Category Archives: A-C

Big Fish

Original Broadway Cast, 2014 (Broadway Records) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Big Fish arrived on Broadway in 2013 with a score by Andrew Lippa and was imaginatively directed by Susan Stroman, but it did not last more than 100 performances. Fortunately, this recording has preserved much of the show’s charm. A strong cast includes Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz as Edward Bloom, a yarn-spinning, traveling salesman who dazzles his son, Will (a pleasant-sounding Bobby Steggart), with stories of adventure that stretch the imagination. These oftentimes unbelievable tales strain Edward’s relationship with his son and frustrate his long-suffering wife, played by Kate Baldwin. Butz sounds fantastic throughout; he’s youthful and charming in the opening number, “Be the Hero,” and inspiring in his solo, “Fight the Dragons.” Baldwin’s endearing soprano is much appreciated in softer moments such as the lovely “ I Don’t Need A Roof.”  The score culminates with the highly emotional song “How It Ends,” a reconciliation for father and son. Unfortunately, between the effective songs for the main characters, there are several production numbers featuring other characters that do not come across nearly as well on the recording and may serve to make this album a slightly frustrating, but certainly not a profitless, listening experience.  — Forrest Hutchinson

Cowgirls

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1996 (Varèse Sarabande)  2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) This cute little show, with music and lyrics by Mary Murfitt and a book by Betsy Howie, had a decent run Off-Broadway in 1996. The song titles alone — “From Chopin to Country,” “Love’s Sorrow,” “Don’t Call Me Trailer Trash,” “Saddle Tramp Blues,” “They’re All Cowgirls to Me” — give you an idea of what sort of entertainment you’re in for if you give the cast album a listen. The material is very slight but lots of fun, and the charming cast consists of co-author Murfitt and Howie plus Rhonda Coullet, Mary Ehrlinger, Lori Fischer, and Jackie Sanders. They all give their all, and the recording is a pleasant diversion — Michael Portantiere

A Christmas Story

World Premiere Recording, 2012 (Masterworks Broadway) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) In this stage adaptation of the film of the same title about a boy who really wants a BB gun for Christmas, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul demonstrate their craft through songs too good-natured and sturdily built to be faulted for their basically pastiche elements. There are jazzy tap numbers, western-inspired romps, and lots of jingling holiday fare with golden-age melodic coutours. The pair clearly had a blast assembling this score, even if the film’s episodic structure doesn’t always lend itself to effective musical storytelling; sequences like “Ralphie to the Rescue” and the endless “A Major Award” suggest that some of the dance arrangements and extended numbers could have been trimmed for the recording. But the otherwise warmly jocular score froths into something more soaring in three tracks that show off Pasek and Paul’s gifts for inventing joyous melody and showcasing kids’ voices: “Counting Down to Christmas,” “Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana,” and the gentle title song are all gems that make a strong case for this album as a keeper. Its warmth and shimmer are largely due to the gorgeous orchestrations of Larry Blank, perhaps some of the best of the 2010s in their brassy clarity and Christmasy sumptuousness. The cast of this “World Premiere Recording” largely represents the 2011 pre-Broadway touring company, with the exceptions of Liz Callaway as Ralphie’s mother and Tom Wopat as the grownup Narrator. (These performers never played these roles on stage.) Callaway is a redemptive presence, her tender, honest tone always keeping the ballads on the safe side of saccharine. And Clarke Hallum makes a meal out of Ralphie’s substantial amount of material, which allow for some astonishingly non-grating pre-teen belting. — Dan Rubins

Television Cast, 2017 (Warner Bros.) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) The cast album of the live TV production of A Christmas Story sounds splendid, even when compared to the sparkly original recording. Presumably, Larry Blank’s magnificent orchestrations benefit here from larger instrumentation than they received previously. As a result, songs that grew a bit wearisome on the first recording — such as “When You’re A Wimp” and “Sticky Situation” — here have enough big-band pizzazz to hold focus. In the role of the dismissive teacher (“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!”), Jane Krakowski is luxury casting. So too is Maya Rudolph; though she’s not a seasoned musical theater performer, she taps into her pre-Saturday Night Live singing background, bringing a wearied edge to “What A Mother Does” and a simple warmth to “Just Like That.” Matthew Broderick’s wistful voice is a good fit for the Narrator. And as young Ralphie, Andy Walken follows formidably in the shoes of Clarke Hallum. With just a tad less musical-theater brightness in his vibrato, Walken has equal emotional heft as his predecessor in the role. For the most part, the track list here matches that of the world premiere recording, with the additions of a forgettable credits song, “Count on Christmas” (performed by pop star Bebe Rexha) and a rather amusing Hanukkah number, “In the Market for A Miracle” (delivered with chutzpah by another SNL alumna with Broadway bona fides, Ana Gasteyer). — D.R.

Back to the Future

Original London Cast, 2022 (Masterworks Broadway) No stars; not recommended. These days, when you hear that a beloved movie is getting turned into a musical,  it sounds less like an announcement and more like a threat. Yes, movies have inspired great musicals in the past., but the modern trend of these “adaptations” leans toward slavishly faithful recreations of the cinematic source material, with a couple of by-the-numbers songs pinned on. Enter Back to the Future: The Musical, which takes reverence to a new level. The script is by Bob Gale, who co-wrote the original movie’s screenplay and has spent decades overseeing the franchise; and the score is by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, the latter of whom composed the music for the original movie and its sequels. Based on the classic 1985 original starring Michael J. Fox, the story tells of a kid living in the 1980s who accidentally goes back in time and meets his parents when they were teenagers. The stage musical version that yielded this recording first opened in the West End, then transferred to Broadway. (No cast album of that production has yet been recorded or released.) It’s a very lazy adaptation: From the beginning of the “Overture,” in which not a single note of any of the new music written for the show is heard, you can tell what the creative team’s intentions were. Instead, you get the movie’s recognizable theme in a heavily flourished arrangement, which ends up sounding like the product of a computer program. Ethan Popp and Bryan Cook’s orchestrations sound better in the actual songs, which unfortunately range in quality from instantly forgettable (“Got No Future” and “Future Boy”) to instantly regrettable (“My Myopia” and “Teach Him a Lesson”). Most of the lyrics sound like they were done on a first pass, while many of the melodies are vaguely reminiscent of better tunes. When the writers aren’t going for the most basic concepts in their songs, they decide to adhere even more faithfully to the movie by incorporating the exact same ’50s pop hits in the final sequence (“Earth Angel” and “Johnny B. Goode”) before tacking on the movie’s Oscar-nominated “The Power of Love” at the end. The cast is made up of talented singers, with Olly Dobson and Roger Bart starring as the iconic duo of Marty McFly and Doc Brown, respectively, but they’re mostly tasked with having to shoot for the ceiling of their vocal registers in every song. And when they’re not navigating the vocal demands, they’re forced into a competition of who can provide the most uncanny impression of their film counterparts; Hugh Coles as George McFly easily wins with an eerie imitation of Crispin Glover. If Gale, Silvestri and Ballard had been willing to take any creative chances, or alternatively had stepped aside for a team of writers who would have done so, this show might have been surprisingly delightful and/or enjoyably campy. But as it stands, there’s nothing about Back to the Future: The Musical that makes any strong argument for its existence.  — Matt Koplik

Big City Rhythm

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1996 (Original Cast Records) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) The heyday of the intimate revue may have been decades ago, but some good ones have surfaced more recently. Consider Barry Kleinbort’s winning song cycle Big City Rhythm, blessed with a high-powered cast and Christopher Denny’s tasteful piano arrangements. As a composer-lyricist, Kleinbort has lots of range and is willing to serve up old-fashioned melody or new-fashioned lack thereof as suits the material. Some inside jokes may be lost on some listeners — for example, the salute to Broadway leading ladies who can’t sing — but those in the know will love them. Lots of stuff more accessible to the general public is here as well, including an extended medley of proposed theme songs for unlikely movies, one of the funniest of which is “Psycho, Are You Lonely Tonight?” Marcia Lewis is adorable as a peripatetic sophisticate in “I Get Around,” Lewis Cleale and Eric Michael Gillett are stalwart leading men, and Melanie Vaughan is exceedingly funny as a difficult chanteuse just out of the Betty Ford Clinic. Some of the strongest numbers are from Kleinbort’s proposed musical version of Garson Kanin’s The Rat Race; they’ll make you eager to hear more. — Marc Miller

Bed & Sofa

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1996 (Varese Sarabande) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) A stylized, three-character “silent movie opera” by composer Polly Pen and playwright Lawrence Klavan, Bed & Sofa premiered just over a decade after Pen’s avant-garde Goblin Market. Like that show, it was presented Off-Broadway by the Vineyard Theatre, was directed by André Ernotte, and was showered with awards and nominations. Based on the 1927 Soviet film Tretya meshchanskaya by Abram Room and Victor Shklovsky, the piece centers on a married couple that invites the husband’s homeless army buddy to crash indefinitely on the sofa in their tiny flat. When the husband leaves town on business, his wife and friend embark on a passionate affair. Returning to find himself displaced in the bed, the husband winds up on the sofa. For a time, the resulting ménage à trois works pretty well, but then it’s beset by conflicts such as how to deal with the woman’s pregnancy and the mystery of which guy is the sire.  Eventually, the woman discovers that her new man is as flawed as the old one, and she departs, leaving both sofa and bed to the men. Pen is often accused of lacking a flair for melody, but here she delivers a stunning score with dulcet arias that owe a debt to Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Russian folk tunes.  With supervision by Ernotte and musical director Alan Johnson, Terri Klausner gives the wife earthiness and vigor, while Michael X. Martin as her spouse and Jason Workman as the interloper complete an ideally balanced ensemble.  — Charles Wright

The Beautiful Game

Original London Cast, 2000 (Telstar) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Those who would type Andrew Lloyd Webber as a purveyor of lightweight poperettas may not know what to make of this tragic love story set against a background of social strife in Northern Ireland. Although the score lacks emotional variety, with too many sweet melodies, and Ben Elton’s frequently profane lyrics are hardly cliché-free, it’s a sincere attempt at something different and challenging from a composer who could certainly have rested on his laurels.  Josie Walker and David Shannon sing attractively as Mary and John, the young couple whose lives are destroyed by the escalating violence between Catholics and Protestants. Walker partners beautifully with Dianne Pilkington as a Protestant girl in the unsettling “God’s Own Country” and makes something wrenching out of “If This Is What We’re Fighting For,” a bitter denunciation of the self-righteousness behind the violence. The title number has a harsh, celebratory vigor that one rarely associates with Lloyd Webber, who did the orchestrations with David Cullen. Although this score is far from a total success, the recording is well worth a listen — David Barbour

Ballad for Bimshire

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1963 (London/no CD) 1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) This Off-Broadway oddity probably got produced because of the reputation of its composer, Irving Burgie — also known as Lord Burgess. Having written several songs that were popularized by Harry Belafonte, Burgie was one of the most prominent calypso writers of the period. But this show is more well meaning than well crafted; the writers and production team all had limited musical theater experience, and they produced a piece that, judging from the cast album, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do or how to do it. Ballad for Bimshire clearly had a book — co-producer and co-star Ossie Davis, a driving force behind the production, narrates the story, but it’s not compelling and more than a little amorphous. The lyrics are negligible, which leaves only the tunes. They’re frequently appealing but, because they’re on their own, dramatically unrewarding. — David Wolf

Bubbling Brown Sugar

Original Broadway Cast, 1976 (Amherst) No stars, not recommended. This is arguably the least necessary Broadway album ever. Yes, the show was a hit (766 performances), and it served as the template for many black music revues to come, but this musical tour of Harlem in its renaissance days is the rough equivalent of one of those compilation albums that used to be hawked on cable TV. Jazz fans, who already know many recordings and arrangements of these songs, won’t be interested in over-theatricalized renditions of such standards as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and “God Bless the Child,” while others will be puzzled by the occasional original number — one of which keeps reminding us that “Bubbling Brown Sugar is the stimulating Harlem treat.” This is one A train you don’t have to take — David Barbour

Avenue X

World Premiere Recording, 1997 (RCA) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Avenue X shows how some folks in the racially divided America of the early 1960s tried to achieve peace and harmony through rock and roll. The theme is similar to that of Hairspray, but here the locale is Brooklyn rather than Baltimore, and the show ends in tragedy rather than joy. A highly unusual feature of this musical is that all of the songs are sung a cappella, persuasively performed on this recording by an excellent cast. There are only eight singers — Colette Hawley, Cheryl Alexander, Ted Brunetti, John Leone, John-Martin Green, Jerry Dixon, Chuck Cooper, and Wilbur Pauley — yet their vocal harmonies are so lush that they sound like twice that many people. (Dixon is the music director.) Indeed, the wall of sound heard in the arresting “Prologue” may convince you that you’re hearing an orchestra playing along. Rather than advancing the plot or establishing and limning the characters, the songs by Ray Leslee (music) and John Jiler (lyrics) are performance pieces that skillfully conjure the style of the period. Highlights include the ensemble number “A Thousand Summer Nights,” Hawley’s “Woman of the World,” and the two songs that end the show: “Go There,” in which Alexander laments “There are dreams that die before they ever live,” and the touching “Where is Love” (not to be confused with the song of the same title from Oliver!). The CD booklet notes tell us that, “following an extended run Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, [Avenue X] played in roughly two dozen cities, winning ‘Best Musical’ awards and nominations virtually everywhere it has gone.” This recording is a winner, too. — Michael Portantiere

At the Drop of a Hat

Original Cast (London and Broadway), 1959 (Angel) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Producer Alexander Cohen had the good sense to bring a host of newcomers to Broadway from England, among them Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, the two raconteurs of At the Drop of a Hat.  These wonderful songwriters-performers included the audience in their nightly party at the Golden Theatre. (Several years later, Broadway saw the sequel, At the Drop of Another Hat.) The songs are in the grand satirical/political tradition of the late 1950s-early ’60s. Their humor was a little naughty, silly and sophisticated by turns, with lots of allusions that belied the songs’ supposed simplicity. Intellectuals and average theatergoers could find equal amusement in the evening, albeit with different depths of understanding. Wisely, the original cast album was recorded in London before a live audience, which makes all the difference. Not only are we cued as to where the laughs are, but we also feel part of the inside group that’s enjoying these masters of song and monologue. This is one comedy record that can never be overplayed; the music and lyrics sound just as fresh the 50th time as the first, unlike many such albums. — Ken Bloom

At Home Abroad

Studio Recordings by the Original Broadway Cast, 1935 (Smithsonian/no CD) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Star-packed musical revue were always welcome attractions on Broadway during the Depression years.  Billed as “A Musical Holiday,”  At Home Abroad bolstered its thin and engaging overall theme — Americans traveling to foreign countries — with a fine score by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz and a cast headed by Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, and Eleanor Powell. The show was designed and staged with a good deal of dazzle by a gifted newcomer, Vincente Minnelli; even so, its 198-performance run was felt to be something of a disappointment. Despite this, the cast members made a number of studio recordings of songs from the score, including Waters’ insinuating “Thief in the Night” and two definitive Bea Lillie numbers, “Paree” and “Get Yourself a Geisha” — the latter with its insistent refrain, “It’s better with your shoes off.” As part of an ongoing effort to reconstruct lost musicals, the Smithsonian Institution issued an LP that collected these items and added a few numbers recorded later by Karen Morrow, Nancy Dussault, and other performers. If the score lacks the classic stature of Schwartz and Dietz’s earlier The Band Wagon, there’s still a lot to treasure here, including Eleanor Powell’s extended tap breaks in “What a Wonderful World” and “Got a Bran’ New Suit.” As always with Smithsonian releases, the accompanying notes detail the recordings with both erudition and enthusiasm. — Richard Barrios

Live and Studio Recordings by the Original Broadway Cast, 1935 (AEI) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) The Smithsonian collection might have seemed the last word on At Home Abroad, but guess again. It turns out that there also exists a set of decrepit discs containing recordings of large portions of the show in live performance. Whether or not the source was a radio broadcast is unclear; although the sound quality gives new meaning to the phrase “low fidelity,” the material was skillfully transferred to the digital domain by the intrepid folks at AEI. The studio recordings by Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, and Eleanor Powell noted in the review above are also included on the CD, and the patient listener will be rewarded with a very good sense of how this big and bouncy show operated. AEI obviously took great care with the project, going so far as to splice parts of Lillie’s studio version of “Dinner Napkins” into an otherwise live recording so as to get the best overall sound quality possible. Especially to be enjoyed here are Waters’ live performances of “Loading Time” and “Got a Bran’ New Suit,” which she did not record otherwise. Unfortunately, the CD booklet notes are inadequate — a chronic failing with AEI. And it’s really too bad that the original recording technology sounds as if it relied on tin cans and strings. — R.B.

The Athenian Touch

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1964 (Broadway East/AEI) No stars, not recommended. One day, sometime in the 1980s, several boxes of the long-out-of-print LP of The Athenian Touch turned up in a store in midtown Manhattan. Musical theater enthusiasts swarmed the place, and the shop was depleted of copies in one afternoon. Then people got home and actually played the thing, finding to their dismay that this cast album is as bad as they get. In most musicals, the music is usually the “safest” component; even if the book and/or lyrics are poor, there are often at least a couple of tunes with some appeal. That’s not the case here. Not only do these songs have useless lyrics by David Eddy, but further than that, Willard Straight’s music is ugly. And, judging on the basis of what can be gleaned from listening to the album, the book — a love story involving Aristophanes and some whore — is simply not a professional effort. Camp followers may be interested in the recording because it stars Butterfly McQueen and Marion Marlowe, the Arthur Godfrey TV show favorite who also played Elsa in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music, but there’s really no other reason to purchase it. — David Wolf

Arms and the Girl

Original Broadway Cast, 1948 (Decca) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) The Theatre Guild was riding the success of the still-running Oklahoma! when Armina Marshall Langner suggested that The Pursuit of Happiness, a play she had written with her husband, Lawrence Langner, would make a good musical.  Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the Guild’s earlier successes (including Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and Carousel), was brought in to helm Arms and the Girl. Morton Gould and Dorothy Fields wrote the score, their only Broadway collaboration. Judging from the cast album, the show was distinguished primarily by its three leading performers: Georges Guetary (a French musical theater star), Nanette Fabray, and Pearl Bailey. For Fabray, this was another unsuccessful vehicle that would keep her from achieving major Broadway stardom on a par with Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Still, her work here is colorful and exciting in “Girl With a Flame” and “That’s My Fella.” She’s great in her duets with Guetary, who does also does well with the charming if corny “A Cow and a Plow and a Frau.”  But the big news of the show was Pearl Bailey in a scene-stealing role. She played a slave who changes her name according to where she is geographically — so, as “Connecticut,” she sings the bawdily humorous “There Must Be Something Better than Love” and the lesser “Nothin’ for Nothin’.” Note: The CD edition of this album also includes cast recordings of Up in Central Park; both albums have been meticulously remastered, and they sound as good as any recordings of the period could be expected to. The disc filled an important gap in the catalogue, so we should be grateful to Decca Broadway for its release. — Jeffrey Dunn

archy and mehitabel

Concept Album, 1954 (Columbia/Masterworks Broadway) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Based on the 1920s newspaper columns of Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel stars a cockroach. Ostensibly, the columns were the work of said cockroach, named archy, who wrote them for Marquis in exchange for some apple peels left in the trash. The roach handled the mechanics of writing by hurling himself head first at the typewriter keys, and everything was in lower case because he couldn’t reach the shift key. This recording is sort of a grab-bag suite taken from different archy pieces, with scenes and narration by Joe Darion (lyricist of Man of La Mancha) underscored with music by George Kleinsinger (composer of Tubby the Tuba).  The underscoring provides a real New York atmosphere, and it occasionally explodes into whimsical songs and entertaining melodic fragments. The text is made of of archy’s thoughts (e.g., “people may think they amount to a great deal, but to a mosquito, they’re just a meal”) and stories of the odd characters he runs into. Most of his stories are about mehitabel (Carol Channing), the alley cat whom he loves unrequitedly. She takes up with a disreputable tomcat that leaves her with a litter of kittens saved by archy (Eddie Bracken) from drowning in a rainstorm. She “studies acting” with a disreputable old theater cat, then reluctantly gives in and takes a job as a house cat — but, unable to stand domesticity, she returns to the alley. In 1957, the piece was adapted for the stage as Shinbone Alley, with a full Kleinsinger-Darion score and a book by Mel Brooks; Eddie Bracken repeated his role, and Eartha Kitt played mehitabel. Three years after the Broadway failure, it turned up in a two-hour TV adaptation with Bracken and Tammy Grimes. Finally, in 1970, it became an animated cartoon with Bracken and Channing. Pirated recordings exist of the TV version, and there is also a complete, live pirate of the Broadway show, but the concept album is the only commercial recording available. — David Wolf

Almost Famous

Original Broadway Cast, 2022 (Masterworks Broadway) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) Meet the semi-jukebox musical: Almost Famous, based on the film about a 1970s rock band and the teen journalist William (Casey Likes) who embeds himself on tour, blends original songs by Tom Kitt and the film’s screenwriter, Cameron Crowe, with period hits and an occasional song written for the film. The problem is that the jukebox tunes — such as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” Cat Stevens’ “The Wind,” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” — are far superior to the new material, especially as presented through Kitt’s characteristically lovely arrangements. Anika Larsen nails her big number in the role of William’s mother, lamenting in “Elaine’s Lecture” that “rock stars have kidnapped my son.” That’s really the show’s only effective character piece, since most of the new songs for Likes, Chris Wood as band frontman Russell, and Solea Pfeiffer as the mysterious, captivating groupie Penny Lane lack distinction. Pfeiffer in particular sounds stellar, but her songs aren’t worthy of her vocal maturity. The lyrics, by Kitt and Crowe, seldom sculpt the characters with any specificity. And even if songs like “Everybody’s Coming Together” aren’t from the jukebox, in a sense they might as well be: “Come join the revolution tonight / Be part of the solution tonight,” the ensemble sings generically. In a Broadway landscape overtaken by creators trying to make jukebox musicals and film adaptations theatrically viable, Almost Famous isn’t part of the solution on either count. — Dan Rubins

Bring It On

Original Broadway Cast, 2012 (Backlot Music) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) If you love Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score for In the Heights, you’ll find lots of pleasures in Bring It On. This musical adaptation of a 2000 film about cheerleaders is copiously sprinkled with Miranda emeralds. About two thirds of the songs are by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, writing in a lively, poppish vein that sounds familiar within the high school musical genre (though buoyantly orchestrated by Kitt and Alex Lacamoire), but the remaining numbers by Miranda ignite on a different level. Though too many of his songs here may build just like In The Heights‘ “96,000” — this show doesn’t celebrate his full range as a composer — they’re fun individually, and “It’s All Happening,” the Act II opener, is as explosive and ebullient as anything Miranda has written. The centerpiece of that song is a cheeky rap for Twig (Nick Womack), in a style reminiscent of In the Heights‘ Sonny, arguing for the virtues of boys joining the cheerleading team. But even though there are deeper themes like friendship across differences and finding your squad, most of the songs are really just about cheerleading, a topic that can only animate so many distinct musical numbers. If the well of inspiration eventually runs dry, that’s no fault of the electric cast, led by Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren as reluctant teammates-turned-besties. There is also a delightful early performance from Ariana DeBose. — Dan Rubins

Colette / Colette Collage

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1970 (MIO International/no CD) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) This version of Colette is a charming play with music. The play itself was written by Elinor Jones, then married to lyricist Tom Jones. Colette is portrayed by Zoe Caldwell, who attacks the role boldly, and Ruth Nelson gives a vivid performance as Colette’s mother. The other actors — Keith Charles, Holland Taylor, Louis Turenne, and Tom Aldredge — are fine but, on the record anyway, they’re just props. Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt contributed three songs that begin the recording; all of them are odd and delightful, and one of them, “Earthly Paradise,” is as lovely as anything the team ever wrote. Schmidt’s underscoring of a long montage sequence is stunning — it plays almost like a short comic ballet — and his gorgeous, dramatic music fills the recording. The composer was onstage throughout the play, in period costume, accompanying the action on piano. Apparently, the music was improvised every night during the run; when Schmidt was out ill, performances had to be canceled, since no one else could play the music because he had never written it down! — David Wolf

Off-Broadway Cast Members, 1994 (Varèse Sarabande) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) A production of the full-length musical Colette that starred Diana Rigg was intended for Broadway but closed on the road in 1982. Librettist and composer Jones and Schmidt revised the show in ’83 and again in ’91; along the way, it was retitled Colette Collage. Act I of the final version concentrates on the French novelist’s first marriage to Willy, a writer who thinks nothing of publishing work by others — including his wife — under his own name. Her books, which everyone thinks are his books, become hugely successful, and she finally leaves him. Act II covers Coletee’s later years of fame and her relationship with a younger man, Maurice. The music is lovely, amusing, and evocative, but nothing here is as beautiful as Schmidt’s best work. Colette is played by Judy Blazer in the first act, Judy Kaye in the second; both sing gloriously and are matched by George Lee Andrews as Willy, Rita Gardner as Colette’s mother, and Jason Graae as Maurice. The only piece retained from the Elinor Jones play is Schmidt’s thrilling music-hall-tour montage, cut down and fitted with lyrics by Jones. Unfortunately, it’s less effective here than as presented on the recording reviewed above. — D.W.

Anya / The Anastasia Affaire / Anastasia: The Musical

Original Broadway Cast, 1965 (United Artists/Kritzerland) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) What Robert Wright and George Forrest had previously done successfully with Grieg and Borodin, they did with Rachmaninoff in creating a musical based on the play Anastasia, the story of the woman who claimed to be the only surviving member of the Romanov family assassination. Rachmaninoff’s music was well suited to a piece with action that takes place shortly after the Russian Revolution, and while fans of that music in its original form might find this adaptation hard to take, it’s a lush, beautifully sung, latter-day operetta. Although the show was plodding onstage, the recording is very entertaining. Constance Towers and Michael Kermoyan are excellent in all of their songs, particularly in “My Kind of Love” (the melody had previously served as the basis for the popular hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms”) and the dramatic “Six Palaces” (in which Anya is drilled on the “facts” of her life). Irra Petina, the grande dame of the “floperetta” genre, is a joy in the comic “Leben Sie Wohl” and “On That Day,” and she also leads the haunting “Homeward.” For camp value, there is Lillian Gish as the Grand Duchess, “reciting” lyrics to a vocalise sung by Towers as Anya. Billed as “The Musical Musical,” the show was one of the late-career flops of director George Abbott, who also collaborated on the book with Guy Bolton. (This was Bolton’s final Broadway credit.) The cast album notes detail which Rachmaninoff pieces have been adapted for each song. There are also two songs listed on the back of the original LP jacket that are not actually on the album; they were cut from the show during previews and, from all reports, weren’t recorded. — Jeffrey Dunn

Studio Casts, 1992-1998 (Bay Cities/Original Cast Records) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) These recordings are not just Anya with two pianos. When it became clear that the 1965 production was going to close on Broadway after 16 performances, director and co-librettist George Abbott graciously ceded all of the rights to Wright and Forrest. The musical was revised and produced regionally as A Song for Anastasia and The Anastasia Game. A recording titled The Anastasia Affaire, based on a production at the Merrimack Theatre in Massachusetts, was released in 1992 and quickly went out of print. In 1998, with the title now changed to Anastasia: The Musical, the CD was reissued with bonus tracks of six “premiere recordings” of Wright and Forrest songs from other shows. The majority of the Rachmaninoff melodies used for Anya were used again in the revisions, but most of them were given new lyrics and made to serve new dramatic functions. While the Broadway score leaned heavily toward “nouveau operetta,” the final version is definitely a chamber musical with two-piano accompaniment, well handled by Albin Konopka and Seth Rudetsky. The principal singers are Judy Kaye, Regina Resnik, Len Cariou, Steve Barton, George Lee Andrews, Walter Willison, and David Green, all in top form. The story of Anastasia is more clearly discerned from the songs in the new version; still, the original Broadway cast album of Anya, with its grand orchestrations and operatic singing, is a more enjoyable listen. — J.D.

Ambassador

Original London Cast, 1971 (RCA/Stage Door) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) The original London cast album of this Henry James adaptation is also the de facto original Broadway cast album, since the West End’s two leads, Howard Keel and Danielle Darrieux, reprised their roles in New York not long after the show’s quick demise in London, and they carry the bulk of the musical program. James’ favorite theme, the clash of American ingenuousness and European worldliness, gets a thorough working-over in this story of a New England milquetoast named Lambert (Keel) dispatched to Paris by a dominating widow to retrieve her philandering son. Instead, Lambert falls under the spell of Paree and, more specifically, of a fascinating countess (Darrieux). The globe-trotting narrative was simplified for the stage, which the score reflects. Don Gohman’s melodies are attractive, if a bit derivative, and Hal Hackady’s lyrics strive diligently to pull James’ ideas together into a cohesive package. Some terrible comedy songs — e.g. “What Can You Do With a Nude?” — were mercifully left behind in London but made it onto the recording.  Andrea Marcovicci, who introduced the affecting “Love Finds the Lonely” in her Broadway debut, isn’t heard here; her London counterpart, Isobel Stuart, is capable, but Marcovicci must have been heartbreaking. Keel is hardworking but miscast as a milquetoast. Darrieux has very little voice, so she tries to compensate with charm, and succeeds only halfway. The most vivid performance here comes from Margaret Courtenay as the horrifying harpy who sets the plot in motion. She’s no singer, but it’s a great character, and Courtenay has every character nuance under her tight corset. Some fine theater songs are scattered about — “Tell Her,” “The Right Time/The Right Place” — yet they fail to convince us that a Henry James musical is a good idea. While one admires the creative team’s ambition to write a soufflé that’s also serious, the results sound more like Gigi with a hangover.  — Marc Miller