It is my firm belief that Stephen Flaherty is the most chameleon-like writer of musical theater around today. His ability to completely submerge himself into a specific style, coupled with his near lack of definable writing style, makes him a master of embodying a period or style of music. Thus, he and his lyrical partner, Lynn Ahrens (the two of them, perhaps, the best musical theater writing team since Kander and Ebb), are at their strongest when the show they are writing is as specific as possible in terms of style and flavor, such as Ragtime or Once on This Island, versus a more scattershot piece like Seussical.

For their latest show, A Man of No Importance, Flaherty and Ahrens tackled the Celtic-influenced sounds of Ireland and created a delicate jewel of a show whose simplicity will hopefully find a stronger life on disc than it did in its all-too-short run at Lincoln Center.

Based on the 1994 film of the same name, A Man of No Importance is a small scale, intimate look at a rather unassuming bus conductor named Alfie Byrne (played by Albert Finney in the film and Roger Rees on stage), a kind-hearted, middle-aged, closeted individual who still lives with his unmarried sister and lives through his books and poems by Oscar Wilde, and the community theater company he runs out of his church in 1960s Dublin. The twin conflicts in the musical involve Alfie's attempt to mount a production of Wilde's scandalous play, Salome, and his attempt to reconcile his crush on fellow worker Robbie Faye (marvelously played by Steven Pasquale).

While the show was enjoyable onstage, it is even stronger on disc, perhaps due to its focus on the music and its pairing down of the dialogue by book writer Terrence McNally. On disc, the show is highly accessible and understandable and moves at a much more focused clip. While the dichotomy between the comic, almost music hall-broad world of the theater and the raw, albeit restrained, emotions generated by Alfie's battle with his inner demons remains a bit jarring and forced, it is muted by sterling performances and a strong score with some truly beautiful numbers.

The opening number, "A Man of No Importance," perfectly establishes the setting and the characters. Faith Prince gives a remarkably restrained and emotional performance as Alfie's sister Lily through the comic number, "The Burden of Life," in which she celebrates what she perceives as Alfie's long-awaited interest in the fairer sex, and the heart-rending "Tell Me Why," in which she confronts Alfie after realizing that interest will never be realized. As Adele, Sally Murphy fulfills at least one of Alfie's dreams by agreeing to play Salome, and performs one of the best numbers in the show, "Princess." Steven Pasquale's big number, "The Streets of Dublin," will probably be gracing many an audition book and cabaret space, as will the simplest and most effective number in the show, Alfie's lesson to Adele on love, "Love Who You Love." The supporting cast is incredibly strong and includes Jessica Molaskey (who is featured in a small but soaring solo in the act two opener, "Our Father"), Ronn Carroll, Luther Creek and Katherine McGrath.

The album includes a bonus track, "Love's Never Lost," which is perhaps the most beautiful song on the album. A snippet of the number was sung by Alfie in the pub, and the song in its entirety is beautifully realized by Sean McCourt, who provides vocals and guitar accompaniment, and Antoine Silverman who plays a plaintive violin.

One of the most highly awaited cast album reissues has finally arrived on CD: Fade Out Fade In. With music by Jule Styne, a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show has quite the pedigree and an even more fascinating history. The show was plagued by misfortunes, which culminated in its star Carol Burnett getting whiplash in a taxi cab and having to leave the production. In what was dubbed "the biggest star-replacement box-office slump in Broadway history," the producers brought in Betty Hutton to disastrous results. The resulting mess of lawsuits, schedule problems, cast changes and assorted other goings on make for a better story than the show's book, and the details are delightfully recorded by Peter Filichia in the liner notes. If only the rest of the album were equally as strong and entertaining.

The fact that there really isn't a single number from Fade Out Fade In that is done with any regularity is a prime indicator of the strength of the material in this instance. The show spoofs Hollywood norms by chronicling the adventures of Hope Springfield (Burnett), a wholesome starlet accidentally picked from a line of usherettes to become a movie star. The numbers are pleasant pastiches that lack any real edge or punch. The saving grace of the show is Burnett, who is delightful in all her numbers, whether playing a Shirley Temple-esque tyke and singing the most dour 'chin-up' song in recorded history ("You Mustn't Be Discouraged"), or a femme fatale ("Call Me Savage," the only number to have achieved a small degree of life outside of the show), or as an awe-struck film fan ("It's Good To Be Home," which features a variety of Burnett's trademarked voices and inflections). Burnett's co-star, Jack Cassidy (the only one from the cast to be nominated for a Tony Award) sounds as wonderful as always, but even he can't salvage mediocre numbers like "My Fortune Is My Face." Another performer of interest in the show is Tina Louise, who left the show to play Ginger on Gilligan's Island.

One of the most wonderful things to hear is a performer who has discovered his or her voice. Any singer with a shred of artistry is in a state of constant exploration to discover that spark that makes him or her 'special' or more importantly, true to themselves. It's a risky endeavor, as it is much easier (and, unfortunately, all too often more financially rewarding) to go with the pack. One of my favorite singers has recently released an album that is so personal and displays such a wild departure from her previous album in terms of vocal style, that it may very well be one of the most exciting albums of the year: Stacy Sullivan's West on 40.

Long time readers of Sound Advice may remember my review of her first album, At The Beginning, in which I raved about Stacy's sensual, smoky alto. The good news is that the voice still smolders. The better news is that the personality is in full blaze and every song bears her brand. While a number of the songs on West on 40 are not what I would normally seek out to listen to, as they reside more in the pop/country end of the spectrum, it is impossible not to resonate with any of the numbers she has chosen. From the opening track, the sultry "A Long, Good Night" (Ken Hirsch/Rosie Casey) to the hard-edged rocking version of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" (which is growing on me by leaps and bounds), there is not a single track that does not display her stamp or her joy. Highlights include a subtly rethought version of Amanda McBroom's "Dreaming," in which she modulates the chorus's keys to haunting effect, a funky "I Feel the Earth Move" (Carole King), a well realized "Simple Twist of Fate" (Bob Dylan), and a tender "Trying To Do The Right Thing" (Robben Ford). For guilty pleasures, there's no topping "Goodbye Don't Get Any Better Than This," a rollicking country number by Stacy's brother, Tim.

A friend and I got into a lively debate today as to why there are so many female performers that fans get polarized about and so few male counterparts. As Julie Andrews, who at one time could out-sing anyone under the table, fails to generate the same love/hate argumentation as the likes of, say Sarah Brightman or Celine Dion, we finally agreed it was less show of talent thing versus a degree of 'diva'-dom (hence Mandy Patinkin being the sole male representative of the 'you either fiercely love him or loathe him' camp).

One of the prime stars in this arena is sometime Broadway actress, mainly concert, performer Linda Eder, who has returned to her theatrical roots with Linda Eder: Broadway My Way. The album, which includes a mix of pre-released songs and new recordings, features Eder making twelve classic Broadway songs (and one 'perhaps to be on Broadway' number by her husband, Frank Wildhorn) her own ... kind of. The truth is that Eder, who has always been compared to Streisand, has never sounded more like Barbra than on this album. In terms of arrangements, song choices and even vocal quality, Broadway My Way sounds like an album Streisand would have recorded thirty or so years ago in the golden era before she became the highly mannered performer she is today. No where is this more apparent then on "I'll Be Seeing You" which eerily recalls a younger, gentler Babs. Hearing Eder sing Streisand's first signature tune, "Don't Rain on My Parade," complete with original inflections (but thankfully not with her pronunciation of 'buttah/puttah') does nothing to dispel comparisons.

That said, there is a lot to like on this album. While having almost half of its tracks consist of songs that are traditionally sung by men is a bit off-putting at times ("I Am What I Am" is one of those rare songs that is hard for me to hear coming from anybody other than a gay man, and the less said about the suitability of a woman singing lyrics about being the 'Lord' of La Mancha the better), she does a beautiful job on a number of them. Her gentle and ardent take on "Anthem" from Chess is surprisingly effective and moving. Likewise, while her playful, almost jazzy "On the Street Where You Live" (My Fair Lady) goes a tad into Streisand 'floating voice' territory, it is beautifully done. It is interesting to notice how much her voice has grown and developed over the years. Eder's instrument has become vastly warmer and more expressive to the point where listening to the previously released tracks on the album ("Man of La Mancha," "Unusual Way" in particular) represents a disappointing step back. A live concert recording of those songs would have been a more welcome alternative.

The latest LML Music Actor's Fund benefit album, Tap Your Troubles Away , focuses on the songs of Jerry Herman. Listening to the album is a great reminder of how many wonderful songs have issued from Herman's pen and how much Broadway has missed having him back where he belongs. While the event, which is preserved on two discs, is hampered by an overly synthesized 'orchestra' (a surprising flaw given the caliber of performers involved), there are enough strong performances to make this a worthy addition to one's music library.

Longtime Herman friend and performer Karen Morrow starts the evening off with a bang (after a wimpering overture that is beaten by the synthetic strings) with a rousing version of "It's Today." Other notable performances include Jo Anne Worley in a pairing of "Just Leave Everything to Me" and "I Want to Make the World Laugh," Kym Hoy's tender "Loving You," Jason Graae's rollicking "You I Like" (will someone cast this man in a comedy on Broadway and soon?), Davis Gaines' hauntingly understated "Song on the Sand," Bernadette Peters' revisiting of "Time Heals Everything" (marred only by the incredibly fake synthesized 'flute') and the reversal of Dolly/Mame by having Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing swapping title tunes.

In the past four decades, the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard, have written more than 250 songs for 27 films and 24 television productions. In the process, they have received nine Academy Award nominations (making them one of the most nominated songwriting teams), two of which resulted in actual wins. While best known for their work at Disney Studios, for which they wrote songs for Annette Funicello ("Tall Paul") and Hayley Mills ("Let's Get Together") and for a variety of Disney's films (including Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Book, The Parent Trap and The Sword in the Stone), they have also written for the stage (Busker Alley, Over There) and for movies that got turned into stage shows (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

The long-awaited (and even longer delayed) retrospective of their songwriting career, Believe, has finally been released by Fynsworth Alley. The CD contains fifteen tracks featuring eighteen numbers from stage and screen sung by a variety of Broadway talent. As the Sherman brothers' greatest strength was in creating heartfelt ballads, it should come as no surprise that these comprise the largest number of highlights: Christine Ebersole's "The Age of Not Believing" (Bedknobs and Broomsticks), Janine LaManna's tender "Hushabye Mountain" (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and my favorite track, Liz Callaway's heartfelt "Feed the Birds" (Mary Poppins). It is more than a touch disappointing that they chose "Chin Up" to be the lone Charlotte's Web song instead of one of the movie's far superior ballads (or "Zuckerman's Famous Pig" could have been chosen if they needed more up-tempo numbers). But overall, the song selections are good. Of special interest are two numbers from Busker Alley: "Busker Alley," sung by Gary Beach and chorus, and "She Has A Way," sung by its original performer, Brent Barrett.

Also highly enjoyable are Michelle Pawk's sensual "That Darn Cat" and Jason Graae's take on a medley made up of three of the Sherman brother's patented nonsense songs ("Superkalifragilisticexpialidocious" et al).

BMG/RCA Victor is starting to re-release some of the RCA catalogue of cast albums in special Broadway Deluxe Collector's Editions, which feature cleaned up sound, expanded liner notes and an inclusion of bonus material. As all three of the current releases are classic "must have in one's collection" albums, I'll focus on the bonus features rather than on the cast albums themselves.

Of the three discs, the most exciting in terms of bonus material is the original Broadway cast album of Hello Dolly! starring Carol Channing. While other legendary actresses have played the part, Channing remains the iconoclastic embodiment of the part. The reissue, however, contains six tracks that feature various alternate Dollys: two from the London cast album starring Mary Martin (which one hopes will be a precursor to a re-release of the album in its entirety), "I Put My Hand In" and "So Long Dearie"; two from the replacement cast recording starring Pearl Bailey, "Before the Parade Passes By" and "Hello Dolly," and most excitedly, the two numbers that were written for Ethel Merman when she was slated to originate Dolly and were added into the show when she finally got her chance, "Love Look in My Window" and "World, Take Me Back." (The recording of the last two numbers, in fact, was financed by Ethel, who released them on a 45-rpm record during her run in the show).

The album is rounded out by seven tracks containing interviews with Carol Channing. The CD booklet contains very little information that is new and a surprisingly glaring error: a reference in big, bold print to the part as "Molly Gallagher Levi".

The most impressive transfer, quality-wise, is Fiddler on the Roof , which is astonishingly clear. The bonus tracks are entertaining, as seven are culled from An Evening With Sheldon Harnick and contain a wealth of info and a few cut songs ("When Messiah Comes" and "How Much Richer Could One Man Be?"). The remaining seven tracks are from a new interview with Harnick and it is interesting to hear him reminisce almost four decades after the fact.

I have to admit that I have never warmed up to the third reissue, Oliver! That said, the bonus tracks are more than a bit intriguing, however, and may raise the temperature a tad for me. "That's Your Funeral," which was not recorded for the Broadway cast album, is included in its Original London Cast recording form (featuring Barry Humphries, better known to modern audiences as "Dame Edna"). Two other tracks featuring Ron Moody as Fagin are also included, as is Patti Lupone's recording of "As Long As He Needs Me" from a 1993 concert in Los Angeles. The album also features five tracks that feature an interview with conductor Donald Pippin.

-- Jonathan Frank

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