Need a present of present-day Broadway music? Spring Awakening springs to mind. The musical theater collector on your holiday gift list might put on a happy face with a collection of Charles Strouse singing his own songs. On a budget? Download Patti LuPone's Christmas song for 99 cents (or splurge on all her other just-issued non-holiday tracks). Still looking for a Christmas music? Go under the radar for Stefano.


Decca Broadway

If the performances of Spring Awakening's songs were just wailing cries of pain plus rhymed anguish, they would lose their impact with repeated listenings. I found it to be gripping and heart-ripping the first time through, and revisits remain potent. The raw feelings expressed by the troubled teen-aged characters come through clearly and with force, but there are also intriguing qualities captured in the vocal and instrumental sounds. Without sacrificing naked emotion, there's an artfulness to the proceedings of this musical based on the once-banned 1891 German play. Those who are hypo-allergic to all forms of pop and rock music may find some of this resistible, but there's real drama here and several tracks have real beauty. It would be a shame if the label of "rock musical" some will want to apply keeps some ears away. Likewise, the other label - that parental advisory label in the corner of the cover. Lyrics employ curse words and coarse words prominently in a few numbers.

The cast pours a lot of yearning and sensitivity into the music of Duncan Sheik and the lyrics of Steven Sater. There's a touching and very human vulnerability in their singing, both in the selections that call for reflection and those that are bursts of frustration. Lea Michele's soaring voice is effective and well modulated throughout, most especially on her haunting solo "Whispering." Jonathan Groff can sing angelically or explode with fury. He has multiple opportunities for both, and seizes them, making his performance a compelling one on disc. "The Word of Your Body" is one of the standout numbers, casting a spell as physical and emotional love meet. It's used for both the characters played by these two lead performers and for two boys confronting their attraction to each other.

John Gallagher, Jr. has an appealing edginess, with pent-up frustration and bitterness coming through the grit of his rock-tinged voice. On one track ("Don't Do Sadness"/"Blue Wind"- which includes some dialogue), his coiled energy serves as a dynamic contrast to the more serene presence of Lauren Pritchard, who also engagingly leads the teen characters in the cathartic closing number, "The Song of Purple Summer." With this and many other numbers involving group singing, it's a pleasure to report that the ensemble vocals are strong, with vocal arrangements by AnneMarie Milazzo that show variety and care.

Attentive and creative musical director/ instrumentalist Kimberly Grigsby adds another impressive credit to her list of accomplishments. Her past credits include the multi-composer Songs From an Unmade Bed which had one of Duncan Sheik's melodies. He is in the band here and did the basic arrangements, and produced the album. In addition to the cello used in the show, three more string players were added for the recording. (String arrangements are by Simon Hale.) The extra layers of emotion provided by the detail and design in the arrangements are a major ingredient in the success of the listening experience.

A bonus track of a cut song, "There Once Was a Pirate," can be downloaded at iTunes (separately), but is not on this CD which was recording during the first week of October, well in advance of this week's official opening. The booklet has credits, song and cast lists, plus notes by Steven Slater as well as his lyrics. You also get 15 full-page color photos from the show, plus one more you'll see each time you remove the CD from the tray card to play it. Fans of adventurous, contemporary theater singing will be doing that quite often.


PS Classics

Being ubiquitous is nothing new for the songs of Charles Strouse. Just this month in New York, for example, three of his shows came back. Rags was chosen as the annual World AIDS Day concert, a new company called Opening Doors decided to bring back Bring Back Birdie (their next show is another Strouse show, It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman) and one of his biggest hits, Annie, is in town, too, as part of its 30th anniversary tour. It's a Bird ... and Annie are represented on Charles Sings Strouse, a collection of demos and live performances. Superman's "You've Got Possibilities" is here and there are three picks from Annie.. But for a collector, the orphans that are the main attraction on this CD are the "orphan songs" from the long Strouse career: long-lost cut songs and those from shows that never got produced or commercially recorded.

Continuing the Songwriter Series for the Library of Congress, PS Classics follows its CDs of Stephen Sondheim's own recordings and those of Hugh Martin with this issue. It has a booklet with all the lyrics and historical perspective/comments from the songwriter du jour and the album's producer, Steve Nelson, plus brief comments from two collaborators and several photos.

Singing with great charm and gusto, Mr. Strouse suggests character without attempting to pass himself off as a polished actor or singer. These are often bare bones presentations of the songs, with just his own piano accompaniment, many not originally intended as anything but illustrations for those who might be involved in the shows.

The earliest item is from 1957: the cute "A Few Small Tasks," with dialogue spoken by frequent lyricist partner Lee Adams, based on characters from Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Coming up to recent times, there is "My Mother-In-Law" from Marty, also a Strouse/Adams score. In between there are many treasures, familiar and otherwise, with a full 24 tracks in all. They are quite varied, some serious but many with a strong streak of humor and musical bounce in their ingratiating melodies.

Some of the most intriguing are those where the composer wrote his own lyrics. The selections from the unproduced Hunky Dory are adorable and delightfully performed, and the grown-up songs from Palm Beach also intrigue.

"The Man Who Invented Ice Cream" from Bojangles with Sammy Cahn's lyrics is, well, simply delicious - with the composer enjoying his collaborator's playful rhymes. In addition to "Tomorrow," the Annie songs are a touching 1993 TV duet reuniting the composer and the first Broadway Annie, Andrea McArdle, and a number with a brand new lyric: Martin Charnin penned a set of words this year referring to current events, updating "A New Deal for Christmas" to say, "We're on the wrong track, Iran and Iraq" and mention governmental phone tapping, Hurricane Katrina, etc., and wanting a new deal for Christmas. I'm all for that, but meanwhile Charles Sings Strouse is making my holiday season a little brighter with its bright songs and the upbeat personality of one of musical theater's favorites.

Sh-K-Boom Records
(Downloadable by track and also available as a 7-track CD)

Leftovers don't usually taste this good. Patti LuPone released an album of torch songs earlier this year. Now, Sh-K-Boom is offering seven previously unissued tracks recorded during those sessions. They are available individually on sites for downloading, like iTunes, or you can contact the label through their website to order a hard copy of the disk in a plain sleeve. Patti has more good performances up her sleeve indeed, and these extras actually are mostly livelier and have more of the LuPone zing than the main album which is primarily subdued and serious.

Relax and dismiss any idea that these seven songs were rejects collecting dust. They would have been jarring mood-breakers on the original CD which works nicely as a consistent-tone album of laments and reflective moments. But, on their own, they're all well-done performances that have style and flair.

There are two very satisfying performances of songs she did so memorably in the City Center Encores! presentation of Cole Porter's Can Can a while back. Her "C'est Magnifique" is slinky and playful and she digs into "I Love Paris" with determination and, to borrow a verb from the lyric - it sizzles. She takes another page from Porter to sashay through the comical "Find Me a Primitive Man" without overselling the comedy. Along with other fiery flickers from this lady with the torch, there's a fine if traditional take on the timely "Have Yourself Merry Little Christmas" - which also appears on the final CD reviewed this week ...


Here's something I found while looking for Christmas albums with songs that weren't just the same old same old ...


Baci Records

There are half a dozen fine original songs on Stefano's Christmas CD, Miracle, and the singer brings heart and reverence to the material he's written and the familiar Christmas classics, too. The album emphasizes songs not about Santa or sleigh bells, but about the birth of Jesus, sung with a sense of joy and awe. Stefano has a flexible and warm vocal timbre; he sings with sincerity and soulfulness. He and Dean Bailin play all the instruments and did the arranging and producing of all tracks.

My initial spark of interest in the album is that I noticed it credited Lorinda Lisitza, a singer whose work I've enjoyed. (She's been doing her own nightclub show this year and was in Plain and Fancy at the York Theatre and a Broadway by the Year concert.) Sounding simply sensational, Lorinda does back-up vocal work and is featured on one of the CD's highlights: the duet, "So in Love." No, it's not the Cole Porter song from Kiss Me Kate. It's about being so in love on Christmas Eve and wanting to be together forever - the notes mention that Stefano's parents were married on Christmas Eve.

The self-penned numbers have a satisfying mix of reverence and exultation. I especially like the title song with its drive and strength, electric guitars and vocals both wailing. "Itty Bitty Baby Born in Bethlehem" is a catchy rhythmic upbeat number with the voice of Darrel Blackburn added and it's great fun. The non-originals include a strongly sung medley of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

This is Stefano's second recording, the first being So Good to Me, a collection of 14 songs, mostly originals he wrote over a period of several years. It reveals him as a likeable pop singer who can work in a variety of styles. It also includes instrumental work from Dean Bailin along with other band members. Some are on the light side, several have strong musical hooks, and it's quite pleasing. A couple of pieces show the ability to write with more specificity in storytelling and character, and there is some of the same power and openness that makes his Christmas CD so gratifying and invigorating to hear.

More information on the singer's website, I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next, as these two CDs show versatility and a still-developing talent.

2006 may be almost over, but there are still CDs in the pile to be discussed in the home stretch before we call it a year and look back.

- Rob Lester

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