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Tune In: Theatre CDs & DVDs Round-up - Apr 2010

By • West End
This month the emphasis is on Britain. Our Editor’s Pick is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-awaited, much-discussed Love Never Dies, the sequel (or “continuation”) of the story of the Phantom of the Opera and his obsession with Christine Daaé, now set among the lights (and shadows) of Coney Island.

Maria Friedman’s fine new studio album makes a case for the Great British Songbook, which is supported by a cluster of other releases showcasing British performers and songwriters: new collections of Gracie Fields (thanks to modern technology, duetting on “Now Is the Hour” with Jane Horrocks), Forces’ Sweetheart Vera Lynn, and “The Master” himself, Noël Coward (whose classic 1930 comedy Private Lives is currently delighting audiences in the West End).

Hot off the presses is the starry new Broadway recording of Trevor Nunn’s production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury, and Alexander Hanson, and, at last, there’s the DVD of Liza Minnelli’s Tony-winning show Liza’s at the Palace… filmed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas last autumn, preserving her tribute to her godmother, the fabulous Kay Thompson.

Brush up your Shakespeare with the first in a new series of DVDs of stage productions filmed live at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Romeo & Juliet, plus a recent CD compilation, The Music of the Globe. As a finale, proof that British songwriting continues to flourish: lights up on a mini-festival of the work of Stiles & Drewe.

Catherine Surowiec
CD & DVD reviewer


    Editor’s Pick

Love Never Dies. Deluxe Edition. (2-CD + DVD)
Really Useful Group / Polydor / Universal Music Group

The Phantom is a tough act to follow. Could anything ever live up to the impossible expectations – or rise above the firestorm of controversy – that greeted even the idea of a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera? Well, the suspense is over. Whether or not Andrew Lloyd Webber and the rest of his creative team should have attempted a sequel to Phantom, a worldwide theatrical phenomenon beyond even Lloyd Webber’s wildest dreams, will remain hotly debated, but it must be admitted even by the most loyal followers of Gaston Leroux’s anti-hero and rabid Phans of the original musical that the Phantom is fair game. No property is sacrosanct – look at the works that have been musicalized over the years. As for a “sequel”: they prefer to call it a “continuation”…

Bravely (and wisely), it was decided early on that Love Never Dies would contain no musical quotes or themes from the original. So don’t expect strains of “Music of the Night” or “All I Ask of You”. The story is set in New York, about ten years later (1907, per the libretto). The glittering lights and sideshows of Coney Island, in the New World of Ragtime America, offer a new start and a new home for the masked Phantom, now known as Mr. Y, who runs the attraction Phantasma. Still obsessed with soprano Christine Daaé, he lures her there to perform an aria of his own creation. She arrives with husband Raoul and her ten-year-old son Gustave. All is not well with the marriage, and there is something unearthly, and strangely unsettling, about this sensitive, curious, musically talented boy, embodied in his ethereal song, “Beautiful”…

What about the album? It was recorded last summer, so it can be regarded as a preview/concept album, or even an original cast album before the fact, as the principals (Ramin Karimloo, Sierra Boggess, and Summer Strallen) were already in place. The double-CD (plus DVD; more about that later) includes the full libretto, empowering you to imagine your own visuals as you follow along. The score creates an enticing sound world, starting with the lilting “Coney Island Waltz”, conjuring up the spirit of the electric fairyland of Luna Park and Dreamland, and the crowds marvelling at “Heaven by the Sea”, where they are entertained by a burlesque-inspired show number, “Bathing Beauty”. The Phantom moons for Christine to the strains of the powerful “Till I Hear You Sing”; they reminisce to “Beneath a Moonless Sky” and “Once Upon Another Time”; while Christine has the two loveliest songs in the score, the soulful “Look with Your Heart” and the soaring climactic title aria, written first and obviously crafted as the showpiece. “Love Never Dies” is an aria, high and wide, all stops out, in full-blown operatic style. There’s even an entr’acte, a mad scene on the pier, and a protracted, through-sung death scene. Verdi, where art thou?

Lloyd Webber has often been chided for his operatic and classical influences, but to be fair, it’s time to realize that this is his own High Romantic style, even if it sometimes does bring to mind Puccini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Romberg, Rozsa, Novello, and Elgar. Describe the melodies as you wish, but it’s Lloyd Webber. The same composer (and showman) who brought you Joseph, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and Starlight Express; and is still capable of rock rhythms (the eerie “The Beauty Underneath”). There’s even a touch of Sondheim, in the cynical “Dear Old Friend” and “Devil Take the Hindmost”.

Whatever you may think of the score – and the extended finale, which obviously had problems even in the concept stage – it’s a beautifully produced album, with lush sound and fine performances. (Although Madame Giry’s French accent is a mite thick at times.) You get the full deal, complete with snatches of dialogue (although it’s since been tweaked in previews before the March opening). So it’s a valuable record of the show.

Don’t miss the DVD, which contains a 41-minute documentary about the making of the show and the recording of album, culminating with the press launch in London last October. It’s a thoughtful PR exercise. All the principals are featured (stars Karimloo, Boggess, and Strallen, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, director Jack O’Brien, lyricist Glenn Slater, designer Bob Crowley, lighting designer Paule Constable, production manager Stephen Rebbeck, album producer Nigel Wright), including some marvellous early footage of Coney Island in its heyday, a defining spark for the show’s creators.


    CDs
Shows:

A Little Night Music. 2010 Original Broadway Cast Recording.
PS Classics / Nonesuch

If you were lucky enough to see Trevor Nunn’s beautiful, sensitive staging of Sondheim’s chamber musical A Little Night Music in London, at the Menier Chocolate Factory or in its transfer to the Garrick Theatre, with its lovely arrangements by Jason Carr, performed by a sterling cast, you probably thought, as I did, they must record this! However, economics being what they are, original London cast albums are now few and far between. Broadway has made up for it, however, thanks once again to PS Classics and Nonesuch, with the 2-CD original cast album released this month, in time to join the Sondheim 80th birthday jubilee.

Only one of the London cast has made it across the pond for the show’s first Broadway revival since the original 1973 production, Alexander Hanson, so let’s count ourselves lucky that at least his wonderful performance as Fredrik has been preserved. The two female leads have been cast with box-office in mind, and they are both huge draws: Angela Lansbury as the crusty, wistful Madame Armfeldt, while Catherine Zeta-Jones, making her Broadway debut, has been reaping the lion’s share of press coverage, reportedly bringing a sensual glow to her portrayal of Desirée. The album is a welcome addition to the Sondheim discography, and has been done in style, including various reprises and some dialogue scenes. It’s a pleasure to listen to. But it will always be a matter of regret that Hannah Waddingham’s interpretation of “Send in the Clowns” wasn’t recorded for posterity. Somehow she found the key to this famously enigmatic song; it made me cry every time I heard it. A certain essential element is missing in the new Broadway rendition, for all its Hollywood stardust.

Performers/Cabaret:

Maria Friedman Celebrates the Great British Songbook
Sepia Records

A warm welcome back to the recording studio for busy West End leading lady and concert star Maria Friedman, and especially for this imaginative and long-overdue celebration of the Great British Songbook. No, that’s not a mistake: the Great British Songbook. Its melodic American cousin has been an accepted concept for decades, and rightly so (think Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Kern, Mercer, Rodgers & Hart & Hammerstein, Arlen, et al., and the music of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley), but it’s high time that Britain’s contributions to the world of popular music got a look-in.

Based on Friedman’s show at London’s Feinstein’s at the Shaw last year, this is an affectionate collection of songs old and new, saluting songwriters, performers, shows, genres, and periods. It’s an intriguing mix, and the 15 tracks touch just the tip of the iceberg, ranging from Vivian Ellis (“Spread a Little Happiness”), Charlie Chaplin (“Smile”), and Leslie Bricusse (“If I Ruled the World”) to music hall, hits of the Swinging 60s (“Downtown”, “Georgy Girl”, and The Beatles), Julian Slade, Anthony Newley, Lloyd Webber, Gilbert O’Sullivan, a John Barry James Bond title tune (“Diamonds Are Forever”), a triple helping of Noël Coward, and going back to classical roots, the still moving “Dido’s Lament” by Henry Purcell.

Of course no survey of British popular song would be complete without a salute to Albion’s wartime spirit, and we get both world wars, with “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “The White Cliffs of Dover” (admittedly by Americans, but indelibly associated with the Battle of Britain). A personal highlight is the delightful World War I tongue-twisting novelty hit “Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers” – you feel like cheering when Friedman and chorus make it to the tortuous end; they don’t write ‘em like this any more!

This album is obviously a labour of love with a mission, boasting excellent notes, a Union Jack-themed cover (with a nice drawing of Friedman), plus fine arrangements and music direction by Jason Carr (who’s also represented, with the stylish “A Garden”); it’s incredible to realize only four musicians are playing. The song selection must have been difficult, with so much to choose from. Let’s hope that it will inspire sequels. Open that treasure chest!

Noel Coward – The Revue and War Years, 1928-1952
JSP Records

Was there anything Noël Coward couldn’t do? You could almost run out of fingers counting the accomplishments of this legend of British theatre: actor, playwright, diarist, director, film star, composer, songwriter, singer, cabaret artist, even painter… He has gone down through generations as the epitome of Art Deco sophistication and wit, a man of the world in silk dressing gown or tux, brandishing a cigarette-holder, ever ready with a clipped quip, notably vis-à-vis leading lady Gertrude Lawrence. As a lyricist he ranked right up there with his friend Cole Porter, part of the same international set.

Immerse yourself in this 4-CD, 73-track set, and you’ll know why he was revered as “The Master”. It’s a chronological feast, split into four courses: “Early Days 1928-1931”, covers shows from This Year of Grace to Cavalcade, including scenes from Private Lives (source of the immortal line, “Strange how potent cheap music is”); “Established Star 1932-1936”, from Words and Music to Tonight at 8:30; “London Pride 1936-1943”, from Tonight at 8:30 (continued) to the war years, including Coward’s classic wartime evocation of the Blitz spirit, “London Pride”, and a recitation of Clemence Dane’s patriotic “The Welcoming Land”; and, finally, “A Changing World 1943-1952”, which starts rather aptly with Coward singing Kern and Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned”, and takes us through his post-war work, still writing witty ditties about the Empire, duchesses, and missionaries, but also some songs which could be commentaries on concerns still current today, such as “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner”, or “Don’t Make Fun of the Fair” (about the 1951 Festival of Britain, but you could substitute “Millennium Dome” or “2012 Olympics”).

Granted, Coward is not a great singer (few songwriters of the period were), but he’s the ultimate performer of his own material, and when he’s on the mark, it’s a bull’s-eye. The delights include “A Room with a View”, “Someday I’ll Find You”, “I’ll See You Again”, “Poor Little Rich Girl”, “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart”, “Twentieth Century Blues”, and “If Love Were All” (with its oft-quoted phrase “a talent to amuse”), as well as some of his famously clever rhythmic litanies with twisting internal rhymes, such as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, “The Stately Homes of England”, “(Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage) Mrs. Worthington”, “Uncle Harry”, and “Nina (from Argentina)”, whose invention and wit still dazzle. There’s so much on tap here that it’s best to dip into these waters in degrees, but plunge in, and go for the ocean! Encyclopedic; best enjoyed with a copy of Coward’s complete lyrics at the ready.

Noel Coward. Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Avid Entertainment

Mad Dogs and Englishmen, indeed! Whoever thought Noël Coward would headline in Las Vegas? In 1955 he accepted a record-breaking salary to perform for a month at the Desert Inn, wary that audiences wouldn’t understand his veddy British material, but it turned out to be one of the biggest successes of his career, drawing the cream of Hollywood as well as the admiration of the Rat Pack. (Book a virtual ringside table, and savour Coward’s topical, risqué lyrics for his friend Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It”, and you’ll get the flavour of his performances.)

This 2-CD set in Avid’s Entertainers series spotlights Coward’s 1940s and 50s recordings, especially his heyday as a sophisticated cabaret entertainer, featuring live recordings of his Summer 1955 Vegas gig (originally released as Noel Coward at Las Vegas), as well as his 1956 album Noel Coward in New York, both with arrangements by Peter Matz.

Coward went for the States in a big way (his song “I Like America” opens the New York studio album), but no matter where he performed he carried the flag for Britain. Quite suitably, the CD also offers hefty helpings of his British recordings, accompanied by his regular pianist Norman Hackforth, including 1951 medleys with the Café de Paris Orchestra which give us an idea of what his shows at that famous London venue must have been like, plus several 1954 recordings of some of his greatest hits with Wally Stott and his orchestra. The material ranges from “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “A Room with a View” to risqué rambles such as “I Wonder What Happened to Him”, and “Alice Is At It Again” (written for Mary Martin, who refused to sing it in Pacific 1860). And of course, “I Went to a Marvellous Party”: listen to this album, and you can make the same claim.

Our Gracie. The Best of Gracie Fields
Decca Records / Universal Music

Jane Horrocks’ BBC portrayal of fellow Lancashire Lass Gracie Fields, one of Britain’s biggest stars of variety, film, radio, and recordings of the 1930s, was a television highlight of November 2009. Fields was a force of nature, and won the hearts of the nation with her powerful clear soprano, down-to-earth humour, and no-nonsense personality; her career spanned almost seven decades.

This latest album in the “Living Era” series offers the opportunity to hear “Our Gracie” herself, in 25 recordings representing some of her greatest hits, from the prime period of 1935 to 1947: “Sally in Our Alley”, “Looking on the Bright Side”, “Sing As We Go”, and “Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)”. Her talent for comedy is also well represented, with songs like “Walter, Walter, Lead Me to the Altar” and “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”. And she shows she could sell a ballad with the best of them: “Red Sails in the Sunset”, “Love Walked In”, and “Take Me to Your Heart Again” (an English translation of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”). You also get to hear five never-previously-issued tracks from Fairy Soap radio broadcasts, newly discovered in the vaults, including “That Old Feeling” and a medley of songs by Irving Berlin. And in line with this month’s focus on British songwriting, let’s acknowledge her longtime accompanist, Harry Parr-Davies, who also wrote some of her greatest successes.

One of Gracie’s biggest hits was her 1947 recording of the traditional Maori farewell song, “Now Is the Hour”. Thanks to the marvels of the latest technology, we can hear the original recording, followed by Jane Horrocks seamlessly duetting with her heroine. A fitting tribute. Fields would be “right chuffed, by gum”!

“Sincerely Yours” Vera Lynn
Avid Easy

“We’ll Meet Again” has come to symbolize Britain’s Finest Hour. Take a trip down Memory Lane with Vera Lynn, and you’ll be transported back to the mindset of the Blitz and the Home Front, a time of bulldog spirit, rationing, separation, sweet nostalgia, and hope for reunion in happier times. Avid Easy’s latest retrospective double-CD features a newly remastered bumper-crop of 50 tracks, with all her most popular songs, including of course “We’ll Meet Again”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “Goodnight Children, Everywhere”, “Yours”, “That Lovely Weekend”, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow”, “When They Sound the Last ‘All Clear’” (“the peace bells will ring, and the whole world will sing…”), “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)”, and “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart”. It’s mellow listening all the way, with accompaniments by the likes of Ambrose, Mantovani, Jay Wilbur, Robert Farnon, and Arthur Young on the Novachord, an early synthesizer. Now in her 90s, Dame Vera was amazed last year when a compilation album of her old hits topped the charts. She’s still the Forces’ Sweetheart.

Historical:

The Music of the Globe. An Historical Collection.
Globe Editions

This third CD release by Globe Editions presents a re-mastered compilation of music featured in productions at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in recent years, played on period instruments such as the theorbo, dulcimer, sackbut, recorder, and tabor. The wide-ranging selection of 27 tracks includes jigs, galliards, branles, pavans, and other music by anonymous as well as noted composers such as Morley, Dowland, Praetorius, Holborne, and Cornish, guaranteed to set the mood for any scene and evoke the spirit of the times. It comes with an impeccably researched illustrated booklet offering insights into the use of music in productions at the Globe today, as well as information about some of the instruments, particularly the shawm, cornett, and lute. Most numbers are instrumental; one even features the Jew’s harp. A good introduction to the music and instruments of the period for all theatre-lovers. “If music be the food of love, play on…”


    DVDs

Liza’s at the Palace…
MPI Home Video

Last Summer we reviewed the double-CD of this show, recorded live at the fabled Palace Theatre in New York. Liza Minnelli fans, rejoice – here at last is the DVD. Filmed at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas last October, it captures Liza’s recent touring show, a showstopping songfest including many of her personal favourites and signature hits, plus an affectionate dance-filled tribute recreating the ground-breaking late-1940s nightclub act of Minnelli’s godmother, the marvellous Kay Thompson (now best remembered for her fabulous “Think Pink” fashion editor in the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face), with the Williams Brothers (Dick, Don, Bob, and Andy of “Moon River” fame). The two-hour show also features a moving tribute to Judy Garland’s vaudeville act at the Palace, with a nostalgic intro by Liza, who was five when she saw her mother wow them on stage. Liza’s voice may not always be on top form these days, and the energetic dance numbers have wreaked havoc on her hips and knees, but the magic megawatts are still blazing, and this trouper knows her Show Biz from A to Z, in capital letters. Watch and be amazed – it’s a musical masterclass in action. Reserve a front-row seat in your home cinema now. (And don’t miss the DVD bonus, a 47-minute “heart-to-heart” conversation between Liza and her director/choreographer Ron Lewis, taped the day after the show was filmed; you’ll appreciate the show and her artistry even more.)

Romeo & Juliet
Opus Arte

What better choice than Romeo & Juliet to kick off a new series of DVDs from Shakespeare’s Globe in London? Dominic Dromgoole’s production brings this timeless tragic love story to compelling life, abetted by the inspired casting of two talented young protagonists who underline the play’s enduring relevance and emotional power: 19-year-old Ellie Kendrick, star of the BBC’s recent miniseries The Diary of Anne Frank, making her stage debut, is both impetuous and touching as Juliet, while Adetomiwa Edun, 25, a graduate of Eton, Cambridge, and RADA, makes a boyish, cheeky, graceful Romeo, fleet of foot and of speech. When they meet it’s a teenage coup de foudre, an all-consuming amour fou whose passion is destined to be foiled by their feuding families and the fates. It’s worth seeing for their performances alone.

The fine supporting cast includes Maori actor Rawiri Paratene as an earnest Friar Lawrence; Penny Layden as Juliet’s motherly, gap-toothed, Yorkshire-accented Nurse; Tom Stuart as a clueless, silly-ass Paris, who gapes after each witticism; and Philip Cumbus as a wayward, truculent, wild-child of a Mercutio. The low comedy is pitched at the groundlings (Fergal McElherron particularly pulls out all the stops), and the poetry is delivered with a conviction and cadence that connects with the audience; my only criticism is that, as in many modern productions, the majesty of the verse is sometimes sacrificed, but it’s a matter of preference, and style.

Filmed in August 2009 before a live audience in the intimate and atmospheric setting of Shakespeare’s Globe in the heart of London, in High Definition and Digital Surround sound, it’s like being there. The only drawback about the actual filming (credited to Kriss Russman) is the editing of the fight scenes, which are quickly cut in close-up snippets, so we don’t really get a sense of the fight choreography. Happily, this is the only such occurrence of technical intervention; otherwise the play is fluidly (and excellently) filmed as a stage production.

The 2-disc set comes with a 28-page illustrated booklet with notes in English, French, and German, credits for the stage production, and full cast list. All scenes are indexed, with timings; DVD extras are slim, however, consisting only of index access to the play’s famous speeches, and a cast gallery (which unfortunately doesn’t contain any bios of the actors, only an image of them in character from the stage production). The DVD is playable in all regions; also available in Blu-ray format.

Note: If you want to prolong the mood, available separately is an exclusive Globe Editions CD that features music from the production, composed by Nigel Hess and performed by the Shakespeare’s Globe actors and musicians.

The next release in the DVD series, coming shortly, will be Thea Sharrock’s production of As You Like It, with Naomi Frederick as Rosalind and Jack Laskey as Orlando, filmed at the Globe last October.


    Focus on Stiles & Drewe

Many people probably first heard of Stiles & Drewe with their new songs for the hit  stage musical incarnation of everyone’s favourite flying nanny, Mary Poppins, a “Practically Perfect” merger with the Sherman Brothers’ original 1960s Disney film tunes.  Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe aren’t a new team – they’ve been crafting songs and musical shows for more than 25 years, since they first met at Exeter University, and have gone from strength to strength, creating a body of work to delight any aficionado of musical theatre.  By their own admission, they’ve been described over the years as everything from “the permanent bridesmaids of musical theatre” to “the brightest hopes for the future of the British musical”.  If you’ve only heard Mary Poppins, it’s time to broaden your horizons and discover why. (Their website, www.stilesanddrewe.com, is chock-full of information, and well worth a visit.)

A Spoonful of Stiles and Drew.
Speckulation Entertainment.

If you need an introduction, this hugely enjoyable live album is just the ticket.  If you’re already a fan, it’s a must.  Not only does it preserve the highlights of the euphoric jubilee show celebrating the team’s 25th anniversary, recorded live at Her Majesty’s Theatre Haymarket in July 2008, but it offers a total of 18 tracks covering numbers from Honk!, Just So, Peter Pan, and Mary Poppins, plus previously unrecorded songs and 6 exclusive tracks from their upcoming show Soho Cinders, a hip, alternative gay fairytale based on the Cinderella story, set in modern-day London, blending satire with celebrity politics.

The material ranges from the witty and the raucous to the magical and the sublime, performed with gusto and affection by an all-star West End cast.  The company includes Julie Atherton, Helena Blackman, Daniel Boys, Richard Dempsey, Gareth Gates, James Gillan, Leanne Jones, Lisa O’Hare, Joanna Riding, Clive Rowe, Caroline Sheen, Scarlett Strallen, and Oliver Tompsett, playing everything from a mother duck to slags on the tiles, a baby elephant, and Peter Pan, and the audience has a whale of a time.  Don’t miss the spot-on cabaret songs – they’ll have you in stitches: “A Little Bit of Nothing”, about an experience with nouvelle cuisine, and “Diva”, wherein Alison Jiaer brings down the house with her “fascinating rhythm, but excruciating pitch”.  British musical theatre is alive and well.  Celebrate!

Honk!
Dress Circle

Stiles and Drewe’s most successful show to date, Honk! won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 2000, over two heavyweight contenders, The Lion King and Mamma Mia!  Quite an achievement for an Ugly Duckling.  Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, Honk! tells the story of an odd-looking baby duck, Ugly, and his adventures in his quest to get home to his loyal mother, who never gives up hope of finding her lost son, who will always be special to her.  Along the way there’s a suave, wily cat who dreams of feasting on duck à l’orange, a squadron of military geese straight out of “Dad’s Army”, and a family of bullfrogs who teach Ugly to look on the sunny side of the lily pad. When Ugly’s mother finally finds him, frozen in the snow, her tears bring him to life – and everyone discovers why he’s been so “Different”: he’s a swan.

Its theme of acceptance is universal; this show is as much about people as about ducks.  First commissioned by the Watermill Theatre, for Stiles and Drewe it was a magical show: everything just fell into place, and besides winning the Olivier Award for its production at London’s National Theatre, it has gone on to be produced thousands of times around the world.  Perfect family entertainment that will appeal to all ages, it’s pure delight all the way, a timeless tale brought to life by a rich score with witty lyrics, featuring character songs, comedy numbers, ballads, tangoing cats, marching geese, and even a vaudeville chorus of tap-dancing frogs.  You’ll go quackers!

This 1998 recording features the original cast of the Stephen Joseph Theatre production in Scarborough directed by Julia McKenzie, starring Richard Dempsey, Kristin Marks, Paul Sharma, Michael McLean, Nicolas Colicos, Marilyn Cutts, Leigh McDonald, and Elizabeth Renihan.  (Note: There are also two other commercial recordings currently available, a 1997 live original demo recently discovered by Stiles and Drewe in their archives, starring Claire Moore, Joanna Riding, Clive Rowe, and Jenna Russell, and an American cast recording by the Music Theatre of Wichita, recorded in 2001. You can also hear Joanna Riding perform “The Joy of Motherhood” on the concert album A Spoonful of Stiles & Drewe.)

Just So. World Premiere Cast Recording.
First Night Records

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, this was the musical that almost got away, with a long and tortuous history as winding as the “great, grey, green, greasy” Limpopo River that features in the plot.  As they say, “musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten”.  One of the team’s earliest projects, it went through various transformations from 1984 to 2006, when this world premiere recording was finally completed and released, featuring the cast of the hit 2004 Chichester Festival Theatre production, with two additions, John Barrowman as the charismatic Eldest Magician who creates all the animals, and lyricist Anthony Drewe as the Parsee’s Cooking Stove. Advice and support along the way came from a starry cast of mentors, including Cameron Mackintosh, Stephen Sondheim, and Steven Spielberg, who optioned it for a possible animation feature. It was a breakthrough for the young Stiles and Drewe, winning an early Vivian Ellis Prize, and then being honed via productions in England and the USA, and finally Chichester, where it was hailed as “a funny, feel-good triumph”, appealing to all ages.

This lively, charming show takes you on a fantastic, song-filled safari, bringing to life Kipling’s stories and an amazing collection of strange and wonderful characters: the storytelling Eldest Magician; the ever-inquiring, brave Elephant’s Child (“There’s No Harm in Asking”), whose questions set the journey in motion; the cynical Kolokolo Bird, who is afraid to fly (“Wait a Bit”); the Parsee and his Cooking Stove (the joyous “Parsee Cake Cake-Walk”); the gluttonous Rhinoceros (“Thick Skin”); the Leopard and Jaguar, a couple of lads about town with a healthy appetite for “the truly tender gender” (“We Want to Take the Ladies Out”); the Zebra and Giraffe, two gals who dream of being “far from the common herd” (“Pick Up Your Hooves and Trot”); and the Kangaroo who races the Dingo (“Leaps and Bounds”). There are inspirational messages, too: that one determined individual, not afraid to ask questions, can make a real difference in this world (“Does the Moment Ever Come”), and the celebration of individuality and diversity (“Just So”).

Musical storytelling of a high order, all to an eclectic, upbeat score, with witty lyrics and some very hip orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke and John Clancy, created for the Goodspeed production in 1998. The CD cast is first-rate: Eldest Magician John Barrowman and Cooking Stove Anthony Drewe join forces with Richard Dempsey (Elephant’s Child), Julie Atherton (Kolokolo Bird), Nicholas Colicos (Rhino), Ahmet Ahmet (Parsee), Simon Greiff (Leopard), Dean Hussain (Jaguar), Akiya Henry (Zebra), Alexis Owen-Hobbes (Giraffe), Andrew Spillett (Kangaroo), and Daniele Coombe (Dingo). Ingenious, zany staging and costumes also played a part in the show’s success, but the character songs lead the way. The colourful CD booklet contains Anthony Drewe’s account of the evolution of the show, full cast and credits, character photos, and all the lyrics.  Let your imagination take over, and take the road to adventure!

(Note: Songs from the show are also featured on the concert celebration A Spoonful of Stiles & Drewe and Caroline Sheen’s first solo album, Raise the Curtain.

Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure.
Speckulation Entertainment.

James M. Barrie’s immortal tale of Never Land, Tinkerbell, and Peter Pan, the boy who won’t grow up, has enchanted generations, and been musicalized several times, first by Leonard Bernstein, starring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff, followed by the legendary Mary Martin-Cyril Ritchard pairing, with its Charlap-Leigh/Styne-Comden & Green score, a Broadway hit and American television classic.  Stiles and Drewe’s ambitious version sparkles with fairy dust and more than holds its own, whisking you to a magic realm.

Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure began life as a BBC concert in 2001 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with Inspector Morse’s John Thaw as Captain Hook, and, much revised, with a libretto by Willis Hall, received its first full staging at Birmingham Rep in 2007. This world-premiere cast recording features the cast of the 2008 West Yorkshire Playhouse revival, topped by James Gillan as Peter, Amy Lenox as Wendy, David Birrell as Captain Hook, Martin Callaghan as Smee, and Alwyne Taylor as the Storyteller. Recorded in January 2009, it includes all of the principal songs and a selection of the incidental music, richly orchestrated by David Shrubsole, with vocal arrangements by George Stiles and lyrics which delight in language. It’s a magical show, evoking a world of pirates, Lost Boys, mermaids, a ticking crocodile, and flying children. The score blends the great British traditions of Gilbert & Sullivan with a contemporary world of dreams and adventure; there are rollicking songs for the Lost Boys, the villainous Hook, and the crew of the Jolly Roger (“The Lost Boys Gang”; “When I Kill Peter Pan”; “Look Back Through a Rose-Tinted Eyepatch”; “A Pirate with a Conscience”), as well as beautiful ballads that speak to the heart (“Just Beyond the Stars”; “There’s Always Tomorrow”). Barrie himself would approve of the ending, which movingly reveals the older Wendy as the Storyteller. Get ready to rediscover your inner child, and soar…


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