Sound Advice
Two Top Tuners Trying for Tonys

As Sunday's Tony Awards come around the corner, two nominated shows have just released their cast albums: one is a contender for best new musical and best new score, and the other as best revival. Stars from both are nominated, too. So here's a look at just those two. (Cast albums of the nominated Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, Company, A Chorus Line and Mary Poppins [London cast] have been reviewed here in past weeks.)


Broadway Angel/EMI Manhattan Records

One number in Curtains, called "What Kind of Man?", wonders why anyone would want to be a theatre reviewer. It is just one of several cute, astute observations about theatrical life with a great sense of glee and more than a little sarcasm. What kind of man or woman who loves musical comedy and has a taste for ham and corn with spice could resist this recipe for fun?

This isn't brain surgery. The CD is simply an entertaining pastiche, involving more winking than thinking. Curtains has sass, is occasionally crass, is often goofy and occasionally touching (Jason Danieley and Karen Ziemba as a divorced couple admitting their regrets help keep the recording from being a relentless series of snarky or bombastic turns.) Frankly, it's sort of noisy and busy as it wears on, with several reprises risking a sense of overkill. Conducted by David Loud, the theater's 15-person orchestra (several musicians play multiple instruments) is augmented by an additional keyboard player for the recording.

John Kander's music is catchy with William David Brohn's orchestrations giving them additional sparkle and fizz. You'll need a taste for the silly and over-the-top to want to play this over and over. In the segments written to be musical numbers for the show being rehearsed in the story, the cast has great fun chewing the purposely ludicrous, lame or loopy lyrics by the late Fred Ebb (additional lyrics for the show are by longtime collaborator Kander and the show's bookwriter Rupert Holmes, although it's not specified which numbers among the plot songs or pastiche confections are not pure Ebb).

The tough-as-nails producer with a steely eye on the bottom line is played to the hilt by Debra Monk with comic precision and growling belt. David Hyde Pierce as the show biz-loving detective, ostensibly present to solve a murder, brings a nice balance of energy with his wide-eyed admiration/enthusiasm. He adds grace with Jill Paice on their nostalgic song-and-dance duet, "A Tough Act to Follow." A couple of the big production numbers go on and on, and may not sustain interest on their own if you're not a fan of extended dance music sections.

In the booklet, Rupert Holmes provides a plot synopsis that has some clever word play of its own and a history of the mystery. There are just a few photos, and you'll need to look to the indicated websites to get the lyrics.


PS Classics

Some of the shadings I like best in 110 in the Shade are the ones provided by the intriguing, intelligent and creative orchestrations. They are by Jonathan Tunick, and the 16-piece orchestra on the cast album of the Roundabout Theatre Company's production is conducted by Paul Gemignani. These two master musicians, who have notably worked on productions of Stephen Sondheim's shows, add a lot of detail and color to the emotions exploding or simmering and the hopes that may be thwarted or aborted but linger in the heavy air of the hot Texas town. Texans Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones wrote some evocative music and lyrics, respectively.

Once in a while I think the orchestra is pushing a mood or it feels like the accompaniment is overcompensating for something that should be coming from other sources; I have mixed feelings about some of the cast's performances. However, there's a lot to enjoy in this third recorded version of the strong score.

There's no doubt that leading lady Audra McDonald has a rich, golden voice that can thrill when it's given free reign to scale the heights, swell and soar with power. We've heard her range and operatic flights in other performances, but she's directed to be more low-key here. The score of 110 in the Shade does not give her a series of huge powerhouse numbers or vocal show pieces. "Raunchy" lets her put the classic soprano sound on ice for a bit and use the brassy side of her voice, as she struts and belts her character's intention to be daring and unrefined. (The tangy-tawdry orchestrations on this number egg her on, a bit reminiscent of the burlesque sounds in the stripper music in Gypsy, and it's fun all around.)

Audra has lovely moments, particularly in her first number, "Love, Don't Turn Away" and "Simple Little Things," in many places her vocal lines are clipped or the majesty of her voice seems held in check. A case can easily be made that her character is a woman who is sad and worried and not often free with her feelings - so it seems a logical choice for her singing to be less free-flowing or exultant. But as a listening experience for Audraphiles who long for a big dose of her her legato beauty and force-of-nature moments, it may be frustrating. Her Lizzie, in the singing and generous amount of spoken lines from N. Richard Nash's script, strikes me on disc as a disagreeable and glum person rather than vulnerable and cautiously masking her feelings. Her song detailing a possible lifetime as an "Old Maid," comes across as somewhere between a pout and a rant, Lizzie feeling sorry for herself more than engendering sympathy. We miss this finely crafted song's potential to be a haunting specter of what could be a future of encroaching loneliness and an increasing awareness of being a burden. Despite these cavils, there is much to enjoy when she sings, especially when the lyrics emphasize longing or hope.

At least on disc, Steve Kazee as the possible rainmaker, Starbuck, doesn't have quite the commanding charismatic presence one would hope for so that level-headed Lizzie feels mesmerized, tempted and unsettled by his ways. Rather than sparks and a palpable psychological undercurrent and sexual tension, their confrontations sound like they lean more towards a squabble of a stick-in-the-mud and a guy with a passing interest. However, on the plus side, he shows some vulnerability and pluck. The reinstated "Evenin' Star" (cut from the original Broadway version) shows the character's unguarded expression of doubt and loneliness, and Steve shines here.

As File, Christopher Innvar shows versatility, embodying both the man's brash affect and the tender emotions he slowly becomes confident enough to express. His vibrato is especially attractive as he leads the languid opening sections and then the building of excitement in the first song, "Gonna Be Another Hot Day."

It's great to hear musical theater veteran John Cullum as the father. Featured in invigorating male-bonding numbers, his energy is potent. Playing his sons, Bobby Steggert and Chris Butler add spunk, too. The chorus, with opportunities for solo lines, has personality and high spirits. Of course, the drought-plagued town's enthusiasm for the longed-for rain is appropriate but gets less interesting to hear on repeated listenings. (Maybe because the words are just so often repeated.)

The attractive booklet has many color photos, credits, a plot synopsis by PS Classics' Tommy Krasker, Peter Filichia's essay offering history and perspective, and all the words sung and spoken on the disc. As usual with productions on this label, the care is evident and the CD has a dynamic, very theatrical sound (Steven Epstein is the record producer) and real presence.

Under the Radar will return next week. Meanwhile, enjoy the Tonys ... Thanks for reading.

- Rob Lester

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