Ho, ho, ho! 'Tis definitely the season to start thinking about ordering the CDs that you are going to be giving out as gifts next month (or the albums that you'll be needing in order to get through the holidays). Apparently I'm not the only one thinking that, as a slough of CDs have recently appeared in my mailbox like magic. Since I have to start clearing it out in anticipation of all those upcoming holiday catalogues, I figure it's time to do a mammoth, monstrous mega-review of maniacal proportions. So here is a baker's dozen of mini-reviews to tempt you and get you into the gift giving (or getting) mood.

Since I am obviously in the holiday spirit, I should perhaps explain that it's not due to any spirits in my eggnog (or my Stoli Martini, for that matter). Rather, this feeling of holiday cheer is due to the three Christmas albums I recently received. (Listening to Christmas carols before Halloween will do strange things to you, so don't try it at home. Remember: I'm a professional). The first CD, The Stars Of Christmas, is a collection of Christmas songs put out by The Papermill Playhouse. The album has been divided into two categories, secular and spiritual, and features such Broadway luminaries as Judy Kaye (singing a cute variation on The Nutcracker, "Sugar Plums"), Bob Cuccioli (one of the "We Three Kings"), Kim Criswell and George Dvorsky (a tender "The First Snowfall") and Davis Gaines (who, with Pattie Allison and ensemble, sings "Joy To The World"). The Stars Of Christmas is a pleasant, if largely traditional, collection of holiday songs suitable as background music for making cookies, Holiday parties, etc.

For something with more pizzazz, I suggest D.C. Anderson's new album, all is calm, all is bright. A cabaret and theater performer who has produced the Cabaret Noel album for Broadway Cares and a series of holiday cabaret benefits, D. C. has compiled an eclectic collection of songs, which includes several premier recordings: Stephen Sondheim and Mary Rodgers' "Christmas Island at Christmas Time," Lucy Simon and Susan Birkenhead's "Heaven Can't Be Far," and a song that D.C. co-wrote with Steven Landau entitled "Hands." D.C. has also included a wonderful obscure song by Kander and Ebb ("I'm Gonna Be An Angel"), another by Sondheim and Jule Styne ("Three Wishes For Christmas") and even one by Canadian alternative singer/writer, Jane Siberry ("Are You Burning Little Candle"). D.C. does not stint on the classics, however, and includes tender versions of "Silent Night" and "Infant Holy." This is a great collection of songs both funny (love his "Up On A Mayberry Housetop") and stirring (a very tender "O Joyful Children"). For more info, visit http://dcanderson.net/dcanderson

While she has not been seen on a Broadway stage in ages, former Broadway Diva (now just Diva Extraordinaire) Barbra Streisand has released a new Christmas CD, Christmas Memories. Unlike her classic A Christmas Album, which was recorded 35 years ago, Christmas Memories is an overly earnest album with none of the playfulness and spontaneity of her early recording. Still, she is in top voice and Christmas Memories runs at a fairly low key and even keel. Her choice of material is as impeccable as ever and the CD features songs by the Bergmans ("A Christmas Love Song" and "Christmas Mem'ries"), Ann Hampton Callaway ("Christmas Lullaby" which is beautiful in its simplicity), and Frank Loesser ("What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"). And Babs is up to her old tricks, getting Stephen Sondheim to write an opening verse to "I Remember" from Evening Primrose to make it applicable for Christmas.

While we're on the topic of Evening Primrose, both it and The Frogs have finally received a highly overdue large-scale recording. As all good Sondheim fans no doubt know, Evening Primrose was a 1966 TV musical starring Anthony Perkins as a poet who locks himself in a department store to live rent and distraction free. He falls in love with Charmian Carr, who got lost in said store and has become part of the secret and restrictive society that inhabits the store. While two of its four songs ("I Remember" and "Take Me To The World") have become cabaret staples, the only full recording of the songs was on a Mandy Patinkin album, on which he sang them with Bernadette Peters. In this recording, the parts are played by Neil Patrick Harris (Charles Snell) and Theresa McCarthy (Ella Harkins), both of whom display a touching sense of innocence and urgency.

Based on a play by Aristophanes, The Frogs was written for Yale's Repertory Theatre in 1974 (and performed in Yale's pool, hence the lack of productions since). While a few of The Frogs' songs have appeared in revues and cabaret shows, the full score was never recorded until now, a remarkable oversight indeed. While The Frogs resembles Forum in tone (indeed: a version of its opening number, "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience," was considered for Forum), musically it calls to mind his later musicals, especially in regards to the chorus numbers, which sound almost Sweeney-esque. The cast is superb. Nathan Lane makes a perfect Dionysos. Brian Stokes Mitchell plays the duel roles of his servant, Xanthius, and Pluto to great effect. Davis Gaines as Shakespeare has a small part, but gets the best (and most well known) song from The Frogs, "Fear No More. " The show is further augmented by a chorus of twenty-six.

With Jonathan Tunick providing the orchestrations, Paul Gemignani music directing and Sondheim supervising, this is a gem of an album that not only fills the gap in any Sondheim fan's collection but provides a remarkable look at Sondheim's evolution. And the introductory notes by Frank Rich are just icing on the cake.

Tommy Krasker, who produced The Frogs/Evening Primrose CD, is well underway to becoming the best producer of solo and theatrical recordings around, as every album I have heard him produce is a gem and strikes the perfect balance between orchestra and performer. He is also a champion of unearthing forgotten material, as evidenced by the releases on his label, ps classics, the most recent being a previously unrecorded score by Vincent Youman, Through The Years. Last seen on Broadway in 1932, Through The Years is a perfect example of a 'transition musical,' coming smack dab in the middle of the musical's evolution from the operettas of the early 20th century to the integrated book-musical form that started with Showboat in 1927 and reached its more fully realized state with Oklahoma! in 1943. While Through The Years makes an attempt at integrating its songs with the book (which details two pairs of lovers having their lives interrupted by both The Great War and parental tragedies), the musical style is highly operetta-like in nature. Musically, Through The Years has moments which recall Youman's earlier success, No No Nanette, especially in regards to the light chorus numbers and the comic relief provided by the secondary pair of lovers. However, Through The Years has some lovely serious numbers, (somewhat recalling the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy movie musicals), especially the lovely title number. This may not be quite the cup of tea for those raised on Sondheim, Les Mis, or Rent, but those who relish a dose of nostalgia mixed with a storyline that verges on the overwrought (but thankfully never gets there) will enjoy the fine performances (which include Brent Barrett, Philip Chaffin and Heidi Grant Murphy) and the superbly produced sound of the album.

Another long awaited album is the CD release of Subways Are For Sleeping. Better known for its ad campaign (in which producer David Merrick found namesakes for seven reviewers and used their raves instead of the real reviewers' pans) than any of its songs, Subways Are For Sleeping is based on Edmund G. Love's documentary novel of the same name. The show details colorful characters who have had enough of society and voluntarily live their lives homeless and jobless, and a reporter investigating them for a story. While it is not one of the better shows by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and/or Adolph Green, and doesn't contain a single break-out number, Subways makes for a pleasant listen with some winning performances. Sydney Chaplin and Carol Lawrence give sweet performances as the two leads, a homeless racketeer and a reporter looking for a story, but aren't given the right material to let them shine. Phyllis Newman, who beat out Barbra Streisand for a Best Supporting Actress Tony that year, steals the album as an ex-beauty queen who wears a towel throughout most of the show in order to avoid being kicked out of her hotel room for not paying the rent (don't ask). Her number, "I Was A Shoe-In" is a comic highlight on the disk, as is the big chorus number, "Be A Santa." Subways Are For Sleeping is being released by Fynsworth Alley as a limited edition album (and if all problems, distribution or otherwise, have been resolved, it will be a Happy Holiday indeed).

A pet peeve of any musical theater lover is people who insist on referring to 'cast albums' as 'soundtracks.' Well, Broadway has finally done it and released a bona fide soundtrack to a show; namely the album containing the music from contact, which won a Tony last year for being the Best Musical even though there's not a single note of live music in it. Regardless of semantics, contact is actually an entertaining disk, as the music picked by Susan Stroman and John Weldman for their dance dramas is enjoyable. In fact, if one thinks of the album as a pre-made mix CD containing some fun songs, it's rather listenable and fun. From the violin jazz version of "My Heart Stood Still" by Stephane Grappelli (which has inspired me to order some of his albums) to Leonard Bernstein's recordings of pieces by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Bizet, and ending with Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing," the album makes a good background or party album. One big oversight, however, the exclusion of Van Morrison's "Moondance," as the song provided a highlight in the show. While it is not a great CD and will probably be of little to no interest to people who haven't seen the show, contact is fun for those who have (and enjoyed it) and don't have the songs already in their collection to make their own mix album.

Now it is time to examine some solo albums that will make delightful gift ideas (although you may want to keep a copy to help you survive the holidays).

The first is by Rondi Charleston, who has been wowing reviewers and audiences alike for over a decade with her sensuous voice and light jazzy inflections. Her debut album, Love Letters, amply displays her rich vocals, which are augmented beautifully by Christopher Marlowe's light jazz arrangements. Love Letters is a delightful collection of standards that include a slow, sensual "I Got You Under My Skin," and a more jazz/pop flavored "The Very Thought Of You." Her take on "End Of A Love Affair" is worth the price of the album alone as it illustrates a perfect distillation of heartbreak.

A few years ago, Mary Foster Conklin's debut album, Crazy Eyes, provided me with a perfect gift to present to the hosts of the various holiday parties of the season. Well, it looks like that album may getting a companion, as Conklin's follow up album, You'd Be Paradise, is as infectious and delightful as her first. Backed by a killer jazz quartet, Conklin is one of those rare performers (jazz or otherwise) that burrows into a lyric and brings to the surface a rich palette of shading and understanding. The songs range from Cole Porter (the almost tribal "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and a swinging "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To") to four by Bob Dorough (the best being a highly introspective "But For Now") and even a laid back take on "The Windmills Of Your Mind." Conklin's voice and sensibilities are perfectly showcased through arrangements by Jeffery Klitz and this is a 'must have' album for lovers of intelligent jazz and cabaret.

It's a good thing that lasers don't wear out CDs, otherwise Frank Dain's album, I Thought About You, would be reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper. I received a pre-release copy several months ago, and I am glad that it has finally been released, as this is definitely another 'must have' album. Dain possesses a voice that is constantly being compared to Johnny Mathis by reviewers, which is not quite accurate. While he possesses the pleasant vibrato and slight emotional catch of Mathis, Dain sings in a lower, warmer register that makes I Thought About You as soothing as a hot toddy in front of the fireplace on a cold winter night. The album consists primarily of standards ("The Way You Look Tonight," "When I Look In Your Eyes," and "I Thought About You" being highlights) and is bolstered by subtle arrangements by Rick Jensen (who also wrote the closing track, "In Passing Years"). This is a great CD, debut or otherwise, and a great way to relax after a hectic day.

I was first introduced to cabaret staple Jeff Harnar through his inspired debut album, The 1959 Broadway Songbook, which features songs from the shows that were performing on Broadway that year (it's another good gift giving idea, by the way). His latest album, Sammy Cahn All The Way, celebrates one of America's greatest lyricist, Sammy Cahn, who wrote many a standard: "All The Way," "Teach Me Tonight," It's Magic," Come Fly With Me," I Fall In Love Too Easily," "Time After Time..." I could go on, but you get the idea. All these songs and more are interpreted by Harnar in a subtle and thoughtful manner, and are well matched by Alex Rybeck's superb arrangements. Harnar has a light, lyrical quality that is well suited to the delicacy of gems like "I'll Never Stop Loving You" and "Time After Time." He gets to swing out, however, in a World War II medley, that contains the Andrews Sisters standard, "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon."

One of my greatest loves is discovering those old, obscure songs that have gotten lost over the years. Thankfully, Justin Hayford has provided me with a much-needed fix with A Rare Find, a collection of a dozen forgotten tunes from the American songbook. The songs are from some of America's greatest songwriters, as well as from writers once popular but now largely forgotten. Most are pleasant, a few are astonishing, and a very small number deservedly forgotten (only one in fact: Comden and Green's "You're Awful," which makes anything on Subways Are For Sleeping seem like Sondheim). Hayford possesses a pleasant light tenor and an easy touch on the piano that is well suited to the material. Listening to the CD makes one feel as if he or she were in an intimate café society piano club that features a slyly knowledgeable pianist/singer providing the right touch of sophisticated entertainment. The highlight of the album is, surprisingly, from Sesame Street: Joe Raposo's "When Bert's Not Here," a tender ballad sung by Ernie (which really brings to mind all those rumors about the two). A Rare Find is a great find for those who love obscure forgotten songs and is highly recommended.

In the fifties, Gordon MacRae was the voice of the movie musical, with film credits that include Carousel, Oklahoma! and Desert Song. His daughter, Heather MacRae, has taken a different route, focusing on Broadway (Hair, Falsettos, and Coastal Disturbances) and cabaret. Her show, Songs For My Father, which was the final show of the late, lamented Eighty Eights, is preserved on an album of the same name. This is one of the few albums that I wished included more patter, as it is filled with gems and revelations about growing up in Hollywood with a famous father, as well as stories about being on the sets of Gordon's movies. Heather possesses a beautiful liquid soprano that is a joy to listen to, making the album all the more appealing. Songs For My Father, as you may imagine, consists of songs Gordon MacRae sang in his films and include the ones you would expect (anything from Oklahoma!), to some surprises (a highly entertaining "Piano, Bass and Drums" from About Face). The album was recorded live at Eighty Eights during the final performance ever to grace that space, so it is not only enjoyable, but historical as well.

-- Jonathan Frank

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