Many musical theater fans were disappointed to find Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 included in the Encores! series' 1998 season. Too obscure, they said, with witless sketches and only one even mildly familiar song, "I Can't Get Started." Granted, these are probably the same people who prefer safe old titles like The Pajama Game--but don't get me started on the numbing lack of adventurousness in the upcoming Encores! season.

The rest of us found a lot to admire in the Follies. All right, most of the sketches were feeble, but in a fascinating way: They played like 1936 versions of bad Saturday Night Live sketches. Watching them was like witnessing the birth of modern sketch comedy, and Mark Waldrop's astute, assured direction wrung every possible laugh from the material. Vernon Duke's music and Ira Gershwin's lyrics beguiled, a starry cast ably impersonated the starrier originals, Rob Fisher and his orchestra did their usual excellent work, and the whole evening had a transporting, time-traveling quality. Well, fellow travelers, it's time to jump back into the time machine. After letting the cast recording of the production languish in the vaults for a couple of seasons, Decca Broadway has finally released this aural memento of Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 on a CD with a gleaming purple-and-black Art Deco cover. It sounds as swellegant as it looks.

This is the first Encores! cast album with no antecedent. Many of the series' productions have been recorded (Pal Joey, Call Me Madam, Tenderloin, The Boys From Syracuse, etc.), and all those CDs are worth having; but, since they all exist in previous versions, they don't feel absolutely necessary unless, for example, you find Tyne Daly more riveting than Ethel Merman. This Ziegfeld Follies is truly a premiere CD, with painstakingly reconstructed orchestrations and first-time recordings of some dozen songs. And you don't have to suffer through the sketches.

It's classily packaged, too: Gershwin archivist Lawrence D. Stewart has written a smart, far-reaching essay on the original production for the CD booklet, delving deep into the working relationship between Duke and Gershwin and explaining some of the dated references in the lyrics. (This was no minor task: One lyric alone takes in Edna Best, Max Baer, Zuleika Dobson, Anthony Eden, and Ilona Massey.) A second article, by Mark Trent Goldberg, chronicles the search for the original orchestra parts and unravels the mystery of who worked on what. (The show had four brilliant orchestrators--Hans Spialek, Don Walker, Robert Russell Bennett, and Conrad Salinger--and their work is unsigned.) The booklet is also generous with photos from both productions, including vintage shots of the likes of Eve Arden, Bob Hope, Fannie Brice, Josephine Baker, and the Nicholas Brothers. This was no B-list cast.

And the score? Great fun, though it's clear why it did not endure. Like many revue scores, it's jokey and topical, not intended for posterity. And much of Vernon Duke's music may have been a little highbrow for Follies audiences. (This was a problem Duke encountered throughout his Broadway career; his biggest hit song, "Taking a Chance on Love," features a melody so simple that it seems consciously dumbed down.) The big ballad, "Words Without Music," opens on a long B-natural in the key of F-major, which is about as weird as a pop song could get in 1936...and, from there, it never goes where you expect. "That Moment of Moments" is a sleek fox trot that might have been written for Astaire, except that the intervals are trickier than anything George Gershwin or Irving Berlin ever gave Fred. "He Hasn't a Thing Except Me" is an odd hybrid of comedy and torch song. "Sentimental Weather," a tap specialty, is divided into sections not of the customary eight bars but, if I'm counting right, 11 bars long. Duke and Gershwin simply were not playing by the rules.

Ira Gershwin
Ira Gershwin
These are exceedingly quirky songs, then, written mostly for strong star personalities. The 1998 cast may not match the originals, but they're generally well-chosen and expert. Christine Ebersole shines in numbers both comic ("The Economic Situation") and sultry ("Island in the West Indies," which, in a felicitous Gershwin couplet, is far "from Reuben's and from Lindy's"). Howard McGillin's tenor has the proper mocking quality for the self-parodying opening number, "Time Marches On," and the equally impudent finale, "(We Hope You'll Soon Be) Dancing to the Score." Peter Scolari, in Bob Hope's roles, is light-voiced but right for "I Can't Get Started" and "Fancy Fancy You." Karen Ziemba and Jim and Bob Walton tap happily through "My Red-Letter Day" and "Sentimental Weather." Most remarkably, West End leading lady Ruthie Henshall gives "Words Without Music" a throaty rendition, combining consummate musicianship and ripe sex appeal; she seems to be directly channeling the original, Gertrude Niesen, another idiosyncratic diva with a deserved cult following. Two disappointments: Mary Testa was either talked out of or too timid to attempt Fannie Brice's thick Yiddish comic accent and doesn't replace it with anything in particular, while Stephanie Pope's jivey, girlfriend-let's-talk style is too modern to evoke Josephine Baker.

Rob Fisher's conducting, like the superbly evocative sumptuousness of the reconstructed orchestrations, cannot be overpraised. The overture, with its Hans Spialek fanfares and woodwind trills and big finish, is everything an overture should be. Even the dance breaks are hypnotic; the instrumental on "5 a.m.", a not-great song, is among the most pleasurable five minutes of listening I've had all year: The saxophones moan, the trumpets sigh, the flutes do a complicated quasi-chromatic thing, and you're transported to a fresh city morning 66 years ago.

The whole album is like that. Though not containing an absolutely first-rate score like, say, Babes in Arms, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 is far richer in terms of rediscovery. It's like dredging up a trunkful of buried treasure from the ocean floor and picking the lock; the odd, angular melodies and ingenious lyrics grow richer with repeated listenings, and a neglected chapter of musical theater history comes vibrantly alive.