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Musical of MusicalsThe York Theatre's surprise hit, The Musical of Musicals, which has been nominated for five Drama Desk Awards and a Lucille Lortel Award, has recently been released on CD. The show, which is almost fully preserved on disc, is a comic satire that asks the musical question, "What if five well-known Broadway songwriters or songwriting teams were to tackle the same basic plot?" The answer is five mini-musicals that visit the same subject viewed through the lenses of Rodgers and Hammerstein ("Corn"), Stephen Sondheim ("A Little Complex"), Jerry Herman ("Dear Abby"), Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Aspects of Junita"), and Kander and Ebb ("Speakeasy"). The plot chosen was that of the minimalist silent movie/western/Electric Company sketch involving a young ingénue ("I can't pay the rent"), the evil landlord ("You must pay the rent"), and the hero ("I'll pay the rent"), with the additional character of the wise older woman thrown in.

The show worked surprisingly well when I saw it last year and it has made a remarkably effective transfer to disc. The two strongest pieces, the Sondheim-inspired "A Little Complex" and the homage to Kander and Ebb "Speakeasy," work as well on CD as they did on stage, thanks to the vignettes' reliance on musical style and lyrical wit to drive the humor of the pieces. "Speakeasy" in particular succeeds at being a standalone theater piece with its own unique creative spark and voice. The Rodgers and Hammerstein-esque "Corn" remains the weakest of the five as it feels cobbled together and lacks a dramatic or stylistic thrust. Interestingly enough, "Dear Abby" and "Aspects of Junita," which were only moderately successful on stage, are improved upon, as the use of exposition and verbal description that was a bit distracting and obvious on stage work better on disc.

Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart have done a marvelous job of distilling the various composers' styles, both musical and thematic, into their purest form. Their lyrics largely warp song titles and lines from the show into pun-laden forms (many of which are groaners of the "where's that boy with the bagel" and "don't throw OKs at me" variety). The cast, which features Lovette George as the ingénue, Craig Fols as the hero, Joanne Bogart as the wise old woman (who offers nonsensical and non-helpful advice in each skit) and Eric Rockwell as the villain, is delightfully adept at altering their performance style to match that of the various composers.

The one caveat of the disc is that one needs an encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater plus a strong sense of whimsy (as well as a strong stomach for puns) to fully enjoy the album. This is not a show for musical purists nor persons who are humor impaired. But those who delight in the early Forbidden Broadway albums will get an equal kick out of The Musical of Musicals.

The Thing About MenBased on the German film Men by Doris Dörrie, The Thing About Men is the story of a typical 'Type A' executive (Mark Kudisch) who has it all: the perfect job as an advertising executive, the perfect wife (Leah Hocking), and a hot mistress. Upon discovering his wife is equally unfaithful, he moves out of the house and seeks revenge by moving in with his wife's lover (Ron Bohmer). In a series of events that could be taken from the BBC show Coupling, the two men become fast friends, causing the husband to rethink his life and his relationship with his wife. The musical was written by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music), the men who brought us I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. But unlike the latter show's highly bombastic, unintegrated score (which I never found interesting enough to warrant the show's success), The Thing About Men is surprisingly tuneful and has been exceptionally well orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin.

The show is exceedingly slight and would be right at home on NBC's Thursday night lineup, but it is well executed and performed. While most of the songs contain minimal emotional content and are played for laughs, such as the Maitre D's (played by Daniel Reichard) ode to exclusivity, "You Will Never Get Into This Restaurant" or Sebastian's ode to life, "Free, Easy Guy," there are some surprising moments that powerfully resonate. "The Greatest Friend," in which the two men reminisce about past friendships, is an achingly simple number, and Marc Kudisch shows a rarely displayed quiet and tender side in "The Better Man Won."

Frog and ToadOne of the saddest misses of last season was the failed transfer of A Year With Frog and Toad from its successful run at New Victory Theatre to Broadway. Based on the Newbery and Caldecott Honor winning series of books by Arnold Lobel about the adventures of the dapper Frog (Jay Goede) and the worrywart Toad (Mark Linn-Baker, who is the husband of Lobel's daughter, Adrianne), the musical successfully captured the charm of the books, largely due to a score (music by Robert Reale, book and lyrics by Willie Reale) that fuses vaudeville, ragtime, jazz, country, and traditional showtunes into a unified and appealing whole. Highlights include "It's Spring," in which Frog tries to wake up a very grumpy Toad from hibernation, and "Getta Loada Toad," in which a very shy Toad refuses to venture from the water due to his feelings of poor body image, much to the delight of all around who are intrigued to see why "Toad looks silly in a bathing suit."

The show's original production at The Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis was preserved on disc and given a very limited release, but it has been re-released (and re-mixed and mastered, by the highly improved sound of it) by P.S. Classics. The album includes all but one of the New York production's cast, as Kate Reinders was replaced by Jennifer Gambatese during the transfer from Minnesota to New York. The appealing ensemble is fleshed out by Danielle Ferland and Frank Vlastnik (who nearly steals the disc as Snail, a character that spends most of the show delivering a letter from Frog to Toad). The album's original release made my "Best of 2002" theatrical album list and this version features not only improved sound but a larger booklet that contains the lyrics and photos from the Broadway production.

Loli but Not AloneI recently witnessed a performance by the astonishing Loli Marquez-Sterling. A Cuban-American who grew up in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Loli displayed the brashness and the fearlessness (not to mention the pipes) of early Bette Midler. Her award-winning album Loli But not Alone has furthered my admiration of this highly enjoyable and unique performer. While 'eclectic' is a highly overused moniker for cabaret albums, Loli But Not Alone is practically the poster child for the term, as it ranges from high-octane Latin numbers ("La Vide Es Un Carnival") to comic re-interpretations of numbers (her autobiographical take on "Guantanamera" and the Latin-influenced versions of "Downtown" and "Whatever Lola Wants") to the Bessie Smith-esque double entendre number, "Garbage Man, " to heart rending ballads like Susan Werner's "Much At All." Toss in a jamming version of "I Wanna Be Like You" from Disney's The Jungle Book and the jazzy "Them There Eyes" and you have a delightful mix of songs that are all perfectly realized by a performer with a personality as potent as her voice.

The lessening impact of Broadway musicals on the world of popular music has been well discussed and documented. However, the genre's fall from influence in the world of jazz is equally, if not more, tragic. It used to be that the jazz repertoire included a great number of songs culled from Broadway shows. Hit shows like West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and even Fiddler On The Roof would be transformed almost in their entirety into jazz albums by the top jazz artists of the day. Nowadays, it is rare indeed when a jazz artist devotes an entire album to interpretations of showtunes, which makes the fact that two wonderful albums have been released that do so all the more remarkable.

Bill Charlap Trip SomewhereIt is not too surprising that jazz pianist Bill Charlap has an affinity for showtunes. His father, Moose Charlap, was a Broadway composer best known for his work on Peter Pan. His mother, Sandy Stewart, is a singer who had a hit four decades ago with Kander and Ebb's "My Coloring Book" and did demo recordings for composers like Jule Styne, Meredith Willson and Richard Rodgers. With a pedigree like that, what is amazing is that Bill Charlap and his trio only recently got around to devoting an album to one of Broadway's best and most musically sophisticated composers, Leonard Bernstein. On Somewhere, which also features Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, Charlop transforms a dozen numbers written by Bernstein into hypnotic jazz tunes that are equal parts loving tribute to what was originally written and delicious improvisations that are wholly original.

Since the songs from West Side Story have historically lent themselves to jazz interpretations, it is not surprising that the album contains three of the show's numbers: a jaunty/bluesy version of "Cool," an Afro-Caribbean influenced "America," and a wistful, introspective solo piano version of "Somewhere." A little more surprising is how well "Ohio," "A Quiet Girl" and "It's Love" from Wonderful Town benefit from a jazz interpretation. Highly surprising is how powerful "Glitter And Be Gay" from Candide proves to be as a jazz number, with its frothy surface hiding a melancholic undercurrent.

Sketches of BroadwayOne of the stereotypes of jazz singers is that they are more concerned with a song's music than with its lyrics, oftentimes treating both as afterthoughts for the performer's own style and sensibilities. This most certainly does not apply to Janis Siegel, who carefully chose the tunes on her latest album, Sketches Of Broadway, based as much on their dynamic storytelling qualities and lyrical craftsmanship as for their melodies. Thus, the songs are treated as glittering short stories to be interpreted both dramatically and vocally, and she succeeds marvelously at both.

While the album contains several Broadway standards, such as a pairing of an a cappella "Out Of My Dreams" (which features Siegel providing multitracked harmonies) with a haunting "I Have Dreamed," and a lazy "The Surrey With The Fringe On the Top (which incorporates Laura Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic" to whimsical effect), Siegel has made some delightfully surprising choices. Few Broadway, or even cabaret, singers would think to tackle "The Story Of Lucy And Jessie" from Follies, but Siegel does so with wit and verve (as well as with a driving Latin guitar accompaniment). Even more obscure, but equally well done, is "Born Too Late" from The Littlest Revue (Vernon Duke/Ogden Nash), a dreamy number that is deserving of wider recognition. Other highlights include a haunting take on "It's A Woman's Prerogative" from St. Louis Woman, a swaying Latin version of Company's "Sorry/Grateful," and a simple yet emotionally powerful rendition of one of Kurt Weill's loveliest songs, "It Never Was You" from Knickerbocker Holiday.

Jane Olivor Safe ReturnJane Olivor lived every cabaret performer's wildest dream by being discovered on the opening night of her first show at Reno Sweeney's and thus catapulted to instant fame. From 1976 through 1983, she was regarded as a master emotional balladeer with several hit records and even a performance of an Oscar nominated song under her belt. After a decade-long hiatus, she resumed performing in 1993 and has since been hard at work reclaiming her career as a recording and concert artist.

Olivor's latest album, Safe Return, was recorded live at the Berklee Performance Center, which was the setting for her first live album in 1982. The album is a collection of tunes long associated by Olivor, such as "Stay The Night," "Let's Make Some Memories," "Run For The Roses," "Some Enchanted Evening" and the Oscar nominated "The Last Time I Felt Like This" (originally sung as a duet with Johnny Mathis) plus some new numbers, most of which were written by Stephen Schwartz (including one new to my ears, a frisky country number, "Sippin' Wine," that was written with Gloria Nissenson). The highlight of the album is its title song, a powerful number written by Olivor and Russell Walden calling for a loved one's safe return from battle that is equal parts "Billy, Don't Be A Hero," Jacques Brel's "Marieke," and the Gulf War anthem, "From a Distance."

For those familiar with Olivor's pre-hiatus albums, her voice has grown decidedly huskier over the years and now recalls Ruthie Henshall's work on Pilgrim, which adds further emotional resonance to the songs. A DVD of the concert is also available, which includes an exclusive and informative interview with Olivor.


-- Jonathan Frank


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