Apparently, the release of the Nonesuch cast album of Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza caused a run on record stores last week; demand for the CD exceeded all expectations, and Internet theater chat rooms and message boards were filled with frantic discourse as to where one might find a copy of the disc. ("All sold out at Virgin!" "I was just at Tower and they had seven more!") As far as I know, there was no similar frenzy attendant to the release of the Monty Python's Spamalot recording, even though that show is infinitely more successful at the box office than Piazza. Perhaps people recognize that, hilarious as Spamalot may be in the theater, its songs don't stand up to repeated listening, whereas Guettel's gorgeous score definitely does.
As soon as you get your hands on the Piazza disc -- which you must do forthwith -- you'll understand what all the fuss is about. Though the show at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater has some significant flaws, most of them relating to Craig Lucas's book for the musical, Guettel's work is indeed sublime. His soaring arias, ravishing duets, and skillfully constructed ensemble scenes are sung to the hilt by a superb cast led by Victoria Clark as Mrs. Margaret Johnson, Kelli O'Hara as her beautiful but mentally challenged daughter Clara, and Matthew Morrison as Clara's handsome Italian suitor Fabrizio. (If Clark doesn't win a Tony Award for this performance, I'll be inconsolable.) Oh, in case you were wondering: The CD booklet does include an English translation of Fabrizio's "Il Mondo Era Vuoto" ("The world was empty..."), so listeners who aren't 100 percent fluent in Italian -- or don't know a word of it -- can find out exactly what Morrison is singing about.
Even before hearing Ghostlight's exceptionally well produced cast album of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I correctly guessed that the recording would have two strikes against it. First of all, though William Finn's score serves the show perfectly well, it doesn't bear repeated listening on CD -- sort of like the aforementioned Spamalot songs, though not for exactly the same reasons.
Another issue is that the adults who play early adolescents in Spelling Bee tend to ape the voices of that age group by singing in pointedly "kid-like" voices. This works wonderfully well in the theater, but the cast's generally bright, uncovered, vibratoless vocalism is not the sort of thing that one yearns to listen to over and over again on an audio-only disc. (This doesn't apply to Celia Keenan-Bolger, who sounds lovely throughout as Olive Ostrovsky. And an exception to the "vibratoless" adjective above is the singing of Dan Fogler, who delivers William Barfee's music -- including the hilarious "Magic Foot" number -- with a wobble that puts Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion to shame. Fogler's overall performance is award-worthy, but the singing itself isn't pretty, nor should it be.) In sum, this album will serve as a treasured memento for those who've seen the show but is difficult to enjoy in its own right.
There's not a whole lot to be said about the new Sony/BMG recording of the Elvis Presley "jukebox musical" All Shook Up. If you like the cast albums of Mamma Mia! and Movin' Out, you'll probably like this one as well, but many die-hard Elvis fans will prefer to stick with the King's original recordings of "Love Me Tender," "It's Now or Never," "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Jailhouse Rock," and other classics.
For what it's worth, musical supervisor Stephen Oremus's arrangements are excellent; Jenn Gambatese, Mark Price, Leah Hocking, Sharon Wilkins, and Alix Korey score some major points with their recorded performances; and star Cheyenne Jackson exudes talent and star quality even without the visuals. There are some nice photos of Jackson and the other cast members in the colorful booklet that accompanies the CD, plus an interview with book writer Joe DiPietro.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the Decca Broadway cast album of Spamalot would be a superfluous addition to the libraries of all but the most rabid collectors. The same thing applies to the PS Classics recording of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Pacific Overtures revival.
Other than the gorgeous, thick booklet that includes Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for the show and many color photos, there is no reason to buy this disc. Why subject yourself to the painfully vitiated Jonathan Tunick orchestrations of Sondheim's score when the original 1976 cast recording offers a full, lush-sounding orchestra? The only two passable members of the Roundabout company -- Alvin Y.F. Ing and Sab Shimono -- can also be heard on the '76 album, sounding much better there. And B.D. Wong as the Reciter is fine except in terms of authority, charisma, and singing ability.
If you do choose to purchase the CD, don't miss the bonus track, a pre-rehearsal recording of a song called "Prayers" as sung by Sondheim and the original production's director, Harold Prince. It's mostly forgettable but for the song's last lines: "Save us! Save us! Save us!" I couldn't have said it better myself.
Considerably better is DRG's album of Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit. Some of the show's numbers are a bit dated; spoofs on The Boy From Oz, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and 'night, Mother don't seem au courant at this point and, actually, they haven't been for months. Still, a great cast -- Ron Bohmer, Jason Mills, Megan Lewis, and Jennifer Simard, whose invocation of Bernadette Peters is accurate to the point of eeriness -- makes even the staler pot shots sound fresh.
Of course, the performers are even better in Alessandrini's more timely numbers, and there are plenty of those. "You Gotta Get a Puppet" gives Avenue Q and its felt-embracing theatrical compatriots their due; the ruthless Wicked segment makes brutal fun of that bombastic gravity- (and patience-) defier; and "Forbidden Assassins" finds two characters from last year's revival of that Sondheim-John Weidman musical lamenting the difficulty of the show's songs. If the point of the Mamma Mi-diocre sequence -- that the brainless, witless ABBA hit is somehow better than the jukebox junk that has followed it to Broadway -- is debatable, it's hard to argue with "Ethel Merman & Friends," in which the timeless diva and her high-wattage colleagues praise the Broadway they lit, or the hilarious "No Leading Lady Tonight," which uses a ubiquitous Guys and Dolls tune to lament star absenteeism on the Great White Way of today.
The opener is also a winner, deliciously setting up the theme promised by the show's subtitle: Jerry Orbach (Bohmer) and B.D. Wong (Mills) from Broadway's Special Victims Unit -- they "investigate homicides of a theatrical nature" -- arrive to question a tourist who has witnessed the death of the Broadway musical. The sequence contains the following gem, spoken by the Wong character: "The theater-seeking bird / Finding no good show / Die like Pacific Overture." Exactly.
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