When Marie Christine opened last year at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center (on December 2), reactions, opinions, and reviews were largely of two varieties: People either loved it ("I thought it was provocative and mesmerizing...") or hated it ("When is she gonna kill those kids so we can get out of here?!"). It would be a pleasure to report that, with the release of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Marie Christine on the RCA Victor label on April 18, the controversy regarding the merits of Michael John LaChiusa's music and lyrics, at least, would be settled. But this technically excellent recording will only perpetuate split opinions of the piece--as well as the well-deserved, across-the-board praise of Audra McDonald's powerhouse performance in the title role. As it was on the stage, McDonald's work on the cast recording is the most compelling reason to recommend Marie Christine, in addition to Jonathan Tunick's lush, ravishing orchestrations.

Set in the late 1800's in French Creole New Orleans and, later, in Chicago, Marie Christine--a re-working of the Medea legend--is the story of an intelligent, passionate, racially-mixed young woman and her fatal, all-consuming love for a politically ambitious sea captain. LaChiusa's score is difficult to describe and, occasionally, difficult to listen to: a mélange of sounds and musical flavors that range from African rhythms to honky-tonk to ragtime to blues. Soaring operatic arias alternate with gospel-like choruses and, yes, even some conventional Broadway musical theater songs. Unfortunately, the score doesn't seem to propel the action of the story with the intensity that it should, and many of the motifs that LaChiusa employs sound dissonant and grim as opposed to haunting. Without the radiance and beauty of Audra McDonald's voice (in an incredibly demanding role) to act as his messenger, LaChiusa's words and music would surely be viewed in a much harsher light; McDonald's performances here, especially in "Beautiful", "Way Back to Paradise", "To Find A Lover", and "Tell Me," fully display her phenomenal range as both singer and actress.

In the role of Dante Keyes, Anthony Crivello sings with authority and verve. In many ways, he comes across much better on disc than he did on the stage; Crivello's lyric baritone has a warm luster that is particularly effective in "Nothing Beats Chicago/Ocean is Different," "I Don't Hear the Ocean," and the final, gut-wrenching "Your Name." Vivian Reed, Mary Testa, and Darius de Haas, as well as the "Greek chorus" of Jennifer Leigh-Warren, Andrea Frierson-Toney, and Mary Bond Davis, sing with great feeling and commitment. The recording is beautifully engineered and the orchestra, conducted by David Evans, gives LaChiusa's score the best possible performance for which he could have hoped. Similarly, the liner notes and synopsis in the CD booklet (which also includes the printed lyrics) are well written, easy to follow, and will allow those who didn't see the show live to better imagine what that experience was like.

LaChiusa has said publicly that he wants to reach as many people as he can with his songs, and the jury is still out as far as that objective is concerned. LaChiusa has also said that he doesn't begin a musical thinking about how he can write "hit" songs, that he doesn't want to pander, and that he can't worry about being popular. In all of these respects, Marie Christine is a quintessential example of his art.