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It is interesting to note that while albums devoted to music from classical pieces work well on their own, albums of what are essentially dance recitals on Broadway never make for an effective listening experience. While shows like Contact, Fosse, and Jerome Robbins' Broadway are (in varying degrees) entertaining on stage, somehow they never make for a satisfying listen on disc. The cast album of the current Broadway show Movin' Out presents that dilemma and then some, as it also incorporates the current "let's make a show out of one pop songwriter's songs" bandwagon as well.

Movin' Out uses songs by Billy Joel to tell a story about the disintegration of America's ideals and morale due to the Vietnam 'conflict,' as told through the direction and choreography of Twyla Tharp. While the stage production utilizes a cast of 27 dancers, an on-stage orchestra of ten, and singer/pianist Michael Cavanaugh to tell its tale, it is only the latter two elements that appear on the CD.

Musically, the album, which was recorded live during Movin' Out's pre-Broadway run in Chicago, provides an entertaining nearly 80 minutes. Billy Joel has written a plethora of solid, storytelling hits over the past three decades and Movin' Out contains over two dozen of his classic songs. Since Joel's music has always been vocal driven and not reliant on studio tricks and tweaks, the songs translate rather well to this new medium. The musicians, all hand-picked by Joel and many of whom have played with him on the road or in the studio, do a great job of creating a unified sound on songs that span a variety of decades and styles.

As enjoyable as Joel's songs are, however, the album just does not make for a unique listening experience. Since the story of Movin' Out is told through dance, there is no through-line to the songs, none of which were ever intended to be staged in a theatrical manner. Also, without any context, having "Waltz No. 1 (Nunley's Carousel)", a number that sounds as if it should be used for a ballet barre exercise, is downright jarring when coming between the introspective "Summer Highland Falls" and the angry anthem of "We Didn't Start The Fire."

Additionally, Michael Cavanaugh, who sings all of the songs on the album, possesses a voice remarkably like Joel's, which is both a strength and a hindrance. While it makes Cavanaugh perfectly suited for the songs, it also makes it difficult to justify buying the album, since, when combined with orchestrations that strongly recall the originals, it makes more sense to buy a 'greatest hits' album. While the album will make a great souvenir for those who have seen the show and enjoyed it, it will not be of much use to those who haven't.

RoadsideBefore writing their classic hit musical The Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt worked on an adaptation of the play Roadside by Lynn Riggs (author of Green Grow the Lilacs, which became another musical celebration of the western spirit, Oklahoma!). When rights for the play proved unavailable, it was set aside until an assistant rediscovered it forty years later. This led to their finally completing the show, which had its New York premier in November of 2001 at the York Theatre and was recorded by Jay Records.

Roadside tells the story of the last of the 'ring-tail roarers'; tellers of tall-tales out in the Old West who provided an embellished oral history that was passed down from generation to generation. As the Old West grew more and more civilized, this tradition died out, as did the 'roarers,' whose spirit did not survive the transition from lawless territory to unified statehood (in that way, Roadside is the thematic inverse of Oklahoma!).

The plot is simple: Pap Raider (G.W. Bailey) and his daughter, Hannie (Julie Johnson), come across a wild, drunken cowboy named Texas (Jonathan Beck Reed). Hannie (Julie Johnson) is convinced that Texas will be the wild man she has been looking for, as opposed to the dried up farmer, Buzzey (James Hindman), who wants her for his bride. The show comes complete with drunken boasts, villagers wanting to hang Texas for destroying the courthouse, wild tales, and a celebration of the western spirit.

Like The Fantasticks, Roadside uses a 'play-within-a-play' framework to set the show, provide the artifices of sound effects and acts to cover scene changes, as well as 'actors' to play the parts. In addition to being similar to The Fantasticks in structure, Roadside also possesses the same casual innocence as its younger sibling. Musically, however, the show more closely resembles Schmidt and Jones' other western-flavored show 110 in the Shade, especially in numbers like "Smellamagoody Perfume" and the title song. While the first act is filled to the brim with high-energy numbers that are pleasantly sweet without being saccharine, the second act contains numbers that display a great deal more promise. "Another Drunken Cowboy," which plays like a western version of "One More For The Road," relaxes into a quiet emotional truthfulness and is sensitively performed by Reed. Johnson shines on her introspective ballad as well, "All Men Is Crazy," and both songs are worth looking into by performers looking for songs with a western spin.

All Grown UpRoadside star Julie Johnson is also featured on a solo CD, All Grown Up ... So Far. Johnson, who also appeared on Broadway in the recent revival of Candide and Off-Broadway in The Rink and Das Barbecü, uses colors from the palates of Roadside and Das Barbecü on her CD, which is pure country. Most of the songs are written by her producer/arranger, Sonny Franks, who, with various collaborators (including Johnson herself) has provided Johnson with a mix of high-energy country numbers (the title song and "Don't You Know," a ditty just crying for a line-dance), introspective songs ("New Millenium"[sic] or "Man from Texas," the latter of which was written with Johnson, a sixth generation Texan), and even a Shania Twain-esque sexy number ("Double Back"). The album also includes three songs by Amanda McBroom ("Easy," "Love in 3/4 Time" and "Easy Love, Easy Go"), whose numbers always seem to have a country flavor just simmering under their surface, and, intriguingly enough, one by John Bucchino/Lindy Robbins, "Strangers Once Again," which has been given a less melancholic than usual treatment.

I have to admit that I usually avoid country albums like the plague, as I have never been fond of their vocal stylings or instrumentations. That said, I found myself enjoying Johnson's smooth vocals and emotional honesty. For more information and for samples from the album (which should appeal to any with even the slightest appreciation of the country genre) visit www.juliejohnsonsings.com.

Buffy the Vampire SlayerIf someone put a gun to my head and forced me to name the best musical of last year, I'm not sure if I would be able to choose between Moulin Rouge and the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, entitled Once More With Feeling, before getting my head blown off. While Moulin Rouge reinterpreted the movie musical by giving it a more MTV flavored spin, Buffy took a modern vernacular (teen comic book inspired thriller) and gave it new life by injecting it with good old-fashioned musical theater sensibilities, outshining any of the new Broadway musicals of last year in the process. How can one not like a musical that is as self-referential as Urinetown (all the while managing to balance emotional truthfulness), as pastiche laden as Millie (while managing to create a score that is 100% original), that contains songs that are character and/or plot driven (something Thou Shalt Not never even attempted), and delivers a glimpse of an underworld much more successfully than Sweet Smell of Success managed to do?

For those unfamiliar with the show, Buffy follows the adventures of the Slayer, a quasi-supernatural female who has the 'honor' of being earth's champion against the forces of darkness. As this is a thankless job with no job benefits and an even smaller life expectancy, a new Slayer is chosen upon the death of the old (the current slayer, played by Sarah Michelle Geller, has died twice herself ... but that's another story).

Series creator Joss Whedon has been wanting to do a musical episode of the show since it debuted in 1997, and last year he finally got his chance. Citing Stephen Sondheim as his prime musical god, Whedon, who has only an admittedly tenuous grip on musical composition, wrote an episode in which Buffy's hometown of Sunnydale has fallen under a demonic curse that makes everyone display their innermost thoughts, dreams, and desires in a typical Broadway fashion: through song and dance.

As a result, Buffy gets to sing about her dissatisfaction with life in the opening number, "Going Through The Motions" (imagine Belle from Beauty in the Beast as filtered through Sondheim and Tim Burton), and her two about-to-be-newlywed friends, Xander and Anya, get to express their fears through a squabbling '30s-style Fred and Ginger number. While a few of the numbers show a '70s pop/rock influence, such as the Billy Idol coiffed vampire Spike's number, "Rest In Peace," or Buffy's advisor Giles' song, "Standing," most of the songs are in the Broadway or pop-ballad genre. One of the most creative aspects of the show was to have background characters likewise expressing their joys and frustrations in song, a concept which led to two of the funniest moments in the show and on the CD: the 19 second ode to dry-cleaning, "The Mustard," and the 44 second aria of despair, "The Parking Ticket."

Overall, the cast shows a remarkable affinity for song and never embarrasses themselves. Guest star Hinton Battle (Dreamgirls, The Wiz, Tap Dance Kid) sounds sensually menacing as the demon, Sweet. Of the series' regulars, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles), who spent time as a rock singer in his native England, and James Marsters (Spike), who has displayed his rock chops on other shows, come across the best, but Emma Caufield (as the on-again/off-again vengeance demon, Anya) is a very close third. The biggest surprise is the show's star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who considered using a voice double until she realized that her character's emotional arc for the year was largely going to occur through the episode's songs. Gellar possesses a sure voice with an impressive emotional range that would not be at all out of place on Broadway.

While the album will appeal primarily to those familiar with the series, as all of the songs, designed to bring out hidden emotional truths of the characters, contain references to prior episodes, the songs and story are well-written enough to be enjoyed by all musical theater fans. The album also contains instrumental tracks from three episodes, one of which, Hush, provided the series with another well-executed concept (the town falls under a silencing spell, resulting in 29 minutes of absolutely silent television). A demo version of "Something to Sing About," with Whedon on the piano and sung by Whedon's wife, Kai Cole, is provided as an extra bonus.


-- Jonathan Frank


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