The current state of the musical theater cast album business is somewhat precarious, as will be detailed in an upcoming TheaterMania feature article. But the intrepid producer Kurt Deutsch is going great guns, issuing a treasure trove of such recordings on his Sh-K-Boom label and on the company's new imprint, Ghostlight. Five -- count 'em, five! -- cast albums have just been are are just about to be released on one or another of the two labels, which means that you're probably not going to be seeing much of your musical-theater-buff pals over the next few weeks.
Though David Yazbek's score for The Full Monty functions flawlessly in performance, that musical's cast recording doesn't really reward repeated listening; the melodies and rhythms that Yazbek crafted for the show are less than scintillating precisely because they so perfectly fit the simple, working-class Buffalo guys around whom the plot revolves. In contrast, the new Ghostlight cast album of Yazbek's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- a delightful romp set on the French Riviera and chock-full of rich, colorful characters -- is a thoroughly joyous listening experience, from the irresistible Pink-Panther-on-speed theme that begins the overture to the show-capping "Dirty Rotten Number" for John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz.
One of the CD's main pleasures is the outrageous "Great Big Stuff," expertly put over by Butz in the role of the striving con man Freddy Benson. (Sample lyric: "I'm tired of being a chump / I wanna be a Trump / Two hundred pounds of caviar in one / Gigantic lump.) "Like Zis/Like Zat" is an adorably loopy duet for Gregory Jbara and Joanna Gleason, while "Love Sneaks In" is a ballad persuasively rendered by Lithgow as Lawrence Jameson. Perhaps best of all is "Here I Am," which marks the entrance of heiress Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott), a potential dupe of Lawrence and Freddy. This spiffy, bossa-nova-esque production number is knocked out of the ballpark by the amazing Ms. Scott, who happens to be married to Kurt Deutsch. (Lucky man!) Harold Wheeler's orchestrations and Zane Mark's dance music arrangements are top drawer, and the recording has the high-energy aura of a live performance.
As I note in the TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, the original Off-Broadway cast recording of Hair is largely unlistenable -- and the subsequent Broadway cast recording is no prize, either. Nor is there much enjoyment to be found in the two-volume London cast album, now on CD courtesy of Decca. The soundtrack recording of the 1978 film version of this Galt MacDermot-Gerome Ragni-James Rado musical is excellent but, with its extensively revamped arrangements and orchestrations, it doesn't represent the score as first conceived. So praise be to Kurt Deutsch and Ghostlight for giving us a phenomenal studio recording with the cast of the September 2004 Actors' Fund of America benefit concert performance of this groundbreaking show.
Though it's hard to single out highlights on a disc that's full of them, I must mention Lillias White's breathtaking rendition of "Aquarius"; the no-holds-barred performances of "I Got Life" and "Hair" by Adam Pascal and Raúl Esparza, respectively; Jennifer Hudson's unforgettable "Easy to Be Hard"; Julia Murney's powerful singing and emoting in "Where Do I Go?"; the sweet-voiced Liz Callaway's "Good Morning, Starshine"; and Norm Lewis's leadership of the devastating finale, "The Flesh Failures" / "Let the Sunshine In." Even the two tracks that might have been liabilities turn out to be fine: RuPaul stumbled through "My Conviction" in last year's concert but was replaced for the recording by Charles Busch, who plays this comic number for all its worth; and though Lea DeLaria's live performance of "Donna" was not good, she's much better on the CD. Under musical director Seth Rudetsky, the orchestra and the "tribe" sound great from start to finish.
Little Women: The Musical might be described as Louisa May Alcott by way of Boublil-Schönberg, even though the show's score was written by others. It isn't the worst Broadway score of the 2004-2005 season, but Ghostlight's cast recording shows it to be the most flagrantly incongruous. The songs, with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, contain strains of melody that wouldn't be out of place in Les Misérables but bear few traces of the gentle, knowing Civil War feminism story that has been considered a classic of American literature for generations. What we get instead of a finely detailed, carefully colored portrait of the loving if sometimes strained bonds between the four March sisters and their mother are tunes designed to pierce the ear and raise the rafters, not to tell the story.
How else to explain "Better" and the bafflingly defiant first-act finale "Astonishing," two power-belting showpieces for Sutton Foster, who won a Tony Award for her performance in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie but is an abrasive presence as aspiring writer Jo March? The talents of the other cast members -- e.g., Danny Gurwin, who has shone in other roles but is too aggressively modern for Laurie -- are wasted on non-specific material designed to be lifted out of the show but not to work within it. Only the two laid-back, cabaret-style songs sung by Maureen McGovern as Marmee, "Here Alone" and "Days of Plenty," really work -- and only because of the performer's sheer force of will. Otherwise, there's little here to interest fans of integrated musicals and/or 19th-century women's literature.
The music of Bright Lights, Big City (Sh-K-Boom) is notable for an authenticity that Little Women doesn't even aspire to. Composer Paul Scott Goodman certainly knew what he was doing on that front, and Roger Butterley's orchestrations -- heavy on keyboards, bass, and even a Hammond B3 organ -- help to throbbingly evoke the hard-drinking, hard-drugging early 1980s in this musical adaptation of Jay McInerney's novel. (The show played at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1999.) But Goodman's lyrics display no trace of his tunes' ease or cleverness; instead, the songs musicalize rambling, mock-insightful dialogue that paints its subjects, both human and geographical (especially New York City), in the broadest possible strokes.
Not even a top-notch cast led by Patrick Wilson (who created the role of Jamie in the NYTW production) and including Jesse L. Martin, Eden Espinosa, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Richard Kind, Gavin Creel, and Sherie Rene Scott can redeem a score with such insipid lyrics as "It isn't that compelling checking other people's spelling" and "Mummies at the Met Met, Mommy used to take me to see mummies at the Met Met." Special note should be made of the CD booklet, which features in-character shots of Wilson in a bevy of self-consciously sexy poses (in one, he's staring purposefully at a milk carton) and the most unflattering photo of featured performer Christine Ebersole imaginable: no discernible makeup, lit cigarette, half-empty drink glass. Unfortunately, neither tobacco nor alcohol aid in the assimilation of Goodman's work.
In contrast, all that's needed to enjoy Altar Boyz (Sh-K-Boom) is a CD player. Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker's songs for this spoof of boy bands and Christian rock are among the very freshest of the season, possessing the sort of pulsing vitality that is so often found Off-Broadway. The score comprises hard-driving rock numbers, a Latin-rhythm item, even a deceptively sincere ballad. Filtered through the writers' razor-sharp comedic sensibility, these and other songs are filled with humor. One of the standouts is "Epiphany," a Broadway-themed coming-out-Catholic showstopper performed by breakout star Tyler Maynard. The entire cast couldn't be better, with Scott Porter, Andy Karl, Ryan Duncan, and David Josefsberg just as electrifying as the unbeatable orchestrations of Doug Katsaros and Lynne Shankel.
As good as the material is -- finding better music and lyrics in New York this season was practically impossible -- it's not quite as effective here as it is in the show at Dodger Stages, where the energetic performances and the live band are irresistible. Practically none of book writer Kevin Del Aguila's dialogue is included on the disc, and that's unfortunate, as it's every bit the uproarious equal of the music. Still, this is a strong recording of a fantastic show. Don't stop listening when the last listed track is over; the moving finale, "I Believe," is followed by a hidden bonus track that presents a frenetic remix of Altar Boyz hits. This CD proves conclusively that a benevolent higher power is watching over musical theater.
[For more information or to purchase these and other Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight recordings, visit www.sh-k-boom.com]