Best things first: The New Moon, the 1928 Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein II-Frank Mandel-Laurence Schwab operetta that brought unexpected zing to the 2003 Encores! season, sounds lusher and larger than ever on CD with Rob Fisher masterfully conducting an orchestra of 36, a chorus of 24, and a hard-to-beat cast of principals. Set in 18th-century New Orleans and trafficking in French insurgents, spoiled heiresses, revolutionaries disguised as manservants, etc., the piece plunges avidly into swashbuckling operetta excess. There's the main plot about love conquering all, a comic love triangle subplot swelling with good-natured silliness, and a Romberg classic for every occasion: "Stout-Hearted Men," "Lover, Come Back to Me," "Wanting You," "One Kiss," and other irresistible numbers such as "Try Her Out at Dances" and "Gorgeous Alexander." It's a well-documented score: Recordings made by cast member of the 1929 London production, on Columbia, are sonically astonishing for their age, and there have been numerous studio albums over the decades, featuring such leading lights of light opera as Dorothy Kirsten, Gordon MacRae, Anna Moffo, and Peter Palmer. But there's never been a New Moon as complete -- or, arguably, as well sung -- as Ghostlight's.
The overture, in its original orchestrations (Hans Spialek's, though most of the other charts are Emil Gerstenberger's), soars and overflows with melody and excitement as all good overtures should, setting up the listener for rich vocalizing -- and this cast doesn't disappoint. On stage, Rodney Gilfry's Robert Mission boasted star quality, golden pipes, and a well-judged delivery poised halfway between sincere operetta heroics and ironic commentary on the slightly moldy libretto. (If you want proof of its moldiness, Ghostlight promises the whole thing soon on its website, ghostlightrecords.com.) On CD, Gilfry is just as impressive, even if he was perhaps recorded a little too close to the mike. Christiane Noll's Marianne has conviction -- not easy with lines like "Monsieur, you have won the lottery, I grant the privilege of a dance and a kiss" -- and secure high Cs, along with a dry, Julie Andrews-like persona that's more interesting than the average operetta diva's. Peter Benson, Lauren Ward, and Alix Korey have loads of fun in the comic numbers, and Ward's soubrette combines an authentic 1920s performance style with contemporary vocal aplomb. Brandon Jovanovich easily nails his own high C in "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," and F. Murray Abraham generously taxied down to the recording studio to preserve a few not-quite-deathless lines of dialogue. Ghostlight's preservation of a memorable Encores! production makes the best case for operetta of any CD in years.
Finian's Rainbow (1947) was the most aggressively satiric musical of its day, a take-no-prisoners mockery of capitalism and racism with an amazing Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg score. It, too, has had plenty of recordings: Columbia's original cast album, a fine 1960 City Center revival caught by RCA Victor in glorious early stereo, and I'm even partial to the 1968 film soundtrack with its Nelson Riddle-ish Ray Heindorf arrangements (though Lane loathed them). But Ghostlight's preservation of Irish Rep's vest-pocket production has passages that have never been recorded heretofore -- an intro here, a verse there. Better yet, its cast is the cream of current musical theater talent. They reel off Harburg's impudent, ingenious lyrics with a diction that clarifies previously unintelligible phrases.
You know how, when big old musicals get small new mountings, their producers and publicists take pains to explain that the downsizing brings a "new intimacy" to the material? Usually, this comes off as pleading. But this Finian's Rainbow, with twin pianists Mark Hartman and Mark Janas adroitly paring down the original Robert Russell Bennett-Don Walker orchestrations, really does have a warmth of its own -- most especially in Melissa Errico's "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?", which is worlds away from Ella Logan's hard-sell, brogue-heavy rendition on the original cast album. The rest of the company isn't quite up to her standard: As Og the Leprechaun, Malcolm Gets somewhat overplays the character's cuteness (an occupational hazard in this role); and David Staller, as a "Narrator" who ties together a few loose plot threads, overdoes the folksiness. But Max Von Essen is a youthful and personable Woody, investing "Old Devil Moon" with great charm. And Terri White is a special delight when she growls out "Necessity," which contains some of Harburg's most lacerating lyrics.
Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch worked together on the revival of 42nd Street, so it's not surprising that they would unite to produce a cabaret act heavy on Harry Warren standards. The CD based on that act runs a modest 42 minutes but also covers a lot of Hammerstein, including a velvet-smooth "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and a "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" so torrid that it almost sounds post-coital. Ebersole -- ike Errico, a leading lady who's usually better than the vehicles she winds up in -- is a versatile vocalist with a racy sense of humor, and Stritch's sturdy, distinctive arrangements and less-than-distinctive vocals provide simpatico support for her.
Actually, Ebersole possesses more edge and daring than the album can contain: She recently brought down the house in the annual Cabaret Convention at The Town Hall with a nasty crack about the President, and I'd have liked more of her in her daffy, unpredictable mode on the CD. The disc also has its miscalculations: a too-slow "Folks Who Live on the Hill," a pointlessly anthem-like "Lullaby of Broadway." But it's mostly mellow and supper-club-intimate, with Ebersole especially winning on "There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York" and "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me." All in all, it makes for tasty, late-night, candlelit listening -- and it's best served with a dry Merlot.