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With all the talk of the Disneyfication of Broadway, 2003 just might be known as its Hensonification, with puppet heavy productions of Little Shop of Horrors and Avenue Q just blocks from each other (and with The Lion King still contributing to the high puppet quotient, all we need is Carnival and Flahooley to make the season complete). Show music lovers are prime recipients of this bounty, as it has not only produced one of the best new cast albums of the season (Avenue Q), but a solid, more complete version of an old favorite: Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop of HorrorsBased on a B movie by schlockmeister Roger Corman, Little Shop of Horrors tells of the Mephistophelian bargain made between Seymour, a skid row florist, and a carnivorous plant, Audrey II. Thanks to a pastiche-driven score by Alan Menken, which incorporates everything from Motown to doo-wop to Yiddish flavored rumbas, and witty lyrics by Howard Ashman (who else would pen a line like "Shing-a-ling, what a creepy thing to be happening/shang-a-lang, feel the sturm and drang in the air"), Little Shop of Horrors had an incredibly successful run Off-Broadway in the early '80s, running over 2,000 performances and spawning a less than successful movie, thanks to an altered ending that proves the adage 'if you don't trust the source material, don't make the film.'

While the original Off-Broadway cast album remains one of the most enjoyable of cast albums to grace one's library, space limitations inherent in LP production means that it is not an ideal representation of the show. One of the main reasons to rush out and buy the new Broadway Cast Recording is that it preserves practically every note from one of the quirkiest musicals ever written. Some of the highlights of previously missing material is an expanded "Now (It's Just the Gas)" that preserves the counterpoint between Orin, the sadistic dentist/boyfriend of Audrey, and Seymour, as well as more complete recordings of "The Meek Shall Inherit" and "Mushnik & Son," plus the inclusion of the second act reprise of "Somewhere That's Green," the creepy finale to act one (the B movie organ orchestrations make for an especially effective touch), the frenetic opening to act two ("Call Back in the Morning"), and enough dialogue snippets to make the recording flow seamlessly.

All of this, of course, would make for a good museum piece versus an enjoyable cast album if the performances were not up to par, and even in this regard the recording doesn't disappoint. While the cast has admittedly big shoes to fill (especially Kerry Butler, who has the unenviable task of stepping into iconoclast Ellen Greene's spike heels as the pneumatic fallen angel Audrey), they largely succeed in making the parts their own.

Hunter Foster is by turns nebbish and touching as Seymour and gives solid renditions of all his numbers. Kerry Butler plays Audrey more as a worn down New Yorker than ditzy airhead victim, which makes for a surprisingly touching turn in "Somewhere That's Green," during which one feels it is the first time she has realized Seymour could be more than just a friend. Rob Bartlett has discovered his inner Zero Mostel as Seymour's boss/father figure Mushnik and mines all the humor to be found in "Mushnik & Son." As the rebel with a drill Orin (as well as a host of other characters), Douglas Sills plays the most against usual portrayal (Elvis impersonator or dark, brooding dominator), especially with "Dentist!," which is milked for every comic turn.

All this, plus five bonus tracks consisting of cut numbers from the musical and its screen adaptation (two of which, "The Way He Treats Me" and "I Found A Hobby" are receiving their initial release) make this a must have CD.

GypsyThe reason to buy the cast album of The Boy From Oz is identical to that of seeing the show. While the album is actually stronger than the show, given that its flawed book and lackluster sets are not represented on disc, its chief strength remains its driving force: Australian musical theater star turned Hollywood heartthrob, Hugh Jackman. Simply put, Jackman has a presence and an energy that not only lights up the stage but readily transfers to disc as well.

The Boy From Oz (subtitled "The Musical of a Lifetime") is a musical biography of Australia's favorite 'local boy makes good,' Peter Allen, whose playfully over the top sexuality and stage presence made him a concert star in the '70s and '80s. A moderately successful songwriter, thanks to hits like "Don't Cry Out Loud" (co-written with Carole Bayer Sager) and "I Honestly Love You" (co-written with Jeff Barry), as well as providing two lines for the Oscar winning theme from Arthur, Allen also wrote and starred in the Broadway flop Legs Diamond before dying of AIDS in 1992. Over twenty of Allen's tunes have been woven into this 'Will Rogers Follies meets Mamma Mia!' musical, and his songs range from typical '70s/'80s pop ("Continental American") to touching ballads that verge on the schmaltzy (but thankfully never fully cross the line), like "I Honestly Love You" and "Don't Cry Out Loud," to surprisingly strong character driven numbers ("Quiet, Please, There's A Lady on Stage" and "She Loves to Hear the Music" being prime examples) and strong power ballads ("Love Don't Need a Reason" and "The Lives of Me"). The most fun numbers are the over-the-top camp songs, like "I Go To Rio" and "Bi-Coastal," which are fewer in number than one would like.

As stated before, the reason to buy the CD is Jackman. While the entire cast is strong, especially Isabel Keating who eerily re-creates Judy Garland and Beth Fowler who plays Allen's mother, the album sags when Jackman is not singing, which unfortunately occurs far too often in its first half. That Jackman has a strong voice will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work in the Royal National Theatre production of Oklahoma! or from his award winning portrayal of Joe Gillis in the Australian production of Sunset Boulevard. The Boy From Oz, however, gives him a chance to stretch not only his vocal range, as he possesses a strong and supple upper register, but also his interpretive abilities, as many times he transcends the material ("Once Before I Go"), giving multiple goosebump moments.

The Boy From Oz does contain one bonus track that will please fans of the show, a recording of "Tenterfield Saddler," which appeared in the original Australian production but was cut from the Broadway show during previews.

Wig in a BoxTribute albums are a tricky beast, as one has to live up to the source, which is usually the reason why the material was popular in the first place. That is the greatest challenge of Wig in a Box: the Songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch . Created as a charity album for the Hetrick Martin Institute (the home of the Harvey Milk School, an inclusive voluntary high school focusing on the educational needs of children at risk of harassment, physical violence and/or emotional harm in a traditional educational environment), Wig in a Box gathers together over a dozen pop and alt/indie songsters to cover the tunes from Hedwig with largely successful results.

Pairing Sleater-Kinney and Fred Schneider on "Angry Inch" is sheer brilliance, as is having Yoko Ono perform "Hedwig's Lament" (giving added resonance to the line "I gave a piece to the rock star"). Also highly enjoyable are Cyndi Lauper's high octane rendition of "Midnight Radio," They Might Be Giant's quirky take on "The Long Grift" and Polyphonic Spree's "Wig in a Box." Overall, there are only a few missteps: having Stephen Colbert do a monologue version of "Ladies & Gentlemen" (Yitzak's speech in "Tear Me Down"), and the Spoons melodically challenged version of "Tear Me Down."

Bonuses on the disc are two new songs: "Milford Lake," which features the original Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) and Stephen Trask, and "City of Women," featuring Robyn Hitchcock.

On My Way to YouLeslie Uggams, currently appearing on Broadway as Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie, has released one of the most mellow and enjoyable albums of the year, On My Way to You: The Songs of Alan & Marilyn Bergman . Uggams is in fantastic voice on this album and keeps each number intimate and smooth. She is aided mightily by producer/arranger/orchestrator Dan Levine, who has woven a shimmering audio tapestry that includes a gorgeously simple "The Summer Knows," a Spanish guitar infused "Windmills of Your Mind," and a lush variation on "So Many Stars," a Bergman gem that rarely gets a chance to shine.

Tom AndersenAfter a wait of over three years, Tom Andersen has released his latest CD, Who Knows?, his strongest album to date. His voice has become much stronger and surer, losing much of the ethereal wispiness that was so prevalent on his first albums without losing an ounce of emotional connection or output. The album is beautiful in its emotional honesty and simplicity, thanks to numbers like the title song (written by Andersen) and Hugh Prestwood's "Ghost in This House," a haunting and heartrending number of loss. Two numbers written by Andersen and Tim DiPasqua are also highly effective and touching: "Another Tuesday" (a song written as a birthday gift for a friend who was contacted by the child she gave up for adoption) and "Then Again" (a song about letting go of a relationship that has reached its terminus). The only flaw of the album is its length. At thirty-one minutes, it only whets the appetite and is over far too soon.

Michael FeinsteinMichael Feinstein has returned to his roots and has once again focused on an album devoted to a single composer with Only One Life: The Songs of Jimmy Webb. At first glance, the two make for an extremely odd pairing. Feinstein is best known as a champion of the so-called Great American Songbook and his previous tribute discs have been for decidedly old guard composers like Jule Styne, Hugh Martin and George Gershwin. Jimmy Webb, on the other hand, grew out of the musical revolution that left the old guard largely in the dust and wrote songs for pop singers like Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix"), the Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up and Away"), Joe Cocker ("The Moon's a Harsh Mistress") and even Richard Harris (the infamous "MacArthur Park"). However, the two pair up the best album Feinstein has released in a very long time.

Only One Life features Feinstein not only at his vocal best but connected to the songs in a way that has not happened since the '90s. Highlights on the disc include a pairing of "After All the Loves of My Life" (best known as the bridge in "MacArthur Park") and "Only One Life," a touching "Didn't We?" and "All I Know." While a bit of diversity of tone and style would have been welcome on the disc, as there is an overwhelming similarity in the feel of the numbers, it is a welcome addition to the Feinstein collection.

Marieann MeringoloThis year, Marieann Meringolo simply blew me away in a live performance celebrating the release of her latest CD, Imagine ... If We Only Have Love. While I am loathe to compare Marieann to other performers, as she is a decidedly original talent, she can best be described as sounding like the love child of K. D. Lang and Karen Carpenter. Like K. D. Lang, Meringolo possesses a phenomenal belt that never overwhelms and is infused with a plaintive quality that tugs at the heartstrings. This is especially present on songs like John Lennon's "Imagine" and Ned Washington/Dimitir Tiomkin's "Wild is the Wind." Like Karen Carpenter, she has a light, expressive touch with a lyric that brings every emotion to the surface: she doesn't simply wear her heart on her sleeve, she knits an entire sweater out of it.

The most Carpenter-esque number is a pairing of "Right From the Start," a number by Karen Benedetto that would have been snapped up by the Carpenters in a New York minute, and Kander and Ebb's "A Quiet Thing." Other highlights on the album include a driving jazz/funk version of "Never Never Land" that showcases her powerful belt, a Latin flavored "Time After Time" that is delightfully playful, and a surprisingly non-camp version of the "Theme from Valley of the Dolls." She also performs a rendition of the anthem for understanding, "Love Don't Need a Reason," (Peter Allen, Michael Callen & Marsha Malamet) that far outshines anything going on at Boy from Oz.

Christine AndreasChristine Andreas possesses one of the most distinctive of voices. A powerful soprano with a strong belt married to a throbbing, passionate vibrato, she doesn't break glass so much as melt it through the emotionality of her delivery. Her latest album, Christine Andreas: The Carlyle Set , is her strongest and most swinging album to date. A collection of comfortable songs set to a lush jazz score by Lee Musiker, Andreas simply shimmers on "Autumn in New York," to which she brings a sense of joy and rapture. In her and Musiker's hands, My Fair Lady's "Show Me" becomes a joyful challenge to one's love at the height of passion and a pairing of "How Insensitive" and "I'm a Fool to Want You" displays a heartbreaking pathos.

This is one of the most sensual and well put together albums of the year with only one misstep: a puzzling inclusion of "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line, which is practically lifted from the cast album, spoken lines and all. As it does not match the rest of the album, it is a bit jarring, but its follow-up final number, David Frishberg's "Listen Here" is more than powerful enough to bring one back under Andreas' spell.

Sharon McKnightImagine Bernadette Peters or Shirley Temple gone bad and you might just begin to approach the comic genius of Sharon McNight, whose album Songs to Offend Almost Everyone certainly delivers on its promise. Possessing a Kewpie doll voice fused incongruously with a brassy, smoky belt, McNight and her 'take no prisoners, there are no sacred cows here' style of singing are perfectly suited to the comic songs that make up the album, which was largely recorded live during her cabaret show of the same name. The overly politically correct or easily offended can just skip right on by this album, but those looking for an antidote to syrupy love songs will revel in its bold, brash humor.

As is to be expected, several of the songs on the album are by that master of warped humor, Tom Leher: "Old Dope Peddler & When You Are Old and Gray" and the delightfully twisted "Masochism Tango." Two delightful finds are from cult underground composer "Durwood Douche" (AKA: Dick Shreve): the 'Marlene Dietrich' number "Merrilou" (better known as "When I'm Sitting on Your Face") and the 'Rosemary Clooney'-esque number, "Why Me, God?" (whose subtitle can't be printed here). Also included are songs by Randy Newman ("God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" and the decidedly un-pc "Political Science") and parody numbers by McKnight (an antagonistic "Wind Beneath Your Wings") and Rick Crom ("Your Son isn't Going through a Stage"). For more information, visit www.sharonmcnight.com

Colored LightsPop singer turned Broadway leading lady Deborah Gibson has released an album celebrating her shift in focus: Colored Lights: The Broadway Album. As the title suggests, the album contains thirteen songs from the world of musical theater (one of the songs, "Sex," is from a musical that Gibson is writing herself). And as you might expect, a number of the songs are from shows that she has performed on Broadway or in regional/touring productions, thus preserving her roles in Les Miserables ("On My Own," which is given a discordant verse before settling into the more traditional feeling chorus), Cabaret ("Maybe this Time"), Gypsy ("Let Me Entertain You") and Funny Girl ("I'm the Greatest Star" and "Who Are You Now?").

What is surprising is that the strongest songs are not the ones that she has performed on stage. She pulls of an incredibly sensual "Blame it on the Summer Night" (Rags), a driving Latin inspired "Raise the Roof!" (Lippa's The Wild Party), and a surprisingly restrained and emotionally resonant "Anytime (I Am There)" (William Finn's Elegies). Not too surprisingly, she also scores on the pop-friendly "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love" by Peter Allen (The Boy from Oz).


-- Jonathan Frank


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