Once upon a time, commercially released cast recordings of shows that did not play New York at some point were extremely rare. Nowadays, although musical theater albums seem more of a niche market than ever, there has been a paradoxical increase in recordings based on productions that have no plans for Broadway or Off-Broadway. Among these are two worthy new releases, as follows:

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The only collaboration of Richard Rodgers (as composer) and Stephen Sondheim (as lyricist), Do I Hear a Waltz? was quite a flop on Broadway in 1965. Based on Arthur Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo (which also served as the basis for the film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi), the musical tells the story of an unmarried, fortyish American woman who is awakened to some unpleasant truths about herself during a vacation in Venice when her romance with a local shopkeeper goes awry. The original production starred Elizabeth Allen as Leona Samish opposite the golden-voiced Sergio Franchi as Renato DiRossi. Allen sounds musically fine but emotionally distant on Columbia's Broadway cast recording--and she also seems uninvolved in a video clip that I've seen of the show's title number as performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. The legend of Do I Hear a Waltz? is that it didn't fly because: (1) the idea of making a musical out of The Time of the Cuckoo was a bad one to begin with since, as Sondheim himself has pointed out, the central character is a woman who is unable to sing (metaphorically speaking); and (2) the Rodgers/Sondheim partnership was so fraught with ill will that their work together suffered as a result. Wouldn't it be something if the main reason the show tanked was actually that its leading lady was seriously miscast?

Evidence of this theory is provided by Fynsworth Alley's new recording of the recent Pasadena Playhouse production of the show, starring Alyson Reed and Anthony Crivello. Reed, who was given her shot at stardom in the film of A Chorus Line and the 1980s Broadway revival of Cabaret but failed to grab the brass ring, is probably not many people's idea of a major musical theater talent; but, on the CD, she does have the vulnerability that Allen apparently failed to display as Leona, and this alone makes for a performance far more effective on the whole even if it is sung less smoothly. Crivello, best known as a star of Kander & Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman, sounds so great during most of this recording that you'll wonder where he's been all these years--until you hear the final note of his rendition of "Stay," a shredded tone indicating some weird sort of vocal problem that seems to have affected only the very top of his range.

Though Waltz is much better than its reputation--a point stressed by David Lee, director of the Pasadena production, in his notes for the CD booklet--it does have more than its share of weak songs. Sondheim's lyrics for "Perfectly Lovely Couple" are lacking in subtlety, and "What Do We Do? We Fly!" was probably a lot funnier 36 years ago, when jokes about the experience of commercial air travel weren't yet ingrained as clichés. On the other hand, the show's opening number--"Someone Woke Up"--wonderfully evokes Leona's awestruck response to the beauty of Venice. And the gorgeous title song is notable for one of Rodgers' most captivating melodies in 3/4 time and some truly lovely lyrics.

This production is based on a revised version of the show that was seen a few years ago at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. The new CD includes "Everybody Loves Leona," a song cut from the Broadway production, along with a previously unrecorded overture. The supporting cast is fine--except for Tina Gasbarra who, as Giovanna, sounds like she's auditioning to be the voice of a particularly annoying animated cartoon character. Truth to tell, the disc would be worth owning if only for Carol Lawrence's vibrant, gutsy performance as the pensione proprietress Fioria. Also, the score is well conducted by Steve Orich and has been sumptuously recorded by Fynsworth engineer Vincent Cirilli. The album was produced by Bruce Kimmel.

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I suppose we didn't really need another cast album of Guys and Dolls; still, it's still nice to have one as satisfying as DRG's new recording of the current touring production starring Maurice Hines. I generally have a problem with color-blind casting, but Hines is full of humor, snap, and energy as Nathan Detroit here. Though TheaterMania's own Peter Filichia pulverized the performance of Alexandra Foucard as Miss Adelaide in his Star-Ledger review of the show during its run at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, I have to say that Foucard sounds fine to me on the CD, far less affected than some other Adelaides I've heard. As for the husband-and-wife team of Brian Sutherland and Diane Sutherland (formerly Diane Fratantoni) as Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown, these folks sing prettily and have lots of chemistry--yeah, chemistry!

Decca's 1950 original Broadway cast recording of Guys and Dolls features an iconic performance by Vivian Blaine as Adelaide and is otherwise an essential aural document of one of the most successful, influential musicals of the last century, but its sound quality is thin and unsatisfying. Motown's album of the 1976 all-black Broadway revival with Robert Guillaume, Ernestine Jackson, and others is lots of fun but, because of its updated arrangements and orchestrations, is not for purists. The 1992 revival cast CD from RCA boasts Faith Prince's Tony Award-winning performance as Adelaide, expertly partnered by the Nathan Detroit of Nathan Lane, but Peter Gallagher sounds vocally tired as Sky Masterson and Walter Bobbie is a disappointing Nicely-Nicely Johnson. So, on balance, the DRG disc stands up well to its competition. And it's always a pleasure to have another modern, stereo recording of this great Frank Loesser score in its fabulous, original orchestrations by George Bassman and Ted Royal, here presented under the musical supervision of Danny Kosarin.