Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Studio Casts
of shows about: fashion (Roberta) &
passion (Theater Boys)

Focused on high fashion, Gowns by Roberta was the original title of the 1933 musical shortened to just its last word, but, like a gown altered, shortened, repaired, and festooned with decorative bits, it's changed. A new studio cast album goes back to the original design and brings new colors, too. Also just released is the studio cast album of Theater Boys, a show about young men following their passions for the stage and for other men.


New World Records

Arguably, the real star of the new studio cast of Roberta is the accomplished composer who sadly collapsed on the streets of New York in 1945 and shortly thereafter died, just as he was about to embark on writing the music for a brand new show called Annie Get Your Gun. His name was Jerome Kern and he was a veritable fountain of rich melody, much of it varied and versatile, allowing it to adapt to different tempi and stylings. After all is said and sung in this dialogue-heavy rendition, his graceful, long-lined creations—and a few sprightly ones—are the great joys here, especially being able to have them sweep over us, some reprised in numerous guises. Glory in the original and full orchestrations of the masterful Robert Russell Bennett (many pages survived), or reconstructed with love and educated guesswork, with the large Orchestra of Ireland conducted by Rob Berman. Certainly he is more the star than the title character, as dress designer Roberta is just in one scene and dies before we're very far into the first act.

The lyrics of Otto Harbach haven't aged as well as the music. They tend to be formal and flowery or plain (such as "... how I long for 'The Touch of Your Hand'/ I've loved you so/ You'll never know" or "To think of mating I never could dare ... You were destined for purple-hued throne rooms..." in "You're Devastating," whose melody was recycled from 1927's Blue Eyes). One of the more compact lyrics, which seems to flow, goes "I'll Be Hard to Handle/ I promise you that./And if you complain/ Here's one little Jane that will leave you flat." But the words for "I'll Be Hard to Handle" were handled not by Harbach, but by Bernard Dougall, a relative who wanted a start in the business. Granted, some of Kern's work has a stateliness that might suggest something "poetic." And it was the 1930s, and Harbach's work in sentimental operettas had paved his path.

While the cast has some pleasant singing voices, there isn't much potent star quality to hold candles to the light shed on the main numbers by more distinctive voices I've been living with for years on several studio cast albums and film adaptations (such personalities as Jack Cassidy, Kaye Ballard, Alfred Drake, Kitty Carlisle, Gordon MacRae, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller) and numerous pop recordings of some numbers. And some of the spoken sections show underwhelming acting, with some folks even on the wooden side or just defeated by the duller dialogue (also Harbach) and not terribly engaging plot, with the women mostly stuck being capricious, coy, annoying or annoyed.

But Kern is one of THE giants of musical theatre and any chance to hear hitherto unrecorded or expanded versions of his work, in such a complete package, is to be relished. This is history—and hearing even the much-recorded pieces in as close to their originally intended form is worth the investment and time for serious musical theatre admirers as well as the oft-scoffed-at "completists" who want every note and word and variation. These are not just crumbs. There are a few lost or virtually lost songs and a few miles of lyric-free orchestral music, some of which is underscoring for the dialogue for these not-so-engaging characters. Since the original production was never recorded, and other far briefer studio albums often had their own out-of-period arrangements, well, this is valuable for perspective and context.

Discoveries for most listeners will be some instrumentals not mainly based on the major songs, numbers cut or trimmed or re-shaped—Do you know "Hot Spot" or "Armful of Trouble" (a splendidly swirling, climbing tune whose words tell us "a storm is not always harmful") or "Clementina"? Those only familiar with the film versions may not know that songs were dropped, some lyrics were rewritten (by Dorothy Fields), and a couple of items heard on film were not in the original score at all. The remake, which changed most of the plot, was retitled Lovely to Look At. The song by that title and "I Won't Dance" (a revised version of a London musical's song, added at Fred Astaire's request) are part of the appendix.

In the cast, Jason Graae is the shining light. In the more comedic role created by Bob Hope early in his career, inherited on film by Astaire, his character is less brittle or bitter, carrying no axe wanting grinding. He gets some of the better lines (Hope ad libbed some which were put into the script). But the actor can make sweet lemonade out of even the oldest dried-up lemons. He's at home. Veteran of many studio cast albums of period material, Graae is adept at walking the finest of lines between winking at the material and trusting it, staying boyishly enthused, making it work with gee-whiz wizardry. The mischievous twinkle in his eye somehow translates onto disc. Narrating a fashion show, he rolls consonants around on his tongue and can make the most of just announcing "Number Thirty-six" and "Silllllverrr Sssstrrreakk." And for singing, he employs the same skills.

While Kim Criswell and her well-done bits with over-the-top Russian accent and aggressive personality are at first a welcome burst of clownish energy, a little goes a long way, and she's got a fair amount to do, so it gets to be exhaustingly redundant. And on some notes and phrases, the heavy accent comes and goes. In an uneven performance, Annalene Beechey still manages to rescue the warhorse "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from being overdone and self-pitying. Restraint can be a good thing! And in the title role, Diana Montague gets the bittersweet "Yesterdays" and brings some grace and gravitas to it. Several singers here have appeared on other studio cast albums, such as Eileen and Dearest Enemy by this very valuable label of New World Records.

While the booklet is 47 pages and includes some lyrics, a few photos, extensive credits, a plot synopsis of this play (based on a novel) set in France, plus background on the show and its many changes and variations, rewritten scenes, and behind-the-scenes development (like the key staff people who were replaced, characters written out, actors let go or reassigned and who replaced the stars when they moved on), a basic bio of Kern, a surprisingly lengthy history of World War I and beyond, focusing on Paris and the fashion industry. We get a track-by-track rundown of whether or not each has the original orchestration, a later one, a necessitated new or "reconstructed one" and from which sources. And a one-paragraph-each who's who in the cast and a selected bibliography. The whole booklet is also available on the label's website, where you can also sample this two-disc set.

The orchestra puts plenty of kick in the crisp percussive accents, tinkly piano mini-runs, soaring string lines, lush harmonies, heavy on the melody lines of these solidly constructed songs. Even some scene change music probably shrugged off as audiences chatted is a delight on its own. So, yes, there are sufficient delights to put Roberta in perspective, in period, and in the music player.


Original Cast Records

With plenty of pep and affection, the entertaining Theater Boys is an often broad look at a director and several young actors—all ready, willing, and (perhaps) able to shine with a show. The director evades the reality that he has neither financing nor a script in place. He proceeds to bluff and ask his all-male auditionees to be ready to perform in the buff. All are gay, although one fellow insists, lamely, that he's not. Mining the performers' personal lives for possible plot ideas, the underprepared man in charge gets each to talk about past experiences, related to performing or personal lives, told in song. While much is deliciously silly, there's a tender touch in two major flashback sequences showing tentative teens tiptoeing around realizations and/or admissions of their sexuality when they interact with their crushes. Set in small towns, these segments are informed by a genuine embrace of the very real awkwardness, frustrations, and confusions—without sacrificing humor or hindsight.

This able studio cast is an almost totally different group of guys than those I saw in the show several years ago. One person remains, David Cronin, having graduated to the lead role of Kipp for the recording. In the currently-playing, very enjoyable production, there's likewise just a single holdover from the recording. He's the talented Andrew Lanctot, a smash in one of the flashback segments, nailing the guy going ga-ga over a gorgeous neighbor whose church and chastity vow present roadblocks. But he's been down that road before and knows a shortcut or two. He laments his lot in "Tell Me Why" and listening to his performance on disc, you don't have to tell me why he was re-hired: indeed, much of his sharp portrayal comes through on disc as it does on stage.

There are a few score interpolations for nostalgia—such as "My Man" and "Do It Again," both sung as catharsis by Zack Riopelle, playing that neighbor boy, in unadorned gushes of longing. In his own strong memories, Kipp's remembered dream boy joins him in the lake for skinny dipping and maybe more or maybe less (the original "Crater Lake Blues," with a nicely natural-seeming Matt Nardozzi persuasive as the persuasive seducer). Original material—and that's mostly what we have—is by Chip Deffaa, who also directed both versions and wrote the script, from which we hear a fair amount of dialogue within some numbers, or to set them up. Deffaa, also a theatre critic and historian, has a real appreciation for songs from the early decades of the 20th century and its show biz figures, having put together such shows as The Seven Little Foys, George M. Cohan Tonight!, One Night with Fanny Brice and Irving Berlin's America, all of which, like this one, have been recorded on Original Cast Records. (He continues his celebration of Berlin with a revue opening next month at 13th Street Repertory in Manhattan.) The love for and familiarity with vaudeville are felt in his pastiche pieces, which could pass as actual samples from the time. And his years of exposure to the egos and dreams of nervous or nervy performers serves him well in creating and directing portrayals of the hammy, the hemming-and-hawing shy types, the clued-in and the clueless.

Our central character is Kipp (the perky and endearing Cronin here), literally right off the bus to New York, while the others have been around the block a bit or had bit parts or more. Generally speaking, it makes for effective contrast of "types," although there's not as much variety in vocal timbres and colors as would be ideal, and the more cartoon-like or "pushier" personalities with one full-steam-ahead solo apiece don't allow for real range or nuance. But, with the exception of those more realistic, misty memory flashbacks, it's not that kind of show. It's mainly frisky and frolicsome and, as such, does its smile-inducing job quite well indeed.

Violinist Skye Steele and bassist Brian Nalepka add zippy flavor to the piano. As usual, at the piano is musical director Richard Danley, a man who speaks this feel-good musical language with authenticity and unforced joy. You'll see him as a one-person band if you catch the show live before it ends its run on October 26 at Manhattan's 13th Street Repertory. Tonight's performance (October 16) is a celebration of the release of this CD, at which the recording will be available at half-price.

I suspect that those who follow or are involved in theatre will get a special kick out of the lyrics packed with names of plays and names of modern-day celebrities that rhyme, as well as icons of yore like Al Jolson and Mae West. Carol Channing is more than name-dropped: her actual speaking voice was recorded and is employed in key plot points, pointing out life-changing words of wisdom. As a former TV child star, Jonah Mayor is a hoot in "Maybe, Maybe Not," insisting he is only looking for "bromance," and would (perhaps too eagerly) consider doing a gay love scene and/or nude scene if a fine script called for it. After all, he explains, he's an actor and it's part of the job if you're dedicated. The ogling director tries the same logic in brashly trying to convince the naïve Kipp that such commitment is noble, following in famous footsteps (barefoot footsteps) and to be proud to disrobe "For the Theatre." His high-speed salesman-like pitch posits a comparison to the steadfast sacrifices of Joan of Arc and Jonathan Larson working as a waiter while writing Rent. Gloriously glib and vigorous, Keith Anderson shows a savvy manner, taking the ball and running with it in this spiffy romp.

And there's much more to tickle the funnybone and bring the musical equivalent of belly-warming homemade apple pie (with spice!). A figure skater insists "I'm over him" in his icy "When Love Grows Cold," referring to the objection of his obsession: his former co-star in Romeo and Juliet on Ice. Spewing venom in this rant, spitfire Cody Dericks is feisty and funny. In a gentler way, but with bucket-loads of golly-gee-whiz spirit, our chipper Kipp is mostly heard praising his hometown (his reprised ultra-catchy, ultra-cheery "Chilliwack" ode and "Under the Chilliwack Moon"). Spot-on evocations of the plethora of early-20th century unabashedly sentimental ditties about home sweet home and romantic moonlight also are spotlighted in a mega mash-up of moon tunes. Most of fond pastiche pass muster, with the luster of moonlight and nimbly scratching the they-don't-write-'em-like-that-anymore itch. However, a couple of the plot songs show what may be an overly large—but unconscious—shadow of later songs, distractingly so. The melody of one has been rewritten since it was recorded. Very occasionally, a mis-accented syllable is a bit of a distracting blip on the radar screen. But put this CD or show on your radar screen, but no need to bring your "gaydar" screen—the show and score are unselfconsciously gay-centric, eccentric, ingratiating, and just plain dandy.

- Rob Lester

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