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Tune In: Theatre CDs & DVDs Round-up - Jul 2009

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Welcome back to our new monthly feature reviewing the latest theatre-related CDs and DVDs! This month’s Editor’s Pick is the eagerly-awaited new Sondheim musical, Road Show. And to kick off your summer listening, there are new cast recordings of the perennial classics Gypsy and Oliver!, as well as a brand-new all-American musical from the States, Banjo Boy. A quintet of legendary leading ladies are here to entertain us, each worthy of the spotlight: Shirley Jones, Lisa Kirk, Pat Kirkwood, Ethel Merman, and Liza Minnelli. And for all lovers of the works of the immortal Bard of Avon, we recommend a DVD featuring a fascinating collection of silent Shakespeare films.

Catherine Surowiec
CD & DVD reviewer

Editor’s Pick

Road Show
Nonesuch / PS Classics
Original Cast Recording

A new Sondheim show is always a major event. At last we have the original cast recording from last year’s New York Public Theater production, directed by John Doyle, recorded earlier this year. It’s been a long road to Road Show, over a decade, from Wise Guys to Gold to Bounce. Sondheim first conceived the idea of a show about the fabulous Mizner brothers, freebooting conmen extraordinaire, back in 1953, but the project only started gelling with the collaboration of John Weidman in the 1990s.

What a rich vein of characters to mine: Wilson, the freewheeling entrepreneur, playwright, man about town, and quick-on-the-draw quipster (“A drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him of what he meant”; Hollywood: “a trip through a sewer in a glassbottomed boat”); and Addison, society architect of 1920s Mediterranean Revival dream palaces on Florida’s Gold Coast, catering to the pocketbooks and egos of America’s nouveaux riches.

The cautionary tale of the Mizners’ picaresque adventures, scams, and get-rich-quick schemes is one helluva rollercoaster ride, from the Klondike Gold Rush to the Great White Way and the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s. Like Assassins, it explores the underside of the American Dream. This time it’s America, Land of Opportunity, Capitalism, and Crooks: selling short and selling out, spiralling out of control, and going bust in the hands of shysters with all-too-willing victims. It’s full of resonance today: smooth-talking, bamboozling “Good Time Willie” Mizner is a Barnum for our times, gliding through life and sparkling with larceny (just substitute Bernard Madoff).

Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani are perfect as the larger-than-life Mizners, and they bring the characters to life on the CD. Sondheim’s lyrics are right on the mark, and the songs sweep us along in their wake: “Waste”, “It’s in Your Hands Now”, “That Was a Year”, “Isn’t He Something”, “The Game”, “Addison’s City” (Venice and jazz combined). “Boca Raton” puts it all together, with Willie as ringmaster: “What is Life, my friends? I say it is a journey … Onward we go, restlessly reinventing ourselves. Searching for something that already lies before us. For in America, the journey is the destination.”

Get this CD (the booklet includes all the lyrics) and go on the journey, it’s a road worth taking. Hopefully there’ll be a British production soon!


Banjo Boy - Original Live Cast Recording
Randy Hobler/BanjoBoy.net.

An unusual new musical inspired by the life and music of Meredith Willson, by composer-lyricist Randolph Hobler. The Liliom/Carousel-like premise has Willson, most famous as the writer of hit musical The Music Man, leaving heaven, going back to 1928 to change three notes of his personal life. The 17-year-old Willson sets out on a personal journey, encountering jazz, “March King” John Philip Sousa, and love with a Chinese indentured servant girl on the way, finally returning home to Mason City, Iowa, to win the high school band contest with his group the Banjo Boys, and repair his relationship with his domineering father.

This big-hearted musical boasts a score that is itself a celebration of America’s musical and social diversity, paying tribute to a variety of styles reflected in Willson’s own work – barbershop harmony, ragtime, and marches. The Music Man is especially well served: “Sears, Dear Sears” echoes “The Wells Fargo Wagon”, “Different” has the same complicated rhythms as “Trouble”, and the “Stuck” opening refrain of “Outta Here” reminds one of the train number “Rock Island”. The showstopping “Thanks Be to Music”, a gospel-flavoured, clapping, tapping number, rocks the house.

This CD features the original cast, recorded live in its world-premiere run in August 2008 at the Stephen Sondheim Performing Arts Center, Fairfield, Iowa. Energetically and engagingly performed, it captures the goodwill and verve of this charming musical. Independently produced, the CD is available domestically from Dress Circle in London, or online at //cdbaby.com. You can also watch two numbers (“Sears, Dear Sears” and “Thanks Be to Music”) on YouTube.

Gypsy - The 2008 Broadway Cast Recording
First Night Records / TimeLife

This Jule Styne / Stephen Sondheim show is one of the all-time classics of the American stage. It’s powerhouse Patti LuPone’s turn as Rose, the ultimate stage mother, whose daughter grows up to be sophisticated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Ethel Merman created the role in 1959; her Rose is the gold standard, and has cast a long shadow over almost every other leading lady to essay the role. It’s almost impossible to listen to the score without hearing the Merm’s clarion diamond delivery, but LuPone makes the part her own, and even endows it with a touch of vulnerability (“Small World”).

This marvellous CD is the most complete recording ever of this landmark score. It includes the complete “Broadway” section of the “Dainty June and Her Farmboys” act and the “Seattle to Los Angeles” hitchhiking sequence, as well as a bonus of five cut numbers newly unearthed by the Jule Styne Estate, orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick and performed by the 2008 Broadway cast (LuPone, Boyd Gaines, and Laura Benanti all won Tonys). The handsome full-colour booklet is chock-full of information, including notes by Patti LuPone herself (written at the request of director Arthur Laurents, who makes a guest appearance on this recording as Pop in “Some People”). Celebrate this classic musical’s 50th anniversary in style, and let it entertain you! (P.S Love those gilded proscenium arches and showgirls framing the booklet’s pages - a great touch!)

Oliver! The 2009 Cast Recording
First Night Records

The new London cast recording of Lionel Bart’s masterpiece, starring Rowan Atkinson and Jodie Prenger, recorded at Drury Lane in January 2009. This CD marks the first time Oliver! has ever been recorded live, an epic undertaking. (Underlined by the lettering accenting “Live” on this CD release: “OLIVEr!”)

The CD notes tell us it involved 112 microphones – and it shows, capturing all the excitement and drama of this big, energetic production, giving it a sense of immediacy, complete with audience reactions. The informative booklet features credits, texts by producer Cameron Mackintosh, musical director Stephen Brooker, and music biographer Philip Norman, and lots of colour photos of the Drury Lane production.

Jodie Prenger, winner of the role of Nancy in the TV series I’d Do Anything, absolutely shines with star quality, and Bart’s rich, tuneful score remains one of the marvels of British musical theatre. As Stephen Brooker writes, “Nothing beats a great musical live on stage, but we hope you will agree that this recording that includes a short section of the curtain call music is the next best thing.” You’ll join the audience in asking for more!

Shirley Jones: Then and Now
Stage Door Records.

Shirley Jones is fondly remembered for her 1950s Rodgers & Hammerstein screen musicals Oklahoma! and Carousel, as Marian the Librarian in the 1962 screen version of The Music Man with Robert Preston, and on television as the matriarch of the wholesome singing Partridge Family in the early 1970s. She’s continued to be busy over the years, most recently in American touring productions of The King and I and in the 2004 Broadway revival of 42nd Street (with her son Patrick Cassidy).

London’s Stage Door Records has scored a coup with the album Then and Now, featuring the first-ever retrospective collection of her work on CD together with recent studio recordings. It begins with vintage selections from her best-known films, partnered by Gordon MacRae and Pat Boone, as well as duets with then-husband Jack Cassidy (it’s a pleasure to hear them sing Victor Herbert and Lerner & Loewe). The “Now” section is a wonderful surprise: like Barbara Cook, she remains on fine form, displaying a voice that is warm, rich, and clear.

The repertoire includes numbers from Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Music Man, as well as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Memory”. She also proves she can belt with the best: her mellow, throaty rendition of “You Made Me Love You” is a standout. “If I Loved You” is particularly moving: imagine an older, much wiser Julie Jordan, after Billy Bigelow has been gone for years. (From the photos on the CD, the lady looks fabulous. And she’s right up to date; she even has her own website.) Brava, Shirley Jones!

Lisa Kirk Sings at the Plaza
Sepia Records.

One of the original stars of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (she created the role of “Always True to You in My Fashion” Lois/Bianca), star of early U.S. television, and a regular headliner at the Persian Room at New York’s Plaza Hotel, in cabaret mode. This CD, first released in 1958 and now on CD and in stereo for the first time, presents ten tracks from her sizzling Plaza night-club act, conducted by Don Pippin, later a Jerry Herman stalwart, who shares his memories in the liner notes. She was a sassy, savvy stunner, and boy, could she sing! Her smoky contralto drips with honey, and it’s velvet all the way.

The 12 bonus tracks include songs from musical theatre and television. She rips through “How Come You Do Me Like You Do” and “The Lady Is a Tramp”, plucks our heartstrings with “Little Girl Blue”, and displays her talent for sophisticated humour in special material written by her husband Robert Wells (“Travel Light” and “Good Little Girls”). What a loss that her only big-screen work was behind the camera, dubbing Rosalind Russell in the 1962 film of Gypsy. As Don Pippin observes, “They don’t make ‘em like Lisa Kirk any more.”

The Unforgettable Pat Kirkwood

Kenneth Tynan famously described Pat Kirkwood’s legs as “the eighth wonder of the world”, while Harold Hobson called her “the greatest Principal Boy of the century”. Rumours about her relationship with Prince Philip have persisted for almost 60 years. But this glamorous lady was also a musical star of the first magnitude, with a voice that was a mixture of Mary Martin, Josephine Baker, and Virginia O’Brien. She glittered in West End revues and musicals, lit up the silver screen, headlined in Las Vegas, and was chosen by Cole Porter, Noël Coward, and Leonard Bernstein to create leading roles in the London productions of their works (Let’s Face It, Ace of Clubs, and Wonderful Town). Listen to this album and discover why.

This 2-CD compilation, released to mark the first anniversary of her death, features 66 tracks spanning 56 years, from her first film at the age of 17 to her last stage appearance in 1994. Among the 29 performances that have never previously been released on CD are a duet with Hollywood co-star Van Johnson, recordings she made in the U.S. which were never issued in Britain, rare soundtracks from her 1950s screen musicals, and several songs in live performance in 1993.

Ethel Merman - Memories
Sepia Records

A CD reissue combining two rare (and highly enjoyable) LPs from 1955 by one-and-only Broadway legend Ethel Merman. Memories takes us on a musical stroll down Memory Lane, with her own brassy interpretations of medleys of nostalgic hits from the Gay 90s to the Roaring 20s. Merman’s crisp, clarion delivery proves perfectly suited to classics like “The Bowery”, “Frankie and Johnny”, “A Bird in a Gilded Cage”, and “Shine On Harvest Moon”. You can just imagine her in a Lillian Russell bustle at Tony Pastor’s. A special treat are her renditions of George M. Cohan’s “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway”, “Mary’s a Grand Old Name”, and “Give My Regards to Broadway”.

In A Musical Autobiography Merman narrates “the story of my life in music” and performs highlights from her career (accompanied by the Buddy Cole Quartet), which naturally include some of the greatest hits of the American Songbook, by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, and Arthur Schwartz, from Girl Crazy, Anything Goes, Red Hot and Blue, Stars in Your Eyes, DuBarry Was a Lady, Panama Hattie, Something for the Boys, and Annie Get Your Gun. The CD includes an illustrated booklet with an essay about her recordings, the genesis of these albums, and their place in her career. As Merman gracefully closes, “Thanks for giving me a twirl; it’s nice to know that you like my work.” Make it another old-fashioned, please. Sit back, enjoy, and sing along!

Liza’s at the Palace
Hybrid Recording

Liza Minnelli in concert, recorded live at New York’s Palace Theatre. This 2-CD set captures Liza’s recent touring show, a showstopping songfest including many of her personal favourites and signature hits, plus an affectionate dance-filled tribute to the ground-breaking late-1940s nightclub act of Minnelli’s godmother, Kay Thompson (now best remembered for her fabulous “Think Pink” fashion editor in the Astaire-Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face).

Liza’s voice may not always be on top form, but the magic megawatts are there. If you saw Liza’s show last year at the Coliseum in London, this album is a must. And there’s even more good news for Liza fans: it’s just been announced that this sell-out show is due to be filmed in Las Vegas this September – so hopefully we’ll soon have a DVD to join this CD. Reserve a front-row seat in your home cinema now!


Silent Shakespeare
BFI Video Publishing.

“Silent Shakespeare” may seem a contradiction in terms, but it’s worth exploring the realm of silent film to see how the Bard was presented a century ago. The seven early Shakespeare films in this unique and fascinating collection – made between 1899 and 1911, from Britain, Italy, and the USA – represent the only known surviving materials, nitrate prints preserved by the British Film Institute’s National Archive.

There’s a magical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with some remarkable special effects, a charming five-minute film of The Tempest, and a fragment of the very first Shakespeare film ever made, King John (1899), which afford us a rare opportunity to study the acting styles of Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Frank Benson, as well as American matinee idol Maurice Costello and Italian diva Francesca Bertini.

The complete collection, digitally restored and accompanied by specially commissioned music by award-winning composer Laura Rossi, contains King John (UK, 1899), The Tempest (UK, 1908), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (USA, 1909), King Lear (Italy, 1910), Twelfth Night (USA, 1910), The Merchant of Venice (Italy, 1910), and Richard III (UK, 1911), and includes beautiful examples of early colouring (hand-stencilling and tinting).

Extras feature a filmed introduction and commentary, as well as sleeve notes with bibliography.
(N.B. Two short film extracts of Johnston Forbes-Robertson in Hamlet can be downloaded free from the BFI’s Creative Archive website: www.bfi.org.uk)


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