Is there any easier last-minute holiday gift than a CD? It requires minimal wrapping, weighs next to nothing, fits perfectly into a stocking (or even a large tube sock), and can be enjoyed for many years to come -- unlike the lovely chocolates that I ate in one sitting. A number of recently released discs featuring theater and cabaret artists are certain to make anyone's season brighter. And if you yourself don't receive them for Christmas or Hanukah or whatever, they're highly recommended as post-holiday purchases.
Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley: Opposite You
These singers, a theatrical supercouple, are blessed with two of the most glorious voices currently found on the legitimate stage -- and they're not hard to look at it, either! Their first recording together, based on their popular nightclub act, is a highly enjoyable mix of duets and solos and includes a spectacular suite of five Stephen Sondheim songs: "Happiness," "Good Thing Going," "Too Many Mornings," "Not a Day Goes By," "Move On." Mazzie also shines in a wistful medley of "I Got Lost in His Arms" and "Who Are You Now?", and the couple's subtle renditions of two lighter numbers -- "The Aba Daba Honeymoon" and "Nellie the Nudist Queen" -- are guaranteed to make you smile if not laugh out loud. While the program is mostly made up of standards, Mazzie and Danieley do pay tribute to such contemporary composers and lyricists as Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel ("The Natural Order of Things"), Barbara Schottenfeld ("I Want You to Be…"), and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Opposite You"). All in all, this is one of the year's best CDs.
Karen Mason: Sweetest of Nights
Mason's remarkable pipes are matched by her ability to catch all the drama, humor, and nuance in the material she chooses. This time around, she completely captures the pain in ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All" (which she didn't get to sing while co-starring in Mamma Mia!) and the Brian Lasser-Gary Bormet song "What's Wrong with This Picture." She finds great joy in "Almost Like Being in Love," navigates the biitersweet waters of "Cold Enough to Cross" (co-written by her talented husband, Paul Rolnick), and gently caresses the warm, lovely title tune. But the CD's crowning achievement is a gorgeous pairing of "Now I Have Everything" (from Fiddler on the Roof) and "Married" (from Cabaret), which Mason invests with unparalleled feeling. What else would you expect from someone who got married on Valentine's Day!
Broadway's Greatest Gifts Volume 7: Carols for a Cure (Rock-It Science Records)
Proceeds from this special 2-CD set are earmarked to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The album is a gem, with the companies of more than two dozen Broadway and Off-Broadway shows serving up their takes on holiday songs. Among the many highlights: Darlene Love leading the Hairspray cast in "All Alone on Christmas"; Avenue Q's hilarious Ann Harada doing an amazing Judy Garland imitation in the midst of "Go Tell It On the Mountain"; the cast of The 25th Annual Spelling Bee happily massacring "The Twelve Days of Christmas"; Sweet Charity co-stars Rhett George and Mylinda Hull trying unsuccessfully to make it through "Joy to the World"; and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' Rachel deBenedet and Gregory Jbara duetting in a traditional version of "O Holy Night".
Andrea Marcovicci: Andrea Sings Astaire
Next month, this beloved singer will bring her popular tribute to the great Fred Astaire back to the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. If you can't make it there, or if you simply can't afford to see the show at those prices, this CD is a first-rate substitute. As is the custom with Marcovicci, her program is highly informative; you'll learn a lot about Astaire's career and you'll hear a few songs that you might not have known before, such as "The Half of It, Dearie, Blues" and "I Used to Be Color Blind." Thanks to Marcovicci's extraordinary way with lyrics, even the most famous of standards -- "Cheek to Cheek," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "One For My Baby," and so on -- sound new again. Special kudos to musical director/arranger Shelley Markham and the superb trio of backup musicians: Jered Egan, Rex Benincasa, and Walt Weiskopf.
Jeff Harnar: Dancing in the Dark
Listening to this creamy-voiced crooner is like lounging beside a fireplace on a cold winter's night; Harnar's baritone is supremely warm and comforting. On this standards-based CD, which features excellent arrangements by Alex Rybeck, he wraps his velvety tones around such theater classics as "Lonely Town," "Love, Look Away" and "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever") to pleasing effect. Not content to just be a balladeer, Harnar has fun with such up-tempo gems as "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Put 'Em in a Box," giving us a well-balanced listening experience.
The Odd Potato
Here's a recording that makes up for the shortfall in Chanukah-themed music. More than 20 of Broadway's best-known performers -- almost every one a Tony Award winner -- have contributed to this musical version of Eileen Bluestone Sherman's children's book about a spud that magically becomes a menorah. From Judy Kaye (and, later, Michele Pawk) singing the lovely "My Mother's Menorah" to Debbie Gravitte's spirited "Don't Forget the Pepper" to Elaine Stritch having "The Final Word," it's winner after winner. If you buy the CD, a lot of children will also be winners, since some of the proceeds go to Variety, the Children's Charity.