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Bedtime Stories

Two new cast recordings on the Ghostlight label are most welcome. logo
March is off to a great start, thanks to the good folks at Ghostlight Records; they're releasing fine recordings of two of 2005's most distinctive musical offerings, shows that in the past almost certainly would have gone unpreserved.

That's unfortunately familiar territory for Michael John LaChiusa, one of the contemporary musical theater's more important composing talents. Of his more recent works, neither the accomplished Little Fish, produced at Second Stage in 2003, nor Lovers and Friends (Chautauqua Variations), produced at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2001, were recorded -- and it's too early to tell whether his stunning Bernarda Alba, which just opened at Lincoln Center, will be. But The Public Theater production of See What I Wanna See, LaChiusa's adaptation of stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is beautifully if somewhat misleadingly represented on disc.

A musical blending of tales that represent conflicting viewpoints, the show is divided into three chapters. "Kesa and Morito," about two passionate lovers preparing to part on violent terms, begins each act -- first with her point of view, then his. "R Shomon," which constitutes the balance of the first act, recounts the murky events of a 1951 murder in which five people involved -- the wife, her husband, a thief, a janitor, and a medium -- can't agree on what they saw or what it means. "Gloryday," the show's second act, is about a priest in post-9/11 New York who finds his belief in God challenged (and perhaps affirmed).

"Gloryday" was the highlight of the stage production, an intensely emotional examination of faith and loss in a potentially godless world. But, on the recording, the 12 "Gloryday" tracks contain too little dialogue to convey the breadth and depth of the story. The songs of personal and spiritual exploration are so strongly integrated into the drama that, lacking the greater context, they mostly play as entertaining if affecting non-sequiturs. However, the opposite is true of "R Shomon"; what fell a bit flat onstage sizzles on disc, as LaChiusa's jazzy-noir stylings smartly convey the fluid morality of five people sorting through a messy crime's even messier aftermath. "Kesa and Morito," the subtlest and least adventurous of the pieces, more or less speaks for itself; it's tart but unfulfilling, a sort of dramatic aperitif.

Every nuance of Bruce Coughlin's excellent orchestrations -- period-precise and smokey for "R Shomon," experimental for "Gloryday," Asian-suggestive for "Kesa and Morito" -- comes through in this well produced recording, and Chris Fenwick's band is a delight. Four of the five cast members -- Mary Testa (who sings the score's comic triumph, "The Greatest Practical Joke"), Marc Kudisch (at his braggadocious, bracing best), a lusty Aaron Lohr, and a warmly understated Henry Stram (the central figure in "Gloryday") do memorable work.

The only disappointment is Idina Menzel, who took on the roles originated by Audra McDonald in the 2004 Williamstown Theatre Festival production. As a possible murderess in Kesa and Morito, a two-timing wife in "R Shomon," and a self-absorbed actress in "Gloryday," Menzel violently vacillates between her trademark belt and a sort of scat-singing in the lower-key numbers. She's the least consistent and least interesting performer on the disc; she's got the right spirit, especially when singing the perspective-skewing title song in a seedy nightclub, but in general sounds like she's not clear as to what's actually going on. For a show such as See What I Wanna See, that might seem appropriate in a way, but her confusion is the only thing about the recording that makes uncertainty less than riveting.

There's nothing life-changing about Songs From an Unmade Bed; it's just a thoroughly charming recording of the thoroughly charming song cycle that played at New York Theatre Workshop last spring. With lyrics by Mark Campbell and music by 18 different composers, there's no specific story here, just a series of ruminations passing through the head of one gay man (played by the ingratiating Michael Winther) during the course of one sleepless night.

Most of the 18 songs on this 51-minute disc, which captures the full show, are about the man's past relationships with all different kinds of men, although there are occasional forays into other areas. (The opener, "Here in My Bed," finds him fretting about dying alone, and "I Miss New York" is a toast to the vanishing city in which he lives.) There's a wide variety of musical styles at play here as the man's emotions run the gamut from quiet reflection to mild anger to light humor to disco-beat excitement. Winther, a highly adaptable, Everyman vocalist, has no trouble negotiating the sometimes jarring disparities between the songs and helping to unify them into a believable history of this likeable, lovelorn guy. (The three-piece band, led by Kimberly Grigsby, also aids in providing musical consistency.) Of course, as good as Winther is here, the recording preserves only half of his performance; his physicality and facial expressiveness were a key part of the show's success Off-Broadway.

Here are a few words of advice: Don't play Songs From an Unmade Bed just before heading to bed yourself. Despite its "easy listening" nature, this CD is more likely to cause rather than cure sleepless nights, because you won't want to risk missing a single moment by drifting off to dreamland.

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