Columbia Records

With Tony Award nominations looming, the cast album for the current revival of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross's The Pajama Game was released this week. It's packaged with another CD featuring songs from the 2001 Broadway musical penned by its male lead, Harry Connick, Jr., under the title Harry On Broadway, Act I. I know that for The Pajama Game, Harry's crooning and cooler, jazzier, moodier take on this traditional Broadway leading man role won't be for everyone, not quite up their (Shubert) alley. Personally, I'm prejudiced both ways: I have a life-long love for The Pajama Game as it has been traditionally sung, but have also been a Connick fan all along.

I enjoy hearing him in the role and find his style results in a fresh take that generally respects and serves the material well. However, I like his solos better than his other appearances. "Hey There" and "A New Town is a Blue Town," as well as the reinstated "The World Around Us," are all thoughtfully done with presence and charisma. Kelli O'Hara, using mostly her belt voice rather than the gorgeous soprano tones heard on The Light in the Piazza, shines on the comical song of denial, "I'm Not At All in Love," with the female ensemble. She also gets her own turn with the show's big hit "Hey There," combined with "If You Win, You Lose" (words and music by Adler, first added for an earlier revival). On the leads' duets, "Small Talk" lacks a necessary tension with a laconic Connick and "There Once Was a Man" is fun but lacks variety.

Michael McKean as the efficiency-obsessed man at the pajama factory has a field day with his number, although it is cluttered with extraneous, distracting reactions and asides with the chorus. Roz Ryan is a bit abrasive but entertaining. The group numbers are generally well done, full of brio and zest, although there's a looser feel to them than in other versions. The orchestra sounds splendid, with an emphasis on brass, and on some tracks the musicians are more front-and-center than is usual on cast albums. Although I don't find everything in this pajama drama quite the right fit for my tastes, I like it on the whole and am very happy to have a new version of a favorite. Its strengths shine through and it's a ball to hear this pick-me-up.

The companion CD is a puzzlement. Thou Shalt Not was a dark piece about revenge, regret and torrid emotions. With its songs as presented by just Harry and Kelli, it comes off as de-fanged, its intensity much diluted as a result of laidback vocals and especially low-key musical arrangements. Much as I enjoy their singing and like a lot of the show's score, this presentation doesn't at all bring out its dramatic potential and, unlike some show songs, a non-theatrical version is not as viable an option.

Eleven selections are heard from a score that included many more numbers. A full cast album was recorded and had limited distribution in 2002. Harry recorded an instrumental version, Other Hours: Connick on Piano, Volume 1; he also previously recorded a vocal of "Other Hours" on one of his CDs - Kelli does the honors with that one here. She also gets "My Little World" and brings a bit of subtext to it that's lacking elsewhere. "Take Her to the Mardi Gras" is a happy ending with Harry easily pouring on the New Orleans charm, and it's good to hear some of these songs in his own voice so long after experiencing them in their Broadway and instrumental versions.

This won't give you much of an idea of Thou Shalt Not but there's some fine music. It feels more like a series of bonus tracks of a totally different stripe than The Pajama Game. The 2-disc set seems to be priced at not much more than the cost of most single cast albums, which dilutes any debate about the marketing idea.

There are some brief liner notes, but no credits for who sings what on The Pajama Game and no plot synopses to read when curled up in bed listening in your pajamas.


Sh-K-Boom Records

Lovers of theatrical and emotional singing will want to take notice: Julia Murney has made a solo album that is rich, involving, and expert. She is ferociously talented with a powerful belt, but has many colors in her vocal palette. An astute and intelligent actress, she takes full advantage of a song's potential, bringing out individual phrases with shadings, attitudes and pauses. With honest and intense looks at the pot-holed road to love, the album is a steamroller. That makes it a bit exhausting if you're willing to go along for the ride, but it's very rewarding and impressive. On this well-sequenced set, a few tracks allow for a chance to breathe, and the final selection serves as a cool-down, the calmer "Rainbow Sleeves" by Tom Waits.

Those who know Julia's work and have been waiting for I'm Not Waiting will be very satisfied with the representative samples of her theater work. She's currently on tour as the allegedly nefarious green goddess in Wicked and includes a wistful and warm take on that score's "I'm Not That Girl." From her recent Broadway debut in Lennon, she offers the lullaby "Beautiful Boy" and is joined on harmony vocals by four of her castmates from this unrecorded show. From the Manhattan Theatre Club production of The Wild Party, Julia revisits "Raise the Roof" (she does so) and the effective "When I First Met Him," a number cut from that score - it has a great build. That musical's composer-lyricist, Andrew Lippa, is the CD's producer and has done a masterful job. He plays piano just on this last-named track and the album's excellent title song, which is a major highlight. It's kind of a miniature three-act play that explodes with frustration, pent-up longing and anguish.

Julia seems to have a special affinity for the type of song that presents a character who, with some hindsight, is looking critically at herself in a complicated relationship with no clear-cut road map. Susan Werner's "Misery and Happiness" is another good example, as is the bittersweet and powerful "Perfect" by Tom Kitt, who is one of the CD's most valuable assets, as one of the pianists and arrangers. Other Wild Party alumni are here on some tracks, too: orchestrator Michael Gibson and music director/ keyboardist Stephen Oremus both make strong contributions. The album has variety in its musical settings from simple (just guitar or piano) to "Fancy," which is a seized chance to rock out on the old Bobbie Gentry country soap opera with back-up vocals and organ wailing. Cello on two tracks is an extra touch of class.

Lyrics that avoid old-fashioned sugar coating, plus the presence of electric bass and guitars, add up to an album that feels contemporary. Never bland, never lazy, the CD is a sterling example of investing theatrical singing.


LML Records

For this musical trip around the world, Russ Lorenson makes a pretty good host and traveling companion. The inspiration for A Little Travelin' Music (also the name of his cabaret show) is that he had a long career away from music and it involved journeys to various far-flung places. Russ hasn't logged too many frequent flyer miles as a cabaret singer yet, and he's still finding his way and his style. He has come up with a CD that has engaging moments, personality and musicality. More than anything, there is a desire to entertain and a likeability factor that will win points and fans. I enjoyed his act in person when he came to New York from San Francisco where he is based, also working in musical theater. You can both see and hear him in clips on his website, www.russlorenson.com.

Collections of songs about the joys and sights of different spots in the world have come out over the years from artists such as Frank Sinatra, Pearl Bailey, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, and last but most probably least, The Chipmunks. Russ makes some of the same stops, such as "I Love Paris" and "Come Fly With Me," two that are sung with ebullience but could use more originality to make them more convincing and engaging. Some of the more impressive presentations are the more sincere ones, where he just relaxes and sings. I like his "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," heard here in combination with "A Foggy Day (in London Town)." Likewise, "Christmas in San Francisco" is evocative and warmly nostalgic, with the singer doing honor to his home.

Russ kibbitzes and clowns on two duets with talented singing friends. He and Shawn Ryan have a ball with Noel Coward's wickedly sarcastic "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" as they bemoan the habits of tourists. The ever-delightful Klea Blackhurst is on board for "A Slow Boat to China" with her spunk and brassy voice bringing up the energy level. The many side comments and quips on both tracks would be more appropriate and thus funnier in a live situation, feeling a little forced on a recording. But both guests are fun to hear as is the camaraderie.

Pianist Kelly Park leads a jazz band and these arrangements have flair and provide a solid and tasty backing that often cooks and kicks. Russ works hard with a good spirit and congeniality that come through and inform his work. He's also determined to entertain, perhaps best illustrated by his "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" (Schwartz/ Dietz) where he charms by adopting the accents of people in the various U.S. states mentioned in the lyrics as he sings them. He loves what he's doing and it becomes quite infectious.


The next performance was on my radar screen, as I'd heard him before and was going this week to a show he's in. But I had no idea he'd just put out his own CD as it is only available, for now, on his website. It shouldn't be under your radar either because it's a very encouraging solo debut.


PlayWell Records

Breathe a sigh of relief. James Donegan is a strong theater singer who has turned to the world of musicals for material, but has mostly avoided the overdone and the overwrought. His singing is unpretentious and honest, and he has a way of getting to the heart of every song. His interpretations and Lenny Babbish's arrangements on So Much Spring are respectfully conservative; look up their sleeves and you won't find many tricks or surprises. With another kind of singer, this would make for a ho-hum "nice, but..." reaction, but James has a lot going for him. Even when they are staying close to the beaten path, as in "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George, singer and musicians still sound involved and present, rather than bland copycats. Very pleasing vocal qualities are omnipresent, whether the man is singing tenderly or with full voice. The voice is well placed and sounds unforced.

While listening to the CD, there are times when I wish for a bit more variety within a selection, a change of pace musically or dramatically. With a few exceptions, James and the musicians seem to set an energy and mood right away and stay mainly in the same territory. "She Cries" (Jason Robert Brown), with its built-in shifts avoids this trap, which is doubly good since it's the longest track. But from song to song, there is plenty of variety. I'm particularly impressed that the singer is equally effective whether his heroic persona is called upon or he is presenting his sensitive side. He doesn't overplay either role; it's called "trusting the material." James' head tones can be quite pretty without venturing anywhere near the danger level of precious or saccharine. "When She Loved Me" (by Randy Newman, from the film Toy Story 2) is a little gem, heartfelt and endearing.

What a joy to find all these choices from musicals from the last 10 years: a loving version of "A Breeze Off the River" (The Full Monty), a very well done and very welcome "Sweet Liberty" from Jane Eyre and, from the gritty Broadway musical about prostitution The Life, a bright and non-sleazy "Easy Money." On a couple of tracks, the decision to use a synthesizer threatens to bring down the quality and atmosphere. Fortunately, the integrity and believability of James' singing cuts through the cheese like a knife. He also has a Teflon-like ability to be free of any stickiness or pat preachiness in the one choice from earlier Broadway: "You'll Never Walk Alone." It ends the CD with a surprisingly effective less-is-more interpretation that really works.

James has also been heard on the cast album of Journey to the Center of the Earth, a score by Stephen Dolginoff, who wrote Thrill Me. I saw James this week in a talent-rich revue I'd highly recommend, I Prefer To Dream: The Music and Lyrics of Charles Bloom, which has one more performance on Monday at The Triad in Manhattan. At www.jamesdonegan.net, you can hear samples of So Much Spring which has so much to enjoy. Do your ears a favor.

... Until next week ...

- Rob Lester

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