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Jack the Ripper

A musical about the notorious murders by Jack the Ripper? Musical theatre mavens may know there have been numerous ones over the years, including one Off-Broadway in the 1990s (Jack's Holiday), a rock opera, different scores in different languages in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Korea, and North Carolina (those last three with recordings). A world premiere of one called Creep, gestating for several years, was recently announced to premiere soon in Texas. More surprising, then, is that one hailing from the scene of the crimes—London—is far more lively than deadly, spunky rather than spooky. The titular character has no songs and is not on the cast list, but his victims are. Also somewhat surprising is that its cast album has been suddenly released for the very first time ... having been recorded at the time of its production some 40 years ago.


Stage Door Records

The true (but often fictionalized/mythologized/conjecture-filled) story of the 1888 murders of prostitutes by an elusive someone tagged as Jack the Ripper begat dozens of books, movies, plays, rock songs, theories, and, yes, musicals. The first clue that this version of the mystery was not being sold as a horror fest is a quick look at its poster, the artwork on the belatedly released 1975-recorded British cast album which came out just weeks ago. You'll see what look like an old-school musical comedy's merry villagers, some looking happy, dancing and prancing, and celebrating. Far from being false advertising, many of the musical numbers are bouncy or bawdy, decidedly irreverent, with tempi that could make you tap your feet and bob your head. Oh, fear is here when they finally get around to mentioning that "Ripper" bloke, but mostly the fear is mocked—or at the very least masked by gallows humor as if the victims were miles or years away, rather than in town and in the present. The choice of style and setting often bring us to the rowdy British Music Hall environment, with singing and attitudes suggesting many swigs of beer or cheap gin at the ready.

But don't put away the Kleenex and bring in the kids just yet. While this is hardly a sunshiney tale of poor but content folks of Victorian England, there's an evident stiff upper lip in the smiling as the life-toughened citizenry grin and bear it (their lot) in such lusty odes to their day-to-day ways as "Saturday Night" and "Sing Sing" at the top of the show and the self-congratulatory "God Bless Us." With their cheery singalong-ability, but with lyrics revealing hardships, such numbers call to mind "It's a Fine Life" from Oliver!. This score's "What a Life" is equally boisterous, but actually refers specifically to prostitution (singing that the women on stage are members of "the oldest profession/ And it ain't making jam"). Indeed, the composer and co-lyricist Ron Pember in his fairly brief liner notes reveals that that show's author Lionel Bart was his inspiration and hero. Pember, also an actor, was in the cast of Bart's musical Blitz!, and his co-lyricist Denis De Marne was another actor in companies he worked in, including The Old Vic. The two are also co-credited with the book of the musical, though the only dialogue we hear on the album is spoken material within song numbers, such as where one takes on the bantering role of Queen Victoria in a music hall parody sequence, "Charlie and Queenie." And there's some taunting and teasing here and there in traded quips. Many songs are big company numbers, full of brio and brashness, some with solo sections.

While Stage Door Records boasts that the four-decades-stored tapes were remastered, the sound is far from ideal. Instruments don't sound crisp and voices in the many group numbers can be muddy. Lyrics are tough to catch at times in the ensemble selections, but this is partly due to the British accents meant to be those of carousing folks not prone to elegant articulation of the Queen's English. Alas, the lyrics are not included in the eight-page booklet. They also proclaim a "full-color booklet," but that comes down to red, orange, and black and white. The show's logo design is seen five (!) times in the booklet and the two photos are in black and white: one on stage of cast members, not identified, and one of the theatre's doorway. There are several identified individual cast members' photos on the tray card under the disc.

Although one must remember that this is a period piece when attitudes and realities were quite different, the men come across as insensitive lugs, although a song about policemen decoys wearing women's clothes—and enjoying it maybe a bit too much—brings some hearty humor ("Policemen's Chorus"). It's the female characters who seem more real and sympathetic, and not just because we know from their names that the prominent ones are those who are to become the murder victims. That old theatrical device of having the audience know something tragic that the characters can't know yet certainly works well for the sympathy vote here.

The performance of Terese Stevens, in the role of Marie, is the most compelling element of this album. She sings with real heart and has a strong and interesting voice, communicating both heartbreak and strength. Whether singing lightly and endearingly about how everyone, she included, desires real "Love" or wistfully bidding "Goodbye Day" and acknowledging the mixed blessing of the cover of night, her work rings true and is touching. And, shared with Eleanor McCready, "Step Across the River" about having the hope and strength to change one's predicament is rivetingly life-affirming and empowering. ("Yes, it only takes a step a day/ To be a million miles away / For each little step I take must lead to others"). The latter part of the selection with the women echoing each other and the blood-pounding encouragement with the pounding pep rally arrangement, though, make for overkill—too much of what was a good thing.

Oh, yeah, what about that shadowy fellow with the knife? Yes, let's not forget that he might be upstaged and not the main subject of most of the sung material, but he does become the center of attention from time to time. One example is the taunting "Ripper's Going to Get You" which comes off not unlike kids trying to scare each other by telling ghost stories around a campfire. And then there's a kind of vaudeville-styled romp where several members of the 19-member cast take turns soloing as possible "Suspects" of who the real killer may be (including a fellow musical theatre fans know well from his own London actions with a blade: Mr. Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street).

It is not supposed or proposed who the murderer actually was, but judging by what we hear on the cast album, we get a glimpse of how those who shared his town and times (and shared fears with each other) confronted the situation. It might be giving this musical too much credit to say it provokes some deep thought or revelations on how we deal with frightening dangers: denial, dark humor, desperate escapism, a macabre obsession. As it felt going in, it seems so odd when a Jack the Ripper album ends, to think that what lingers are the peppy tunes and the fear not of being murdered but rather of claustrophobic, trapped lives. So, while the score feels more like a pleasing passing diversion with just a few things that stick with us, and is hardly a classic, it's nonetheless interesting and worthwhile. Since my interest in musical theatre characters leans to explorations of human longings, far more than gore, I can't say I'm disappointed by the lack of Jack. Other things are missing here, too, but I'm glad I didn't miss out on having this recording on my cast album shelf, even though it was, as they say in the recording business "shelved" for so long.

- Rob Lester

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