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Tune In: Theatre CD & DVD Round-up - Xmas 2009

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Having trouble trying to plan the perfect holiday presents for your stage-struck and melodically-minded friends and loved ones? Our line-up of musical suggestions includes the sublime songstress Barbara Cook; vocal stylist extraordinaire Kay Thompson; the Rat Pack’s swinging Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra; Evelyn Laye, Britain’s Queen of Musical Comedy in the 1920s and 30s; and debut albums by current leading ladies Sutton Foster and Annalene Beechey.

Show offerings are also on hand to add to Christmas cheer: the Broadway original cast album of Legally Blonde The Musical, the studio recording of the West End seasonal revue Christmas in New York, and the 1972 children’s show Once Upon a Time. Plus a handbook just tailor-made for those of you with dreams of the spotlight, Mary Hammond’s superbly practical guide to the world of auditions, Thank you – that’s all we need for today…, which comes complete with a vocal warm-up CD (a great way to rev up for those carols, too).

Catherine Surowiec
CD & DVD Reviewer

    Editor’s Pick

The Essential Barbara Cook Collection
DRG Records

The DRG label celebrated its long collaboration with Barbara Cook in style this year with this wonderful box set of five CDs and one DVD. One of the foremost interpreters of popular song and musical theatre, Barbara Cook has been thrilling audiences for over half a century, from The Music Man and She Loves Me, to her current reign in cabaret and the concert hall, and is still in fine voice.

The secret to her longevity? The magic key: Cook opens her heart when she sings, and lets us into the life of a song. It’s a mutual love affair, and her voice only gets better as time goes by. Just listen to the reissues in this collection, and bask in the warmth, the intelligence, and the vocal purity: Close as Pages in a Book, a 1993 tribute album to lyricist Dorothy Fields; Live from London, a 1994 concert at Sadler’s Wells; the 1998 album All I Ask of You; and At the Met, recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 2006, with guests Audra McDonald and Josh Groban.

A fifth disc, Give Me the Simple Life, recorded this summer, is a four-number sampler of her forthcoming album. Best of all, Disc 6 is a DVD of a solo 86-minute version of her Mostly Sondheim concert recorded in October 2002 at  State University of New York, Purchase, which celebrates not only songs by Sondheim, but numbers which he admires or wished he had written himself. DVD extras include her conducting a Kennedy Center masterclass in 2002 and a short but revealing interview with the lady herself. As she says, she’s still on the journey. For all who cherish songwriting and the art of singing, pure joy.


Kay Thompson - Think Pink! A Kay Thompson Party
Sepia Records

Kay Thompson! If you’ve ever seen the Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film musical Funny Face, you’ll recognise this multi-talented dynamo in a nano-second, as Maggie Prescott, the flamboyant fashion magazine editor who embodies Bazazz and sings the unforgettable “Think Pink!” Then you’ll shout Hallelujah at the prospect of this fabulous, beautifully produced deluxe 3-CD set by Sepia, which at last puts her in the spotlight, in the year of her centenary.

One of the great song stylists and rhythm vocalists, this stylish, witty lady was not only a cabaret and radio star in her own right, but a top-flight musician, vocal arranger, coach to the stars, composer, fashionista, and best-selling author (she created Eloise, the precocious moppet who lives on the top floor of the Plaza Hotel).

Along with Roger Edens and Conrad Salinger, Thompson helped to create MGM’s distinctive vocal sound in the 40s (think Judy Garland’s “Trolley Song”, Lena Horne’s “Love”, The Harvey Girls, and Good News). KT knew practically everyone who was anyone; Garland was a close friend, Liza Minnelli was her goddaughter, and singer Andy Williams was a discovery and protégé. Liza’s recent stage show paid loving tribute to her godmother with a recreation of Thompson’s famous nightclub act with the Williams Brothers (Andy, Dick, Don, and Bob. It was filmed in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, so look out for the DVD, hopefully soon.)

This treasure-chest of a collection, with three CDs and a total of 75 tracks, is brimming with a fascinating cornucopia of rarities, studio recordings, film soundtracks, live performances, demos, cover versions, comedy sketches, radio broadcasts, and a variety of Eloise material, featuring Thompson, a constellation of stars (including Garland, Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Ann Miller, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Helen Hayes, and Pat Kirkwood), and of course the Williams Brothers. It’s all newly re-mastered, and is complemented by a 24-page booklet with full credits, rare photos, and notes by Sam Irvin, whose biography of Thompson is due out next year. At last this amazing talent is receiving the “four-star-able, Harpers-Bazaar-able” tribute she deserves. Thank you, Sepia!

*Show albums:

Christmas in New York
Speckulation Entertainment

If you can’t make it to New York for Christmas, do the next best thing, and get into the Yuletide spirit with the West End’s nearest equivalent, Christmas in New York, an annual sell-out.

Marking its fourth edition this December, the show was recorded for the first time this summer, and is set for release in mid-November, just in time for the holidays. The album features a cast of top West End performers: Avenue Q’s Julie Atherton and Daniel Boys; the star of BBC’s Beautiful People and Desperate Romantics, Samuel Barnett; Wicked’s Oliver Tompsett and Ashleigh Gray; West End star and Notes from New York co-founder Paul Spicer; Spamalot and A Little Night Music leading lady Hannah Waddingham; Leanne Jones, the Olivier-winning star of Hairspray; previous Christmas in New York headliner Anna-Jane Casey; Rachael Wooding, currently playing the title role in the UK tour of Evita; and Louise Dearman, whose credits also include the title role in Evita.

The seasonal songs and carols include Irving Berlin’s evergreen “White Christmas”, “Ave Maria”, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, “All Those Christmas Clichés”, “What Christmas Means to Me”, “Just in Time for Christmas”, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and “The Perfect Year”. The perfect Christmas treat.

Legally Blonde the Musical
Ghostlight Records

With Sheridan Smith about to don the fabulous pink wardrobe in the eagerly anticipated London premiere of Legally Blonde The Musical, it’s time to prep for your exams and listen to the original 2007 Broadway cast album, starring Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods, the Beverly Hills fashionista sorority queen who amazes everyone by winning a place at Harvard Law School, determined to win back her blue-blooded boyfriend. But is Harvard ready for a blonde bombshell complete with an accessory Chihuahua called Bruiser, scented stationery, and a woman’s intuition capable of cracking a murder case?

Based on the popular Hollywood rom-com starring Reese Witherspoon, the Broadway adaptation’s pop score by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin is full of snap and energy, and the wide range of zippy songs move the plot along and illuminate the winsome cast of characters, from Elle’s “Serious” and “What You Want” to “The Harvard Variations”, “Blood in the Water”, “Ireland” (a Riverdance fantasy inspired by beautician Paulette’s yen for the UPS man), “There! Right There!” (the trial’s big question about the star witness: “Is he gay or European?”), “Bend and Snap” (demonstrating how to get a man’s undivided attention), and the joyous, assertive finale (“Legally Blonde”/“Find My Way”). There’s even a Greek chorus of sorority sisters, and a marching band. If you don’t have the album already, remember, it’s always good to do your homework – especially when it’s as fun as this. Get ready, Elle’s about to break loose in the West End! “Omigod You Guys!”

Once Upon a Time…
Stage Door Records.

Once Upon a Time…, “a musical journey into the magic world of make-believe”, with book and lyrics by Norman Newell and music by Roger Webb, featuring favourite nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and characters, was the Christmas matinee offering at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London throughout the 1972 holiday season. Presented by David Frost, directed and choreographed by Gillian Lyne, and designed by Tony Walton, it was hailed as a delight.

It would be interesting to hear the show’s original cast today – it included Tim Curry (pre-Rocky Horror), Patsy Rowlands, and Tony Robinson – but they never made it into the studio. Instead a studio LP of highlights was issued on the EMI Starline label, performed with gusto by Peter Gale and the protean Mike Sammes Singers (known for their musicianship and countless backing vocals, even including several tracks for the Beatles). Now released on CD for the first time, it whisks us back to simpler times, with an all-star cast of nursery characters, including the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, Dick Whittington, Simple Simon, the Owl and the Pussycat, and the party-throwing King and Queen of Hearts.

The servings aren’t just traditional fare: “The Farmyard Barn Dance” features “three hip hens who have left the nest”, with a knees-up yee-ha interlude; witches, ogres, and giants bemoan that “No One Asks Us to a Party”; and a Snowman poignantly laments “Everyone Loves the Sun Except Me”. The particularly effective “Silver Sleigh Ride” and “The Roundabout Song” take us on whirling musical journeys, capturing changing rhythms and tempi.

The show’s hit song, the charming “Make Your Own Rainbow”, was omitted from the 1972 recording, but the CD brings us two versions, including the 1988 rendition by Tara McDonald that won the Danny Kaye Award at the UNICEF International Song Contest. For children, and the young at heart.

*Performers / Cabaret:

Annalene Beechey - Close Your Eyes
SimG Records

Fans will be happy to know that Annalene Beechey’s long-awaited début album is now out, and it’s a winner. Lovingly produced by husband Simon Greiff, it’s a fine showcase for this talented singer’s lovely voice, with some beautiful new arrangements and a thoughtfully chosen playlist focusing on narrative numbers. This respected West End leading lady (Marguerite, Wicked, Beauty and the Beast, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Carousel) with the angelic voice is a pleasure to listen to, from the very first track, pairing two numbers from Sondheim’s Into the Woods (“No One Is Alone/Children Will Listen”), to the last, “Always/Goodnight” by Scott Alan (who also contributes a heartfelt love letter of a foreword to the album’s booklet).

This is an album full of highlights: Stephen Schwartz’s marvellous “Lion Tamer”, Stiles and Drewe’s comic number “Carrying a Torch” (“for the boy who’s carrying a spear”), William Finn’s “Sailing”, Grant Olding’s “Hannah’s Dream”, Joni Mitchell’s “River” (a duet with Julian Ovenden), and a dreamlike six-part vocal arrangement of Colin Towns’ “Perfect Day” which evokes Gregorian chant. Another standout is a slow, haunting “Doll on a Music Box”, completely rethinking the familiar Sherman Brothers’ number from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is sure to make you see the song in a completely different light.

Sutton Foster - Wish
Ghostlight Records

Sutton Foster’s rise has been meteoric over the past decade; she blazed onto the Broadway scene in 2002 in Thoroughly Modern Millie, winning a Tony Award, and has gone on to create roles in the musicals Little Women, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein, and Shrek The Musical. Little wonder she hasn’t had time to record a solo album until now.

Like the lady herself, it’s a fearless, quirky blend, super-charged with energy and talent, a fabulous voice that can tackle anything, from Broadway to pop, cabaret, blues, and jazz, abetted by some great, sometimes unusual arrangements. The eclectic selection of songs may look like it’s all over the map, but it’s a musical expedition underpinned by some overall themes – sunshine, wishes, the moon, the stars.

Signposts on this musical journey: Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light”, with a frisky ukulele opening; Carole King’s “Up on the Roof”; a devastatingly heartfelt “My Romance” (Rodgers and Hart); a quietly yearning rendition of John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulder”; Craig Carnelia’s soaring “Flight”; and a relatively unknown Noël Coward song, “Come the Wild, Wild Weather”.

Her choices may range far and wide, but no matter where they take her, her interpretations are always spot-on: the bouncy, jazzy humour of “Air Conditioner” is a breath of fresh air (you can just feel the heatwave), and she wrings your heart with Charles Strouse’s poignant ballad “Once Upon a Time”. P.S.: Sutton not only sings; she also supplied the album’s original artwork.

Evelyn Laye - Queen of Musical Comedy
Avid Easy

The glamorous Evelyn Laye (1900-1996) reigned as the queen of British musical comedy in the 1920s and 30s. Universally known as “Boo” (her childhood nickname), she was held in great affection, and her professional career ultimately spanned almost nine decades. She was still touring into her 90s, long after her glorious soprano had aged into a husky baritone, which she used with the utmost style and charm, expressively reciting lyrics with marvellous élan. What a trouper!

This two-disc set, the sixth in Avid’s excellent series devoted to musical comedy legends, comprises a mini-history of musical styles and tastes, from 1920 (The Shop Girl, her first hit at the Gaiety) to 1991 (two privately recorded numbers with John Dalby at the piano), and includes a number of rare, previously unreleased recordings. How many retrospective career compilations cover 71 years, from the heyday of operetta, to musical comedy, film stardom, wartime concert parties, revue, variety, pantomime, radio, and television?

It opens and closes with her signature tune, the wistful “I’ll See You Again”, from Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet, which had Broadway audiences and critics at her feet. The album contains a 12-page booklet with full track listings, credits, photos, and biographical/career notes by Michael Thornton. One of the best songs, from David Heneker’s 1969 show Phil the Fluter, says it all: “They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore”.

Sinatra: New York
Reprise Records / Rhino

This season the tribute show Christmas with the Rat Pack hits London again, but now, thanks to this compilation from Reprise, you can listen up to the real deal: the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra, the kid from Hoboken, New Jersey, who crossed the Hudson to The Apple, and became a legend. His hit “My Kind of Town” may have been about Chicago, but New York always held a special place in his heart.

This deluxe set – four CDs and one DVD, plus a booklet with full listings, extensive liner notes, and rare photos – features live performances recorded in New York between 1955 and 1990, all previously unreleased. These range from a couple of minor rarities (a 1955 guest appearance at a Tommy Dorsey reunion and a 1963 concert for a United Nations staff day), to mega-concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1974 and 1984, Madison Square Garden in 1974 (billed as “The Main Event”), and Radio City Music Hall in 1990. The DVD captures his 1980 Carnegie Hall concert.

There are plenty of chart-toppers and signature hits here, but Ol’ Blue Eyes isn’t always at his best vocally in these live recordings, or at this time in his career, or with some of the later repertoire – there are numerous ad libs, fluffed lyrics (“My Way”: “Where the hell am I?”), and some straying, strained notes – but the dynamism, phrasing, and emotional core are all there, as are his charisma, ease, and rapport with his adoring audiences. He could make a stadium seem like an intimate nightclub. One of the top interpreters of ballads ever to face a microphone, Sinatra had great respect for lyrics and his fellow musicians, and it’s touching to hear his many heartfelt nods to songwriters, arrangers, and accompanists. The finale on both CD 4 and the DVD, appropriately, is Kander and Ebb’s “Theme from New York, New York”.

Sinatra fans, completists, and Rat Pack aficionados will appreciate this deluxe box set. But the crown jewels remain Sinatra’s studio recordings, where he was in complete control, with those fantastic arrangements by Axel Stordahl, Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, and company. For those who fancy a really swingin’ holiday season, complement this with these essentials, if you don’t have them: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, In the Wee Small Hours, Only the Lonely, Come Fly with Me, Nice ‘N’ Easy. Ring-a-ding-ding!

*Book with CD:

Thank you – that’s all we need for today: A Practical Guide to Musical Theatre Auditions
By Mary Hammond, with Emer Gillespie and Nigel Lilley. Peters Edition

Ever dreamed of making it into a musical show? Help make that dream a reality with this no-nonsense, practical guide by Mary Hammond. The founder of the renowned post-graduate Musical Theatre course at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and an experienced teacher and singer herself as well as a vocal coach and consultant to numerous companies and groups, Hammond knows the field inside out, and understands how daunting putting yourself on the line can often be for many hopefuls, whether professional or amateur.

This 164-page book, simply, directly, and sympathetically written, is packed with sound, common-sense advice, and comes with a 28-minute CD of vocal warm-up tips and exercises (excellent; I tried some of them myself). The wide-ranging topics include preparing CVs and photos, agents, selecting and honing that all-important audition material, vocal and physical preparation, looking after your voice, deciding what to wear, professional manners, making a good impression, a run-down of the audition process itself, and coping strategies before, during, and after an audition, with many useful examples and helpful insights by directors, casting directors, musical directors, and choreographers. There’s also a handy list of casting publications and work websites to keep you on track.

And to show you that you’re not alone out there in the jungle, the final chapter consists of interviews with Tracie Bennett, Philip Quast, Sally Ann Triplett, Clive Rowe, Dominic Marsh, Vivien Care, Eliza Lumley, and Hadley Fraser about their audition experiences. Don’t be intimidated by going through that magic Stage Door. What if the cast of A Chorus Line had had a book like this?


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