Also see Rob's Best Cast Albums of 2006 and Best Vocal Albums of 2006

So, here we are with our first column of newish releases for the newish year: a look at two musicals from legendary songwriters, each show well over seven decades old, and a girl who's a little more than a decade old. She's the new Annie belting out "Tomorrow" on a daily basis but going pop for the studio.

Bygone Records

If you left the theater humming after seeing the Rodgers and Hart show Present Arms in 1928 and have been frustrated that no kind of cast album was ever put together, your patience is finally rewarded! Good things come to he who waits. I said good things, not great things, because this Present Arms does present some disappointments. However, with a clutch of rarely heard songs from the legendary songwriting team, it's well worth discovering and hearing. There are ten songs, but three more were in the show, according to books that document such things. The only really famous one is "You Took Advantage of Me," done here with casual good spirits on this studio cast effort from California.

The male singers generally have more gusto and spunk than the two women, the similarly named Danielle Vernengo and Daniella Dalli, who struggle a bit. The leading men - James Anest, Brad Roseborough and Joshua Ziel - generally sound more comfortable, whether playing romantics or rascals. The plot finds American Marines drifting toward love and toward the islands praised in song "Hawaii" (a rather non-slam-bang ending that drifts musically itself).

Along the way, we get a wannabe dance craze ("Crazy Elbows") and enjoyably catchy odes to life in the service and, of course, to love. The trademark Lorenz Hart wit and jaded sensibility are sprinkled throughout, especially in the well-done "A Kiss for Cinderella," which adds two more male singers with attitude and character: George Pellegrino and Alexander Mohajer.

This is a modest production, with minimal, uncredited musical accompaniment. There is an overture that lasts almost six minutes and, though in parts it resembles calliope or ice skating music more than a theatrical sound, it still lets us enjoy the sparkly Richard Rodgers melodies on their own.

To say some of the performances are "lackluster" would be generous. To be frank, some vocals are adequate at best and others are certainly weak, tentative or labored. James Stiepan is listed as producer-director; he and Bygone Records have offered two other albums of rare Rodgers and Hart treats.

Yes, in a perfect world, Present Arms should have as much entertainment value as historical value, but collectors and appreciators of long-lost craft have something to celebrate. A gap has been filled.


Sepia Records

Those interested in the lilting 1932 Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II score of Music in the Air will get most of it on the release from Sepia Records, but footnotes are in order: This is not a full cast album, but rather features just one of the stars of the 1951 revival, Jane Pickens, who takes on seven songs with The Guild Choristers on hand on some tracks to help fill things out. The Choristers sing without her on the short and brisk "There's a Hill Beyond a Hill" and the cheery wrap-up about couplehood, its blissful state of the union declared in "We Belong Together." Since the original production of Music in the Air came to the stage before scores were routinely recorded in full, and this revival was not a hit, a full stage cast recording was not made. There are scattered songs on discs, a couple of studio cast LPs, and a recording of a radio cast with more tracks that made its way to CD in 2005 on AEI Records. (There was also a movie version starring Gloria Swanson.) This CD leaves out two numbers and the reprises and finales typical of the operetta style musical it is.

Jane Pickens (1909-1992) was a solid performer with a trained voice, with early success as one of the harmonizing Pickens Sisters and solo appearances on radio, records and the stage (including The Ziegfeld Follies and Regina). She is also heard here on 16 bonus tracks, making this musical banquet like a main course with something missing but a huge number of desserts.

Conductor Al Goodman, a familiar name from many studio cast recreations, leads the orchestra, and the overture is sturdy and stirring. Unsurprisingly, it features most prominently the two songs from the score that became best known in the 19 years between the original and the revival: "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" and "The Song Is You," which has entered into major standard status. The arrangements and Jane's vocal versions of these and the other numbers have a certain formality and gentility, but there's a warmth in her voice to offset that a bit. It's especially nice to have versions of the rarely heard numbers, like "I'm Alone" with its strong Kern melodic line.

The ingratiating music of Music in the Air is more memorable than the lyrics, which are not Hammerstein's most inspired or original. Some are on the florid side, not inappropriate for this show's story about the making of an operetta. Some of the material is for the show within the show, a diva and composer being among the characters. Jane impresses more with vocal quality than interpretive skill. This is also true in the bonus tracks, recorded in 1940, 1948, 1949 and 1952.

With a singer seemingly game for any kind of number, the bonus tracks are quite varied and include pop tunes, a couple of spirituals and numbers from stage and screen musicals. There's one more Hammerstein lyric among them, "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," with the graceful Sigmund Romberg melody. Here, Jane again favors a stately, starched kind of reading with a chorus. Of special interest are two Kiss Me Kate duets with its original star, the great Alfred Drake: "Wunderbar" and a song he did not sing in that show, "Why Can't You Behave?" that lets him relax and croon a bit rather than do the flamboyant bit. Jane comes off as too straight-laced for these two potentially playful pieces, so Drake takes the cake. Veteran theater conductor Lehman Engel leads the orchestra on these two. A few tracks seem sort of schizophrenic, with impressive classical music flourishes leading into hand-clapping rousing rhythms or the Georgia-born songstress laying on a helping or two of Southern charm (she even gets to "Dixie").

Though the sound has been wonderfully and lovingly cleaned up from old 78 rpm records, these performances don't have a classic quality and would not be mistaken for modern ones. That's not necessarily a bad thing; there's a quaintness and period specificity that is actually very charming on its own terms. Still, it's the showier vocalizations like the high notes on the melodramatic "When a Gypsy Makes His Violin Cry" that stand out rather than prime songs from the Gershwin songbook, perfectly pleasant but undistinguished readings of "The Man I Love" and "Summertime."



Sword in the Stone Records

The "Summertime" on Marissa O'Donnell's album is not that famous lullabye from Porgy and Bess. Other familiar-sounding titles like "Tonight" are not the ones expected, as is made clear when you glance down to the bottom of the list of 10 tunes where it says, "All songs written by Art Halperin," who is also the producer and main instrumentalist. A few of these songs, like the haunting and folky "Beautiful Dreamer" were recorded by him or his own daughter, Meeka (a background vocalist this time), with "Universal Love" being a hopeful plea as a reaction to the horrors of September 11th.

These are taken on quite capably by 12-year-old Marissa O'Donnell who has been playing the title role in the 30th anniversary tour of Annie. You won't hear her belting like there's no "Tomorrow" on this album: it's a light, poppy affair with some gentle and sincere singing. Marissa sounds very much her age and not like she's trying to come off as younger or older. The vocal qualities are neither those of a very young child nor those of an adult. In some ways, she has the best of those two worlds; there's certainly a freshness and genuine sweetness, but the kid is a pro in the studio. Her diction is good, she sounds confident and some of the lyrics let her sound wise and thoughtful. The voice itself is quite pretty.

The standout track here is the reflective "Home Again." Here she acquits herself extremely well when presented with the challenge of presenting and sustaining bittersweet moods and visual images of moments in a New York City winter. There's nothing sticky or awkward about it. The album is dedicated to her late grandfather, and a metaphysical encounter with him is detailed in the story song that gives the CD its title. She holds the stage effectively in this ambitious and lengthy piece. Some of the other material lets Marissa lighten up with chirpier, cheerier fluff and stuff like when she's celebrating "Summertime" being "finally back in town" bringing fun in the sun. Unfortunately, some of the songs are plagued with false rhymes and platitudes and are making them pop corn with dance-friendly beats. These don't take real advantage of this girl's skills, reminiscent of the mostly frothy LP, Bobby's Girl whipped up for Aileen Quinn when she starred in the film version of Annie.

To her credit, Marissa dives in and always sounds like she's truly having fun here, whether she's bouncing through "Dance With Me" (co-written by Onyan Edwards) or showing what seems to be a very real sunny disposition in "Sun Shines for All," complete with its "oh, yeahs." There's some bubblegum music here, but she bites into it. There are things here that a 'tween would be more keen on, and this CD definitely has that market appeal.

The young performer, who has also sung the National Anthem at Giants Stadium, shows both talent and potential on her debut solo album. I look forward to more.

And as always, I look forward to next week's pile, which I've already sampled and so I sign off humming the future.

- Rob Lester

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