I find it very interesting that after a decade during which few new musical comedies were produced there was a major resurgence and revitalization of the genre last year. Perhaps it was caused by a backlash against the plethora of through-sung (and usually depressing) musicals that have hit the scene or the bookless revues and dance concerts that populate both Broadway and the West End. Regardless of the reason, the year 2000 saw three new musicals that hearken back to the days when it was OK to write a 'merely' entertaining musical: Mamma, Mia!, The Full Monty, and The Witches of Eastwick.

The last of these musicals, The Witches of Eastwick was recently released on CD. It started life as a novel by John Updike, which in turn was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson as the devil with Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer portraying the accidental coven. The musical, currently playing in London, is a combination of the two, fusing the theme of feminist self-discovery from the novel with the madcap supernatural aspects of the movie. It is written by John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana P. Rowe (music), two Americans who are best known for writing another Cameron Mackintosh produced musical, The Fix. In a style reminiscent of Maltby and Shire at their best, they have written a largely entertaining musical, which wisely takes its cue from the feeling of small-town claustrophobia that permeates the book, but was largely lost in the film. Eastwick is perfectly set up as a 'Stepford-meets-Gary-Indiana' type town in the opening number, "Eastwick Knows," a number that owes more than a little to the opening numbers of Beauty and the Beast and South Park; Bigger, Longer and Uncut .

Of course, the show would be nothing without three strong actresses playing the titular trio, and having powerhouse songs for each. In this regard, Witches is at its best. Lucie Arnaz (They're Playing Our Song, Educating Rita, Lost in Yonkers) brings the right amount of cynical edge to the part of Alexandra, the failed sculptress. Maria Friedman (Oliver Award winner for Passion) is delightfully wacky as the tongue-tied writer, Sukie. And Joanna Riding (Olivier Award winner for Carousel) gives a thrilling performance as the emotionally and artistically constipated cellist, Jane. All three shine in their first act solo numbers, "Eye of the Beholder," Waiting for the Music to Begin," and "Words, Words, Words," which manage to successfully tackle identical themes (emotional awakening and falling for the devil incarnate) in diverse show-stopping manners. They are equally strong on their numbers together as well; "Make Him Mine," which proves the old adage 'be careful what you wish for,' and "I Wish I May," a plaintive exploration of childhood which turns into a roof raising anthem.

When The Witches of Eastwick focuses on the unlikely coven it shines. When the spotlight shifts to the horny devil, Darryl Van Horne, it starts to dim. Ian McShane, a non-singer in what appears to be his first musical, is only partially successful as Darryl. He pulls off "I Love a Little Town," a sardonic look at small town life that owes more than a little to "River City;" in fact, Ian often sounds like Jack Nicholson doing a Robert Preston imitation throughout the album. From what I hear, his performance is much more effective on stage, but on disk he lacks the flair to fully give the devil his due.

The show starts to peter out towards the middle of the second act with two weak numbers for Darryl; "Dance with the Devil," in which he teaches the men of Eastwick how to seduce the opposite sex, and "Who's the Man," a number that calls to mind "Oogie Boogie's Song" from The Nightmare Before Christmas (Indeed: that song made me wonder how the show would work with an actor possessing Ken Page's chops). It is further hampered by "Something," a song for the two secondary ingenues which is one of those numbers meant to sound poorly written that succeeds a little too well. The show does get back on track with "Evil," a largely funny number for the villain of the show, the self appointed moral compass, Felicia (Rosemary Ashe), and "Loose Ends," the most beautiful and touching number of the show, magnificently sung by Maria Friedman.

Overall, The Witches of Eastwick provides a devilish good time (sorry ... I resisted as long as I could). It is a highly entertaining throwback to the days of old-fashioned musical comedies, when shows were allowed to exist strictly to be entertaining. While not 100% effective, it is almost there and is worth getting for the witches themselves.

One of my most surprising CD finds recently was Tom Wopat's CD, The Still of the Night. While I enjoyed his performance as Frank Butler in the current revival of Annie Get Your Gun, nothing I saw or heard in the show led me to believe he was capable of such a finely crafted, lushly romantic album. Drawing upon Broadway and pop standards, Tom possesses a smoky baritone that displays a remarkable subtlety and an emotional depth reminiscent of Tony Benett and Rosemary Clooney. The understated arrangements perfectly compliment Tom's voice and style, and it is obvious that he has spent a great deal of time exploring each lyric. He deserves high praise for singing all the verses of "Makin' Whoppee," as well as being the first person I have heard sing the chorus. He is also the first person I have heard impart any meaning to "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," a song that never had any appeal for me before.

Tom and producer Russ Titleman have created one of the most finely crafted albums I have heard in recent memory and should be applauded for pulling off the difficult feat of sustaining a romantic mood throughout the album, without ever putting the listener into a ballad induced coma. This is a perfect CD for romantic evenings, dinners, etc. and would be a wise purchase with Valentine's Day rapidly approaching.

Fynsworth Alley has just released its first studio recorded solo album, a self-titled CD by Emily Skinner. A welcome addition to their catalogue, the album is one of the best sounding CDs produced by Bruce Kimmel. Previously, I have had two complaints with some of the albums he produced while with Varese Sarabande. Far too often the arrangements have had a 'sameness' to them, giving the listener the impression that they have heard the songs far too many times before. The albums also have had a tendency to sound overproduced, giving the instruments a patina of artificiality. I am happy to report that neither situation occurs on Emily's album. The orchestrations by David Siegel of arrangements by Bruce Kimmel and Todd Ellison are among the strongest I have heard on any Fynsworth or Varese album. Utilizing a wider variety of sound textures and instruments, all persons involved have woven a rich auditory tapestry utilizing a broad range of styles. Furthermore, the instruments have a nice edge to them, giving the album an exciting bite (that, and the fact that the musicians are finally getting credit on the album, should put an end to any speculation on their use of synthesized instruments).

Emily is in peak voice on the album, which showcases the myriad facets of her voice and personality. Her voice shines on the ballads, especially on the shimmering "Lazy Afternoon," and she lets loose with the pop/gospel/country fusion "Be Good or Be Gone" from Pump Boys and Dinnettes. She even manages to make David Friedman's "My Simple Christmas Wish" her own; no mean feat, as it had previously been the sole property of Alix Korey.

Only two things prevent me from whole-heartedly singing this album's praises. The first problem I have is that I wish the album truly was a solo turn for Emily Skinner. I have long felt that she and Alice Ripley were in danger of becoming a kitchy in-joke, due to their constant 'joined-at-the-hip' routines. Emily's 'solo' CD contains three numbers with Alice, two of which don't mesh with the rest of the album. While the two shine on "Ballyshannon" from The Dead, the pairing of "You'll Never Get Away From Me" and "Together Wherever We Go" sounds as if it was an outtake from one of their duet albums. "I Could Always Go to You" is an exercise in questionable taste and it and the aforementioned pairing only serve to destroy whatever mood was set by the previous number.

Indeed, that brings us to what I think is the biggest flaw of the album; mainly that it is more than a little scattershot in its production and fails to create a unified whole. In the liner notes, Emily states that her mission with this album was to create a widely eclectic CD that would keep its listeners guessing as to what would come next. She and Bruce certainly have done that, but at the cost of negating much of the emotional impact of the album. This is most graphically illustrated near the end of the album, when Emily sings one of the most devastating numbers ever written about losing loved ones to AIDS, "My Brother Lived In San Francisco" from Angels, Punks and Raging Queens. Emily gives a phenomenal interpretation and it is the emotional high point of the CD. Unfortunately, it is followed by "The Long Way," a balls-to-the-wall number that recalls "Enough is Enough" as filtered through Dreamgirls. The effect of this pairing is the emotional equivalent of shifting a Porsche going 80 MPH into reverse and literally forced me into turning off the CD.

Emily further states in her liner notes that she realizes that not all the tracks are going to "float your boat" and advises you to skip past those to the ones you love. There are plenty of those on this album, and I have already programmed my CD to skip over (or re-order) the ones that sank my ship. This is one of those albums that truly is best described as having something for all tastes, and the songs I skip may be the ones you savor. NOTE: A bonus track, a cut song from The Full Monty, is included on all CDs purchased through Fynsworth Alley's website. While the song, "Maid of the Mist" leaves little wonder as to why it was cut, as it would have added little to the show, it is a wonderful addition to Emily's CD.

-- Guest columnist, Jonathan Frank

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