The musical theater scene of the West End of London never ceases to amaze me with its mix of big, commercial mega-musicals that drive the engines of the theater economy and small, intimate shows that tackle decidedly non-commercial themes. While some of the latter are dreadful beyond belief (anybody remember Bernadette, the Lourdes Miracle musical?), more often than not they provide pleasant, tuneful escapes. Such is the case with Spend Spend Spend, which won both the Evening Standard and Critic's Circle awards for Best Musical and an Olivier Award for star Barbara Dickson.

The musical is based on the life of Viv Nicholson, a Yorkshire mother of three, who in 1961 won £152,000 in the pools (a national betting system in the UK and Ireland based on guessing the scores of the week's football matches). When asked by a national newspaper what she was going to do with all that money, she famously replied "Spend, spend, spend!" Which she did, blowing every penny of what would be worth £3 million today (roughly $4.3 million US).

In many ways, the show recalls Blood Brothers as it takes a simple, universal story set in a very specific locale (complete with specific accents that are oftentimes unintelligible to American ears) and turns it into an examination of the British class system. Unlike Blood Brothers, the songs (lyrics by Steve Brown/Justin Greene and music by Steve Brown) embrace a wide range of styles, which include cynical folk, Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche, rumba and pop ballad. While the show credits Barbara Dickson (the original Mrs. Johnston in Blood Brothers) as the above credits star, the show really belongs (on disc at least) to Rachel Leskovac, who plays the young Viv in flashbacks while Dickson plays the older Viv, acting as the narrator of the piece.

The show on disc is remarkably fresh and engaging, especially in its first act, which is primarily devoted to the hoariest of clichés; impoverished girl escapes brutal home to find love and marriage. Every song in the first act serves to propel the action or develop the character, oftentimes managing to accomplish both. Highlights in that act include "Sexual Happening," a very risqué song in which Young Viv details her plan to sleep with as many men as possible in order to defy her brutal father, and "Scars Of Love," a haunting ballad sung mostly by Old Viv, which is destined for life on myriad future solo CDs. The act ends with the exuberant "Spend Spend Spend," which unfortunately marks as much a change in the musical as it does the lives of the characters.

Ironically, the score gets off-track and descends into cliché territory in the second act, which explores the problems faced by Viv and her husband as they experience the joys and tribulations that come with sudden wealth. The numbers lack the emotional truthfulness and musical interest inherent in the previous act, and it takes a while for the things to get back on track, which they do with "Who"s Gonna Love Me?", another winning song destined for future recordings (and which has not left my head for two weeks). While the album is not the easiest to get, being only available at Dress Circle and Tower Records in London, it is worth tracking down as it is a strong score by a writing team worth keeping an eye on.

By now, enough ink has been spilled lauding Elaine Stritch's solo show, Elaine Stritch At Liberty, that I can probably limit my review of its live recording to two words: buy it! For those needing a bit more information and inclination to purchase what is arguably one of the best (if not the best) live albums to cross the footlights since the invention of the CD, I will go on.

At Liberty is Elaine Stritch's one-woman show, during which she discusses at length the three loves in her life: men, the theater, and booze (not necessarily listed in the order of importance). In between (and sometimes interrupting) her anecdotes are songs that either made up her career or that impacted her throughout life. From the opening number, "There"s No Business Like Show Business," in which Stritch packs more comedy and personal history than most singers do in an entire evening, to a haunting "Something Good," At Liberty takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Those who think one person shows require no acting need only listen to her dissertations on lost friends and lovers, or her lightning fast transitions from speech to song, to change their minds (and join the bandwagon of souls who think she is being cheated out of a Tony nomination).

If ever there was a musical in dire need of a revival, be it fully staged or as an Encores! concert style setting, it is Marc Blitzstein's Juno, newly released on CD by Fynsworth Alley. The last musical written by Blitzstein before his murder in 1964, Juno is based on Sean O'Casey's classic play, Juno and the Paycock. While it is an almost knee-jerk reaction to label any failed musical as being ahead of its time, in Juno's case, this was definitely a prime contributor to its sixteen performance run. Although West Side Story, which premiered two years earlier and was moved from its Winter Garden home for Juno, primed the pump both musically and thematically for a show of Juno's complexity, critics and audiences alike were not ready for the devastating tragedies that made up its story.

Set in Dublin in 1921, Juno chronicles the disintegration of a poor Irish family. The father, "Captain" Boyle (Melvyn Douglas), spends most of his time at the local bar, developing pains in his leg anytime the subject of work arises. His long-suffering wife, Juno (Shirley Booth), and his daughter, Mary (Monte Amundsen) support the family, since the son, Johnny, (Tommy Rall), was wounded in a battle between the British Army and the Irish Republican Army. They are informed by lawyer Charlie Bentham (Earl Hammond) that they are due to receive a sizable inheritance, which "Captain" Boyle promptly borrows against, throwing the family into financial ruin. Toss in an unexpected pregnancy for the daughter and the son being executed for being a traitor and you hardly have an uplifting night at the theater.

While the story may not have been to the audience's liking, it is hard to imagine the score not being embraced for the exceptional piece of magic that it is. Blitzstein, best known for his controversial 1937 socially conscious Brechtian musical, The Cradle Will Rock, wrote for Juno one of the most dynamic scores Broadway has ever heard. The opening number, " We're Alive," in which the folk of Dublin stubbornly affirm their survival against the British, is one of the most stirring anthems written for the theater, recalling Brigadoon as written by Aaron Copland. "I Wish It So," sung by Mary, is one of the most evocative songs heard on any stage and should be performed a lot more often than it is. The score has strong comic moments as well, as in "Old Sayin's," a hysterically comic duet between husband and wife, and "You Poor Thing," in which local gossips (that include Jean Stapleton) perform a delightful quartet of self-pity.

Overall, Juno does not contain a single weak number and, while being melodically and harmonically complicated, remains remarkably accessible and tuneful (a feat many modern composers should try harder to emulate). This is definitely a necessary addition for any music theater lover's collection.

Lisa Richard's previous CD, Born To Entertain, (reviewed in 2000 ) spent a great deal of time on my CD player. While that album focused primarily on familiar (albeit well-sung) material, her latest album, Virgin Tracks, contains fourteen songs receiving their initial commercial recordings. While a few of the songs were familiar to me through various demos that have crossed my desk, the vast majority were brand spankin' new; always a delightful surprise. As before, Lisa is in spectacular voice, which deftly handles songs ranging from big belt numbers (this year's MAC Award winning song, "Welcome The Rain" by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich), to big band inspired (Tom Toce/Shelly Marham's whimsical "You Make Me Laugh") to touching pop-ballads (Scott Burkell/Paul Loesel's "A Sorta Love Song") and even "Manhattan Transfer meets Gloria Estefan" (Jessica Molaskey/Brad Ross' "Fire Escape").

While a number of the songs are by established and familiar writers (such as Francesca Blumenthal, John Bucchino, David Friedman, Lindy Robbins, and Stephen Schwartz), a remarkable number of them are by writers I was unfamiliar with (and defiantly will keep an eye out for). Virgin Tracks is blessed with arrangements by nine talented artists, which manage the near-impossible feat of sounding distinct while maintaining a uniform feel. Special mention must be made of Richard Henn's arrangements, as his pulsating jazz/salsa version of Raymond Brown's "Antigua" and touchingly heartbreaking cello-driven "I Break So Easily" (Lindy Robbins/Gerald Sternbach) are outstanding numbers on an incredibly strong album. And as a special treat, Susan Egan makes a delightful guest appearance with Richard on Heisler/Godlrich's "Don"t You Be Shakin' Your Faith In Me."

In the "I can't believe what I'm hearing" department, a recording of Mark Savage's Los Angeles production of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore has hit the shelves. The show, which was a huge success at the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles (that the theatre was the original home of Naked Boys Singing will give you some idea of what to expect), reset the operetta in the new Gay Navy as instituted by President Al Gore ("Don"t Ask/Don't Tell" was a disaster, so he's going for "Separate But Equal") headed by the ultra-PC Senator Barney Crank. The ship, currently docked in Palm Springs, is helmed by Captain Corkinit, whose cross-dressing son Joseph/Josephine, is being pursued by both Senator Crank and Dick Dockstrap, the only heterosexual on the ship. Trust me; the phrase "a gay romp" does not begin to do this show justice.

As one who has been forced to listen to innumerable parodies in every level of taste, poor or otherwise, I was thrilled to discover that this show is one of the better-written examples of the genre. The lyrics are remarkably sharp. At their "worst," they display what actors come up with backstage to break the tedium of an extended run (for example: Poor Little Bitter Butterball's lament, in which she urges the sailors to buy as "the white party's looming/and business is booming/so come, of your Butterball buy" or the Captain's "What Never/Hardly Ever" number, in which he states he "never [did] it with my crew" to the predictable gag). At their best, such as in Senator Crank's "When I Was A Lad," in which he describes his evolution as the poster child for all things PC, they show a remarkable wit and social commentary that rival William Gilbert's original versions.

The voices range from what can charitably be called "less than Broadway caliber" (especially in regards to some of the ensemble numbers) to one of the main reasons to purchase this album, R. Christofer Sand's (Joseph/Josephine) whose soaring counter tenor is light and highly listenable. While this is not necessarily an album that will appeal to all listeners, lovers of this particular brand of humor (and you know who you are!) will find it utterly hysterical and worth getting.

In addition to new recordings, DRG Records is releasing a plethora of previously recorded material. Two solo albums they have recently released on CD feature two of America's great female singers that couldn't be more different: Mary Martin and Peggy Lee.

In 1950 and 1951, Broadway legend Mary Martin recorded the scores of Cole Porter's Anything Goes and Dietz and Schwartz's Bandwagon, respectively. As the albums are woefully short by any standard, DRG has wisely combined the two albums on one 56-minute disc. Both albums feature orchestrations by Ted Royal, with Lehman Engel conducting the orchestra and chorus, and they are representative of the typical ultra-exuberant (and only moderately dynamic) large orchestra/chorus sound of the 1950s. With Martin being in her "sweetness and light" period (her coquette years of "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" and One Touch Of Venus being firmly supplanted by Nelly Forbush) some of the songs lack the sexy bite needed to fully carry them off. The wry wordplay of Dietz and Schwartz's "Confession" ("I never kissed a man before/before I knew his name") doesn't quite sit with her at this point, and the cleaning up of Porter's "Anything Goes" (to "good authors too, who once knew better words/now only use three letter words") is simply mystifying. Still, this CD features Martin at her vocal best and the newly remastered disc sounds equally bright and vibrant. As an extra bonus, the album contains a duet of Martin and her son, Larry Hagman, singing "(I Wonder Why)/You"re Just In Love."

I have to admit to a weakness: I just adore those kitschy "Broadway-goes-disco" albums that came out in the '70s. Give me Ethel Merman putting a disco beat on "Everything"s Coming Up Roses," Grace Jones singing "Send In The Clowns" or the dance version of "Sweeney Todd" and I'm a happy man. Thus, I am in heaven that DRG re-released their 1979 Peggy Lee album, Close Enough For Love, which features a plethora of disco-themed tunes by one of our most captivating and sensual singers. Her first album recorded by an independent record label, Close Enough For Love features a Barry White-esque "Easy Does It" and a disco version of Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those Things," not to mention the ultimate '70s ballad, "Through The Eyes Of Love." However, one cannot simply dismiss this album as a dated period piece as "In The Days Of Our Love" (co-written by Marian McPartland), "Rain Sometimes" and the title song are classic Peggy Lee.

-- Jonathan Frank

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