Luckily, the generous bonus features on the just-released DVD give the film some much-needed heft. The deleted scenes are most satisfying, particularly when they deepen the examination of the four central musicals. For instance, new footage of Avenue Q's strenuous campaign for the Best Musical Tony Award proves how hard these underdogs worked to nab their prize. Other bonus clips suggest Berinstein could make a sequel about the straight plays she followed. If nothing else, Bronson Pinchot's backstage antics at Sly Fox deserve a wide audience.
The only feature that falls flat is the commentary track. Berinstein, co-producer Alan Cumming, and Avenue Q co-writer Jeff Marx chatter with no real purpose, so inanity overwhelms the interesting tidbits. Do we really need to know that our commentators love the chopped salad at Sardi's?
Fortunately, that time-waster can be forgiven, though, since the disc also includes a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraising speech that Harvey Fierstein made from the stage of Hairspray looking fierce in his Edna Turnblad drag. Many theater fans have been to a performance where a cast member steps out after curtain call to ask for a donation, but it's a boon that this particular request has been preserved. It not only records one of the defining traditions of recent Broadway history, but also captures a beautiful performance. Fierstein's timing is flawless, and his wit and compassion gently remind us that the ability to give is a privilege.
Off-Broadway fans may scratch their heads and think it's 2001, when the performer won an Obie Award for her work in the Nyro-inspired musical Eli's Comin' at the Vineyard. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers might assume they've put on an old vinyl record by mistake, since Kuhn's voice eerily resembles Nyro's, and Joel Moss and Jeffrey Klitz's production sounds like it was completed during the Vietnam War. In fact, the album is such an unwavering homage to the folk and soft rock sounds of the 1960s and early 1970s that it could be used as a history lesson.
Still, Serious Playground does prove the sophistication of Nyro's songwriting. On "Stoney End," for instance, the tempo speeds up just as the lyrics, about a woman's disillusionment with life, reach a crescendo of pain. Kuhn's vocal also takes a journey, beginning soft and high and ending in a wail that dips into her lower register. The result is utterly convincing.
In the lustrous "To a Child," the album's best cut, Nyro's lyrics find the uneasy place where a mother can look at her son and feel both joy and pain, and Kuhn inhabits that contradiction. When she sings, "I'm a poet without a poem, and you are my child," her voice quavers with doubt. A few moments later, she sings a prayer to every "god and goddess" that her child will be happy, and her vocal control suggests she's really giving an order. The song creates a vision of motherhood that's moving because it's so complicated.
Of the few misfires, the most glaring is "Save the Country," a stab at gospel rock that doesn't suit a group of musicians so obviously interested in making every note sound correct. There's something too precise about the big, wailing chorus, with its perfectly harmonized background vocals, and the horns and pianos feel timid, as though they were afraid of straying from their sheet music. Though they excel at the subtleties of despair, Kuhn and company can't sell the excess of a wild celebration. In the end, Serious Playground works best when it follows the rules.