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Bonjour, Amour!

Matthew Murray reviews the cast recording of Amour, the best thing France has done for America in ages. logo
Pop the cork! Though Amour ran just 17 performances at Broadway's Music Box Theatre last fall, the musical's preservation for posterity has now been assured via a cast album -- the first recording of the score in English. Although Sh-K-Boom Records reassembled the original cast for the studio sessions six months after the show closed, there's no evidence that, in the interim, the performances had lost their fizz in the slightest. This is an almost perfect recording of a Michel Legrand score that bubbles like the finest champagne and has a similarly intoxicating effect.

Jeremy Sams has provided the skillful English adaptation of Didier Van Cauwelaert's original French libretto for Le passe-muraille. (That's the title of the show as it was produced in Paris, a title shared with the whimsical Marcel Aymé story on which it is based.) In Sams's hands, the songs -- intensely focused character numbers, lighthearted ensembles, flat-out comedy songs, etc. -- possess a zany quality. They suggest a world where anything, including magic, can happen at any time. The lyrics, which utilize a bit of French and a number of 1950 pop-culture references, surprise throughout, joining with the music to give the songs an underlying feeling of joy.

The score has a strong sense of continuity and a wonderfully French flavor, thanks in no small part to Legrand's light, unassuming orchestrations. This is obvious from the first cut on the CD, a scatted overture that identifies the characters and musical themes to be used while also suggesting the way in which the music will tell the story, from the pedestrian strains of a man alone to the ecstatic heights of a couple in love and a society reinvigorated. In addition, the overture makes it clear that Amour will not be a typical show and helps acclimate the listener to the special musical language Legrand is employing here.

Over and above the strengths of the score, the cast members as communicators of that language set Amour apart. Malcolm Gets, Melissa Errico, Lewis Cleale, Christopher Fitzgerald, Norm Lewis, Sarah Litzsinger, Nora Mae Lyng, Bill Nolte, and John Cunningham all contribute ideally sung and acted performances. Gets as the working-class fellow Dusoleil, who becomes a hero of the masses after developing the ability to walk through walls, and Errico as Isabelle, the unappily married woman whom Dusoleil worships from afar, are very strong; he undergoes a show-long transformation from a shy office clerk to a full-fledged romantic hero while she longs for something or someone to rescue her from her oppressive husband. Their infrequent vocal duets, including the show's title song, are as lush and romantic as that title promises.

Though Errico's solo numbers are among the CD's most stirring highlights, each of the nine performers makes a strong individual impression while functioning as part of a tight ensemble. Lyng's philosophical whore, Lewis's soul-searching Communist street painter, Litzsinger's desperate working girl, and Fitzgerald's dual roles as a newsboy and a woefully inexperienced defense attorney -- the latter one of the season's most sharply honed comic portrayals -- are all fully realized. Cleale, Cunningham, and Nolte make smaller contributions but help to energize the show (and the recording) during their moments in the spotlight; Cunningham's drunken doctor, Nolte's totalitarian boss, and Cleale's superbly sung prosecutor (Isabelle's husband and Dusoleil's adversary) all come across well.

There is one glaring flaw in the recording: Although the musical selections have been chosen to give the listener a full sense of the story from beginning to end, the plot's emotional climax is nowhere to be found here. On Broadway, the lengthy yet comically boisterous trial scene exploded into a show-stopping can-can celebrating Dusoleil's triumph over the Establishment and Isabelle's freedom from her husband. Minus this important moment, the CD stops dead just when the narrative should burst into life. The omission is more glaring than some of the other cuts (including much of Nolte's character and the show's hilarious, sung-through curtain calls) even if it is somewhat understandable: On a disc this packed, where could Sh-K-Boom possibly have found room for an additional 40 seconds?

A three-minute-and-two-second bonus track of Michel Legrand performing "An Ordinary Guy" tops off the 74-minute disc and it is an attractive rendition, though Gets's performance of the song in context comes across better still. The CD booklet is adorned with art from all three of the show's advertising campaigns; it features color photos of Gets and Errico and plenty of black and white shots of the production, plus lyrics of the songs that are represented on the CD. The attractive packaging and excellent engineering of the disc match the crystal-clear sounds of the music and the singers, offering the home listener an experience as magical as that provided in the theater. This recording of Amour, like the stage production, is a sparkling gem.

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