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Compact Commentary on Compact Discs

Filichia listens to several new cast albums and enjoys some of them much more than others.

By New York City
Ah, a rare night off from going to the theater! I'd hate for there to be too many of them, but it is nice to stay home once in a while so I can luxuriate in listening to new CDs.

As I sort through the pile, I wonder if we'll ever get a CD of Christine Jorgensen Reveals, "America's first famous transsexual's only recorded interview." We may, for the show that's playing at Dodger Stages through this weekend has the two actors -- one of them live, the other on videotape -- lip-synching to a recording that was released on LP in 1958. Jorgensen's interviewer was the then-unknown Nipsey Russell, who'd later become semi-famous as a comedian. Both Russell's questions and the former George Jorgensen's answers are intelligent and well-reasoned. But I couldn't help wondering if, in 2006, Ms. Jorgensen would give a different answer to one question: When Russell asked, "Would you like to be known as Christine Jorgensen, actress?" maybe the transsexual today would answer, "No; Christine Jorgensen, actor."

I start my evening by listening to The Great American Trailer Park Musical. The opening number, "This Side of the Tracks," is a noisy song that revels in its ignorance. Well, as a cast member told me after she had been hired for the show, "It ain't no Light in the Piazza." No -- and it's not even Whoop-Up. I don't necessarily mind a show being crass and full of four-letter words, but I do mind when a show isn't consistent. For example, one of the Trailer Park ladies mentions "cheese that smells like urine." Wouldn't she say "piss?" Similarly, "She ain't left the trailer since the birth of aerobics" isn't the way anyone would mark the passage of time, let alone one of these self-proclaimed white trashers. "It's a place for evading tax" is a backwards lyric in more ways than one; "tax evasion" is what the character would say, if she'd say it at all, but lyricist David Nehls needed a rhyme for "tax." I stop listening before the first song finishes. Maybe I'll return to the disc at some point. Then I notice in the booklet -- which includes each and every deathless lyric -- that a husband says, "Can we go see somethin' super-classy like the Ice Capades?" He wouldn't describe it as such, and I'm sure the authors know that.

On to Lone Star Love, a musical based on The Merry Wives of Windsor but set in 1865 Texas. I'm astonished at the packaging, for PS Classics really threw money at it. You'd think this 40-performance flop was Porgy and Bess, what with its O-card -- the official name for the cardboard sleeve that slides over the entire jewel box, thus frustrating those who own CD racks that have narrow slots. The accompanying booklet has paper of such heavy stock that it's too thick for the inside of the jewel box and, therefore, gets its own separate space inside the O-card. Here, too, every lyric in the score is printed. To this day, booklets for most recordings of Hammerstein, Loesser, and Comden and Green shows don't include the lyrics -- but the one for Lone Star Love does. Though the tub-thumpin' and lazy-waltz country songs don't quite warrant such an ornate presentation, they are genial and amiable. I just might play this disc again.

Next is The Color Purple, which I like, even though it isn't brilliant. The melodies are pastiche, meaning that they vaguely resemble a number of previous songs we've heard African-American characters sing. The lyrics? We all know the difficulties involved in creating a perfect triple-rhyme, so we applaud E.Y. Harburg for writing the following lines for Finian's Rainbow: "I'd like to play some tennis / Or take a trip to Venice / But, sister, here's the menace." As for The Color Purple, in the middle of the highly enjoyable "Shug Avery Is Comin' to Town," we hear, "You don't understand / What it do to a man / When you in her hands" -- a triple non-rhyme, which may in its own way be just as hard to accomplish. Still, to hear LaChanze in what may very well be her first Tony-winning role is a great pleasure.

I immediately love the cast album of the new Sweeney Todd because it starts without the shrill whistle that destroyed some of my hearing through much of 1979 when I continually heard it on the original recording. As I encounter this great show once again, I'm reminded of what Leonard Bernstein said as quoted in Sondheim & Co. in 1974: "Steve is going to write an opera that will knock your eyes out." In fewer than five years, he did. Here's a show in which an angry Sweeney says "piss" not because Sondheim needed the word for a rhyme but because it's what the character would say. You don't get the entire score on the new CD; indeed, at 89 minutes, this two-disc set is only 17 minutes longer than the single-disc highlights version of the first recording. While I miss many of those interstitial "Ballads of Sweeney Todd" and the "Parlor Songs," I especially mourn the loss of the wonderfully childish laughter of Lansbury and Cariou after "With or without his privates?" But stars Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris are in excellent voice, and this is a nice alternative recording with numbers that genially segue into another, making for a continuous musical experience. And what well-engineered, clear sound! God, that's good!

In contrast, Billy Elliott's sound is a little remote. But the score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall, is the thing -- and even though there are too many lyrics with false accents ("Solidari-TEE," "Bran-DOE"), this is easily John's best theatrical work to date. There are many anthems but just as many jaunty songs, including a ditty that Hedwig, Albin, and Charles Busch would have embraced in their youth. And while I usually don't like tap dancing on a recording, the many tapping sequences included among these 15 tracks made me want to join in. Bet you'll feel the same.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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