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Audra McDonald's breathtaking performance in 110 in the Shade is captured on the show's cast album. Plus: Kander & Ebb's score for Curtains and Mark Bennett's music for The Coast of Utopia come to CD. logo
However you feel about "color-blind" casting, you'll probably agree that Audra McDonald's breathtaking performance as Lizzie Curry in 110 in the Shade is the best conceivable argument for the practice. As evidenced by PS Classics' cast album of the show, which happily includes quite a bit of dialogue, McDonald is a revelation in the role -- so much so that I'm going to stick my neck out and say it's the best thing she's ever done in a career that already has earned her four Tony Awards. Her Lizzie is a living, breathing human being who wears her heart on her sleeve, singing gloriously to communicate her intense feelings of love, joy, anguish, and loneliness. In the face of this performance for the ages, questions of historical-sociological-racial verisimilitude are minor distractions, easily dismissed.

McDonald is well partnered by Steve Kazee, who scores a near-triumph of talent and hard work over miscasting in the role of Starbuck. His voice is a little too light for the part, in terms of both weight and color -- and, as the production photos show, Kazee is not the ideal physical type to play this darkly sexy hustler-drifter. But his performance is energetic, committed, and charismatic, highlighted by a tour-de-force rendition of the captivating narrative ballad "Melisande."

Christopher Innvar, who went through a vocal crisis a few years back, sounds fine here as Sheriff File except for a few less than pitch-perfect notes in the opening number, "Gonna Be Another Hot Day." As for Lizzie's family: Chris Butler doesn't make much of an impression in the thankless role of brother Noah, but Bobby Steggert is a delight as brother Jimmy, especially when duetting with the adorable Carla Duren in the second-act charmer "Little Red Hat." And John Cullum exudes warmth and authority as H.C. Curry, the clan's patriarch -- though he does flub a lyric in "Lizzie's Comin' Home." (See if you can catch it.)

In the hands of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and musical director Paul Gemignani, the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones score sounds great -- with one caveat. Someone has decided to inject all sorts of pauses and ritards into several of the numbers, including "Love, Don't Turn Away" and the "Polker Polka." This was presumably done for dramatic effect, but the actual result is to impede the songs' flow and make them sound choppy. It's an unfortunate miscalculation in an otherwise stellar undertaking.


The opening of Curtains was greeted with a tremendous amount of goodwill. Although The Visit or All About Us may make it to New York at some point, Curtains could well be the last new musical with a score by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb to hit Broadway, and it seems clear that everyone hoped it would be a major artistic success. Sadly, this is not the case.

Rupert Holmes' book for the show doesn't work all that well as murder mystery or musical comedy, and the score -- to which Holmes contributed additional lyrics following Ebb's death -- is generally lackluster. For example, the production number "Show Business" is peppy but rather too derivative of other, similar tunes, even for a song of this nature. And the ballad "I Miss the Music," though obviously meant to be the emotional highlight of the show, is undistinguished at best.

This is not to say that Broadway Angel's cast album isn't worth a listen. The parody numbers, including "Wide Open Spaces" and "Kansasland," are lots of fun, and the lyrics of the first-act closer "Thataway!" keep hopping back and forth over the line between "clever" and "silly," to great comic effect. Tony Award winner David Hyde Pierce and Drama Desk Award winner Debra Monk come across vividly in their respective roles of Lieutenant Frank Cioffi and producer Carmen Bernstein, while Edward Hibbert is a riot as the bitchy, ultra-gay director Christopher Belling. Kudos also to David Loud's conducting and William David Brohn's colorful orchestrations.


I'm not ashamed to admit that I was bored to tears by Tom Stoppard's pretentious, overwritten trilogy The Coast of Utopia, even though I saw it in three separate installments rather than braving the butt-busting, nine-hour marathon. What kept me awake most of the time was the performances, which ranged from excellent (Billy Crudup, Jason Butler Harner, Martha Plimpton, Jennifer Ehle, et al.) to solid (Richard Easton, Brían F. O'Byrne) to entertainingly weird (Ethan Hawke).

Another praiseworthy aspect of the Lincoln Center production was Mark Bennett's music, over-amplified in the theater but enjoyable as heard in a new recording on the Ghostlight label. This is the sort of lush, lovingly orchestrated score you'd expect to hear on the soundtrack of an epic film. There are 38 music cues in all, each of them quite short; the CD contains only 35 minutes of material in total. Among the most compelling pieces are "Trilogy Prologue: 500 Souls," "The Telescope," "Birch Trees," and "Curtain Call." Note that the CD isn't completely instrumental; five of the tracks feature vocals by cast members Felicity LaFortune and/or David Pittu.

In a brief appreciation in the booklet accompanying the CD, Utopia director Jack O'Brien hails Bennett's score for, among other things, its simplicity. Would that the work it accompanied had exhibited the same virtue.

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