Gardens are in bloom but there’s still a chill in the air, and if volcanic ash has grounded you in the past weeks, we have some treats to brighten up your home entertainment.

This month’s Editor’s Pick DVD illuminates the secrets of that runaway stage marvel, War Horse. ABBA fans who didn’t catch Kristina in concert last month at the Royal Albert Hall can listen to the Carnegie Hall recording of the show.

Also waiting in the wings to entertain you are original recordings of Leonard Bernstein’s classic On the Town, with a couple of numbers by Comden & Green’s nightclub act The Revuers, and Broadway legend Mary Martin with Cinderella, Three to Make Music, and a medley of luscious love songs. The Johnny Mercer centennial celebrations continue with jazz diva Daryl Sherman’s delectable tribute album.

There’s also more Steve Barton from the vaults. And speaking of volcanoes, how about the trio of Marilyn Monroe, Frances Day, and “Red Hot Mama” Sophie Tucker? Asbestos is forbidden now, but you may need an equivalent!

Catherine Surowiec
CD & DVD Reviewer


    Editor’s Pick

Making War Horse (DVD)
National Theatre

The National Theatre’s acclaimed production of War Horse is now playing in the West End, and is headed for Broadway, and the big screen (Steven Spielberg is reportedly on board to helm for DreamWorks/Disney). Quite a jump from the pages of former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpugo’s celebrated novel about the adventures of a beloved horse catapulted from the fields of Devon to the hellish battlefields of World War I. But this has been an extraordinary production from the very beginning.

It’s no mean feat to bring to life a main character who doesn’t speak, as well as a supporting cast of birds and fellow equines. Thanks to this DVD, now you can go behind the scenes and discover how it was realised. If you’ve seen this remarkable show, it will enhance your appreciation; and even if you haven’t, for anyone interested in theatre – especially the art of puppetry – it’s a fascinating journey into the creative process, in the company of cast and crew, from initial inspiration to workshops to final staging.

The creation of Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company, the title character is no pantomime horse; it takes three skilled puppeteers working as one to manipulate the framework of cane and gauze that miraculously becomes Joey the horse. Indeed, the very first item glimpsed on the puppeteers’ list in the DVD’s main 48-minute documentary reads “The puppet’s work is to live.” We even see the actors practice whinnying. And of course there are the human actors, especially the bond between Joey and the boy who loves him, Albert.

This marvellous documentary, and numerous DVD extras (interviews, video diaries, featurettes, trailer, and image gallery, totalling 70 minutes), covers all the bases, with virtually everyone involved: writer Michael Morpugo, adapter Nick Stafford, NT director Nicholas Hytner, co-directors Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, Handspring Puppet Company wizards Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, movement director Toby Sedgwick, various puppeteers, designer Rae Smith, lighting designer Paule Constable, composer Adrian Sutton, songmaker John Tams, sound designer Christopher Shutt, the costume and art department, and the actors. Grab your chance to go behind the scenes of this life-affirming show. The DVD is available from the National Theatre Bookshop (Tel. 020 7452 3456;), or the show’s current home at the New London Theatre.


    CDs
Shows:

Kristina At Carnegie Hall
Decca / Universal

After Chess in Concert, what next for Sweden’s musical wonders Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus?  They bravely leave the safe pop nostalgia of ABBAWORLD, “Waterloo”, and Mamma Mia! far behind with Kristina, a sprawling historical epic of Swedish emigration to America set in the 1840s, anchored by the love story of Kristina and her farmer husband Karl Oskar.

Based on Vilhelm Moberg’s four-novel series The Emigrants, a modern Swedish literary classic filmed in the early 1970s by Jan Troell with stars Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, this is no rose-tinted Little House on the Prairie, but an unvarnished narrative of love and faith, hopes and dreams, struggle, suffering, and disillusionment. It may not sound like musical material, but it has a special resonance for Swedish audiences, and as Kristina Från Duvemåla the show has been a huge stage hit there since 1996, with a 3-CD original cast album.

The 2-CD Kristina. At Carnegie Hall brings us its English-language debut (new lyrics courtesy of Herbert Kretzmer), recorded live in concert in New York last September (and reprised by the same cast at London’s Royal Albert Hall last month). The lyrics may not always soar, especially in the earthbound first act (songs about tenant-farm misery, religious persecution, and lice, anyone?). But the music does, especially once the assembled characters set sail and finally arrive in the Promised Land. The score is beautifully performed with conviction and brio by a perfect cast: Helen Sjöholm, Kristina’s Swedish star, who has played the title role countless times but still sounds fresh; UK “People’s Tenor” Russell Watson as Karl Oskar; Louise Pitre (Broadway’s Mamma Mia) as Ulrika, the tough, spirited tart who discovers a new life in the New World; Kevin Odekirk as Robert, Karl Oskar’s dreamer brother who goes off to the California gold fields and comes back a broken man; and the American Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Paul Gemignani.

With a total of 35 tracks, running 144 minutes, there’s plenty of score to reckon with, but certain numbers really stand out: “Where You Go I Go With You” (Kristina and Karl Oskar’s love theme); “Never” (Ulrika’s defiant tango); “Home” (a simple, deeply touching, wistful waltz); “American Man” (the first glimmer of humour, as a gaggle of Swedish ladies flutter about a bemused pastor); “Twilight Images Calling” (Kristina’s nostalgia for the native land her children will never know); “You Have to Be There” (Kristina’s emotional plea to God); “I’ll Be Waiting There” (Kristina’s sublime dying aria about faith and love); and “Gold Can Turn to Sand” (Robert’s shattering showstopper). With its episodic story and ambitious scale this will be a hard show to tame for the stage, but the concert version definitely rewards patient listening.

The booklet consists mainly of the lyrics, but could do with some background notes. The marathon story’s much-needed synopsis is left to the narration-within-the-concert delivered by the character Ulrika, rarely included among the printed lyrics, alas. Check out the show’s website to fill in the narrative gaps and enhance your appreciation. And let your imagination do the rest.

On the Town / The Revuers / Fancy Free
Naxos Musicals

For anyone who followed the recent Bernstein Project at London’s Southbank Centre, and for all lovers of musical theatre everywhere, here’s a chance to savour Leonard Bernstein’s show music, especially his early collaborations with the marvellous Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This Naxos release takes us On the Town with Mary Martin and the show’s original cast members Nancy Walker and Comden and Green, plus a medley played by cabaret duo pianists Eadie and Rack (Howard Godwin and Eadie Griffith), and four tracks of the ballet music conducted by Bernstein himself in 1945. This tale of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave finding romance in the Big Apple started in 1944 as the hit Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, and this CD also includes a lively recording of three dances from the original ballet, performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra under veteran conductor Arthur Fiedler.

For musical connoisseurs, there are two satirical numbers by The Revuers, the Greenwich Village cabaret act crafted and performed by Comden and Green, comedienne Judy Holliday (as Judith Tuvim), Alvin Hammer, and John Frank, with musical wunderkind Bernstein on piano, recorded in 1940. Hollywood is the target in “The Girl with the Two Left Feet” and “Joan Crawford Fan Club”, which are full of contemporary references. A harbinger of things to come: just a few years later movie-crazy Comden and Green would help create the classic Hollywood musicals On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon.

Performers/Cabaret:

Steve Barton - Encore: The Private Collection
Stage Door Records

For Steve Barton devotees and completists, Encore: The Private Collection continues Stage Door’s trawl into the vaults of this much-missed leading man (see last September’s “Tune In” review of the first, Steve Barton: Only for a While). Taken from Barton’s own private tapes and demos, this second instalment of digitally remastered previously unreleased recordings showcases his versatility, performing in a variety of musical styles and languages. Besides songs from The House on the Corner, The Anastasia Affaire (originally Anya, with lyrics by Wright and Forrest to music by Sergei Rachmaninoff), and numbers from Company and Guys and Dolls in German, there’s some upbeat Broadway nostalgia (“You’re the Cream in My Coffee”, “I Got Rhythm”, and “Tea for Two”, the latter two with German star Angelika Milster, who sings in English).

We also get a glimpse of Barton at work via rehearsal tapes of ten numbers as he prepares for a one-man show, in a wide-ranging selection including songs by Carole King and Don McLean, plus numbers from A Chorus Line, Funny Girl, and Jesus Christ Superstar. His voice is strong and clear, but unfortunately the rehearsal piano on these tapes is muffled.

The album concludes with three miscellaneous items: Barton reciting Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain, My Captain” with piano accompaniment; Barton as pianist, playing Gershwin themes for a 1984 ballet choreographed by wife Denny Berry in Vienna; and, most interesting of all, “Trendsetters”, a short radio interview in his dressing room at New York’s Majestic Theatre when he was appearing in Phantom of the Opera.

Documentation is sparse, however, mainly consisting of the tracklists and song credits. It’s nice to have the rare unpublished colour photos, but the album cries out for some proper background notes.

Frances Day - Golden Girl of the 1930s
Avid Easy

A British sex symbol? America had Clara Bow and Jean Harlow, but long before Diana Dors was hailed as Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, glamorous platinum blonde Frances Day was the “It Girl”, a star of musicals, revues, and films whose outrageous hijinks were legend. She had a rollercoaster of a life worthy of a mini-series. Born in America, she was spotted dancing the Charleston in a New York speakeasy by an Australian impresario who brought her to Britain, and skyrocketed to fame in 1925, performing in West End cabaret in nothing but a G-string and an ostrich fan. The original free spirit, she was a wild bisexual magnet who lived large, linked with everybody from royal admirers to Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich; she even charmed George Bernard Shaw into writing a play for her.

Her appetite for life seemed boundless; in the 1950s the ageing star graced TV panel shows (demanding special lighting) and even embraced rock ‘n’ roll, recording Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” billed as Gale Warning and The Weather Men. But personal tragedies took their toll; once the idol of millions, she ended her life a mysterious recluse who denied her identity and even legally changed her name, and left her estate to a virtual stranger.

But she was more than just a wild sex kitten; in her 1930s and 40s heyday Frances Day was a major star, described by Frederick Ashton (who danced with her) as “absolutely incandescent”. This long-overdue 2-CD tribute, produced by Avid to mark Day’s centenary, raises the curtain on her vocal talents, featuring 49 tracks spanning 1931 to 1957, with some of the era’s most famous stars and orchestras (John Mills, Al Bowlly, Bud Flanagan, Leslie Henson, Ray Noble, Carroll Gibbons). Full tracklistings and credits, too, and don’t miss the fascinating biographical notes by Michael Thornton.

This tribute showcase proves Day was no mean singer, known for her sexy, breathy, gurgly squeak and way with innuendo – “Me and My Dog” (“We’re lost in a fog. Won’t some kind gentleman see us home?”), “But in the Morning, No!”, and “You’ve Got It, I Want It (Give It to Me)” are three prime examples – but she could also deliver the loveliest ballads by some of the top songwriters of the day with emotional flair. To listen to her signature tune, Cole Porter’s charming “De-Lovely”, is to be transported back to the 1930s, and understand her magic. And her 1941 rendition of “A Pair of Silver Wings” is all the more poignant when you realise that she lost her RAF fiancé in the war.

John Mills, her co-star in the 1934 hit Jill Darling!, remembered Day as “a knock-out…the men in the audience simply couldn’t take their eyes off her”. One song is entitled “You Have That Extra Something”. She certainly did!

Mary Martin - Cinderella / Three to Make Music / A Musical Love Story
Sepia Records

Mary Martin had Broadway at her feet from her very first appearance on the Great White Way in 1938, singing Cole Porter’s immortal “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Leave It to Me, and went on to star in One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, Peter Pan, and The Sound of Music. Her sweet, rich voice could melt, soar, and swing, and her talents ranged from romantic arias to inspired clowning. She also recorded albums for children, and she’s obviously having a ball. Just listen to this 1958 condensed version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which she narrates as the Fairy Godmother, as well as playing (and singing) the roles of Cinderella, the Prince, and even a succession of feet trying on the fabled glass slipper!

We also get a rare opportunity to hear Three to Make Music, a charming 1958 mini-musical for children by Richard Rodgers’ daughters Mary Rodgers (lyrics) and Linda R. Melnick (music), which Martin toured across America with clown Dirk Sanders and the Little Orchestra Society conducted by Thomas Scherman. Who are the three it takes to make music? The composer, the orchestra, and the audience. After introducing the sections of the orchestra, she asks, What kind of audience are you? Bad or good? The descriptions are still apt today.

This Sepia compilation is rounded off by a third 1958 album, A Musical Love Story, a lush medley of love songs that makes you want to turn the lights down low. Martin’s voice caresses the lyrics, and shows just what a fine interpreter of popular song she was. Conducted by Martin’s favourite John Lesko, the 17 songs include “But Beautiful”, “The Touch of Your Lips”, “The Song Is You”, “The Very Thought of You”, and “I’m in the Mood for Love”. Two rare extras from 1956 complete this Mary Martin fest: “Boy Wanted”, written by Garson Kanin and Joe Bushkin for a TV adaptation of Born Yesterday, and a swinging scat version of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. Shouldn’t that be “Our Hearts Belong to Mary”?

Marilyn Monroe - Love, Marilyn
Naxos Nostalgia.

Marilyn Monroe would be 84 this year had she lived. But tragic backstory aside, it’s impossible to imagine this Hollywood icon as anything but the eternally young, vulnerable, blonde bombshell, with her curves, breathy voice, and wide-eyed little-girl-lost quality. If you saw Sunny Thompson’s amazing reincarnation of Monroe in the touring show Marilyn: Forever Blonde! at London’s Leicester Square Theatre last year, you almost felt like you were in her presence.

Let’s all celebrate the glorious Marilyn Monroe with this collection of original recordings from the 1950s, when she was in her prime. Monroe could do more than wiggle; she was a talented comedienne, and a singer with her own unique style. The digitally remastered delights on show here include numbers from the films Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the classic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”), River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and Some Like It Hot, as well as some rare commercial test pressings of songs by Gershwin (a sultry “Do It Again”) and Kern (“A Fine Romance”), plus Alfred Newman’s overture to Street Scene, the original widescreen symphonic short that preceded How to Marry a Millionaire in cinemas. Marilyn Forever!

Daryl Sherman - Johnny Mercer: A Centennial Tribute
Arbors Jazz

If you haven’t heard jazz and cabaret artist Daryl Sherman, get ready to get on the bandwagon.  She delighted audiences performing at Cole Porter’s piano at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for years, and her intelligent, perky, lilting interpretations of the Great American Songbook have brightened many a nightclub, recording studio, and jazz tour. The recent Johnny Mercer centenary focused the spotlight on one of popular music’s greatest lyricists, and this Sherman-Mercer album is a marriage made in heaven, which has rightly been hailed as one of the best of last year.

Frank Sinatra once said, “A Johnny Mercer lyric is all the wit you wished you had and all the love you ever lost.” Sherman scores on both counts. She gets right to the heart of Mercer’s lyrics; her beautiful “I Thought About You” was one of the highlights of the CD that complemented TCM’s centennial documentary Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me (see the March 2010 “Tune In” column). I immediately knew it was something special, and sought out the source album (and was even lucky enough to catch the lady live in a gig at London’s Pizza Express). You couldn’t ask for a better guide into the nooks and crannies of Mercer’s catalogue. The 14 tracks range from solid standards (“I Thought About You”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “Lazybones”, “Midnight Sun”) to quirky obscurities like the tongue-twister “Peter Piper” and the madcap love song “The Bathtub Ran Over Again”, and the bubbly “At the Jazz Band Ball” will have you jiving around the joint. Daryl is joined by some top jazz names, and the package includes detailed liner notes by jazz critic/historian Dan Morgenstern. A smart, witty, swinging, affectionate tribute to the great Johnny Mercer – not to be missed!

Sophie Tucker - Cabaret Days
Sepia Records.

Sophie Tucker may seem a name from the distant past, but just listen to the material on this album, and you’ll understand why “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” was a show biz phenomenon for over half a century, from ragtime to rock ‘n’ roll. Hefty bespangled Sophie was no beauty, but she had a style all her own, and knew how to work a room. She was also a pioneer of the concept album, telling stories in song, laced with a dollop of her own homegrown Yiddish philosophy.

This new compilation from Sepia offers us hearty helpings from three of these: Cabaret Days (1953), Her Latest and Greatest Spicy Saucy Songs (1955), and The Spice of Life (1956). These atmospheric recordings take us back to the world of honky tonks and nightclubs, complete with some of her greatest hits (“After You’ve Gone”, “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey”, “Hello My Baby”, “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”, and her signature tune, “Some of These Days”), done in her later half-spoken style, plus repartee with the audience and her longtime accompanist Ted Shapiro.

And if you aren’t familiar with Tucker’s trademark comedy songs and risqué routines, brace yourself for a treat: she’ll have you in the aisles as she dishes out proto-feminist advice with a swagger and a knowing wink, and gives two-timing johnnies tit for tat in such still-timely numbers as “I’m Living Alone and I Like It”, “Horse Playing Papa” (“You go trottin’ tonight and mama’s galloping out on you”), and “Make Him Say Please (Make Him Say Thanks, or Don’t Give Him Nothin’ at All)”. The passing years didn’t make Sophie tone down her material, or douse her embers: witness “You Can’t Deep Freeze a Red Hot Mama (‘Cause You Can’t Get Her Temperature Down)”, “I’m Having More Fun Since I’m Sixty” (“The more candles on my birthday cake, the hotter I become”), and “I’m Starting All Over Again” (in which she saucily announces, “There’s plenty of dong in my ding.”). Back in the 1950s the censors were busy in Hollywood, TV, and radio, but somehow Sophie’s recordings eluded their net!

Fittingly, the album concludes with two recordings of “Some of These Days”, spanning her career: the first is from 1957, but the second is one of Sophie’s very earliest recordings, from 1911. Take this time machine. They don’t make ‘em like Sophie Tucker anymore!