Those whose familiarity with the quintessentially French (although he was born in Belgium) singer/songwriter Jacques Brel starts and ends with the highly successful revue of his work, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, are not quite getting the full effect of his works. Brel himself remarked after seeing the revue in 1969 that he felt like a chicken who hatched a duck, as the translations created versions that watered down Brel's humorous and decidedly acidic lyrical sensibility, which always 'zinged' whether he was targeting the hypocrisies of the military and bourgeois society in general or wistfully recalling an overly romanticized look at bygone life.

DRG has released Infiniment, a two-disc collection of Brel's songs, sung by the master himself. Of the forty tracks, eleven are receiving their inaugural release, including five unpublished songs Brel wrote in 1977, less than a year before his death, while inhabiting a shack in the Marquesas Islands (chronicled in the song "Les Marquises"). Most of the album's forty tracks represent a 'best of' collection of his works, and those numbers have been given new life thanks to a sparkling new digital remastering by DRG. Those familiar with the Shuman/Blau translations will be amazed at how pallid those versions are when compared to the originals (the booklet to this set contains a near word-for-word translation of each of the songs). One of Brel's most famous songs, "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (usually translated as "If You Go Away" instead of the more literal "Don't Leave Me"), for instance goes beyond the "I'll be the shadow of your shadow" of the English translation by furthering the desperation of the singer by having him or her swear to "become the shadow of your shadow/the shadow of your hand/the shadow of your dog" if only the other person would stay.

An added bonus, the set includes "La Quete," Brel's version of "The Impossible Dream" from his French translation of Man of La Mancha which guarantees that listeners will rush out to track down a copy of the full score.

The latest album in the highly successful Broadway Musicals of ... series (live recordings of the popular "Broadway by the Year" concerts) tackles one of Broadway's greatest years: 1960, which has the distinction of being the first year that a revival did not grace the Great White Way, and which introduced such classic shows as Bye Bye Birdie and Camelot into the theatrical cannon.

As always, the album is a delightful mix of the well known (such as Brent Barrett recreating his Paper Mill performance as King Arthur in Camelot with "Camelot" and "How To Handle a Woman" or Tovah Feldshuh's rabidly comic take on "Kids" from Bye Bye Birdie) and of rarities (Tovah showing her childlike side with the politically pointed "Ism," a Sheldon Harnick/David Baker number from Vintage 60). Other highlights include Douglas Ladnier's tenderly wistful "Tall Hope" (Wildcat), Marc Kudisch revisiting his role as Conrad Birdie with a delightfully over-the-top "One Last Kiss" (with an incredibly playful arrangement by Ross Patterson) and a highly romantic "I Know About Love" (Do Re Mi), and Eddie Korbich's tour de force performance of "The Late Late Show" (also from Do Re Mi). Also giving solid performances are Liz Larson (especially on The Unsinkable Molly Brown's "I Ain't Down Yet") and Lisa Vroman.

Kim Criswell treats the songs of Irving Berlin exactly as one should: honestly and without a great deal of histrionics. On Something To Dance About , Criswell performs fifteen of Berlin's classic songs simply, beautifully and emotionally simple. While there are few little-known numbers (the rarest being "Washington Square Dance," a number that has more meaning this year with lyrics like "Republicans over to the right/Democrats over to the left/The Left meet the Right and don't explode/try to find the middle of the road" and the seldom heard 1913 number, "Down In Chattanooga"), they are all exquisitely realized. Stylistically, the album is highly eclectic, ranging as it does from the light jazz of "How Deep is the Ocean," to the Latin-inspired "Heat Wave," to the traditional Broadway sounding "Something to Dance About" and "The Hostess with the Mostes' on the Ball," to a slightly over-the-top bombastic rendition of "God Bless America" that would do Kate Smith proud.

Rondi Charleston's latest album, Love Is The Thing, ranks high on the list of 'best romantic albums of the year.' A delightfully jazzy album, Charleston makes each of the songs her own: no mean feat when one is tackling such well known (and overly performed) numbers like Frank Loesser's "If I Were A Bell" (given a playful treatment by Charleston and co-arranger, Tedd Firth), Lerner and Lowe's "Wouldn't Be Loverly" (beautifully performed as a wistful, pulled back ballad), and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" (treated as a lightly jazzy song of longing).

Other highlights include lesser performed numbers such as the title song (by Victor Young and Ned Washington) and "Talk To Me Baby" (Robert Dolan/Johnny Mercer), as well as a high-energy swinging version of Kern and Hammerstein's "Nobody Else But Me" and a haunting take on Johnny Mandel/Paul Francis Webster's "A Time For Love." The album is mostly accompanied by a trio (Tedd Firth or Peter Eldridge on piano, Dave Finck on bass and Lewis Nash on drums), with other instruments joining in when needed to add a specific and well realized tonal color to the proceedings.

Man With A Load Of Mischief is one of those cult albums that one spends a great deal of time (and money) searching for on eBay. An Off-Broadway success in 1966-1967, the show has proved popular around the globe and was recently staged as a concert production at the York Theatre in 2003. A studio recording of the show was recently released by Original Cast Records that features two cast members of the York production: Diane Sutherland (as the lady) and Stephen Bogardus (as the lord).

Based on a little-known play by Ashley Dukes, the plot of the show involves ever-shifting romantic triangles and mistaken identities between members of upper and lower classes. The score, with music by John Clifton and lyrics by Clifton and Ben Tarver, is surprisingly pleasant with the servant's songs (sung by Alex Santoriello) being especially strong. "Masquerade," a touching number that would not have been out of place in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and "Make Way For a Lady" are especially delightful and exquisitely performed. All of the performers are strong and amply display why this show has been a favorite of small regional theaters around the world. The album is hampered, however, by some of the worst synthesizer work heard in quite some time, which casts a cheesy, lifeless pall over the album (while synthesized strings are never satisfying, these in particular are painful to the ears, as are the synthesized 'flute' and 'woodwind' parts in the "Overture"). Still, as this will probably the only recording of this gem released for quite some time (for some odd reason Decca Broadway has been slow in releasing the original Off-Broadway recording), it is well worth purchasing, especially by artistic directors looking for well-written and engaging musicals with a small cast.

"Pacific Overtures" is the euphemism used by Commodore Matthew Perry when he 'persuaded' Japan to open up trade relations with the United States (the display of Naval power shown by the US having more to do with Japan's decision to end centuries of enforced isolation than any diplomacy shown by Perry). It is also one of the most original musicals to ever grace Broadway, largely thanks to Stephen Sondheim's fusion of traditional Japanese harmonic and melodic elements with his own brand of Americana. As a cast album, it has always been a bit of an enigma, mostly because it is one of those shows that has to be seen in order to truly appreciate it. While the score contains gems that reflect some of Sondheim's best and most considered work, such as "Bowler Hat" (which illustrates a character's cultural transformation through the Western objects he acquires over a decade), "Someone In A Tree" (which takes a Rashomon look at the closed treaty meeting between East and West) and "Chrysanthemum Tea" (a subtle number of politics, familial love and murder), the show's stylized and presentational format needs to be viewed in order to fully appreciate and comprehend its subtle power.

Jay Records recently re-released a one-disc highlight version of the 1987 English National Opera production of Pacific Overtures. While the album cannot replace the must-have Original Broadway Cast album of the show, it is surprisingly effective. The sound on the album is much fuller, thanks to the large orchestra used by the production. Also, given the presentational nature of the piece, having operatic singers perform the songs does the show no injustice and actually adds to the stylized and slightly emotionally distant feel inherent with the piece. The only jarring note of the show is the realization when one reads the superbly illustrated booklet's cast list that apparently not one Asian performer took part in the singing (some of the non-singing roles appear to have been filled by Asian performers). Perhaps it is only a sign of the overly politically correct atmosphere of today's world, but it does smack as more than a tad distasteful and would be likened to an all-white production of Ain't Misbehavin'; while it may be beautifully sung, one can't help but feel that the point of the production has gone horribly missing. Also, one wishes Jay Records had re-released the two-disc TER version, which preserved most of the show's instrumental and book tracks and which was only released in the United Kingdom.

The recently shuttered Off-Broadway musical Johnny Guitar: The Musical won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, giving one hope that the recently released cast album would be an enjoyable romp that lived up to its overly campy source material. Based on the classic 1954 film that starred Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in a Big Valley meets Dynasty struggle to the death (and for the love of Sterling Hayden to boot), the story is not so much over-the-top as being in another orbit of reality all together. Unfortunately, while this sensibility appears to have been present on stage during the show (based up its liner notes, at least), it is almost completely lacking in its cast album. Not that Johnny Guitar is unpleasant to listen to. On the contrary, the score by Martin Silvestri and Joel Higgins (who also collaborated on The Fields of Ambrosia) is a pleasant enough mix of musical elements culled from traditional Western films and '50s/'60s beach movies (the fusion of which, however, does make for an odd juxtaposition at times).

The female leads, Judy McLane as Vienna (the role immortalized by Joan Crawford) and Ann Crumb as her nemesis Emma, are a hoot and tear into every overripe moment with gusto, especially in their Alexis/Krystle bitch-fight-to-death number, "Bad Blood." The men's numbers, however, are weak and as a whole there is too much repetition of melodies on an album that only lasts 40 minutes.

-- Jonathan Frank

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