Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

The Show Has Closed, But the Melodies Linger On
The Visit and Gigi

Their roads to the Broadway season were long, but their runs were short. Here are two recently closed musicals whose action takes place in Europe, with scores written by major league songwriting duos. One is dark and one is quite bright. Their strikingly different central characters are women determined to have their own way: one is very young and inexperienced in life with her first match with a man at hand, while the other is an older woman of much experience and several marriages behind her.


Broadway Records/ Yellow Sound Label

The year is a little more than half over, but I'll say that I love the cast album of The Visit more than any new cast album in those last six months—and longer. It is gripping and often moving, and is superbly performed with thrilling theatricality, produced magnificently by Yellow Sound Label's Michael Croiter. If it wouldn't make me feel foolish in my home all alone or the back seat of the car where I first played it, I'd stand up and give it a standing ovation. Others may need more hearings before they'll agree with me that the score stands right up with the best by its accomplished songwriting team, John Kander and Fred Ebb. I thought that when I heard the full score live in the theatre, but perhaps appreciate it even more divorced of its visual elements. A lot of the electricity comes through—the personalities and their interaction, the crisp timing with the many surprises, the poignancy, as well as the beauty and the deliciously wicked humor. And star Chita Rivera, in better voice than on her solo album and cabaret outings I've caught, is magnificently magnetic, again capturing the special brilliance of this songwriting team as she did for their Chicago, The Rink and The Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Like Sweeney Todd, we must give ourselves permission to dive into the dark subject and dark humor in it as well as to sympathize with—or at least understand—the still-simmering rage and bloodthirsty desire for revenge by a character shamefully wronged long ago in a life-changing way. While some want musical theatre to be more of feel-good escapist fare, the craft and skill here should make many willing to take the plunge. As truths are revealed and motivations thus become more evident, what might at first have seemed distancing will pull you in for a roller coaster ride that is also heartbreaking. The central character's bitter feelings sometimes seem to be softened by the sweeter memories of youth. Or does the innocence lost become painful to remember, impossible to look at without also recalling betrayal? Intensity swells and feels more intense with repeated listenings. Likewise, one keeps discovering and relishing the many nuances in the cast's delivery and in the ten-person orchestra so well and specifically used in the orchestrations by Larry Hochman, with the players conducted by David Loud (also vocal and dance-music arranger).

It's all economically done—there's virtually no fat in the often short tracks that make their points with the power of precision and conciseness. We're not left with time to do much more than reel from each well-aimed blow before the next one comes. We linger in the past (overlapping flashbacks and commentaries) only as long as is effective or bearable for the characters.

Chita Rivera's work is laser beam-like. Mysterious and playing her cards close to her chest as the world's richest woman returning to her now impoverished home town, she relishes stringing them along as the citizens kiss up to her, hoping she will be their financial salvation. It occurs to me that she can be well described by some words of a song she sang when, as the very different character long ago in Bye Bye Birdie when she imagined herself as "Spanish Rose": "So regal and cool, exciting and cruel, that's me." Here, her Claire is all those things: high and mighty, dripping with poison-dipped barbs, so in command as actress and character, the air thick with excitement and unabashed viciousness when all bets are off. The tension and layer-by-layer peeling of the onion come through superbly in this John Doyle-directed production so well caught here and including just enough of Terrence McNally's book for continuity in key moments. Boy, does she deliver at every turn! And she may be the perfect judge of how to best use and ration the limits of her vocal abilities in shaping each line, compensating with gradations of color and sculpted sound to compensate for diminished power.

The story which centers on a possible death and the frequently widowed Claire gains unintended weight in the real world, with the losses of both lyricist Fred Ebb and the show's male co-star Roger Rees, as Claire's once-upon-a-time first love Anton, just as this new album was officially released. But let it be said that his work on the album is sterling and does not betray his tragic real-life illness. It is a fully realized performance at every turn, with many subtle moments as he interacts with various characters, including his younger self, enacted by John Riddle. Michelle Veintimilla as Young Claire shines, too. These two weave in and out of the proceedings, rarely getting the spotlight for long, but highly impactful.

Those who saw the show after Mr. Rees had to be replaced saw his role played by Tom Nelis who is heard here in his original role as Rudi, Claire's butler, and he turns in just one of the many impressive performances here. Among those is the versatile Jason Danieley (also prominent in another of the final chapters of Ebb's career, Curtains) as the increasingly anguished friend of Anton whose pain and frustration in his number "The Only One" are palpable. As on another recent album release, the score of Misia, his contributions are dynamic and strong. Among the other veterans adding fine support are Mary Beth Peil and David Garrison.

While not as splashy as many of their scores, it doesn't take uber-careful listening to hear the trademark Kander ingratiating and catchy melodies and the sharp, smart Ebb lyrics. Some of the numbers could be the evil twins of other work in their canon: Claire's life experience tells how only "Love and Love Alone," once gone, can harden the heart—the other side of Zorba!'s "Only Love." And the company number prioritizing the need for "A Happy Ending" has a heavy cloud over it, a far less sunny cousin of "Happy Endings" written for the film New York, New York. The courtroom reenactment recalls the shenanigans in the trial in Chicago with a very different outcome and reaction.

Oh, it's hardly all doom and gloom and there are many rays of sunshine in the stormy skies. While not absent irony or looming specters, there's jauntiness galore in the group numbers "Yellow Shoes" and "A Car Ride." And for achingly simple beauty, "You, You, You" is pure grace. The gallows humor comes in various places, with the distinctive Rivera self-satisfied laugh. Wit comes stage center notably in "I Walk Away" wherein she radiantly but matter-of-factly sings of the many husbands' deaths and the inheritances that followed ("Mister Chu owned chunks of Chile... Ciao, Mister Chu!/ Numbers 3 to 5 were sickly./ They were quickly laid to rest./ Plague, cirrhosis, and a plane crash/ Which left me quite depressed"). And her ever-present eunuchs in her entourage do the back-up vocals.

The booklet has all the lyrics and spoken material (though some in minor ways show variations from what's heard) and there are color pictures that give a sense of the unique look of the production. McNally wrote a synopsis and there are appreciative essays by him and the director. I suspect that, in years to come, this excellent cast album will make a fine case for the show's and score's worth and I hope it will encourage more productions. Meanwhile, I'm glad to re-Visit the album over and over again.


DMI Soundtracks

The chorus of the title song begins, "Gigi, am I a fool without a mind or have I merely been to blind to realize..." Some might be tempted to add: "...that if it ain't broke, 'fixing' it makes its failure no surprise." While the Paris-set Gigi takes place in a very different long-ago time and place with characters whose attitudes, lifestyles, and perspectives are very different than those of today, the powers that be decided that audiences could not or would not or should not accept that and that it needed some overhauling. Putting emphasis on courting rather than courtesans, and shrinking the age difference between Gigi and Gaston, it becomes a different story. Underestimating an audience's ability to understand and even listen to the lyric "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" strikes me as a panic attack. After the title line, it clearly and immediately states the reason for the thanks, which is simply that girls will grow into attractive adult women, but was was it indeed thought unseemly for a man to be praising "little girls," and thus Honoré's famous solo was reassigned to Gigi's female caretakers? I suppose we should be glad the P.C. squad didn't force a change in songs rejoicing "The Night They Invented Champagne" lest it be seen as irresponsibly endorsing the dangers of indiscriminating imbibing of alcohol or that Gaston's opening line in "She Is Not Thinking of Me," remarking that "She's so gay tonight!" would be mistaken by modern listeners as indicating that his lady friend Liane is not attracted to him because she's a lesbian. While this newest Gigi album is a mixed bag, with characters portrayed differently than in the past, there are things to appreciate and recommend it. After all, it is difficult to take all the charm out of Gigi's score.

While robust-voiced Howard McGillin is always a welcome cast album presence, and it's too bad he, as the roué Honoré, couldn't try for a heavenly "Thank Heaven...," we can take some consolation in hearing pros Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty team up for it. Clark is also reassigned Gigi's solo, "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," which, theatre history buffs will note, is actually a second-phase recycling as it was originally written for Eliza Doolittle to have in My Fair Lady on her way to the ball. Another Honoré solo, "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore," becomes a duet, with Clark called upon again, and while the division of lines gives her the key punch lines, it comes off as more sweet than funny. The same can be said of their combining on "I Remember It Well," which also loses its truly touching quality. Both sound too solid and with more vocal youth than long-in-the-tooth personae, so it's not as endearing as it could be. She sounds a bit too peeved with his faulty memory, rather than being affectionately understanding.

As Gaston, I like Corey Cott a lot. Played with less of a blasé and spoiled attitude, the character is more vulnerable and, thus, more likeable. His rendition of the title song and its long set-up (here presented as a separate track titled "Gaston's Soliloquy") shows interesting and thoughtful phrasing. The acting within the singing is involved and in the moment with its many realizations. And, while I miss the feistiness in "It's a Bore" and "She Is Not Thinking of Me," both of which could have used more comic frustration, they have appeal nonetheless. His singing the songs more fully may come as a (pleasant) surprise to those only familiar with the semi-talk/singing style employed by the famous film version's Louis Jordan. (As for me, I am not only comparing notes—in both senses of the word—with that soundtrack, but with the earlier Broadway and London cast albums as well as some studio cast recordings and even the French language-dubbed version of the film soundtrack. And, speaking of "soundtrack," beware that's how this CD is labelled.)

Dee Hoty adds sharp stand-her-ground toughness in negotiating "The Contract," one of the songs Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe added to their film score for the stage version, first seen in 1973. (Of those numbers, this adaptation left out one written for the character of Gigi.) As Gigi herself, Vanessa Hudgens is a disappointment vocally. At her best, the gal from Disney's "High School Musical"s sounds like a candied apple-sweet Disney princess type and here and there gratifyingly captures a gentle ingénue quality. But, too often, she has a chirpy, pouting quality that isn't so pleasing or vibrant. She doesn't sound angry enough when railing against "The Parisians"' preoccupation with romance, thus missing the comedy. Others have captured that in recordings, including the film director Vincente Minnelli's daughter Liza on an early solo album. Our Gigi du jour awkwardly takes the R sound in the title's key noun and sometimes comes up with a cross between a rolled R and a an L sound for a sprinkling of a French pronunciation. (Not that there's much of this from other cast members other than Steffanie Leigh, who as Liane gets a number with the French title, "A Toujours," which she sings attractively, its lilting melody a graceful plus in the score.) Miss Hudgens fares somewhat better in her last few numbers.

The chorus sounds fairly colorless and overstays its welcome taking over "The Night They Invented Champagne" after the protagonists have had their sips. Here and in the last track's reprise of it and the title song, not much emotion or color comes through in a perfunctory run-through. They are far better on "Paris Is Paris Again." The orchestra, conducted by Greg Jarrett, fares better. The talented Sam Davis has provided some invigorating and creative arrangements, and August Eriksmoen's orchestrations evidence some nice work for 15 players, the reed and brass players multi-tasking on various instruments. But some of these numbers cry out for a larger, lusher orchestra for full effect. And I wish the 20-track album made some room for instrumental music besides the brief overture. At the end of the day, and the end of the disc, it's those Loewe melodies that we can't get enough of, and Lerner's lyrics remind us what cleverness can be ("She's a treat tonight!/ You could spread her on bread/ She's so sweet tonight/ So devoted, sugar-coated" or "I like the horse before the cart/ Which means the coarse before the heart" delivered with panache, respectively, by Cott in "She Is Not Thinking of Me" and Hoty in "The Contract.").

The booklet contains all the lyrics and shows nine large color photos, the actors looking great in Catherine Zuber's costumes. First-billed producer Jenna Segal and director Eric Schaeffer each get a page to praise their approach and Heidi Thomas' revised script, but not much of that is heard and there's no synopsis for those new to the story and its characters. We might have to rework that old saying that began with the French in "La plus ça change..." to be "The more things change, the more they don't stay the same at all." But here's a toast to Gigi enduring, and let's be glad for that night they invented champagne for our toast, and I'll prefer to be an optimist and see this champagne glass as half full.

- Rob Lester

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