5 Musicals
4 in the South

Following a week off and the last two columns discussing the top cast and vocal albums of 2005, it's back to looking at new releases. This week's column surveys five newly released albums of original scores. The first four shows all take place in the southern states of the US. The first two have the same star and are serious and emotional. The other two are much lighter fare, Southern comfort of the comic variety. The last item is a little-known show. It may not take place in the South, but could take place anywhere - as it's about a pervasive social problem.


Angel Records

The Color Purple opened on Broadway several weeks ago (December 1), following its world premiere in the state of Georgia where the story is set. Whatever your familiarity with the show, the movie or the original novel, as a CD the music is quite accessible on its own. It pretty much jumps out at you with its gospel songs, simple lyrics for speak-from-the-gut characters, and conversation set to music in scene-songs like "Uh Oh!" and bits of dialogue to set up other numbers. The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, who come from the world of pop music, is varied. There are 29 tracks on the album, ranging in length from nine very short ones at one minute or less to three big pieces, each over five minutes long. Diversity can also be found in the sounds: solos and group numbers, a lullaby, a roof-raiser, dramatic catharsis and the longest piece, the act two opener set in Africa, with choral work and percussion. A concise synopsis is included in a booklet (this is the only album of the five not to include all the lyrics).

The sound and production are striking. Veteran Jay David Saks is the recording producer. His work in the last couple of years includes the albums of Gypsy and Avenue Q. Executive producers are Scott Sanders and Bill Rosenfield, champion of cast albums who earned his stripes and rep at RCA. Conductor Linda Twine leads an orchestra boasting 11 string players added to the 18 heard in the theater. The orchestra sounds sensational, serving to increase dramatic tension, additional excitement and accents to the happier tunes and depth throughout. This is not surprising, as the orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick, so crucial to the multi-textured settings of the Stephen Sondheim shows, as well as Nine and A Chorus Line. I am not wildly in love with the whole score, but I know the Tunick contributions go a long way toward pulling me in. Joseph Joubert, Associate Conductor and keyboard player, is credited with "additional arrangements" with Music Supervisor Kevin Stites (revivals of Fiddler, Oklahoma!, Nine and the upcoming Threepenny Opera) billed as having done "incidental music arrangements." The vocal harmonies on songs such as "Brown Betty" are a plus, too. My compliments to the musical chefs.

The high-energy, strutting, and showier group numbers set up scenes and moods appropriately (church, night club and some confrontations). However, the solos and duets with the major female characters are the most effective and impressive. Reneé Elise Goldsberry (no longer in the cast) sounds regal and warm as Nettie. Making her Broadway (and professional stage) debut, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes is exciting and very impressive as Shug. (In additional to singing back-up for pop stars like Cher and Celine Dion, she was a recurring singing vowel - yes - on a public television show for kids.) She's one to watch, and listen to - a big attraction on this album. She also sings some of the best material: "Too Beautiful for Words" and the first of two versions of the persuasive and moving title song. The standout song is "What About Love?" which she shares with LaChanze, in the central role of Celie. As the number that defines and explores the women's love relationship, it is riveting. LaChanze also shines elsewhere, particularly in her early lullabye, "Somebody Gonna Love You" and the album's last two tracks: "I'm Here" is a triumphant declaration of self-acceptance, and Lachanze leads the company in the reprise of the title song. 

Some of the numbers, alas, are done by the numbers, transparently telegraphing the intent and pushing the intended buttons. But bravo to the cast and cast for making the most of it. With her dedication to the main character and with her dramatic singing, LaChanze anchors the show quite well, going from an adolescent mother to a mature woman.


JAY Records

LaChanze's talents are also a major asset in the cast recording of Dessa Rose as the real-life title character, a runaway slave down South in 19th century America. As in The Color Purple, the show's early scenes find her as a pregnant teenager awaiting the birth of her child, with troubles aplenty but determined not to let her hard life kill her hope and will. The work of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist/bookwriter Lynn Ahrens is well served by this performer, who also appeared in their Once On This Island and Ragtime.

Dessa Rose has been recorded as a 2-CD set, dialogue and narration included. Most of the spoken tracks are under a minute long, but there are 39 of them, and added to the bits of dialogue within musical numbers, this makes for a lot of talk. It certainly makes for a more powerful listening experience, but because of the anguish and suffering in the story, it's anything but "easy listening." Emotionally exhausting, yes, but ultimately rewarding. There's much to admire here and a triumph of the human spirit shines through. Although some will want to skip over the dialogue on repeat listens, the musical performances have plenty of gut-wrenching moments, too - as well as a noble beauty.

Although some of the spoken sections have underscoring, there are no instrumental-only tracks except the final one, the exit music. The recording is an impressive achievement all around, with committed acting performances and strong singing, all recorded with great attention to detail. John Yap and the songwriters share credit as the album's producers. Eight musicians play, including a cellist and two other string players, each on three instruments. The recording was done on May 2 of last year, six weeks after opening night, the performers having the benefit of more time to live in their roles. Especially because of the dialogue having been recorded, one must acknowledge the contributions of the director, Graciela Daniele. Heard on disc, the show feels like a balanced, unified piece, with strong teamwork.

I prefer much of the songwriters' other work to this score, a feeling that hasn't changed after repeated listenings. However, I've come to appreciate its more subtle musical moments. Michael Hayden's act one "Capture the Girl" and a few others may get lost in the shuffle, but are worthy of attention. Welcome on any recording are the singing voices of LaChanze, Norm Lewis and Rachel York, whose elegant but dramatic solo "In the Glen" is the song highlight for me. Its quieter intensity and well-shaded performance make me want to press "repeat play," and it gets to me more than the big anthems. The unblinking look at the cruelty and hardship the characters endure is a credit to the integrity of the writers and the performers, even though it results in an experience that's more about angst and storytelling, despite many exhilarating and lovely musical moments.

The discs are encased in pockets in the front and back covers of a hard-bound book containing all the lyrics and the script, credits, four-page plot synopsis and ten full-color photos of the production.


PS Classics

It's hardly the first time, but once again a play by William Shakespeare has inspired a musical, this time with a twang. Transplanting the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor to a town of the same name in Texas results in much musical merriment indeed in Lone Star Love. It's entertaining in its own rowdy and goofy way. Set at the end of The Civil War, there's a cowardly Confederate soldier and a crooning cowboy in addition to foot-stomping, hell-raising and barbecues. Fortunately, it's all done with a very big wink and high spirits. Poking fun at everything, it's silly and hammy, but the performers are lassoed in so they aren't too far over the top all the time.

The melodies are solidly constructed and vibrantly performed by the cast and band. I especially admire the mock-serious ballads and "Cattlemen," a delightfully dopey display of cowboy bravado. The band The Red Clay Ramblers is at the center of things, playing instruments and characters. One of its members, Jack Herrick, wrote the music and lyrics. He and two of his bandmates, Chris Frank and Clay Buckner, sing one of the highlights, "Hard Times" which is done a capella.

The CD boasts contrasting, well-cast voices. The sweet, rather dopey yodeling cowboy, Clarke Thorell is love-matched with the ingenue, Julie Tolivar. They have more low-key, simple numbers which provide some respite to the broader material and performances. Beth Leavel (42nd Street, The Drowsy Chaperone) seems to have permission to play it straight with a torchy, dramatic performance on her solo, "Texas Wind." Maybe it's not in keeping with the tone of the rest, but it's exciting and theatrical. As Falstaff, Jay O. Sanders is boisterous and brash as required. Drew McVety is hilarious as a cartoonish character with a thick French accent.

This album and show probably won't make the list of all-time "essential" musicals. It's almost a guilty pleasure, with no message and no mission except to entertain. But it can take talent and smarts to create and carry off this kind of "silly," and Lone Star Love has that. It's really quite a lot of fun on disc, as it was in the theater where the cast served hot dogs and lemonade before the show and at intermission. The music goes down pretty easy, too, even though it's just as un-fancy. I wouldn't want a steady of diet of this kind of musical, but this one is a happy, hard-to-resist change of pace.


Sh-K-Boom Records

Down in Florida, in fictional Armadillo Acres, the residents of a trailer park are the characters of a musical that's another grand goof. Brightly presenting dim characters, here's a paper-thin musical that's thick with jokey songs. The Great American Trailer Park Musical knows what it wants to be: half pop, half country, all good-natured. It loves to trash its white trash characters and to embrace them, too. If A Little Night Music or My Fair Lady is the musical theater equivalent of caviar and champagne, this show is a Cheez Doodle. And proud of it. Filled with references to WalMart, exploitational TV, and lyrics like, "I'm gonna make like a nail and press on," it's a celebration of the tacky. The characters make up in high spirits what they lack in IQ. Despite the gossipy tone of some scenes, the occasional risque turn of phrase, exotic dancers and the adulterous affair central to the plot, the show has an odd kind of innocence. It's not mean-spirited.

With music and lyrics by David Nehls and a book by its director, Betsy Kelso, it was a cute evening in the theater and its comic and musical strengths hold up surprisingly well as a disc. Thanks go to a strong cast and an equally energetic but very small band led by pianist David Nehls. Things occasionally get kind of loud and raucous, but that's more a part of the ambience/style and the high-voltage electrified pop sounds emulated. I find the pastiche country songs more entertaining and pretty darn clever.

Kaitlin Hopkins makes the agoraphobic wife sympathetic despite the exaggerated situations, making her more three-dimensional without seeming out of step with the general comedy sketch-like flavor. As she did in Bat Boy, Hopkins finds the heart and realistic part of what could have been a cardboard just-for-laughs character. Her flexible and appealing voice evidences the most variety, going for the comedy gold and presenting more of a flesh-and-blood person. As her philandering husband, Shuler Hensley (the brooding Judd in the last Oklahoma! revival) finds some depth, too. Big-voiced Orfeh impresses with her pipes, with sass and high-heeled strutting. The one-dumber-than-the next all-purpose trio consists of Leslie Kritzer, Marya Grandy and Linda Hart. They are featured in the majority of the numbers and are up for the job. Wayne Wilcox completes the cast as a young man who enters toward the end, assigned the angry song "Road Kill."

You won't find depth here, but the show and its cast capture the milieu and mentality they seek to capture. It's not for those who intensely dislike all pop music and pop culture, but many will find a smile-inducing diversion. There are some clever rhymes to enjoy, too.


Getting serious again, we move from a show about living in a trailer park to living in a city park as the subject matter. Our little-known feature of the week is a musical about the homeless.


A touching, thought-provoking little musical called Truly, Dually gets the final spotlight this week. Writer Michael Ullman recently put this show together, inspired by his work with the homeless. He wrote the script and co-wrote the songs with Roslyn Catracchia. Unpretentious and with a lot of heart, it's an affecting and simple piece which has entertainment value, but probably more importantly - educational value as a teaching tool and a vehicle to increase awareness and sensitivity to a widespread societal problem. Truly speaks of the larger issues, but also tells the story of one family's response to the homeless, making it personal. The character of a child makes the piece especially effective. Not overly preachy, the songs have a message that avoids the hit-you-over-the-head guilt trip.

Yes, it's a bit uneven, with some imperfect rhymes and a few awkwardly scanning lines that could be fixed easily enough, but the sincerity comes through loud and clear. I especially like the plaintive "This Park is No Place," about the tragedy of a child having to live in a park or on the streets. It's also especially well sung with an effective arrangement. "Today" captures the point of view of an outreach worker, finding his first victory in making a connection with and gaining the trust of a client. Surprisingly perhaps, there's a comic vaudeville song about a client's many hurdles, dealing with doctors, diagnosis and dangers. The title song (the word "dually" in show's name refers to the fact that it is common for the chronically homeless to have the dual diagnosis of substance addiction and mental illness) and the "Park" song are heard as instrumentals at the end of the CD.

The attractively voiced cast is wisely directed not to push, but to trust the material to make the point without laying it on too thick. The transformational power of theater could work for the goals of this piece as it reaches audiences. It is made to order for schools and church groups seeking to sensitize members of the community, young and old.

The show has already garnered the support of the National Coalition for the Homeless and others. Perhaps most telling are the positive responses of audience members who are social workers in the field and people who have been homeless themselves. Asked for comments after performances, they've said things like, ""It was me and my life. I lived it. Thank you," and, "profound and moving." I'm pleased to let others know about this work. More information can be found at the website www.trulydually.org. Best wishes to the writers and producers of this worthy effort. All profits from the sales go to homeless and mental health services.

I'm looking forward to a new year of cast recordings and vocal albums. Reviews continues to be posted each Thursday, so show up for the show tunes and pop in for the pop songs.

-- Rob Lester

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