Sound Advice by Joseph Molnar

1. Parade - OBC

Once a year there is a show with music so fresh and exciting that fans can hardly stand the wait for the release of its cast album. In the last three years there have been Rent (1996), Titanic (1997) and of course, Ragtime (1998). In 1999, it was Parade.

For those who missed seeing Parade during its two month run, the setting is Atlanta, Georgia, in the year 1913 and the story is that of Leo Frank, a Jew from New York, who is accused of murdering a young girl and eventually lynched for this crime. The music was written by Broadway newcomer Jason Robert Brown who, in this critic's opinion, has a very promising and bright future on Broadway. This is one of the most exciting and original scores heard on Broadway in this decade. To put it simply, the recording is brilliant from beginning to end and it grows more impressive with each listen.

Mr. Brown's music has many layers; it takes several listens to catch everything that is going on. Unlike the current crop of pop musicals on Broadway, Jason Robert Brown's score owes more to Stephen Sondheim than Frank Wildhorn. The musical styles Brown uses range from blues to marches to old-fashioned Broadway showstoppers. There are many standout numbers; among the highlights are the opening number "The Old Red Hills of Home" (which took me a few listens to really appreciate), "How Can I Call This Home," "You Don't Know This Man," sung with great passion by Carolee Carmelllo, "Do it Alone," and "All the Wasted Time," which is one of the most gorgeous pieces of music I have ever heard.

Don Sebesky's orchestrations couldn't be more perfect. For the most part they are sparse and clean sounding without any excess. The only unfortunate thing about this recording is that it is only one disc and not two so that means material had to be cut.

The performances on this recording are just about flawless in every way. Brent Carver as Leo Frank, the accused, makes you care about this man who has been railroaded. Carolee Carmello as his wife, Lucille, is the perfect Southern woman and with this recording she can finally take her place along side Broadway's greatest divas such as Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley. Her voice has never been used to such great effect as it is here, showing off a belt that is reminiscent of a young Betty Buckley. The rest of the cast is as on the mark as the leads.

I couldn't recommend this disc more, and anyone who cares about the future of the American musical will have to have it.

2. Oklahoma! - 1998 London Cast

The revolutionary musical Oklahoma! received a brand new production under the direction of Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theatre and was praised by critics. Most of the praise was heaped upon Mr. Nunn which I believe is unfair since it is such a brilliant musical to begin with and is just about indestructible.

For those of you, like me, who can't wait for this production to come to NY there is the cast recording of this production to satisfy us in the meantime and what a recording it is. First off there's that Rodgers & Hammerstein score - what can one say about it that hasn't already been said, not a bum tune in the lot. Wisely, most of the original orchestrations were utilized with some assistance from William David Brohn. Too often nowadays revivals are given new orchestrations that do not do the music justice. Everyone should take a lesson from the revival of Chicago which uses the original orchestrations and has been taking the world by storm just the same. For this production though there are new dance arrangements to accompany the new choreography by Susan Stroman.

Until this recording came along my favorite recording of Oklahoma! was the 1980 Broadway revival starring Christine Andreas, who made a perfect Laurey (at least on recording). This current production also uses a dark-haired Laurey played by Josefina Gabrielle who is the spunkiest Laurey yet, but isn't as strong a singer as Ms. Andreas. Hugh Jackman is a virile Curly and Maureen Lipman makes a sassy Aunt Eller. American actor Shuler Hensley received the most praise for his performance of Jud Fry but it is hard to judge from one and a half songs just how good he is on stage.

Mr. Nunn seems to have taken a few liberties with this production. During Laurey and Curley's love duet, "People Will Say We're in Love" there is quite a lot of extra business going on while they are singing. John Owen Edwards does an expert job of conducting this recording making it a very lively and complete recording of an American musical theater classic.

3. After the Fair - Original Cast

After the Fair is based on a short story called On the Western Circuit by Thomas Hardy. It tells the tale of a pretty young maid, Anna, who, while attending a local fair, meets and falls in love with a young barrister from London. Since both of them live in different cities they correspond by letters, But there is one problem, Anna can't read or write. So in order not to lose what could be the love of her life she has her mistress, Edith, write the letters for her. To further complicate things her mistress is unhappy in her marriage and ends up falling in love with the young barrister.

After the Fair made its New York debut earlier this year at the York Theater after trying out at regional theaters across the country, picking up a few awards along the way. One can't help but get caught up in this romantic triangle. Stephen Cole (book & lyrics) and Matthew Ward (music) are responsible for this charming musical. Mr. Ward's music is melodic and often resembles that of Stephen Sondheim. Many of today's writers try to mimic Sondheim and most are not successful. Mr. Ward does not just mimic Sondheim; he adds his own style. Today's writers try to write music that is cerebral without heart and almost no melody. Mr. Ward manages to write music that is intelligent, tuneful, humable, and very memorable. Each song is like a little scene and one might almost get the feeling that this is an operetta, not a book musical. You can easily follow the action and that is due to Mr. Cole's exquisite lyrics. His lyrics are not merely functional they are poetic. The orchestrations by David Siegel for the small quartet of players compliments the score perfectly.

This is an intimate musical with a cast of only four. In the role of the young maid, Jennifer Piech, fresh from starring in Titanic on Broadway, gets to display more of her talent and shows us that she is headed for bigger and better things. Michele Pawk, a Broadway vet of over 10 years, finally gets to originate a starring role of her own and gets to show off a lovely soprano voice that has only been heard briefly on her previous cast albums. In the thankless role of her stuffy husband is David Staller who brings a certain vulnerability to the role. Rounding out the quartet, as the young cad with whom Anna falls in love, is James Ludwig, who also appeared in another small off-Broadway musical a few years back, john & jen. He is perfectly cast as the charming young man who changes from a cad into a man who takes responsibility for his actions.

Varese Sarabande has done an impressive job capturing this show on CD and it ranks as one of their best ever. Thanks to them this show should have a long life in regional theaters across the country and in London where it opens this spring.

4. Hedwig and the Angry Inch - Original Cast

This is what my colleague, Harper Strom had to say about Hedwig and the Angry Inch : The mock-concert musical,Hedwig and the Angry Inch, chronicling the sordid life of internationally ignored song stylist Hedwig Schmidt, has been tearing down the crowds at Off-Broadway's Jane Street Theatre since Valentine's Day 1998.

Through this rather off-the-wall piece, Trask and Mitchell clearly show that there is still plenty of room for highly successful productions of an original and avant-garde nature among the increasingly commercial world of theatre and performing arts and, yes, still plenty of people willing to risk producing such work.

Startlingly brilliant to say the least, Hedwig has redefined the rock genre of theatre, blowing away any notion that the comparatively tame Rent was the last of the breed. Its sense of inner beauty is a revelation in its own rite. Trask has created a sublime blend of several American musical styles, ranging from the twanging country "Sugar Daddy" to the hardcore "Angry Inch." He even draws upon Plato's Symposium as the model for Hedwig's bittersweet explanation of the "Origin of Love."

The deliciously dry and veracious lyrics are performed to perfection by the show's star and co-creator, Broadway vet John Cameron Mitchell. Mitchell created the persona of Hedwig several years ago (based upon a childhood babysitter who moonlit as a prostitute) and has brought her to a glittering climax in his explosive performance. Miriam Shor is a worthy companion as Hedwig's second banana, Yitzak.

Trask's own band Cheater (a.k.a. 'Angry Inch') provides the background for Hedwig's antics. Trask's love of the project is evident in his excellent musical direction.

There is very little I could add to that but I would just like to say that Hedwig rocks!! It is one of the best rock scores ever written for the stage. For a long time I avoided seeing Hedwig because I just didn't know what to make of it and I was under the impression that it wasn't a "real musical." Despite reading reports about how good the music was I still avoided it. Big mistake! Hedwig's cast album was released nearly a year after it opened due to the fact that so many labels wanted to record the score (and with good reason.) I have been in awe of the score since my first listen. Each and every song is catchy and sticks with you long after you've stopped listening to it.

5. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown - 1999 Revival Cast

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown was originally an off-Broadway hit in 1967 before transferring to Broadway for a limited run in 1972. The show returned to Broadway in last season's revival production. Following the misadventures of Charles Schultz' Peanuts characters, You're a Good Man ... is comprised of self-contained scenes. Therefore, there isn't a storyline to follow, making this more of a revue than a traditional musical. While normally I do not favor revues, this show is an exception.

Clark Gesner was responsible for the book, music and lyrics when You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown debuted in 1967. In the revival, several scenes were dropped as was a character (Patty), with new scenes and a new character (Sally Brown) being added. To accommodate these changes Andrew Lippa was brought on board to write two new songs and provide a new arrangement for the title tune. In fact, most of these tunes have been outfitted with new orchestrations to give the whole piece a contemporary feel. The number of pieces in the orchestra has been expanded to eight from the original two.

Since I was never a Peanuts fan (that is till now) I had never heard the score before. When I first heard this new recording I could hardly stop listening to it. I found the score to be very charming, reminding me more of a score one would hear off-Broadway rather than on, which is where it began and probably where it should have stayed. Charming as it may be, it is hardly the type of show that today's audiences look for in a Broadway musical and that is a shame. For those looking for a "feel good" musical this CD is for you. You can't help but grin as you hear your favorite Peanuts characters come to life. One of the joys of this CD is that each actor is perfectly cast and all are easily recognizable as their characters. This musical is such an ensemble piece (only six actors) that it is hard to single anyone one out. But, as the Tony committee noted, Roger Bart as Snoopy and Kristin Chenoweth as Sally Brown do stand out in their numbers.

6. 110 in the Shade

Every once in a while a studio recording comes along that surpasses the original cast recording. Such is the case with JAY records 2 CD set of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical 110 in the Shade. The original cast recording may be what most people know of the show, since it had a brief run on Broadway of only 330 performances, but that doesn't mean it spawned a good recording. While this score is one of their finest ever, the orchestra is rather sloppy in a few spots on the OBC.

110 in the Shade has had only one major revival in NYC, in 1992 at the New York City Opera, and it is from that revival that this recording comes, for the most part. Cast in the starring role of Lizzie Curry was Karen Ziemba and she assumes the role on this recording as well, along with Richard Muenz who played File opposite her and Walter Charles as her father, Noah Curry. Rounding out the cast of leading actors is Ron Raines who assumes the role of Starbuck and does so with great conviction.

One couldn't think of a better cast than this. Karen Ziemba may not be vocally ideal for the role, but she acquits herself very well and the chemistry between her and Raines makes this recording all the more enjoyable. Just listen to the scene where Lizzie finally realizes she is beautiful after all and you will see what I am talking about. In supporting roles are Sam Samuelson and Kristin Chenoweth who get their chance to shine on the duet "Little Red Hat."

The score is as complete as can be and even has bonus tracks for the rewrites that took place for the 1992 revival. Outside of having the longest running musical in NYC (The Fantasticks), Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt haven't had much success as theater writers, at least compared to other writing teams who have been around just as long, but nonetheless write quality scores and this recording is proof of that.

John Yap has done an exceptional job here of continuing his outstanding series of recordings of Broadway's classic musicals.

7. As Thousands Cheer - 1998 New York Revival

As Thousands Cheer (Varese Sarabande) originally opened on Broadway in 1933 with a score by Irving Berlin and book by Moss Hart. It is a revue presented as a living newspaper with the headlines brought to life. The sketches and songs present topical subjects of 1933. Because of the time lines, it was ignored until the Drama Department got their hands on it and revived it quite successfully. One would think topics like two stars fighting over their divorce, lonely hearts columns, and two people living together before their wedding day (how shocking that must have been in 1933!) would be out of date today, but, as it turns out, they aren't.

The Drama Department wanted to present the show as it was originally done on Broadway all those years ago, but because the stage version of the film Easter Parade was supposed to open on Broadway that season, they were denied the use of the film's title song. They were offered the entire Berlin catalog from which to chose a replacement and chose "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee."

Since this revival was presented off-Broadway, the cast was scaled back to six members. A full orchestra couldn't be used, so new arrangements were written featuring just a piano and bass. It would have been nice if they had beefed up the arrangements for the recording, but the limited accompaniment remains. As a result of necessary cuts, the show became a brief 70-minute production.

Featuring a top-notch Broadway cast, As Thousands Cheer was delightful in the theater and is just as charming on CD. Judy Kuhn, Kevin Chamberlin, B. D. Wong, Howard McGillan, Mary Beth Peil and Paula Newsome give their all on this CD.

The score is chock full of Irving Berlin standards, some that I hadn't realized he had written. "Suppertime" sounds more like a Gershwin tune than one of Berlin's due to its bluesy sound. Originally sung by Ethel Waters in the 1933, in this production it is sung by Paula Newsome who does a great job of making the song her own. Mary Beth Peil gets to sing the show's one true standard, "Heat Wave," I wasn't thrilled with her version of the song in the theater, but I like it better here. Judy Kuhn gets to perform the gem "Lonely Heart." It is a beauty of a song and deserves more recordings. Many of the other songs on this CD that are just as wonderful, some comic and some serious.

8. Babes in Arms - 1999 Encores! Cast

Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic musical Babes in Arms was presented last spring at City Center for its Encores! concert series and it is receiving its second full recording as a result. Babes in Arms was first recorded in 1990 by New World Records with a stellar cast of performers —Judy Kaye, David Garrison and Judy Blazer just to mention a few. While theses performers are all professionals, essentially they are all wrong for this show. Babes in Arms tells the story of young kids putting on a show, and the performers were all too old for that scenario. Nonetheless, there are excellent performances to be found on that CD, most notably from Judy Kaye.

For the Encores! production the producers wisely decided to go with young, relatively inexperienced newcomers who have never headlined a Broadway musical before. In fact, the only recognizable name belongs to David Campbell, Australia's cabaret sensation. He gets to sing the classic "Where or When" with newcomer Erin Dilly who is currently starring in the touring company of Martin Guerre. Among the other performers featured on this recording is Melissa Rain Anderson who gives us a jaunty reading of "Way Out West." She also sings "Johnny One Note"; though her voice isn't really the belt voice one would expect to hear on this song, her version is enjoyable just the same and includes a spoken intro that has never before been recorded. There are a lot more spoken intros on this recording than on the New World version and that a makes this recording all the more enjoyable. Just about every song in this show was a hit - "My Funny Valentine," the title song "Babes in Arms," "The Lady is a Tramp," and the previously mentioned tunes are just a few examples.

This is Rodgers and Hart at their best even though one could debate whether or not some of the lyrics are too sophisticated for young adults. It's nice to see another full recording of this score out there to give musical theater fans a choice, though I'd definitely give the edge to this recording over the earlier one.

9. Do Re Mi - Encores! Cast

Do Re Mi seems like an odd choice for a revival by City Center for their Encores! series of staged concerts. It was not a huge success when it opened in 1960 (it opened only a year after its composer Jule Styne's most successful musical, Gypsy, opened on Broadway.) But nonetheless it is a welcome choice despite the silly storyline involving an ex-mobster getting involved in the jukebox business.

Previously unfamiliar with the score of Do Re Mi, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard this recording. Jule Styne has written a typically bouncy but uneven score. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's lyrics aren't as good as their previous efforts either. All three joined forces for many a musical, Bells are Ringing and Hallelujah, Baby! to name two, with Do Re Mi constructed for its original star Phil Silvers. To fill those giant shoes is none other than Nathan Lane and quite frankly I couldn't see anyone else doing it, though he may not have the same comic style as Mr. Silvers. Nancy Walker played opposite Mr. Silvers - I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone who could fill her shoes today, but Randy Graff tries her hardest and is most successful in the opening number, "Waiting." Heather Headley and Brian Stokes Mitchell are cast as the romantic leads here and they sound terrific together. Mr. Mitchell proves once again why he is one of Broadway's top leading men. Ms. Headley, who debuted on Broadway in Disney's The Lion King and opens this spring in their production of Aida, is headed for bigger and better things. She exhibits a lovely soprano voice that is put to good use here. Both Ms. Headley and Mr. Mitchell get to sing the one pop standard from this show, "Make Someone Happy."

While not a perfect show, there is much to enjoy here. On this and the above recording, Babes in Arms, the Coffee Club orchestra's playing is exemplary.

10. Heading East

Heading East is an unproduced musical by Asian Americans Robert Lee (book and lyrics) and Leon Ko (music) about Chinese Americans. Its story centers around a Chinese American family and the hardships they have endured in American over the last 150 years, starting with the California gold rush.

While the subject may be Chinese, the score shows very little Asian influence, unlike Pacific Overtures and The King and I. It is a very American, modern musical. I received a few CDs of unproduced musicals and this one is the best by far. I would hope to see this produced on stage sometime in the near future, but I have a feeling the story is too specific to one group of people to have much of a life on stage. It is fresh, creative, and tuneful. The score is much more accessible than other musicals by such composers as Guettel and LaChuisa. Much of the score is made up of self-contained scenes that weave music in and out of dialogue. There are a few stand-alone tunes that can be pulled from the score such as the torch song "All We Can Do is Remember," and the gentle "Only Home.".

Heading the cast is Paolo Montalban who was plucked from the chorus of the recent revival of The King and I to star opposite Brandy in Disney's made for television remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Once again he shows he is capable of handling a leading role and is quite impressive. Christine Toy Johnson is also in the cast as a Japanese American, Michiko. She gets to sing the lovely "This is How He Says 'I Love You'." Cindy Cheung scores big on her one number "All I can Do is Remember."

Judging from this recording the writers show a promising future in the business. I, for one, look forward to their next venture.

That's all for now. Next I will be reviewing the new recording of Kiss Me Kate. Til then, happy listening!!

-- Joseph Molnar

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