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Time for Doctor Zhivago
plus Nicholas Rodriguez's The First Time...

The case of the musical Doctor Zhivago is hardly the first time that a Broadway show shuttered quickly, despite a storied road of being a celebrated novel, movie, and having a globe-trotting journey of earlier mountings. But it is The First Time... for vigorous vocalist-actor Nicholas Rodriguez to enter a recording studio for a solo album. Though it's not the first time we've heard a musical theatre performer take on many of the selections, he brings a robust freshness to them.


Broadway Records

Add to the war-torn and tear-stained struggles, and suicides, in the novel/film/mini-series/stage piece telling the story of author Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (book and movie unwelcome in its native Russia) the sorrow of a quick death of its musical stage version on Broadway. This tough blow came less than three weeks after its post-opening performance. But the score has an eternal afterlife in the permanence of its cast album, recorded and released after its closing. Despite a chilly reception from some quarters that rivaled its depicted Russian winters, the recording brings our attention to some quite worthy contributions in a sterling, high-class-sounding extravaganza helmed by veteran record producer Robert Sher, whose résumé includes memorably full cast albums of Follies (Paper Mill cast) and Annie (anniversary cast), both with valued "extra" tracks. With Doctor Zhivago, we learn once again that a show with a short run isn't necessarily short on musical assets and powerful cast performances.

Epic ain't easy. Classic, sprawling novels of world literature have a hit-and-miss history of becoming hits, tough to encapsulate and burdened with comparisons to their origins and, like this one, sometimes including a well-known movie adaptation. We could spend more time and words debating why Les Misérables is a worldwide and well-attended success and why many don't know or nearly forgot that there was a musical version of Gone with the Wind by Harold Rome—or why Dickens' "Oliver Twist" as Oliver! was a smash, but crash-and-burn was the fate of his David Copperfield, the score recycled for a low-profile animated film. But our task here is to consider the aural souvenir of this particular musical on its own merits, resisting the natural tendency to compare it to others of its genre and the novel or motion picture.

Also on the matter of preconceived ideas, don't go in expecting songs that remind you immensely of the work of its creators. But there is some of the out-and-out emotionalism and heart-on-sleeve sincerity we've heard from composer Lucy Simon (I'm an admirer of her melodies for The Secret Garden and her earlier albums of folk/pop music, beginning with her long-ago duo albums with sister Carly). Likewise, non-ironic declarations of love and adept writing are clearly in the wheelhouse of co-lyricist Michael Korie (Grey Gardens, Far from Heaven). Most of the prior work by the other lyricist, Amy Powers, may not be as well-known or exposed to theatre fans, though she's put words in the mouths of some formidable and diverse females: the title character of Lizzie Borden; Norma Desmond—to some degree—(contributing to her two major arias); and, for films that may have escaped your radar, the ever-slim doll Barbie.

The cast is thoroughly professional, sounds committed, and features attractive and rich singing voices. With the exception of Tom Hewitt (The Rocky Horror Show, etc., and now in Amazing Grace), much of the cast here is not very well known as star names, though Broadway credits abound: Paul Alexander Nolan (Pasha) was Jesus to Hewitt's Pontius Pilate in the Jesus Christ Superstar mounting of a few years ago; Lora Lee Gayer was the recent Young Sally in the recent Follies; and the man with the title role, Tam Mutu, has played the major roles in Britain and would have made his Broadway debut with the ill-fated Rebecca.

The disc and score have more to offer in diversity than first impressions might lead you to believe. On first hearing, especially of early tracks and the more overtly dramatic selections, the forceful and subtlety-lacking arrangements and orchestrations can upstage and detract from the actual music and lyrics. To me, they seem to add intensity to intensity, in the "More is more" technique, whereas this only emphasizes some of the pounding drive of the (melo?)drama, like underlining things three times when they are already forceful and thus risk overstatement to the point of overkill. This is mainly true of the mantras and declamatory pronouncements that throb through big-group numbers or heroics and fits of fury. Whether we're hearing a battle cry or crying out of the futility of war or lamented decisions/turns of fate, some high-drama moments can come on like advancing galloping horses at top speed. These tend to start at almost full throttle, leaving little room to do anything but become redundant and exhausting. But the soldiers' moments would not be out of place in a florid operetta of yore with Romberg melodies. Forward march, stouthearted men! Although lyrics have occasional nods to caviar and vodka, some real Russian flavor comes early with celebratory dance tempi. Otherwise, period and locale feel less specifically present.

As the CD goes on, it's the more romantic and personal, human-sized emotions that register. After some albeit effective yet too utilitarian storytelling devices in song, there are more satisfyingly special and heartrending numbers in both construction and performance. While "Who Is She?" is remarkable in its ultra-concise observations about the shock of a woman bursting into a celebration, brandishing a gun, shooting, and exiting, it's the more thoughtful, rhapsodic pieces that also evidence some admirable economy and discipline that are more potent. Those which approach the poetic heights of Yurii Zhivago's poems are the most eloquent. When our leading man is allowed to sing thoughtfully, he's captivating and sympathetic—a true tragic, tormented figure who longs to be a hero. Proclaiming his name and intentions, he could be a would-be Don Quixote. Nolan can be chilling as his adversary. Hewitt, whether harsh and cynical or toned down (an affecting solo, "Komarovsky's Lament"), he's charismatic and powerful. Among the many tracks, Lucy Simon's melodies are especially felicitous and memorably elegant in the love songs. With her two lyricists and the leads at their best, each commenting on their overlapping relationships, the summation of how "Love Finds You" (as opposed to people seeking and "finding" love) is a stunning highlight. Some duets are also moving: "Watch the Moon" for Mr. and Mrs. Zhivago (Gayer as Tonia) is pure grace. In this, as he's going off to war, they ease the pain of separation by vowing that they will, as a tradition, gaze at the moon nightly, taking comfort in knowing the other is doing the same. Zhivago's love, Lara (the gloriously-voiced Kelli Barrett), is commanding throughout, especially fine on the dynamic "When the Music Played," building it nicely. The two women who've shared Yurii's affection share what may be the score's most satisfying and accomplished piece, "It Comes as No Surprise," eloquently reflecting on their reactions to finally meeting.

While I'm not a big fan of having the most famous song(s) from earlier adaptations forced into new scores for supposed insurance to please audiences—if only because it can backfire and fire up critics' comparisons of super-familiar to newly-heard music—I think the film's love theme, "Somewhere, My Love," isn't too jarring. Assigned to the nurses, it isn't presented at all as the piece de resistance, or reprised, and it isn't given the sing-songy, sentimentalized treatment some of its recordings had back in the day. The cast album has two bonus tracks: a brief but lovely piano version of "" by 13-year-old pianist Emily Bear and "When the Music Played" in a grander treatment by opera's Sharon Azrieli Perez. An additional bonus track is not on the physical CD, and wasn't submitted for review, but can be downloaded.

The booklet includes all the lyrics, cast list and credits, a helpful synopsis, some color photos, and laudatory introductory comments from musicologist/longtime radio host Jonathan Schwartz who became close to the Simon family growing up.


PS Classics

A busy actor-singer, Nicholas Rodriguez has already had many first times: he was the first actor to be part of a gay love triangle on a soap opera; his first time on Broadway he was understudy and then replacement for the title role in Tarzan; and his Carnegie Hall debut was a one-night concert version of Guys and Dolls. Recently he appeared as Curly in Arena Stage's Oklahoma!. Those three scores are represented on his CD The First Time....

The first track is "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," starting things off with a breath of fresh air, a vigorous yet personal take on the iconic number that respects tradition, but in music director/pianist David Budway's arrangement, he isn't just echoing what we've heard in show versions. At the end of the piece, he adds a bit of "Something's Coming" from West Side Story to add another flavor of in-the-moment joy. His "You'll Be in My Heart," the big number from Tarzan (originating in the film), is another strong statement that builds well. The percussion by Donald Edwards suggesting heartbeat is none too subtle, but the passion is there in the singing, without getting soppy, as this Disney-ordered piece could easily become. And "I've Never Been in Love Before" gets revitalized at a faster clip, Latin-stylized to combine with the Spanish classic "Amor." While the tempo and combination results in the wonder and awe of first love usually heard in the ballad versions of the Guys and Dolls selection, the track works pretty well as one of many refreshing re-interpretations on an impressive debut disc.

Joni Mitchell's repertoire is more and more often included in albums and shows by vocalists, especially "A Case of You." The versatile Mr. Rodriguez includes this one as well as her "Conversation." While most who take on the troubadour-writer's early works for their set lists cautiously stay close to her more ethereal and folky style, and are more often female, they work here with more vocal heft and expanded dynamics. Nicholas has voice to burn and his big moments are some of the most rewarding to hear, but they're used judiciously where they serve the story of the song, not for their own sake. Indeed, he can also be quite effective in a purring, intimate crooning style within these same arrangements that crescendo. He can float up to a very pretty falsetto that is almost a kind of mini-yodel. In "Leaving on a Jet Plane," an old folk song by John Denver, a revue of whose material he's also been in, it becomes quite the dramatic plea, making a slower pace and pauses work. A minor quibble is his frequently changing the line "I hate to go" to "I really hate to go." The addition (presumed to be for emphasis) is unnecessary, as his intent is quite clear through his sincere acting throughout the lament. We (really) sense that he's singing to a particular person and that his reluctance and regrets are real. The arrangement gives him space and time and is quite affecting.

Dolly Parton's "Jolene" is less potent than the other non-show tunes, as the constant repeating of the lady's name becomes dull. However, it's an interesting choice in that it's rare to hear a male vocalist addressing the character of a woman in competition for the same man. Nicholas was born, raised, and schooled in Texas, so maybe I expected more of a full immersion in this country item. He certainly takes on many genres, from pop to theatre to singing in Spanish ("Amor") to the English-language version of the Brazilian "Waters of March" (which he manages to insert some feeling into, rather than just swim through the rush of nouns in the wordy lyric).

"Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (currently part of Broadway's Beautiful, usually female territory, adds another feather to his cap of successes, showing Nicholas' vulnerable side, without letting the worry get anywhere near melodrama. It just seems like a bone-honest admission of trepidation. And the accomplished pianist bookends it with the gentle melodic lines of John Lennon's "Love." If you know its lyric which says "Love is real," the inclusion sets up an expectation that the love is genuine, but if you don't, the tender playing sets the mood more subtly. It's a lovely idea. A more assured and assertive Nicholas Rodriguez comes to the forefront with Stephen Sondheim's Oscar-winning "Sooner or Later" from Dick Tracy. He doesn't sink into overly coy or sultry-plus territory to announce his confidence, but it sizzles nonetheless, in an earthier way, as he promises "I always get my man."

The 13 numbers include one original by the singer, his pianist, and Bill Yule. It's called "Sometimes" and is another engaging track on this very worthwhile album from a genuine leading man with magnetism that comes through on disc. And, lest he be pegged as just trading off good looks in type casting, he's just finished playing the latter half of the title roles in Disney's Beauty and the Beast at the St. Louis Muny. Expect much from this guy.

- Rob Lester

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