Best in Show
Top Ten for 2005

With over 60 recordings of cast albums and similar material reviewed in 2005, any list of "10 Best" or "10 Favorites" will leave out many fine recordings and some great star turns. Feeling that it's not fair to have the past compete with the present, I decided not to consider the reissues we've reviewed here for this Top 10. My main criteria, besides the basic overall quality of performance and production, was: does the CD hold up with repeated playings? Does it grow on the listener and become more rewarding with familiarity? The albums on my list did not wear out their welcome and I think are especially notable. (You can also read part two: Top Ten Vocal Albums of 2005.) The ten titles are not in any particular order.

The Light in the Piazza remains an emotionally nourishing and cathartic listening experience. A stunningly beautiful achievement in purely musical terms, it is ravishing, especially with the love and care in the recording of the orchestra under the direction of Ted Sperling. But it's more than just a rush of the lush; the rhapsodic sounds may overwhelm everything else when first experienced, but there's much more here. With well-shaded acting performances through singing, with attention to detail, this recording has many satisfying moments. Gifted composer-lyricist Adam Guettel is well suited to the open-hearted declarations of feeling in this story. Victoria Clark, Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison are up to the challenge and deliver the goods with especially attractive voices and focused performances.

Another album with lovely music that could upstage its other qualities without careful attention to them is The Little Prince. This filmed version of the new opera based on the classic book was released as both a 2-CD set and a DVD. Rachel Portman, whose main experience is writing instrumental film music, found many musical colors for this tender story about the basic values in life (Nicholas Wright is librettist). Opting mostly for sweet or soaring melodies, some of the satire on human foibles in the original feels softer, though it's there if you pay attention to the words (and pictures speak louder than words, as evidenced by the reaction shots and visuals in the film).

A natural, non-cloying, non-"show bizzy" child actor-boy soprano was needed and found for the title role. Don't let the classification "opera" put you off; it's neither grand opera nor a razzle-dazzle musical comedy. Like Piazza, it's a big-orchestra first class production of a story that reaches the heart. In this case, it's a fantasy about a character from a small asteroid and his travels to various planets, including ours. This is a musical trip well worth taking.

Another musical with an outer space theme is The Last Starfighter. This one is as wild and wacky as The Little Prince is sublime and sensitive. Imaginatively comic science fiction, the bright and winking work is by talented composer-lyricist Skip Kennon and librettist Fred Landau. Satirical but warm-hearted, there's solidly crafted songwriting with top (or over-the-top) cast performances. As a video game about intergalactic action finally comes to life, mayhem ensues. But the entertainment begins from the start, with clever, campy material to mock the stock characters from movies about small town life and big dreams, young love and old cliches. It's a guilty pleasure that lasts. The record label is a new one, Kritzerland, but the producer has a long history with high-energy theatrical albums with music old and new, Bruce Kimmel.

Speaking of tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek musicals that parody old genres and are a hoot, come travel down The Road to Ruin. This welcome surprise is still a work in progress but already has a lot going for it. Set in 1928 and based on a silent movie from that year, it's a cautionary tale - or rather a skewering of such things. The innocent good girl gone bad has rarely sounded so good. Multi-tasking William Zeffiro wrote the music and lyrics and is pianist, vocal arranger, production supervisor and ensemble member. Broadway veteran George S. Irving is a major asset, capturing the right tone. Sebastian Arcelus is also just right as a gee-whiz teenager in love with the heroine, a role shared by Brooke Sunny Moriber and Stephanie Kurtzuba. With risque moments and good clean fun, fasten your seat belts while traveling along The Road to Ruin. The CD is from the adventurous label Original Cast Records and executive producer Bruce Yeko, with scores of scores from little-known musicals found and recorded.

40 years after the time in which The Road to Ruin is set and almost 40 years ago came Hair, a very different look at young people and society's mores. This year's exciting new recording of the score has 31 tracks under the strong musical direction of Seth Rudetsky. It's all in the spirit of the original but has its own fresh musical ideas. The songs are especially well matched to some of the bright musical theater talents of today. Recorded in a studio after a one-night-only benefit concert, the album is a celebration. Among the great female performers are Sherie Rene Scott, Lea DeLaria and Julia Murney. On the male side, some highlights include contributions from Chuck Cooper, Darius deHaas, Norm Lewis and Euan Morton.

The same four men are also heard on another starry set, Broadway Unplugged . A show recorded live at The Town Hall in Manhattan, it consists of musical theater classics by Broadway performers, performed without microphones to amplify voices. The focus on the part of the singers and the appreciation of the audience is very much in evidence here. The grace of Christine Andreas' "My Ship" and Alice Ripley ripping through "Serenity" are two contrasting but equally effective moments. With numbers from hits like Gypsy, Ragtime, Carousel and The Desert Song, it's overflowing with highlights. An outgrowth of creator-writer-host Scott Siegel's Broadway by the Year concerts recorded at the same venue, three in the long-running series were released this year.

Let's make this spot the tie in the list of ten favorites, technically bringing us to 11, or just say I can't decide between this one and Broadway by the Year: 1926 which has some truly rare material. With Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and more, it's grand. Both CDs benefit from the participation of Bill Daugherty, Nancy Anderson and Marc Kudisch. 1926 also features Nancy Opel and Eddie Korbich and some wonderful contributions by Sutton Foster.

Sutton Foster was the main character in the musical Little Women and its cast album is one that really grew on me. Divorced from whatever disappointments I had with the show onstage, the cast album is masterfully executed. The company is at its best, with committed performances from all on the Jason Howland/Mindy Dickstein songs. The orchestra sounds simply sensational and I fell in love with the orchestrations. Although I still find a few numbers resistible, I must say that this show's heart was in the right place and it's the heart that wins out. It becomes a moving experience and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. In addition to Sutton Foster as a winning Jo, Danny Gurwin's energy and zest is for the best and the company works well together. Maureen McGovern's two solos are the state of the art of theater singing. And this album is just one of several state-of-the-art productions from Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom Records this year.

Like the novel Little Women, William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night has seen many stage adaptations. It is the basis for Illyria, a rewarding and varied listen, brightly presented on disc. Its satisfying score, music and lyrics by Peter Mills, is well performed with characterful singing. Originally produced by Manhattan's Prospect Theatre Company, this cast album represents the regional premiere at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and is on their own label. Recorded with seven musicians, conducted by pianist F. Wade Russo, and orchestrations by Daniel Feyer, the accompaniment is a big plus. The singing is alternately robust and romantic, capturing the flavor of this old comedy of identity confusion. A couple of tongue-twisting songs as well as twists of plot are among the musical highlights, but the lovely melodies (especially "Olivia" and the "Prologue") are also well-served by this attractive 14-member cast.

As a character, Shakespeare appears in the climax of the next show and one of its songs uses his original words. The rest of the score is by the composer-lyricist who celebrated his 75th birthday in 2005, Broadway's great Stephen Sondheim. The CD of his The Frogs was especially well produced by Tommy Krasker. Recorded with sparkling sound and energy that hops out of your speakers, the performances are sharp and the humor holds up well on repeated listenings. The songs heard on this Lincoln Center cast album production are the original score and more. Fleshing out the songs written for a production at Yale thirty years earlier are razor-sharp new ones performed with great flair and polish. Based on the ancient Greek play, this broadly satirical tale of a visit to "Hades" (also the name of one of the great new production numbers) is deliciously entertaining. The orchestrations are full of rich and rewarding ideas, the music being in the hands of Sondheim's usual musical partners, Paul Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick. Nathan Lane and Roger Bart as the traveling companions (god and slave) are delightful and deliver the goods. The PS Classics recording includes zingy bits of the dialogue which was newly adapted by Nathan himself.

Nathan Lane and Roger Bart are also two happy reasons the next item is on the list: the soundtrack of The Producers. Directed by Susan Stroman (who worked with them in the stage versions of this musical as well as The Frogs), their performances are fresh. Some may have trouble fully appreciating the merits of this disc, distracted by comparisons to the original cast album or one's feelings about the screen adaptation. The giant-orchestration bows to the sounds of golden age movie musicals are more appreciated at leisure when attention is paid to that aspect. The Producers becomes a winking tribute to the trademarks of both Broadway and film musicals. The fact that several members of the Broadway cast repeat their roles without major changes in interpretation should not take away from the appreciation of their talents. The new song, "There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway," is the icing on the cake. I still find Mel Brooks' jokey pastiche score to be an entertaining valentine and neat and nifty as ever. Seen, I mean heard, on its own, the soundtrack album is full of great moments and bursts of joy and grand silliness.

As Oscar Hammerstein wrote, "These are a few of my favorite things." It's been a pleasure listening to so much newly recorded theater music all year and I look forward to what's to come in the new year.

-- Rob Lester

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