Immigrants and Lost Boys
Notes on recordings of two very different musicals: a recent Off-Broadway show and a true rarity.
Sounding like a klezmer interpretation of Jeanine Tesori's Violet as played by a vaudeville house pit band, the songs float by in an unsteady stream of post-modernism and musical theater clichés, despite Kimberly Grigsby's spirited musical direction. Long, musicalized dialogue scenes feel all but interminable -- especially "A Stranger Here," in which the Jew (Haskell, played by Adam Heller) meets his surrogate family, Milton and Ima (Walter Charles and Cass Morgan). Comedy songs like "Changes," following Haskell and Milton's attempts to set Haskell up in a proper business, and "Padadooly," in which Ima and Haskell's wife Leah (Jacqueline Antaramian) compare their cultures' different beliefs in luck, find few easy laughs and come across as more disjointed and listless here than in the theater. Other numbers that played well onstage -- Leah's reflective "Candlesticks," Ima's "Take the Comforting Hand of Jesus" (an aching examination of her faith), and Haskell's frustrated "No Place to Go" -- lack dramatic impact when divorced from Harelik's book.
Only in "The Sun Comes Up," a 10-minute musical montage chronicling the birth of Haskell and Leah's children and the couple's maturing relationship with Ima and Milton, does the score generate any considerable narrative or emotional power. Heller, Charles, Morgan, and Antaramian are at their most effortless and effective here, and the number is laced with enough comedy and honest sentiment that we get a sense of the characters as real people. But, on the whole, Harelik should have stuck with his moving, simple, original play instead of diluting it with music that only obscures the heartfelt story.
One of the most intriguing CDs to be released in quite some time is Koch's recording of Leonard Bernstein's Peter Pan. In 1950, four years before Mary Martin starred on Broadway in a musical version of J.M. Barrie's classic tale with a score by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh augmented with songs by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, Broadway saw another Peter Pan -- this one a semi-musical with a few vocal numbers featuring both music and lyrics by the great Leonard Bernstein.
In that production, the title role was played by Jean Arthur (who couldn't sing, hence the lack of any songs for Peter) and Captain Hook was played by the one and only Boris Karloff. An original cast album of the show exists but it's a real oddity in that it contains only five songs by Bernstein -- "Who Am I?", "Build My House," "Peter, Peter," "Pirate Song," and "Plank Round" -- and is filled out with incidental music by Alec Wilder. As conductor Alexander Frey writes in his notes for the Koch recording: "With the help of the Bernstein estate, I looked through all of the composer's manuscript material [and] discovered that he had actually composed an entire score consisting of choruses, instrumental music, and more songs. [I] began putting together all of this material, working toward restoring the complete score. And it is here on this new compact disc that the public will hear all of this music together for the first time." (The recording includes no music by Wilder.)
The CD is invaluable for allowing us to hear so much music that was never previously heard or had fallen into obscurity, and also for giving us worthy new performances of the vocal numbers listed above in state-of-the-art sound. Bernstein fans will be delighted by the inclusion of the sweet ballad "Dream With Me" and "Captain Hook's Soliloquy," two items that were cut from the Arthur/Karloff stage production. Interestingly, "The Pirate Song" sounds quite similar to its counterpart in the 1954 show, and sharp-eared listeners will also notice that the instrumental track "Tinkerbell Sick/Tink Lives!" includes a section of music from Bernstein's On the Town.
The soloists here are Linda Eder, who tones down her vocal mannerisms and offers beautiful performances of the songs written for the character Wendy; and Daniel Narducci, who has a high time with Hook's numbers. Frey conducts the Amber Chamber Orchestra. There is also an uncredited chorus: The men play pirates while the women are heard as mermaids singing "Neverland." The gorgeous orchestrations are credited to a host of people ("Original orchestrations by Trude Rittman and Hershy Kay, with additional orchestrations by Sid Ramin, Garth Edwin Sunderland, and Alexander Frey"). Several of the songs on this album are lost gems, and the orchestral music is just as terrific as you'd expect, given who wrote it.
The CD ends with a bonus track of Eder and Michael Shawn-Lewis singing "Spring Will Come Again," a song intended for a Bernstein-Comden-Green musical version of Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. Not above recycling, as noted above, the composer wound up using this haunting melody for the boy soprano aria in his Chichester Psalms.