Tune In: Theatre CDs & DVDs Round-up - Sep 2009Date: 3 September 2009
This month’s Editor’s Pick is the fun-tastic American DVD documentary Razzle Dazzle!, about Mitzi Gaynor’s landmark TV specials from 1968-78, which is absolutely guaranteed to put a spring into your step for autumn.
For dance of a completely different style, STOMP Live offers the first complete record of this lively percussion show on DVD, filmed last year at the Brighton Dome. And for a taste of Las Vegas glitz, we have Tony Palmer’s documentary about British superstar Michael Crawford, made in the mid-1990s when he was preparing to star in the show EFX at the MGM Grand.
This month’s CDs feature Mitzi Gaynor in full songstress mode; early recordings by that ever-delightful Fair Lady, Julie Andrews; and the first solo album devoted to the late, much-missed leading man Steve Barton. All proof that the end of the summer holidays doesn’t have to mean the autumn blues!
Mitzi Gaynor: Razzle Dazzle! The Special Years
Everyone remembers Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie Forbush in the 1958 film of South Pacific, washin’ that man right outta her hair. She made other Hollywood musicals in the 50s, alongside Marilyn, Donald O’Connor, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly, but this turned out to be the highpoint of her film career. As fate would have it, big-budget musicals chose that same moment to take a nosedive. What’s a gal with gams, glamour, and talent galore to do? Mitzi Gaynor carved out a new career in Las Vegas, becoming one of the biggest nightclub headliners in town and on tour. In 1967 her knockout “Georgy Girl” number at the Academy Awards show opened a new door, to the world of television specials.
Every year from 1968 to 1978 brought a new Mitzi TV special, each one top of the line, imaginatively crafted around a theme, showcasing her talent and versatility, with name guest stars and a hard-working group of chorus boys. The titles give you an idea: Mitzi…The First Time; Mitzi…and the American Housewife; …& A Hundred Guys; …Roarin’ in the 20’s; …Zings into Spring.; …What’s Hot, What’s Not. Besides the high production values, what makes these specials hot, and doubly enjoyable today, is the fact that Mitzi is not a rarified diva, but connects as a beautiful woman who is also a triple-threat pro – a dynamite dancer with gypsy in her soul, a singer who can really belt out a song, and a talented actress with a warm personality. She gives her all, and is obviously having the time of her life, whether dancing up a storm, crooning atop a piano, acting in skits, or clowning around, always ready with a knowing wink for the audience.
Variety’s original review of Mitzi…& A Hundred Guys begins simply, “Wow!” The same goes for Mitzi’s regular co-star: an absolutely eye-popping array of incredible Bob Mackie outfits, which scream glamour, and wit. Before his work with Cher and Carol Burnett, and even Barbie, Gaynor was Mackie’s first big celebrity client, and a perfect muse. With her figure, she looks great in anything (think slits, plunging necklines and backs, and body-suits) and can wear most any colour (pink and gold are high on the list); and Mackie has a field day dressing her in everything from sequins, beads, crystal, chiffon, and feathers, to nude soufflé. Pure eye candy!
The show-dancing will leave you breathless, too, with numbers choreographed by Robert Sidney, Peter Gennaro, Danny Daniels, and Tony Charmoli. You won’t be able to get the DVD’s theme number “Hold Back – Let Go!” out of your head. Other highlights are her “Pretty for Me” strutting dance in a red-white-and-pink creation with a bustle like a bouquet of flowers that makes her look like a strawberry sundae, her sexy housewife putting a different spin on kitchen chores in “I Can Cook Too”, a wild Egyptian disco number done at the height of the 1970s King Tut craze, and a Charleston sequence complete with animated John Held caricatures and Busby Berkeley camera effects.
If you’ve never seen one of Mitzi Gaynor’s legendary television specials – they never made it to Britain, alas – dash out and buy this DVD. Mind you, it doesn’t include the full shows (watch this space: rumour is that they will all eventually be released), but the 58-minute musical documentary Razzle Dazzle! (shown on America’s PBS last year) is a fantastic introduction and lively entertainment in itself, jam-packed with tales about Mitzi’s career and the specials, and a cornucopia of extracts from the shows that will have you clamouring for more. The onscreen interviewees include Mitzi herself, Bob Mackie, Rex Reed, Kristin Chenoweth, Carl Reiner, and Kelli O’Hara.
There’s a bumper-crop of extras (total: 79 minutes), including eight full-length musical numbers from the specials; Mitzi’s late-night movie show parody (with pitch-perfect tributes to Rosalind Russell, Doris Day, and Rita Hayworth); a salute to Sondheim’s Company; two of Mitzi’s “Kid” films (a tour-de-force in which she plays a lonely schoolboy, with no make-up and a baseball cap); Mitzi’s memories of her début on the Ed Sullivan Show (heading the bill the noisy week The Beatles first appeared); and the 18-minute featurette Mitzi and Mackie: Look Back in Fashion, a bubbly reminiscing session about those fabulous outfits (one teeny criticism here: we could do with close-up shots of the costume sketches they’re discussing – perhaps a future disc could include a slide show as an extra?).
Mitzi Gaynor is still going strong, happy to say. An autobiography is in the works, and she’s currently touring the US and Canada in a new one-woman show of music and memories, Razzle Dazzle! My Life Behind the Sequins. Film that, please – and bring out the complete specials, soon!
Rhythm is a universal language. Anything can be a musical instrument. Haven’t you ever kicked a pile of leaves or a tin can, drummed your fingers on a table, or clapped in rhythm? The various casts of the international phenomenon STOMP have been making a joyful noise since 1994, and the show’s energy and the inventiveness of its percussive mayhem show no signs of flagging.
STOMP has its roots in street performance, and its creators, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, keep it ever lively and fresh. Brooms, matchboxes, chairs, lighters, plastic bags, dustbins, oil drums, poles, paint cans, trash-can lids, even kitchen sinks and inner tubes are all grist for their mill. For anyone who’s ever wanted to bash on a can, or stomp their feet, it’s also great entertainment, mixing rhythm, dance, and humour in exhilarating measures.
Filmed live at the Brighton Dome in 2008, this is the first time the full show has been recorded and released on DVD, and it’s a treat, capturing its energy and dynamism and connection with the audience. No small feat for a show with no dialogue (which is also a factor in its worldwide appeal).
As we all know, “making something look simple, and work, is actually extremely hard work”. Full marks to the designers of this DVD: the navigation graphics are imaginative and straightforward, with all the percussive sequences itemized for easy access. There are lots of extras, too: performers’ bios, promo clips, rehearsal footage, a speeded-up time-lapse film of the DVD shoot, a zippy campaign ad for “Stomp Out Litter NYC” which takes us all around the town, trailers for two theatrical films by Cresswell and McNicholas, and a preview of their Lost and Found Orchestra, which takes their concept one step further (to create melody with instruments made of found objects). And do watch the 18-minute interview with Cresswell and McNicholas; it’s full of insights into the show and its origins. (Total: 105 minutes, with 53 minutes of extras)
The Fantastic World of Michael Crawford
It’s a long way from lovable gormless twit Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, to Lloyd Webber’s mesmerising Phantom, but those are just two facets in the sparkling career of the versatile Michael Crawford. Tony Palmer’s 90-minute documentary, first shown on the South Bank Show in 1997, takes us behind the scenes for an extensive interview with Crawford, who proves a likable, lively, and engaging raconteur. And he certainly has a story to tell, from choirboy songster for Benjamin Britten, to films with Richard Lester in the swinging 60s, to song-and-dance man transformation by director Gene Kelly for the Hollywood musical Hello, Dolly! (two of his numbers were recently immortalized in Pixar’s delightful Wall-E), and on to his incredible tour-de-force as Jack-of-All-Talents in Barnum.
Besides Crawford’s career, we’re also taken on the journey of his preparations as star of the lavish Las Vegas multimedia spectacular EFX, a $40-million time-travel extravaganza complete with laser beams and amazingly complex stage technology, which opened the huge theatre at the MGM Grand. Palmer is quite understandably lured by the background of Las Vegas showbiz glitz and tinsel, the ultimate “kingdom of illusions”, to the point of wanting to document it all, down to the silly post-premiere antics in Crawford’s hotel suite (Cut!). It’s much more satisfying when the camera just lets Crawford regale us with his fascinating anecdotes. To fill out the picture of Michael Crawford, Entertainer, I recommend pairing this documentary with Michael Crawford in Concert (1998) and the 1986 film of his star turn in Barnum.
Julie Andrews: Musicality
Just the mere mention of the name Julie Andrews will doubtless evoke images of all our favourite things, including My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music. To lovers of musical theatre she is the sine qua non, always a delight to listen to (dare we say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”?). The soaring purity of her voice and her perfect diction combine to create musical heaven. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful musical-comedy voices of the 20th century.
But how many know her early studio recordings? In 1957 and 58, close on the heels of her Broadway triumph in My Fair Lady, she recorded two popular albums, The Lass with the Delicate Air and Julie Sings. Both are featured on recent compilation CDs devoted to everyone’s favourite Fair Lady and Disney nanny. They’re the perfect remedy for anyone in need of musical TLC.
Flare’s CD Julie Sings presents her second album. At the time it was considered a change of pace for her, featuring songs by some of Tin Pan Alley’s greatest composers, with lilting arrangements by Irwin Kostal. Particular delights are Hoagy Carmichael’s “Little Old Lady”, with a whistling chorus; the haunting “Matelot”, by Noël Coward; and Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love”. We also get to hear her sing “My Ship”, from Weill’s Lady in the Dark, which she was to reprise in her 1968 film Star! Bonus tracks include the lovely ballad “Pedro the Fisherman”, from Julie’s first album, and a My Fair Lady television medley recorded live on The Jack Benny Hour in 1959.
Stage Door’s Julie Andrews: Musicality includes most of the songs from Julie Sings, as well as Noël Coward’s patriotic “London Pride”, from The Lass with the Delicate Air, and numbers from the Broadway cast albums of The Boy Friendand My Fair Lady, plus the original television musicals High Tor (1956) by Arthur Schwartz and Maxwell Anderson and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1957). If you don’t know the magical score from Cinderella, you definitely have a treat in store. It’s like manna from a fairy godmother, and divinely sung by Julie.
Steve Barton: Only for a While
Steve Barton will always be remembered as the original Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera in the West End and on Broadway, his voice soaring through “All I Ask of You” with Sarah Brightman. This American leading man first made his name in Texas, and went on to seek his fortune in Europe, where he had a flourishing career in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, gaining legions of fans starring in Cats, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and the cult musical Tanz der Vampire (Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires, as Count Von Krolock, his last role). Barton was the type of jeune premier who graces musical theatre perhaps only once in a generation – a gifted, charismatic performer with a heart-stoppingly beautiful, richly shaded voice. Sadly, this talented artist, who seemingly had everything, tragically died in 2001, at the age of 47.
Thankfully, we can still enjoy that magnificent voice. All praise to Stage Door for producing Only for a While, the first-ever CD devoted solely to his recordings. It features 14 unreleased songs showcasing him as a song stylist, with a repertoire ranging from Cole Porter to Jacques Brel, and he excels in them all (highlights: “It’s De-Lovely”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Begin the Beguine”, “If You Go Away”, “The Port of Amsterdam”).
The collection also includes what were to be his final demo recordings: the title song from the West End show Someone Like You, by Petula Clark and Dee Shipman, and three numbers from Shipman and Roger Webb’s Emma, in which he movingly plays Lord Nelson to Sadie Nine’s Lady Hamilton. Also represented is “Living Water”, a 1995 charity album of which Barton was particularly proud (he also wrote the lyrics for several of its songs). Special tributes include a song written and performed by Barton’s son Edward, and sleeve notes by West End lyricist Dee Shipman and Barton’s widow Denny Berry (dance captain for Phantom).
Barton appeared in so many shows, and workshops – let’s hope there are more treasures waiting in the vaults.
Mitzi Gaynor: Mitzi
In 1958 Mitzi Gaynor was at the peak of her Hollywood career, having just starred in the long-awaited film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s blockbuster South Pacific, winning the plum role of Nellie Forbush against stiff competition. That same year she recorded her first solo album, Mitzi, for the Verve jazz label, with Pete King and his orchestra, and showed she could swing with the best of them. For those who associate her only with musicals it’s a revelation, with great jazz arrangements of songbook standards by Berlin, the Gershwins, Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Harry Warren, and vocal interpretations ranging from sultry to upbeat. With a foretaste of her halcyon years as a Vegas headliner, Mitzi can take it slow and easy (“Lazy”), rev up the Latin tempo (“The Thrill Is Gone”), and duet with clarinets and trumpets (“Do It Again”), and her rendition of “The Nearness of You” is like melting chocolate. These are vocals recorded in a studio, but her innate sense of rhythm and movement are well in evidence, and her phrasing is spot-on. This lady can sing the blues!
This CD compilation by Flare is a welcome release, pairing Verve’s long out-of-print Mitzi with four tracks from South Pacific, a duet with Bing Crosby (the title song from the 1956 film Anything Goes), plus four more numbers recorded by Gaynor in the late 1950s (highpoint: a fabulous “I Don’t Regret a Thing”, from her 1959 film with David Niven, Happy Anniversary). The eight-page booklet includes a career essay, photos, and song credits. If you haven’t already, this is the year to discover Mitzi Gaynor (see my DVD review about her TV specials). Indulge yourself.