Director John Doyle's casting of the other roles in this gripping, revisionist production of the seminal Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical has come in for some criticism, but the recording serves as testament to the company's talents. Heather Laws as Amy is the real show-stopper, offering one of the best-ever performances of the 100-words-per-minute "Getting Married Today," and there is excellent character work by Keith Buterbaugh (Harry), Matt Castle (Peter), Robert Cunningham (Paul), Kelly Jeanne Grant (Kathy), Kristin Huffman (Sarah), Amy Justman (Susan), Leenya Rideout (Jenny), Fred Rose (David), Bruce Sabath (Larry), and Elizabeth Stanley (April) as well.
The CD is also a testament to stick-to-it-iveness. When I saw this Company in its pre-Broadway run at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Barbara Walsh as Joanne and Angel Desai as Marta gave slightly disappointing performances; but both ladies seem to have put their noses to the grindstone in the interim, with the result that their respective renditions of "Another Hundred People" and "The Ladies Who Lunch" are among the highlights of the Broadway production and the recording.
As for Mary-Mitchell Campbell's reduced orchestrations, necessitated by the fact that the cast members also function as the show's musicians: This is one of those "something's lost but something's gained" situations. Jonathan Tunick's thrilling original orchestrations are indeed missed -- but, on the other hand, the much leaner scoring here brings Sondheim's matchless lyrics into even sharper focus. The effect is akin to viewing a beautiful painting in a simple frame rather than an ornate one.
As if all of the above news weren't great enough, this Company has got to rank as one of the best-produced cast albums of all time. The sound quality is very good, and the lavish 75-page booklet is definitely worth perusing for Jeremy McCarter's perceptive notes, Sean Patrick Flahaven's clear synopsis, and Paul Kolnik's gorgeous production photos -- some printed in full color, others in wonderfully sharp black and white. Note: The Company cast will perform three numbers from the show and sign copies of the CD at Barnes & Noble Lincoln Center (1972 Broadway at 66th Street) on Friday, February 23. The performance will begin at 5:30pm, followed by the signing, 6-7pm.
When it comes to Kurt Weill, what's your preference? Do you cotton to the dark, edgy, innovative musical theater pieces that the composer and Bertolt Brecht created in their native Germany, or are you more partial to Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Lost in the Stars, and the other scores that Weill wrote after emigrating to America? If you prefer the former -- or if you like both -- go ahead and wrap your ears around Ghostlight's new recording of Brecht and Weill's Happy End, the cast album of a recent production at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
This is the first English-language recording of the score, and one of the best things about it is the exemplary translation by theater critic Michael Feingold. Set in a fantasy version of Chicago circa 1919, Happy End is about Salvation Army workers attempting to reform a raffish band of gangsters. (Think Guys and Dolls, only much darker.)
Among the large A.C.T. cast, only two names are immediately familiar to me: Linda Mugleston (who plays "The Fly") and Sab Shimono (The Governor). But the entire company is vocally and dramatically strong, with standout performances by Peter Macon as Bill Cracker and Charlotte Cohn as "Hallelujah Lil." They and their colleagues make a meal of the score, which includes "The Bilbao Song," "Surabaya Johnny," and other less-well-known but no less compelling numbers.
Like the Chorus Line revival cast album, Happy End was recorded at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, and the excellent sound quality allows the listener to fully appreciate the spot-on vocal performances as well as the marvelously seductive orchestrations. (Constantine Kitsopoulos is the musical director/conductor.)
In her notes on the recording, A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff writes that "the music of Kurt Weill gets under your skin and stays there unlike almost any other music -- it's sexy, dangerous, surprising, inventive." Anyone who hears this recording will have to agree. If you love Threepenny Opera, you'd do well to give Happy End a tumble.
Porgy and Bess evinces a level of musical genius that approaches the divine, yet there are at least three aspects of the opera that have insured it a difficult performance history. First of all, George Gershwin's masterpiece requires a large company of black singer-actors with legit vocal training, and it wasn't easy to find such people during the first half of the 20th century. (The difficulty of casting the original 1935 production is well documented.) This has happily ceased to be a problem, but two other issues remain: Gershwin's orchestrations are so thick that singers cannot be heard over them unless their voices are amplified -- a big problem in opera houses -- and the work is so lengthy that it can be rather a trial for audiences unless it's heavily cut.
Of course, neither issue applies to recordings of Porgy; the balance of singers versus the orchestra can be corrected through skillful audio engineering, and the work's bulk is not necessarily bothersome to home listeners, who don't have to take in the entirety of Porgy at one sitting. In short, major cutting of the opera makes a lot of sense for live performances but little sense for recordings.
If you concur with that opinion, you'll want to avoid Decca's new Porgy and Bess. Conductor John Mauceri presents the score as it was originally heard on Broadway in 1935, with about half an hour of music excised. (The complete opera is three hours long, not counting intermissions!) These cuts were effected by Gershwin himself -- but, of course, we have no way of knowing for sure which if any of them were made because he felt they actually improved the work, and which were made with the specific goal of bringing the running time in line with that of a typical Broadway musical.
As it turns out, several of the excisions (including Porgy's "Buzzard Song") are defensible, but many are not. Among the most sorely missed sections are the choral reprise of "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" and Maria's comic rap number "I Hates Yo' Struttin' Style." Even worse, the final scene of the work has been nearly destroyed by overzealous editing. Gone is more than half of the heartbreaking "Oh Bess, Oh Where's My Bess?" trio and a good deal of the ensuing scene, including one of the most thrilling moments in the entire score: Serena's anxious cry, "You better stay wid yo frien', Porgy, you'll be happy here!"
Taken all together, the cuts and Mauceri's lackluster leadership mar the recording so severely that the world-class playing of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the fine performances of Alvy Powell (Porgy), Marquita Lister (Bess), Lester Lynch (Crown), Robert Mack (Sportin' Life), Monique McDonald (Serena), Linda Thompson Williams (Maria), and the rest of the cast are almost beside the point.
Now playing in London and reportedly Broadway-bound is a Trevor Nunn production of Porgy and Bess that goes further down this road, greatly tightening the work's running time by turning all of its sung dialogue into speech, as was done for the 1959 film version. If you think that sounds like a good idea, you have something to look forward to. In the meantime, those who want a recording of Porgy and Bess that's significantly abridged but still manages to convey the scope of the full work should opt for the wonderful 1951 performance conducted by Lehman Engel, and leave Decca's new release on the shelf.