara, Sara Ramirez, Lauren Kennedy, Matthew Morrison, Andréa Burns, Jenn Colella, Will Chase, Cheyenne Jackson and Tituss Burgess ... sounds like a fair chunk of recent names on musical theater posters or the discussions on All That Chat. They're all here sounding strong with strong material.

The LetterJUDY GARLAND
THE LETTER

DRG Records

Break out the Kleenex and have a good cry with a very good singer at the center of a very ambitious project. The very good news is that Judy Garland was in very good voice when The Letter was recorded in early 1959. The bad news is that among its faults is schmaltz. Its sung and spoken material also reflect some dated issues about dating (Though it's lively, the point of dating "The Worst Kind Of Man" is that it's far better than none, and I shudder at the couple's argument with his condescension and her spoken dare, "Go ahead and strike me.") Earnestly romantic, this often melodramatically florid piece tests the vitality of the sentimentality tolerance of even a listener known to give in to tender and teary traps like my cornball self. Judy Garland plunged into the waters, sounding fully committed to the lost love laments of the material. She sang powerfully, finding pockets of light in the darkness and even occasional bits of humor.

"Beautiful Trouble" is a catchy, more carefree romp. Judyholics will find that her displayed strengths and some of her ways of triumphing over the mostly maudlin morass make this a necessary, if odd, addition to their collection. It's always been the Garland record I pick out least often from my shelf of her vintage vinyls. Once reissued as Our Love Letter, it now comes to CD with its original title.

Conceived for records, the regretful look back at a broken love affair story is framed by a letter from a man named Paul to his ex, addressed "My dearest dear." The letter recounts memories of better days and descriptions of his unbearable loneliness. That's all for Paul. He doesn't sing, but his throbbing sobs are accompanied by a string-laden orchestra and chorus. Paul's role is played emphatically and dramatically by John Ireland, speaking the contents of the letter in segments and he's in flashbacks set up by its references.

It's all interwoven, and pressing the "skip" button on a CD player won't always let you get quickly to Judy singing. However, the CD ends with four bonus tracks, major songs of hers with alternate endings and alternate vocal takes. These, made to be stand-alone singles, are not vastly different.

This was a Gordon Jenkins project: his music, lyrics and conducting. It has the heavy-going sorrow (but also, admittedly, orchestral beauty) of other serious projects like many ballad arrangements for Frank Sinatra and his long suite, "The Future" for the same singer. He had earlier done a downbeat and torchy theme album for Judy called Alone, and is also known for the full-length record project, Manhattan Tower. This story also takes place in Manhattan, with a short guest vocal by Charley LaVere as a singer in one of its downtown piano bars and memories of Central Park. You'll also hear bits of dialogue here and there, things overheard while walking around New York. The reissue includes the original liner notes by Jenkins and new ones by Garland expert Scott Schechter.

A little P.S. to The Letter - the Ralph Brewster Singers include a few familiar names: noted movie musical voice double Betty Wand and others heard on soundtrack albums like Bill Lee and Sally Sweetland ... just a little interesting side note on an album that's mostly interesting as a unique footnote in the legacy of a legend who is always worth hearing and cheering.

Conversation PieceCONVERSATION PIECE
STUDIO CAST

Must Close Saturday Records

With just eight songs plus reprises, an overture and a finale, Conversation Piece might have just had a short cast album and that would be that. This reissued recording runs 79 minutes - more conversation than pieces of music. There is some underscoring, with the orchestra led by Lehman Engel, a major and reliable name in musical theater. Musical arrangements are credited to Carol Huxley. The original record producer was Goddard Lieberson. Book, music and lyrics are by Noel Coward and you'll hear him sing and speak, as actor and commentator. No one is listed as director.

The play of manners and morals debuted in London in early 1934 with Coward originally in the cast, and ran briefly on Broadway at the end of the same year. By 1951, when long-playing records had come into being, and cast albums had become a more common enterprise, Columbia Records came up with a two-record set. Assembling a studio cast, they presented a version for listening audiences that was different from the stage version. Sir Noel recreated his role, but gets more focus here as he takes on more of the musical material than his character (Paul) first had, and serves as narrator and host for what is a home theater presentation. The dialogue scenes come off as a bit arch and starchy with the oh-so-proper exchanges, surface niceness and corseted confrontations lacking fire or high stakes. It may not be your cup of English breakfast tea if you seek real theatrical passion or comedy that is sharper or more jokey. Within the quaint are quips and snips that catch the ear and invoke a smile. Historical value and a curiosity factor make hearing this worthwhile, with non-singing roles played with breezy affability by Cathleen Nesbitt, Rex Evans, Ethel Griffies and Richard Burton (whose billing on this new cover would make you think his role is larger than it is).

The division between singing and acting is odd. Not every character sings, and sometimes a role is divided with one actress doing the sung sections and another the dialogue. Though she handles both the songs and dialogue of the central character, opera star Lily Pons sounds like two different people. She has a lot of the required qualities in her key dialogue scenes: a bit of rebellion, pouting or pleading. When she sings, it's more removed, with the Rs rolled, the trained voice making things more formal and the thick French accent affected for the character disappearing. She has the show's central song, "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," the waltz-timed pledge of priorities that comes up time and again.

Though his acting seems a bit phoned in, Coward is empowered when he steps out of character and sings, poking fun at society and snobbery. "Regency Rakes" and "There's Always Something Fishy About the French" find him showing more life and his trademark satirical sparkle. He continues the wry observations when he cleverly with his introduces the scenes with spoken rhymed lines expressly written for the recording. Some have more acerbic wit in their small doses than the actual scenes can boast having. (A favorite is, "The gentlemen were dandified/ And often over-brandified.")

The packaging in 1951 had all these introductions, as well as all the lyrics and dialogue. Must Close Saturday includes none of that text. Instead there are liner notes by Adrian Wright. When expressing an opinion, liner notes are normally flattering and praise-heavy (Columbia's package had some of that). But Wright finds much wrong with the show, the recording and Coward himself, and doesn't pull his punches. Read his disgruntled diatribe first and you might be reluctant to play the disc! (If this were on the back cover of a CD, readable while browsing in a store, it would be sales-suicidal.) He also gives some interesting historical perspective.

The CD's sound quality is fair to middling, not very dynamic. It's broken up into 30 separate tracks, but skipping to one with a song doesn't always bring you to music immediately. There are some dry patches here, but also some dry wit.

UNDER THE RADAR
Certainly this musical comedy legend is not under the radar, but this release is. It's just one song, audio and video, with the profits from sales going to an arts education program.

Carol ChanningCAROL CHANNING
MODESTO, YOU'RE MY HOMETOWN
(CD SINGLE/ DVD SINGLE)

Single-song releases by musical theater stars are rare. This one is by the rare talent of Carol Channing, sounding every bit the uniquely irrepressible personality she has long established. What a happy discovery to find that a special item has quietly emerged. "Modesto, You're My Hometown!" is a treat. Just listening to this song, you'll feel her smile and it's contagious. Carol sounds fine and fizzy celebrating the pleasures of her California town.

The tune is a swell, old-fashioned perky one, accentuated by the accompaniment of a nifty Dixieland band. Snappily and happily singing the city's praises ("There's water, wealth, contentment, health./ Who could ask for more? / It's what that dot on the map is known for ..."), this is cute fun. John Wyatt is the man who wrote the song, arranged it, co-produced and plays keyboards and trombone. He's one of the background vocalists, too. For trivial pursuit, you'll hear a quick instrumental lick that recalls the title song of a movie Carol appeared in, Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Alas, the accompanying DVD does not show the star performing the song. Nor is there any real action. The same recording is simply heard accompanying the visuals, which are a montage of still photos showing Modesto's buildings, local events, a bag of Modesto Nuts, and natural wonders - one of them being Carol Channing. She's seen in a few quick photos and the Al Hirschfeld caricature of her in her Hello, Dolly! splendor. As the credits lumber by, you hear an instrumental version of "There's No Business Like Show Business."

This is a fundraiser for scholarships in the arts. To order and get more information on the foundation, visit the website www.CarolChanning.org.

Have an extra-ordinary Thursday ... or whatever day you catch up with this. We'll catch up with more CDs with theatrical connections on the next Thursday, as usual.


- Rob Lester


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