The initial impression given by Fynsworth Alley's "new cast recording" of the current national tour of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is disappointing; the CD has neither the original Broadway cast album's delightful spontaneity nor the polish of the film soundtrack. But repeated listening reveals that the Fynsworth disc is quite successful on its own terms.
The most noteworthy aspect of the recording is, of course, the presence of Ann-Margret in the central role of Miss Mona. Her work in the Whorehouse tour has engendered strong opinions, many of them negative. A-M's live performances had hitherto been limited to Vegas acts and arena concerts, and people who generally know what they're talking about have reported that the aging star seemed frail and unsure of herself in Whorehouse--at least, during the first few weeks of the tour. That said, I have the impression that the lady's critical reception was less vicious than it might have been if she were not generally recognized as one of the nicest people in show business, here making a courageous, belated attempt at a musical stage role for which she would seem to be perfect casting.
The Fynsworth album gives credence to the charge of tentativeness that has been aimed at A-M. She never really lets go and belts any high notes, which is a problem in songs like "A L'il Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place," "No Lies," and "The Bus from Amarillo." In this respect, one misses Carlin Glynn's vocals on the original cast album and, for that matter, Dolly Parton's very different but fully satisfying approach to these songs in the Whorehouse movie. Yet Ann-Margret works very well within her limitations, sounding just fine in the lower-lying sections of the role and adopting that famous, sexy, breathy head voice for the higher reaches. Though lacking in theatrical energy, her overall vocal performance is by no means unpleasant and not without its own sort of charm.
As recorded here, the remainder of the Whorehouse tour cast is strong. Gary Sandy is appealing in the one song ("Good Old Girl") he gets to sing as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, while Rob Donohue is a stitch in Melvin P. Thorpe's production number, "Texas Has a Whorehouse In It." The fabulous Forbidden Broadway veteran Roxie Lucas stresses acting rather than singing in her performance of "Doatsy Mae," with persuasive results, and Avery Sommers has a high-old time in the role of Jewel. Aside from its other assets, the album offers a new song written especially by composer/lyricist Carol Hall for this tour. Titled "A Friend to Me," it's a pretty, sentimental ballad well-rendered by Ann-Margret--and by Hall herself in a bonus track.
I would have complained loudly and bitterly about the fact that Fynsworth Alley's new live recording of the April 2, 2001 Momentum AIDS Project benefit presentation of Elegies for Angels, Punks & Raging Queens does not preserve the entire performance, but I understand that this was due to technical problems. So allow me to move past my disappointment and focus on the fact that this CD is exemplary in every other respect.
Featuring a book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Janet Hood, Elegies could melt a heart of stone with its songs and poems offered by a rainbow coalition of characters lost to AIDS. Russell writes in his notes for the CD booklet that the work was inspired by the all-too-enormous Names Project Quilt that memorializes our AIDS dead and by Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, a collection of free-verse epitaphs spoken by deceased characters in a small-town cemetery. As both a loving tribute and a musical theater piece, Elegies is eminently worthy.
The Fynsworth disc includes only a small handful of the show's verse monologues (those performed at the benefit by Bryan Batt, Steve Burns, Mario Cantone, Veanne Cox, Christopher Durang, and Erin Torpey) but all of its songs, sung with beauty and passion by a dream cast. Alice Ripley gets things started with her moving rendition of the title number, while Norm Lewis and company provide a thrilling finale with "Learning to Let Go." In between, there are alternately funny, wise, and heart-wrenching songs performed by Brian d'Arcy James ("And the Rain Keeps Falling Down"), Clent Bowers and Doug Eskew ("I Don't Do That Anymore"), Stephanie Pope ("I Don't Know How to Help You"), and a host of others including Alton Fitzgerald White, Orfeh, Amy Spanger, Kane Alexander, Sharon Wilkins, Brad Little, and Kelli Rabke. But the cut that will unquestionably reduce you to tears is "My Brother Lived in San Francisco," definitively sung and acted by Emily Skinner.
Fortunately, the sound problems of the live Elegies benefit are nowhere apparent in the material that did make it to the CD. Rest assured that this album is a required purchase despite its incompleteness.