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All the world's a stage (at least in musicals):
Follies and more

Musicals—that is to say, their writers—like nothing more than the musical stage itself as a canvas and playing field. Here are three very different musicals which have in common the theatrical conceits and conventions of putting their often dramatic dramatis personae right in the spotlight's golden glow or unforgiving glare to see what's revealed. It is an art to make art imitate life, and blurring the lines can be flattering in certain lights.


PS Classics

Being treated to the sumptuous recorded presentation of the present-decade present-like revival of the masterwork Follies brings two initial reactions: the gifted participants have brought theatre fans an early Christmas gift, and the dramatic and musical double whammy of the double-disc set leaves one sated and exhilarated. But, at the end of the day (and the end of the play and playing), the words that best sum up my delighted description to what's here are the same words that ran through my head with the evocatively emotional opening instrumental strains. The words that best sum up my delighted description to what's here are those running through my head while memory-jogging through the opening instrumental strains: "All Things Bright and Beautiful." Indeed that's what we have with the bright, crisp sounds of the Jonathan Tunick's brilliant orchestrations that switch to muted, memory-wisp-like clouds when recollections of the past or pastiche are called for. And there's such beautiful bounty to behold in the craftsmanship of Stephen Sondheim's music and polished, precise lyrics, sometimes hitting your ears differently because of this particular group of singing actors' fresh interpretations and phrasing, as conducted by James Moore and shepherded by PS Classics' owners/producers Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin.

A show which already has many layers and is full of rich material that can absorb the unique strengths of performers playing performers naturally inspires or accommodates different approaches by cast and director. Follies is such a show. And, though some of the songs are more flexible than others, the varied colors on display here answer in part the question which is the elephant in the room: Is there room or "need" for yet another cast recording of this musical which already has a few recordings, each of which has numerous memorable and mesmerizing performances? One can endlessly compare and contrast, complain or campaign or compile combinations. Even those well-schooled students of Follies with a fervid fondness for one favorite Follies recording will admit that it may not contain their ultimately preferred version of a number, and it may be absent or song or two (and, as if oft lamented, the original 1971 single-disc vinyl album with a splendid cast was severely truncated).

So, to cut to the chase: For people who have other recordings and/or saw the current production and had some quibbles, what are the "selling points" for selling this and shelling out the dough? There are numerous judiciously chosen short bits of James Goldman's dialogue included that really make this a theatrical listening experience with context and flow. We get the glories of the orchestra recorded with loving detail and distinct flavors, a luxuriously-length "Who's That Woman?" led by the commandingly robust and salty Terri White, complete with her barking of orders to her game troupe recalling their tap-dancing steps which we hear. Even with quibbles (see below), I'm knocked out by the cast seeming so present, especially when lost in the past. Owning and relishing material, finding new nuances, it all makes for involving listening that rarely—barely—lags over the course of the two discs. The parties hardly ever run out of steam, as it's rather impossible not to connect and reflect, given the universal theme of the inevitable march of time, its toll, and the regrets or 20/20 hindsight about youth. More sympathetically than in other versions, the piece as played here gives us many more unavoidable looks into the mirror to see ourselves, beyond that literal looking in the looking glass discussed in "Who's That Woman?."

The two married not-so-happily-ever-after couples at the center of the story hold the stage well on disc. Even when some music doesn't naturally suit her vocal artillery, Bernadette Peters makes an endearingly fragile Sally. As she speaks first, we are drawn into caring about her and how important the day of reunions, remembrances and regrets is for Sally. She introduces herself in a spoken line, with a pause, hesitant gulp, and change of vocal color to dullness as she adds her married name "Plummer" to her first and maiden name she'd been known by. It's a clue that's revealing. And, likewise, it's interesting to hear how her voice changes depending on who she is addressing—sometimes like a nervous little bird tentatively edges out onto a branch, other times gathering strength via hope (real or false), self-edited memories, or pushing herself to buckle up, all adding to the sympathy factor when she struggles or staggers again. Her part in "Don't Look at Me" is a well-conceived bundle of nerves and empowering nervous energy. "In Buddy's Eyes," with its attempt to paint her life as picture perfect, painting pictures and idolized by an adoring husband, is heartbreaking as we're increasingly convinced she hasn't convinced anyone this is close to true, including herself. Her Buddy is played with insight and warmth by Danny Burstein in a well-rounded performance that, in a different but analogous way, shows us that he is barely hanging on and also desperately floundering. When repression gives way to realizations, it's like the sharp snap of a twig. For example, in "The Right Girl," he brings varying emotions to the loaded word "home" and, when he rages at himself or the world with the "Yeah!"s that some might throw away, we sense him kicking himself or just flailing about, with tears threatening to spill, like the rush of water that bursts a dam. And this informs his parallel "Follies" number about the two women in his life, "Buddy's Blues," while not robbing it of its zippy vaudeville humor.

Jan Maxwell plays the character of Phyllis as more open than other actresses might—making her more than a steely sophisticate who's vain with ice water in her in veins (that would be the less dimensional "easy route"). She has charisma that crackles through, and her "Could I Leave You?" is a roller coaster of coiled vitriol, hurt and catharsis. As Ben—the man Sally lost and still longs for but who married Phyllis—Ron Raines of the sturdy baritone voice is, gratifyingly, far more than a emotion-denying, cardboard stoic. Though parading his share of bluff and bluster and wearing blinders as much as the others, when his confidence cracks—or he himself does—it's a mighty impactful fall. His self-confrontations and denial are moving in "The Road You Didn't Take" and his disintegration later in the stylized "Live, Laugh, Love."

Those playing the younger versions of these four characters (Lora Lee Gayer/Sally; Christian Delcroix/Buddy; Kirsten Scott/Phyllis; Nick Verina/Ben) sing attractively and buoyantly do creditable work in the charm department without slipping into being cliché sugar cookies, though the trap door could be considered wide open with the perky, wide-eyed personae provided for contrast. "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," with all eight, is so full of feeling and satisfying interaction that it feels like a wistful little play all on its own.

With so much of the material assigned to the two couples and their younger selves, when other strong singers get only one major moment in the spotlight—if that—and then blend into the group, it can leave the audience wanting for more. But, of course, they "serve their purpose" in delivering a message or sampling a style of song and that's the larger goal. Still, I'd beg for more from the aforementioned Terri White and the delightful, still lovely-sounding, still cheery-voiced Susan Watson as Emily (partnered with Don Correia in the sprightly "Rain on the Roof") in her return to Broadway for this revival of the 1971 show (she was playing the title character in the No, No, Nanette revival around the time Follies first came along). Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz in "One More Kiss" embrace but cut through the operetta formality to make the dignified diva dazzler a major statement about the easier-sung-than-done adviso, "Never look back." For those used to more wink, weariness, zing or sting in "Broadway Baby," Jayne Houdyshell's plucky, uncomplicated joyful romp may seem (disappointingly?) like nothing but an unsophisticatedly simple ray of sunshine. But it can be argued that there are enough dark clouds on the horizon. Then there's Elaine Paige, who gets the plum of "I'm Still Here," the show business survivor's anthem. Although there's some intriguing grit and anger, it's overall a letdown for me. Others—in or out of the show—have instantly grabbed my admiration and sympathy with this and made me think of the larger American history pageant referenced. Despite her rage, Paige's approach seems to be more stiff upper lip service to the opportunities lurking. And it's the one number where the orchestra seems to be transparently, uninterestingly doing the heavy lifting with its repetitive architecture. The other stumble for me is the challenging "Too Many Mornings" with Raines and Peters not sharing the weight, and the style not a good fit for her, though her acting compensates somewhat.

With such a huge number of jewels, if a few don't quite shine for me or you, or aren't set as well as others, we'd be fools to pass up such a true treasure chest. No matter how well you know Follies, whether you listened to it mostly some years ago or just were (re)acquainted by attending a recent performance, this new CD set is recommended. Reveling in this version's many, many highlights and appreciating the brilliance of the work can be the musical equivalent of the reunion the old showgirls are having. Bravo to those who put so much intelligence and artistry into this recording, likely to be welcome visitors to your music player. Hats off, here they come.


JAY Records

Truth is stranger than fiction. The plot of The Road to Qatar! strains credulity and has some strained humor, but the funny thing is that it is really is true. The not-so-funny thing is that, strangely, it's not so funny compared to the escapades as described by lyricist/bookwriter Stephen Cole in his liner notes and related in interviews. What happened was that he and his first-time composer collaborator, David Krane, got the bizarre offer to write a musical to order for a giant stadium with a giant budget and giant cast (plus camels!) in a small country in the Middle East. The government was behind it, though they didn't know their behind from a Broadway ballad exactly. They wanted a show to be called Aspire on their terms, on their turf, on their dime, on their time table; that was the offer on the table. Extravaganza with message and pageantry and working in mentions of Muhammad Ali and the stone age and ancient Greece, religious principles and, please, no mention of pork, etc. Meetings and delays and much lost in the translation meant an opening night with much material not exactly rehearsed.

The not-so-sublime ridiculousness, at least on disc, comes off more like a labored sketch with stereotypically exaggerated characters than a breezy absurdist (but real!) farce of epic proportions. But it has its moments and some goofball likability and spunk. The three-dimensional real people who went through all this are reduced to cartoon-like broadly played shtick figures. It gets to be repetitive quickly, with numerous thickly-accented, bossy, glib Middle East characters all played by three actors (Bill Nolte, Bruce Warren and Sarah Stiles, who also plays a whining mother of one of the writers). Those writers, renamed here as Michael and Jeffrey, go through the proceedings haplessly and hopelessly, frustrated, frazzled or flummoxed, all the while bemused and reeling in disbelief that they got this gig. The plot thickens not a lot, but there are numerous references to them both being low-profile about being Jews in a Muslim culture, not long after 9/11. Quite a bit of dialogue is included, with orders barked, incredulity duly noted, kvetching kicked into high gear. Characters butt heads or bang their heads against the wall, and the any-that-can-go-wrong-will Murphy's law is the law of the land once they land the gig.

Melodies are high-energy but not frothy as you might want, sung lyrics often interrupted for bits of dialogue. Cole, a writer whose past work I've quite admired, spins some playful, chatty lyrics, his rhyming abilities flowing plentifully and richly, though it all seems to sputter and take a push to get going. I had to keep reminding myself that these nutty things we're hearing happened, and that's why it's all crammed in when it seems like overkill, divorcing one's mind from that knowledge. A bonus track cut song, "Here's Lookin' at You" is, ironically, stronger and more charming than almost anything else, perhaps because it doesn't have that frantic tone that pervades so much of this. It was to be sung when the collaborators get to know each other and realize how much they have in common. That common bonding and kindred spiritedness, though making their characters spirited, is also a problem. For me, James Beaman and Keith Gerchak as the American collaborators are too two-peas-in-a-pod-like. They don't have the contrast of personalities and sensibilities that might make things more entertaining for variety's sake. The reference point here is the Bob Hope/ Bing Crosby "Road" movies and part of the fun of those was their different energies and personalities.

There is some fun: the Arab head honcho being clueless about musicals' practicalities but somehow being an Ethel Merman fan, a plot idea quickly rejected because it accidentally borrowed the plot of The Wizard of Oz; the man cast explaining that he's "Not actor! Movie star!"; and the flight to yet another country to do a recording where the chorus can't get the needed vowel sound for the title song. There's a peppy title song and some high points, but then there are lows and lowbrow humor (the camel defecting on stage, complaining about a complaining Mama who says she's sick and dying "but she never dies"). Sometimes reality doesn't travel well. But for madcap escapist silliness, it may be your ticket.


Young Pals Records

Relating their hopes and fears, joys and frustrations, high school seniors take to the stage to put them into song and put on a show. That is the story, currently, of Most Likely To, a piece that has gone through its own stages of development and story integration, starting as a 2008 workshop using students from an arts high school on Long Island, having a slot at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. The cast album includes young performers from different morphings, some of whom have been with it from the get-go.

It's written by Michael Tester, and the CD was arranged and produced by Ayhan Sahin, who also did drum programming to add to the sounds of a piano, violin and guitars. What we hear is on the gentler side of the teen angst scale, with an easygoing sense of humor. Singing is more warm and fuzzy than hot and bothered and belting, feeling cutely rough and neatly ruffled around the edges rather than "edgy" and rather sweet. Optimism trumps youthful indifference, as the company, calling themselves "The Tribe" as another generation did in Hair, and one song recalls that show's number with a litany of "Initials" (named-dropping President L.B.J. taking the I.R.T. Subway), M.L.T.'s teasing tune, perkily sung by Katie Hoffman, updates the vocabulary of initialized buzzwords, getting some attention with a lyric including ADD and OMG, etc., becoming a confession of obsessive teen love called "OCD Over U" (and it's kinda LOL). The burning issues here aren't equating with burning draft cards as in Hair, but their hair-raising experiences are more about social peer leaders and cheerleaders, rarely straying from school and family life to comment on the larger world. But there are some thoughtful ideas posed, such as challenging the pigeon-hole role that many get in high school as being labeled a jock or a nerd in the group number that asks the musical question, "Why Can't We Be Both?". The show does seem to want to have it both ways in being adorable and assertive, but it's cute in its candy-coated way without an overdose of sugar. And there's a knowing piercing underneath the smiley comments and caviling.

Musical theatre fans have a smile in store via Jesse Ellyn Zeidman strutting as a stagestruck type, referencing pop culture and some talkin' Broadway, ending with a quote from the score of Gypsy. Another little hoot is the company number "All Hail the Drama Queens," a tongue-in-chic nod to divas who are "the histrionic stars of their Facebook screens." On a welcome serious note, letting down guards and letting us in on deeper insecurities, "Push Comes to Shove" pushes the envelope nicely with honesty about being overwhelmed, the lyric successfully employing a series of compound words starting with "over" (without overdoing it to exhaust or show off; the emotions come through in a real way). Though there are moments that seem tame or provide a slight chuckle where a belly laugh would be wanted, many of the 12th grade "senior moments" are memorable and likeable, cozying up to crawl into your heart without being in your face. Plus, there's a fine sense of contented community in the ensemble. Group hug?

- Rob Lester

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