This month’s Editor’s Pick is the much-awaited DVD and CD of Chess in Concert, which gets you close-up and personal with one of the epic theatrical events of 2008, the Albert Hall concert version starring a fantastic cast headed by Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, and Marti Pellow.
Theatrical discoveries are afoot with CDs showcasing the work of songwriter Alexander S. Bermange, and the concept album of a new British World War II musical, Bluebird. The ever-modish Twiggy marks her 60th birthday in style with a new nostalgia CD, while lyricist Dee Shipman looks back to a 1970 recording session with Roger Webb. And for the child in all of us, we have the delightful American children’s musical, Pinkalicious. May your sunsets be pink ones!
CD & DVD Reviewer
- Editor’s Pick
Chess in Concert - DVD & CD
Originated as a concept album in 1984, Chess came to the West End in 1986, and has been produced all over the world for a quarter of a century, in various full productions and concert versions, but it’s been troubled by an elusive search for the ideal staging. Like the game of chess itself, its history has been a case of an infinite number of variations, an ongoing minuet of manoeuvres and strategies. Through the years it has become a cult musical, a connoisseur’s classic of 1980s musical theatre; the amazing score by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice transcends the years.
Chess in Concert, presented at the Albert Hall last May, finally seems to have achieved endgame: the definitive version, according to lyricist Tim Rice. And he should know. Imaginatively staged by Hugh Wooldridge, with screen graphics, dancers, a 100-strong chorus, full orchestra, and an unbeatable powerhouse cast headed by Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, and Marti Pellow, it was an incredible experience, bringing the show to glorious life. For those lucky enough to be there, it was one of the theatrical events of recent years. The Albert Hall is a big place, though. Now everyone can have a front-row seat, and the cheering can go on, in your own home: this treasure is now available for all to savour, on DVD and CD.
Chess the game is a battle of wits and intellect; Chess the show is not only about a World Championship chess match during the Cold War, but about the games people play, about complex personalities and egos caught in the manipulative webs of diplomacy and political subterfuge, the pressurised backstage deals and squabbles, the questionable motives.
Think Abba, and Mamma Mia! inevitably comes to mind. This wondrously rich score by Andersson and Ulvaeus is light years away from “Waterloo” and Eurovision sequinned glitz. Intricate and eclectic, it reflects the complex characters and situations, by turns operatic, rock, and disco, with dramatic incidental music, modern dance sequences, ballads, anthems, romantic duets, recitative arguments, complicated quartets, and chorales. It’s full of glories: the pizzicato “Story of Chess”; the intricate quartet, “A Model of Decorum and Tranquility”; the Puccini-esque love duet, “You and I”; the searing “Pity the Child”; and the showstoppers “Anthem”, “Nobody’s Side”, “Heaven Help My Heart”, and “I Know Him So Well”. Tim Rice’s lyrics alone are a treasure-chest. How many songs have lines like “I see my present partner in the imperfect tense”, or “I’ve been a fool to allow dreams to become great expectations”?
Josh Groban positively shines as the enigmatic Russian chess master, Anatoly. His powerful, driving “Where I Want to Be” sweeps all before it, and his soaring “Anthem” really takes flight. Known primarily as a concert singer, he has stage presence and solid musical theatre training; on the grounds of this concert alone, a Broadway future beckons.
Adam Pascal (Rent) brings to blazing life the wayward, petulant Frederick, the American chess champion, a mix of Bobby Fischer and John McEnroe; his “Pity the Child” is the cry of a real survivor. In the hands of Idina Menzel (Rent; Wicked), the show’s romantic interest, Florence, is no love pawn, but the queen of the chessboard, who moves from one alliance to another, losing her heart in the process. She tears down the house with her trio of showstoppers, “Nobody’s Side”, the moving “Heaven Help My Heart”, and the chart duet “I Know Him So Well”, with Kerry Ellis (another Wicked alumna). David Bedella (Jerry Springer, The Opera) is a roguish delight as the wily Russian manipulator, Molokov. Marti Pellow, Wet Wet Wet’s lead singer, makes a rocking white-gloved Arbiter, a real chess lord.
It’s been said that the 1984 concept album, with Elaine Paige, Tommy Körberg, and Murray Head, could never be bettered. That classic will always stand. But it has a run for its money in this concert version. The crystal-clear sound recording deserves particular praise for the sound recording; it’s rare that every lyric is so sharp that you don’t need a libretto.
Both the DVD and the CD come with an excellent booklet, with background notes and a synopsis by Tim Rice, full cast and credits, and lots of colour photos of the Albert Hall production. The 145-minute film has already been shown on television in America, but wherever you live, grab the chance to own it yourself. You don’t have to play chess to enjoy it; everyone plays the game of life.
Act One - Songs from the Musicals of Alexander S. Bermange
Dress Circle Records.
Weird & Wonderful - A Collection of Songs by Alexander S. Bermange Celebrating Weirdos and Weirdness
Dress Circle Records
If you haven’t yet discovered the work of Alexander S. Bermange, you have an epiphany in store. Writing both words and music takes a special talent, and this rising young British composer and lyricist has it in spades. Since his days at Oxford, when his first musical, Nessie, about the Loch Ness monster, won admiring audiences, he has gone from strength to strength, and now has an impressive portfolio of work.
These two showcase albums give an idea of the full spectrum of his wares. Here are literate, beautifully crafted lyrics. Here are ballads, anthems, narrative songs, all speaking the language of the heart and imagination. He excels in observational humour. Most of all, he has a special affinity for the realm of fairy tales, for princesses in distress, frog princes, golden geese, beauties and beasts, displayed in popular musical offerings at the Brothers Grimm festival in Hanau, Germany, each summer, and suitable for all ages, and his musical Shadowless, about a man who sells his shadow to the devil, has won two Frank Wildhorn Awards at the musical festival in Graz, Austria. He has also written much special material, and many topical comic songs for BBC Radio 4’s programme Broadcasting House.
You can gauge the esteem in which Bermange is held by his peers by the albums’ impressive line-up of performers, all top talent from the West End musical world. Both CDs come with an enthusiastic note by Tim Rice, a long-time champion.
Act One features 26 songs from eleven of Alexander’s shows. The tracks offer an exhilarating variety of musical styles, from show-stopping anthems (the beautiful “Walking on the Sun”) and pithy comic numbers (“My Prince”) to heart-rending power ballads (“If This Could Be Forever”), full-blown rock songs (“Trial of the Heart”), and haunting sentiment (“The Land of Gold”, “Where’s the Love?”).
The cast is starry: Joanna Ampil, Janie Dee, Linzi Hateley, Summer Strallen, Sally Ann Triplett, Daniel Boys, Earl Carpenter, Ramin Karimloo, Jon Robyns, Oliver Thornton, Oliver Tompsett… Maddeningly, however, the album doesn’t include any details about the shows themselves, which range in time from Walking on the Sun, performed at the Millennium Dome in 2000, to Thirteen Days, set to premiere in Yorkshire next March. Some of the best songs come from Odette: The Dark Side of Swan Lake, a hit at the Bridewell Theatre in 2007. Odile’s “My Prince” (sung by Lara Pulver) is a jazzy showstopper, displaying the ingenious puns and rhymes that are a hallmark of Bermange’s lyric style.
Hearing “My Prince” made me seek out another Bermange album, Weird & Wonderful, first presented as an intimate revue at London’s Canal Café Theatre in 2002. Here we have an hour’s worth of cleverly etched comic songs about crazy characters and situations, performed by David Kernan, Jessica Martin, Rosemary Ashe, David Firth, Felix Martin, Richard Dempsey – 16 musical stars in all.
The witty ditties catalogue some decidedly eccentric individuals, as well as a few situations we can all relate to. In “He Left Me for My Granny”, a teenager bemoans her boyfriend’s latest infatuation. “The First Vowel” is about a girl who can’t pronounce words starting with the letter A. There are also some striking bittersweet torch songs (“The Man Who I Long For”; I Loved”). Best of all are tongue-twisting patter songs like “Easy as a P-C” and “Moaning about Phoning”, about the frustrations of computer manuals and automated telephone answering systems, and the delightful “A Trainspotter’s Tale” – a whirlwind list-song reciting London’s Underground stations (Try to keep up with Richard Dempsey’s rendition; it’s simply amazing).
But once again no details are given about the songs or their origins. It’s nice to have the double-spread of photos of the performers, but I wanted words! It’s a ploy, Bermange says, to direct listeners to his website, http://www.btinternet.com/~asbermange/ (also reachable via www.bermange.co.uk). Listeners should rush there to learn more about this man of the theatre, with so much talent to offer. His music was recently heard in the play Plague over England, at the Duchess Theatre, and Bermange himself has recently been touring with Bill Kenwright’s Agatha Christie show, Murder on Air. Stay tuned!
Produced by and available at Dress Circle.
Dee Shipman - She Isn’t Me
Stage Door Records
Best known today for her work as a lyricist with Charles Aznavour and Petula Clark, Dee Shipman began her career as a film and TV actress, singer, radio presenter, and pop columnist. This previously unreleased album, recorded in London in October 1970, and now digitally remastered from the original master tapes, gives us the opportunity to explore Shipman as a song stylist, here in tandem for the first time with another long-time collaborator, Roger Webb.
It’s a lifetime ago for Shipman, who confesses in the liner notes, “a collection of tracks I’d recorded over 30 years ago, at first seemed more like a reincarnation than a release!” It must be eerie to be offered the opportunity to revisit one’s earlier life. This blast from the past is an idiosyncratic journey in a time machine, both in repertoire and orchestrations. This is definitely a curio, but it’s always interesting to listen to a songwriter perform.
Produced by Norman Newell (legendary record producer, long-time A&R manager for EMI, and a lyricist himself), the 11-track set features an intriguing mixture of pop standards and evergreens, in luscious period arrangements by Roger Webb which are now unmistakeably 1960s. Highlights are André and Dory Previn’s “You’re Gonna Hear from Me”, from the film Inside Daisy Clover (a great opener); Cy Coleman’s swinging “The Best Is Yet to Come”; Lerner and Lane’s lament “What Did I Have I Don’t Have Now”; and a touchingly simple “One Hand, One Heart” (West Side Story). However, we’re distinctly in time-warp territory in “What Is a Youth” from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life” and “Watch What Happens” (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). The most surprising track is “My Life Belongs Only to You”, from Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, which is done completely straight.
The prize for one of the oddest interpretations ever must go to “The Way You Look Tonight”, which is completely deconstructed. It’s bold and adventurous, but what Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields think?
The album concludes with a bonus track bringing us up to date, with a new recording by Shipman and Sadie Nine of the duet “She Isn’t Me”, from the unfinished Dee Shipman-Roger Webb musical Emma, based on the life of Lady Emma Hamilton.
Twiggy - Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance
Stage Door Records
Can it be possible? Twiggy, pioneering supermodel and one of the icons of the Swinging 60s, recently turned 60. In celebration, the ever-youthful Twiggs has marked the occasion with a new album, demonstrating her sense of style isn’t only for photographers and catwalks.
Don’t forget, she’s starred in Hollywood musicals (Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend, 1971) and on Broadway (My One and Only, 1983, with Tommy Tune), so this lady knows her tunesmiths. As she says in the liner notes, “I may be a child of the 60s but my heart has always leant towards the 1920s, 30s and 40s.” Nostalgia is the keynote for this album, lovingly produced by Stage Door, down to the black-and-white Art Deco design and lettering, the recent showgirl poses by Twiggy (fetching in a bowler hat), and the absolutely spot-on new period arrangements by Richard Hartley.
Twiggy the song stylist serves up new recordings of old favourites, ranging from upbeat standards such as “We’re in the Money” and “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine”, to crooning blues anthems like “Ten Cents a Dance”, “Love Me or Leave Me”, and “Don’t Tell Him What Happened to Me”.
Filling out the compilation, we also get a tempting glimpse of Twiggy as Gertrude Lawrence, partnered by Harry Groener as Noel Coward, in several numbers from the 1999 off-Broadway biographical show If Love Were All, and tracks from her 1996 album London Pride, featuring Noel Coward’s title paean to wartime London, plus “The Lambeth Walk”, and a moving rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, complete with verse. A particular treat is her music-hall number, “I Was a Good Little Girl (Till I Met You)”. Happy Birthday, Twiggy!
Bluebird, Concept Cast Recording (Highlights)
The British book musical is constantly in need of renewal and reinvention, and it’s heartening to know that there are those who believe in it so passionately that they are willing to follow their dream, workshop their shows, and even produce their own cast recordings. Gareth Peter Dicks, a young composer from Nottingham, runs the Broadway School of Performing Arts, and has written five musicals to date.
The latest is Bluebird, a “story of ordinary people living in extraordinary times” – World War II, years of great courage and personal heartbreak, exemplified by four protagonists: family man Pete Jones; his wife Roberta, a nurse, who finds it hard to come to terms with her husband’s going off to war; Ben, a brash American serviceman who falls for her in hospital; and Jane, Roberta’s neighbour and friend.
Bluebird has been several years in the making, and its creator’s faith has been rewarded by the cast he has been able to assemble for this recording, headed by Ramin Karimloo, currently starring in Phantom of the Opera, as Ben; Sarah Lark as Roberta; Stephen Weller as Pete; and Abi Finley as Jane.
The handsomely designed concept album presents highlights from the show, complete with liner notes, synopsis, credits, and cast biographies. Dicks’ soundtrack weaves a tapestry, with speeches by Chamberlain and Churchill, newsreel commentary, and sound effects, immersing the listener in the period, and the score shows promise, all of a piece, melding character and narrative, especially “Family Man”, “What If This”, “Bluebird”, “Our Hearts Must Take Control”, “Two Men”, “A Soldier’s Letter Home”, and “Beth’s Letter”, sung by the Joneses’ evacuee daughter. Most appropriately, it’s come out in time for the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war; and a showcase is planned for later in the year.
Pinkalicious The Musical
Sh-K-Boom Records / Broadway Baby Records
Based on the popular 2006 children’s book by the sisters Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, Pinkalicious The Musical is a cautionary tale that will appeal not only to pink princesses, but to the child in all of us.
Pinkalicious Pinkerton is a Pinkerella who overdoses on pink cupcakes and wakes up one morning to find herself deliciously, rapturously pink. She’s ecstatic, but her worried parents whisk her off to Doctor Wink, who diagnoses Pinkititis (“the most amazing case I’ve ever seen”). Even Pinkalicious finally realizes the error of her ways when the birds and bees in the park mistake her for a flower, and, horror of horrors, one last cupcake turns her alarmingly red. The cure? Eat your greens!
This “pinkerrific” musical has been charming audiences off-Broadway since early 2007. The CD captures why: a bouncy, inventive score by John Gregor (a 2004 winner of the Frederick Loewe Award) abetted by the Kanns’ child-perceptive book and lyrics, a strong dose of humour, and an engaging cast of characters, headed by Sarah Peak, who is particularly lively as the wilful girl who just can’t get enough of her favourite colour, and Alan Houser as her brother Peter, who secretly harbours pink sympathies.
The catchy score mixes ragtime, blues, and gospel (see if you can also catch the quick snatches of Sousa and “Blues in the Night”), and to quote one of the lyrics, is simply “Pinktastic”. The CD comes with an illustrated booklet with artwork by Victoria Kann, and all the lyrics. No matter what your age, you’ll find yourself singing along.