Category Archives: Q-S

Sunday in the Park With George

SundayOriginal Broadway Cast, 1984 (RCA) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Few Broadway composers could successfully make a painting into a musical, but Stephen Sondheim turned Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte” into one of his most unforgettable and distinctive works. In essence, Sunday in the Park With George is a meditation on the nature of art as viewed in the past (Seurat in the first act) and the present (his descendant, named George, in the second). Although the show has been criticized for the disparity in style between its two acts, each informs the other to create a cohesive whole, and the score has real depth and color. Sondheim reflects Seurat’s unique painting style through the use of staccato notes, playing with the various hues of music much as the artist worked with pigments. Songs such as “Color and Light” and “Finishing the Hat” are particularly remarkable in sound and texture. A few of the compositions are slightly more conventional: “We Do Not Belong Together,” the aching cry of Seurat’s mistress, Dot; the beautiful “Beautiful,” for Georges and his mother; and the rapturous Act I finale “Sunday,” during which the painting finally comes to life. The second act begins with the amusing “It’s Hot Up Here,” sung by the characters in the painting, followed by the brilliant musical scene “Putting It Together” (about George’s fundraising attempts), “Children and Art” (about what we leave behind when we die), and “Lesson #8” (about the constantly mutating nature of art and life). As Georges/George and Dot/Marie, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters do some of the finest work of their careers, leading an excellent company through the score’s intricacies. Sunday is one of Sondheim’s finest achievements, though it may require several hearings to be fully appreciated. — Matthew Murray

London Cast, 2006 (PS Classics, 2CDs) 2 Stars (2 / 5)  This recording showcases compelling, committed vocal performances by Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell as George and Dot/Marie, though their Brit accents — his pretty much RP, hers more North London — may take some getting used to. But for many listeners, the extreme diminution of the size of the orchestra here as compared to the forces heard  on the original Broadway cast album will be reason enough to exclude it from their collections. The original justification for the pathetically small instrumentation was that this was a production of the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory, but there was no significant increase in the number of musicians for the cast album (as often happens) or when the show transferred to Broadway under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, which presented it in the large Studio 54 venue. On the recording, this is a greater liability in some songs (e.g., “Sunday”) than others, but the tiny orchestra — or, rather, small combo or chamber ensemble — is a major disappointment throughout. The production itself was enjoyable for the leads and for a wonderfully creative use of projections to display Georges Seurat’s art, but minus the visuals, the cast album doesn’t really justify its existence. — Michael Portantiere

Broadway Cast, 2017 (Arts Music, 2CDs) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Jake Gyllenhaal made his name as a movie actor, and became a star in that sphere in such movies as Donnie Darko, Prisoners, Brokeback Mountain, and Nightcrawler before he tackled musical theater in the rapturously received 2015 presentation of Menken and Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors at New York City Center, following up that success with the equally acclaimed 2017 Broadway revival of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George.  On the cast album belatedly yielded by the latter production, Gyllenhaal’s vocal acting is of a very high level, and he brings to the role of George a youthful quality and an underlying charm that go a long way toward making an often difficult character sympathetic. But it must be said that, while his vocal tone is very pleasing, he has a disconcerting tendency to sing off pitch on sustained notes — sometimes in straight tone, sometimes with vibrato that turns into more bit of a wobble — perhaps due to inadequate breath support. No such issues are present in the singing of Annaleigh Ashford as Dot/Marie; her voice is clear as a bell and rock-solid in pitch, and her performance bursts with personality. The album also features stellar if brief contributions from an A-list supporting cast including Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenni Barber, Phillip Boykin, Erin Davie, Penny Fuller, Robert Sean Leonard, Liz McCartney, Michael McElroy, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, and David Turner. The inclusion of quite a bit of spoken dialogue from James Lapine’s often stilted, problematic book for the show on this 2-CD set might be considered a mark against it, especially when you have to repeatedly listen to lines in which, for some annoying reason, the characters completely eschew the natural use of contractions — e.g., “I guess I did not learn it soon enough….Sometimes he will work all night long.” But of course, any cast album of a Stephen Sondheim show is all about the score, and this one has many pleasures to offer despite the caveats noted. — M.P.

Road Show

Road-ShowOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2009 (Nonesuch/PS Classics) 1 Stars (1 / 5) What started off as a coruscating musical-comedy cavalcade ended dour and dumpy with the 2008 premiere of Road Show, the final (?) incarnation of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Mizner Brothers biomusical. As spearheaded (and speared) by director John Doyle, this is American history pageantry scalped of the fun, joy, and — well, the bounce that characterized the work’s three earlier incarnations. (See separate review of the recording of one of those versions, Bounce.) Wilson and Addison are played here by Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani with maximum sense of occasion and minimal charisma, weighing down even the better numbers — such as the romantic “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened” and the ostensibly scheming “The Game” — to the point where they can’t rise above the muck. Morose, muddy orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and indifferent musical direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell don’t inject any much-needed energy. Among the supporting cast, which also includes Claybourne Elder as Addison’s lover and William Parry as the boys’ father, only Alma Cuervo as Mama Mizner suggests  in her aching solo “Isn’t He Something!” the combination of wit and heart that should drive this story. The rest of the recording, like the show at this point, is, as the opening number puts it, a waste. — Matthew Murray

Silk Stockings

Silk-Stockings-OBCOriginal Broadway Cast, 1955 (RCA) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Cole Porter’s last Broadway show is a charming and sophisticated musical based on the Greta Garbo film Ninotcka. Only Porter could have given that heady cinematic masterpiece the urbane and romantic musical touch that it deserved. Set against an enticing Parisian background that inspired one of the great composer-lyricist’s most sensual love songs, “All of You,” Silk Stockings has a score that also includes the melodic and witty “Paris Loves Lovers,” the smoldering title song, the comedic “Stereophonic Sound” and “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All,” the swinging “Satin and Silk,” and the jazzy “Red Blues.” A strong cast is headed by Hildegarde Neff as Ninotchka, a dour Russian official visiting Paris, and Don Ameche as a slick American talent agent. Gretchen Wyler is a particular delight in a supporting role, displaying plenty of spunk when belting out hilarious Porter lyrics in “Stereophonic Sound.” (Sample: “If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good, old fashioned kind / There’d be no one in front to look at Marilyn’s behind…”) This recording has lots of sensational lyrics that were considered too risqué for the film version of Silk Stockings, yet it’s not perfect; the production numbers sound a bit frenetic, and even the overture is rushed. — Gerard Alessandrini

Silk-Stockings-movie copyFilm Soundtrack, 1957 (MGM/Rhino-Turner) 4 Stars (4 / 5) The treatment of Porter’s score by André Previn and the MGM orchestra is flawless, with musical arrangements and orchestrations far more dazzling than the Broadway originals. Fred Astaire was perfectly cast in Silk Stockings as the male lead, but Cyd Charisse was less well suited to the role of Ninotchka — a moot point when it comes to the soundtrack album, since Charisse’s singing was dubbed by Carol Richards. Janis Paige, Jules Munshin, and Peter Lorre (!) in his only musical are all great fun. Although the movie itself isn’t considered a top MGM musical, the soundtrack is definitely a winner. Previn’s conducting of “The Red Blues” and “Stereophonic Sound” is exciting, the lush orchestrations for Astaire’s vocal and dance in “All of You” are gorgeous, and added to the score are two songs that were written by Porter especially for Astaire; one of them, “Fated to Be Mated,” is a real treat. The only disappointment of this recording is the ridiculous censoring of some lyrics that were considered too explicit for movie audiences of the day. How amazing that an American film released in 1957 couldn’t contain the lines, “If Ava Gardner played Godiva riding on a mare / The people wouldn’t pay a cent to see her in the bare…” — G.A.

Side Show

Side-ShowOriginal Broadway Cast, 1997 (Sony) 2 Stars (2 / 5) Based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, twins who were born joined at the hip and who had minor show business careers that exploited their oddity, Side Show was one of the most overwrought musicals of its era. On Broadway, the exciting staging by Robert Longbottom distracted from all the heavy emoting; here, you have to deal head-on with the exhausting score by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (lyrics).  The book, by Russell, follows the sisters as they fall in love with a pair of promoters, achieve mainstream celebrity, then realize that they will never find happiness in marriage. It’s a touching story undermined by hysterical dramatics and weepy ballads that harp on the loneliness of carnival freaks. Krieger’s score is melodic, but every number is pitched at finale level, and Russell’s lyrics consistently skirt the ridiculous. The acid test is the number “Tunnel of Love,” in which the twins take a spin on the anonymous amusement park ride along with their boyfriends, hopeful of having sex in the dark. Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner are excellent as Violet and Daisy, screaming their heads off as the score demands. Jeff McCarthy and Hugh Panaro are okay as their men, Norm Lewis offers powerful vocals as a factotum who loves Violet, and Ken Jennings strikes sinister notes as the creepy sideshow boss. — David Barbour

Side by Side by Sondheim

SondheimOriginal London/Broadway Cast, 1976 (RCA) 2 Stars (2 / 5) When Side by Side by Sondheim opened in London, it was warmly received, as half of Sondheim’s shows had not yet been seen in the West End. In New York, where the material was much more familiar, the show still had a healthy Broadway run with the transplanted London company. The cast album reminds us how very fine these songs are; each included number from Sondheim’s pre-1977 shows, from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein) to Pacific Overtures, is an extraordinary piece of work. Yet, with all of the Sondheim cast albums available, there’s little reason to revisit this one. Why, for instance, opt to hear Julia McKenzie and two pianists perform “Losing My Mind” when we can hear Dorothy Collins and the gorgeous Jonathan Tunick orchestrations on the original Broadway cast recording? Millicent Martin has her moments here, particularly in “I Never Do Anything Twice” from the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, but her renditions of other songs simply can’t compare with recordings of the original performances. David Kernan, who conceived the show, is the third and least interesting member of the cast. — David Wolf

Show Girl

Show-GirlOriginal Broadway Cast, 1961 (Roulette/no CD) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Carol Channing spent many years between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly! touring in a successful nightclub act that was gussied up for Broadway as Show Girl.  Critics and audiences were cool to having a legit stage used for what they saw as an illegit show — little did they know what was to come! — so it didn’t stay around long, but the album is charming. The music, lyrics, and sketches by Charles Gaynor draw some material from the star’s breakthrough 1948 Broadway show Lend an Ear, created by Gaynor. Channing was joined onstage in Show Girl by comedian Jules Munshin, but their sketches didn’t make it to the recording; Munshin is only heard sharing two sly songs, “My Kind of Love” with Channing and “The Girl Who Lived in Montparnasse” with Les Quat’ Jeudis, a French quartet. The rest is all Channing, and she’s wonderful, whether singing the faux Rodgers and Hammerstein number “This Is a Darn Fine Funeral” or enacting the tragic tale of silent film star Cecilia Sisson, whose career was doomed by a hilarious speech defect when the talkies arrived. Channing fans should be aware that Show Girl also exists on video, having been taped for TV way back when. — David Wolf

Simply Heavenly

shOriginal Broadway Cast, 1958 (Columbia/Masterworks Broadway) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Strong reviews kept Simply Heavenly on the boards for about four months in all. The show opened Off-Broadway, later moved to Broadway for a while, then went back to Off-Broadway in a different venue and finished its run there. Sometime in the middle of all that, this album was recorded. The show was also telecast by WNET-Channel 13 for five consecutive evenings in 1959 as part of the station’s “Play of the Week” series. Langston Hughes fashioned the book and lyrics from “Simple Takes a Wife” and other stories he wrote about the life of the character Jess Simple in Harlem of the 1950s. The evocative music is by David Martin, and the jazzy arrangements make good use of electric guitars and throbbing trumpets. Melvin Stewart, who plays Simple, is not the greatest singer, but he’s effective in his three monologues included on the recording. Vocal honors go to Claudia McNeil, who sashays through her 11-o’clock number, “I’m a Good Old Girl,” with humor and style. Partnered by John Bouie, McNeil also rips into “Did You Ever Hear the Blues?” and “When I’m in a Quiet Mood.” Other pleasures include the sweet title song, sung by Marilyn Berry; “Let Me Take You for a Ride,” an amusing duet for Simple and Anna English; and Brownie McGhee’s artful interpretation of “Broken Strings.” — Jeffrey Dunn

Swingtime Canteen

SwingtimeStudio Cast, 1997 (Performing Arts Preservation Assn.) 3 Stars (3 / 5) When producer William Repicci caught a performance of a work in progress by Linda Thorsen Bond that was being staged in Midland, Texas, he was so impressed with the material that he recruited playwright Charles Busch to collaborate with him and Bond in refining the embryonic show. The result of their efforts is an all-female musical comedy set in London during World War II as a company of American singers, headed by an aging movie star, embarks on a U.S.O. tour of the battlefront. The Off-Broadway production of Swingtime Canteen, featuring Alison Fraser and Emily Loesser, had a nine-month run that included replacement stints by Busch — in drag, of course — playing the movie star, and a surviving Andrews sister, Maxene, playing herself. This recording features original cast members plus others — Ruth Williamson, Amy Elizabeth Jones, Penny Ayn Maas, and Kelli Maguire — from subsequent regional productions of the show. The voice of Maxene Andrews opens the recording and sets the scene. Others billed as “guest artists” include Mary Cleere Haran, who blends classic and contemporary styles in “I’m Old Fashioned” (Jerome Kern-Johnny Mercer); and Alison Fraser, who delivers “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Eric Maschwitz-Manning Sherwin) with exquisite simplicity. The album reaches its apex when Emily Loesser caresses “How High the Moon” (Morgan Lewis-Nancy Hamilton) with bluesy inflections. — Charles Wright

Swinging on a Star

SwingingOriginal Broadway Cast, 1996 (After 9) No stars; not recommended. Subtitled “The Johnny Burke Musical,” this show tried to avoid being just another composer tribute revue by placing the songs of lyricist Burke within seven short vignettes of American life, ranging in time from the 1930s through the 1950s: a speakeasy sequence, a radio broadcast, a U.S.O. tour, and so on. Still, the net effect is that of an oldies songfest. Some items work better than others: Alvaleta Guess sings a sassy “Dr. Rhythm”; Lewis Cleale offers a heartfelt “Pennies From Heaven”; and Kathy Fitzgerald, Denise Faye, and Terry Burrell deliver a peppy “Personality.” But a lengthy tribute to the Hope-Crosby-Lamour “road”pictures is thoroughly lame, and overall, the recording comes across as a negligible collection of new performances of songs from vintage films. — David Barbour

Swing!

SwingOriginal Broadway Cast, 1999 (Sony) No stars; not recommended. On Broadway, this revue’s main selling point was Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s ultra-strenuous choreography. What’s left on disc is a collection of mostly familiar swing tunes rendered with no particular distinction. If you feel the need to own another anthology of songs such as “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and “Blues in the Night,” you might be interested, but be warned: Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations are surprisingly sedate. The recording does provide a showcase for top nightclub chanteuse Ann Hampton Callaway and rising Broadway ingenue Laura Benanti, but the former is heard to much better effect on her solo albums,  and except for an effective rendition of “Cry Me a River,” the latter doesn’t really stand out here. — David Barbour