Picks and Pans Main: Song
CRAZY FOR YOU
It would be hard to go wrong with fistfuls of Gershwin songs like "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It," all exuberantly arranged and, when the giddy script calls for it, crisply tapped out by the strong ensemble. And for the most part the loving hands that retooled George and Ira's 1930 hit Girl Crazy have done right.
Listeners may be less crazy for the stars, Harry (the sitcom Dear John) Groener and Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid). Groener, who has a passingly pleasant baritone, clowns effectively through "What Causes That?" but almost ruins "Can You Use Me?" by the archness with which he infuses Ira's sharp internal rhymes. Benson is best when not trying quite so hard for Emotion—her insouciant "I Got Rhythm" packs a greater wallop than ballads like "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "But Not for Me," which are clumsily phrased and burdened with excessive vibrato. Nonetheless, Crazy generously addresses the needs of those who rightly say, "They just don't write 'em like that anymore." (Angel)
AND THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND
If there were any justice—and we know there isn't—the five performers in this off-Broadway tribute to the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb would be starring on Broadway. The adroit revue, which closed after 404 performances last year, includes songs from such hits as Cabaret and a lovely lesser known show like The Happy Time.
The cast's three women—Karen Mason, Brenda Pressley and Karen Ziémba—wonderfully combine their considerable vocal resources for the Boswell sisters-style "There Goes the Ball Game" from the Martin Scorsese movie New York, New York. And "The Grass Is Always Greener," in which a dowdy housewife (Pressley) and a celebrity (Mason) compare lives, is done to a fine satiric turn. The men—Jim Walton and Bob Cuccioli—are equally scintillating.
The title song is reprised one too many times. But "Cabaret," sung in a mixture of boogie woogie and Lambert Hendricks and Ross, is not to be missed. Ditto the war-horse "Theme from 'New York, New York,' " much enlivened by presentation in French, Swedish, German and one or two other tongues. (RCA)
Many cast albums leave one overwhelming impression: The dancing must have been terrific. So it is with Tommy Tune's sleekly staged Grand Hotel. The score by Maury Yeston, Robert Wright and George Forrest has some beguiling moments, for instance, "Who Couldn't Dance with You." The enticing Jane Krakowski and Tony Award winner Michael Jeter excel. But no melody lingers on. Ultimately, the only thing grand is the title. (RCA)
This reissue of the short-lived (172 performances) 1960 musical is dear to theater buffs for reasons that have little to do with the production itself. Wildcat marked Lucille Ball's Broadway debut; it was the first teaming of composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh. It was during Wildcat's run that Ball met future husband Gary Morton. And there was a kid in the chorus named Valerie Harper. One can hardly deny the show's lapses—a lackluster book and, with the exception of the anthem to optimism, "Hey, Look Me Over!" a forgettable score. Still, it's nice that after all those years Lucy Ricardo spent begging bandleader Ricky to give her a part in a show, the lovable redhead finally got her break. As a brash, blue-jeaned big talker determined to strike oil, Ball sings with reasonable capability and great brio. (RCA)
THE SULLIVAN YEARS: THE BEST OF BROADWAY
For anyone old enough to remember Dad bringing home the family's first (or even second) TV set, watching The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71) on Sunday nights was as much a part of childhood as grooving to Yo! MTV Raps is for today's kids.
It was Sullivan, the newspaper gossip columnist turned variety-show emcee, who gave many of us our first glimpse—live!—of Elvis, the Beatles and, often, Broadway stars bellowing out soon-to-be signature songs.
It is luminaries like Camelot's Richard Burton and Robert Goulet (where's Julie Andrews?), The King and I's Gertrude Lawrence and Hello, Dolly!'s Pearl Bailey who make this two-CD set such a really big show. The 26 songs, all recorded live on Sullivan, hail from 15 musicals, including South Pacific, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady (it's a pleasure hearing Stanley Holloway orotundly sing "With a Little Bit of Luck," but, ahem, where's Julie Andrews?), Oliver!, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret and Hair. Sound quality varies from tinny to passable.
The delicious bonus is hearing Sullivan, bristling with boxy bonhomie, clumsily introduce and chat up guests in his inimitable (though often imitated) I-only-seem-dead manner. Catch, for example, Sullivan mangling Larry Kerfs name ("Larry Kern is an uptown Romeo just after a rumble") before Kert and Carol Lawrence sing a hauntingly achy-breaky "Tonight" from West Side Story, or introducing Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, My Fair Lady's writing team, with an interminable and pointless setup about the pair's brief, little known boxing careers. (TVT)
The fountainhead of modern musicals, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat opened on Broadway in 1927, melding music and drama as no show had before. This reissue of the 1966 Lincoln Center production is a tonic to the tonsil-baring excesses of Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in the empty 1951 film (Irene Dunne, Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson shone in the 1936 movie). Barbara Cook, with her thrilling soprano, and sturdy baritone Stephen Douglass sound a bit too affected, but they manage to relieve the venerable "Make Believe" of at least some of its excess sugar. While William Warfield (repeating his 1951 film role) doesn't quite erase the memory of Robeson, his "Ol' Man River" is fine—equal parts rage and resignation. (RCA)
GUYS AND DOLLS
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
Defending his eclectic ear as a composer, Frank Loesser once said, "I don't invent languages. I make use of them." No one ever borrowed more originally than he did in creating the music and lyrics for his two most famous shows, both brilliantly revived this year and now superbly recorded (on RCA).
In Guys (1950) and Fella (1956), Loesser took first the mock-formal argot of Damon Runyan's dice-rolling New York denizens and then the broken English of an Italian immigrant farmer and wove lyrics of stunning wit and substance. He especially wove musical languages from counterpoint and gospel in Guys to pop tunes and Italian folk forms in Fella. Guys is more satirical, Fella more lyrical. Both marvelously use music to express character and often manage to be comic and romantic at the same time. Sony's recent reissue of the 1956 Fella cast album should only heighten the luster of the new production. Where Robert Weede sang like the moonlighting opera star he was, Spiro Malas, an operatic bass, brings the rough-hewn, bighearted, grape-growing Tony of the title deeply and touchingly to life.
THE SECRET GARDEN
Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's novel about an orphan girl who finds the key to love in a magic English garden was brought to Broadway last year by composer Lucy Simon and playwright Marsha Norman. Some critics were enthralled; others found the show plodding and overblown. The album presents the songs—jaunty, swirling, intoxicating—with just enough dialogue to early the story. The music steadily draws you into its realm of wonder, yearning and self-discovery. (Columbia)