Original Broadway Cast, 1951 (Capitol/DRG) (3 / 5) Some types of comedy date very quickly, and this zany musical expedition into the world of vaudeville comics is an example of that. Still, it’s a wonderful time capsule from the early 1950s, performed by many of the leading comedians of the day. Phil Silvers, Jack Albertson, and Rose Marie joined forces to make Top Banana a solid hit in 1951, and Silvers’ performance won him the 1952 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. While this star vehicle has faded into obscurity, the cast album is a spirited, buoyant tribute to showbiz of another era. The clever songs of the great Johnny Mercer are outstanding; yes, the legendary lyricist also composed the music for this show. The recording is full of gems such as “I Fought Every Step of the Way,” “A Word a Day,” and others that can still elicit guffaws. — Gerard Alessandrini
Studio Cast, 1977 (Painted Smiles) (2 / 5) The world’s oldest collection of co-eds bops to a lower-drawer score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in this Ben Bagley recording of a 1939 hit that hasn’t worn well. Although there are attractive songs sung on the campus of Pottawatomie College, including “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “You’re Nearer” (the latter written for the 1940 film version), they’re undermined by Dennis Deal’s blaring arrangements and one of Bagley’s most indulgent exercises in camp interpretation. The vocal arrangements are subpar, too. As for the singers, undergrad Estelle Parsons croaks “My Prince”; Nancy Andrews injects some pizzazz into the glaringly non-P.C “Spic and Spanish”; Johnny Desmond and Arthur Siegel sing well enough without ever coming anywhere near a character. And Tony Perkins, whose ringing baritenor had surprised everyone in Greenwillow, pretty much whispers his vocals here — not ineptly, but without any special insight. Some of the songs do have the old Rodgers and Hart spirit. One example is the opening number, “Heroes in the Fall,” with lyrics ghost-written by Rodgers for the off-on-a-binge Hart. But many of the others (“She Could Shake the Maracas,” “Cause We Got Cake,” and “Sweethearts of the Team” in an excruciating rendition) sound like pale imitations of the team’s better work. — Marc Miller
Studio Recording, 1969 (MCA) (5 / 5) Originally conceived for presentation on record, this seminal “rock opera” is thrillingly melodic and dramatic. Small wonder that it was subsequently adapted as a film and, later, a Broadway musical. Tommy was mostly composed for The Who by guitarist Pete Townshend, but there is additional material by two other members of that legendary rock band, John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Oddly, the score also includes “Eyesight to the Blind,” a pre-existing song by Sonny Boy Williamson; Townshend presumably added the number because it fits well into this story of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes world famous as a “Pinball Wizard.” Most of the character Tommy’s songs are performed by Roger Daltrey, who sings beautifully and persuasively. Among the recording’s many highlights are “Amazing Journey,” “Go to the Mirror, Boy,” “I’m Free,” and “Sensation.” — Michael Portantiere
Studio Cast with Symphony Orchestra, 1972 (Ode) (3 / 5) Realizing that Tommy is filled with wonderful melodies that could benefit from symphonic treatment, Lou Reizner produced a complete recording of the score featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and Chambre Choir with soloists Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle of The Who, plus Maggie Bell as the Mother, Steve Winwood as the Father, Ringo Starr as Uncle Ernie, Rod Stewart rasping out “Pinball Wizard,” and Richie Havens singing “Eyesight to the Blind.” Unfortunately, arrangers Wil Malone and James Sullivan threw out the baby with the bathwater, largely obliterating the rock-band sound of the piece with symphonic orchestrations. On top of that, the veddy proper-sounding choir creates an odd impression in numbers like “Pinball Wizard” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” as if they were recording Handel’s Messiah rather than a seminal rock opera. Among the most successful cuts on the album are “It’s a Boy” and “Amazing Journey,” if only because they retain something of an authentic rock sound. — M.P.
Film Soundtrack, 1975 (Polydor, 2CDs) (2 / 5) This recording has several things to recommend it: Roger Daltrey, at the peak of his vocal powers, is back again in the title role; The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, does a fine job in the role of Uncle Ernie; and the rest of the band members make cameo appearances in the “Pinball Wizard” sequence and elsewhere. Ann-Margret sings well as Tommy’s mother (here called Nora), even if she sometimes over-emotes. The starry supporting cast includes Elton John (“Pinball Wizard”) and Eric Clapton (“Eyesight to the Blind”). On top of all this, the one-and-only Tina Turner is the definitive Acid Queen. But the album has two big strikes against it: The unrelenting deployment of synthesizers in the arrangements actually makes the score sound more dated than it does on The Who’s original recording, and Oliver Reed sings very poorly in the major role of Tommy’s mother’s lover. Legend has it that Jack Nicholson, having been cast in the film in the small role of the Doctor, was nervous about his singing ability, but when he heard Reed’s pre-recordings, he relaxed. It’s easy to understand why. — M.P.
Original Broadway Cast, 1993 (RCA, 2CDs) (3 / 5) It wasn’t until almost a quarter-century after the release of The Who’s original recording of Tommy that the piece was finally adapted as a full-fledged stage musical. The resulting show had a lot going for it, as does the cast album, produced by the legendary George Martin. Michael Cerveris is persuasive in the title role, complete with a convincing if somewhat aggressive British accent. As Tommy’s mother and father, Marcia Mitzman and Jonathan Dokuchitz also sound credibly British. The three leads sing spectacularly well, and sharply etched supporting performances are turned in by Paul Kandel as Uncle Ernie and Anthony Barrile as Cousin Kevin. The musical adaptation pays homage to the original album while adding a theatrical flair; the addition of orchestrations to the basic rock-band sound is more successful here than on the 1972 symphonic recording. (Steve Margoshes is credited with the orchestrations, while Joseph Church is listed as musical supervisor and director.) Director Des McAnuff oversaw a production that was praiseworthy in many respects. In fact, the show’s only major flaw was that Pete Townshend rewrote two key sections of the opera for no good reason. First, while Cheryl Freeman as the Gypsy does a fine job with the “Acid Queen” number, the song is strangely reconceived so that this drug-addicted prostitute sings about what she’s going to do to Tommy but never actually does it. Much worse, Townshend futzed with the ending of the piece in a way that completely contradicts the original point. In all previous versions of Tommy, the title character becomes the leader of a quasi-religious cult, and his followers turn against him when they realize that he’s attempting to control their minds; in this version, Tommy’s acolytes rebel because he tells them they should think for themselves! — M.P.
Original Broadway Cast, 1997 (RCA) (5 / 5) You’ll be hard-pressed to find more beautiful choral singing than that heard on the cast album of Titanic, the musical about the sinking of that famed “ship of dreams.” Composer-lyricist Maury Yeston’s score is grand and sweeping, and more than 40 voices are employed to represent the Irish peasants, middle-class professionals, wealthy society types, et al. aboard the doomed vessel. For this clash of classes, Yeston offers a suitable variety of music, from the stunning, operatic opening sequence to some Celtic-tinged tunes. A rag number and Yeston’s own lovely version of “Autumn” — supposedly one of the last songs played by the musicians on deck as the ship went down — give the score a sense of time and place, while Jonathan Tunick’s lush orchestrations evoke the feelings of adventure, hope, and loss that the disaster still inspires; you can hear the growl of an angry ocean in the overture, and you can see the black night described by a sailor in the haunting “No Moon.” Yeston shows remarkable theatricality and innovation throughout the score, notably in two sequences: “The Blame,” a heated colloquy sung by the ship’s owner, builder, and captain; and “Mr. Andrews’ Vision,” in which the horror-struck ship builder foresees the ship’s chilling final moments. All of the lyrics are strong, and Yeston is fortunate that Michael Cerveris, Brian d’Arcy James, David Garrison, John Cunningham, Victoria Clark, and a superlative cast of actor/singers preserved his words and music for this recording. — Brooke Pierce
New York Concert Cast, 1998 (New World, 2CDs) (4 / 5) Enchanting piffle from 1925, Tip-Toes has a funny Fred Thompson-Guy Bolton book, a dancey Gershwin score, and an insuperable cast in this Carnegie Hall concert performance. The orchestral materials, as Rob Fisher relates in his liner notes, were in good shape except for the Arden and Ohlman dual-piano parts; Joseph Thalken and John Musto recreate these spectacularly. Fisher’s orchestra sounds just a tad underpopulated, and the conductor might have picked up the pace of such songs as “When Do We Dance?” and “Sweet and Low-Down.” The chorus is on the thin side, too, with just eight voices. But what a darling song collection this is — big on George Gershwin syncopation, blue-note harmonies, and lightly satirical Ira Gershwin lyrics. The cast members perform in perfect period style, and with total conviction. Emily Loesser is an ideal Jazz Age heroine, her light soprano caressing “Looking for a Boy” with great affection, and Andy Taylor is a young hero right out of a John Held, Jr. cartoon. Principal comics Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof winningly sock across the silly jokes and puns, and enough dialogue is included to give you an idea of the book. This is a lighter, simpler show than other Gershwin gems — so patently innocent that, at one point, the hero and heroine sing to each other, “Goody-goody-goodnight, sleep tight.” But the charm never curdles, it just charms. (Note: Also included on this two-CD set is the score of the Gershwins’ Tell Me More.) — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1980 (DRG) (3 / 5) Allegedly, this was the first-ever digitally recorded cast album. A cavalcade of early-20th-century Americana, Tintypes sounds splendid here as its five-member cast and small band run through several dozen period songs — some classic, some virtually forgotten — in witty arrangements by Mel Marvin. Unlike so many other revues, the show has a real arc, and the songs comment wonderfully on themselves; for instance, “Toyland” becomes an anthem about America’s lost innocence, and “I Want What I Want When I Want It” is sung by a bellicose Teddy Roosevelt. Hearing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” or “Meet Me in St. Louis” for the zillionth time isn’t so thrilling, but trivialities like “Electricity” and “Teddy Da Roose” are well worth a listen, especially as rendered by this talented quintet: The fine character actor Trey Wilson and the elegant soprano Carolyn Mignini play the elites; the funny Mary Catherine Wright and the pre-directorial Jerry Zaks embody the downtrodden immigrant masses; and Lynne Thigpen is a marvel in everything she does. As Anna Held’s maid (it’s complicated, but the well-edited album supplies a context), Thigpen slowly builds the old Bert Williams favorite “Nobody” to a shattering finish. Wisely, this was the Act I finale; nobody in his or her right mind would have followed it. — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1966 (Warner Bros./no CD) (3 / 5) Based on Richard Llewellyn’s popular book How Green Was My Valley, which inspired the acclaimed 1941 movie of the same title, A Time for Singing deals with the grim lives of Welsh coal miners. The John Morris-Gerald Freedman score surely sings out their tale, right from the a cappella opening to the tragic finale. The choral work is ample and terrific throughout, and leading man Ivor Emmanuel’s Welsh baritone is overpowering. Morris’s harmonies are not standard-issue Broadway; they’re wrapped up in evocative Don Walker orchestrations, and several ballads (“That’s What Young Ladies Do,” “There Is Beautiful You Are,” “Let Me Love You”) deserve rediscovery. What seems to have killed the show more than anything else is the casting. Shani Wallis is a simpering leading lady, while Tessie O’Shea and Laurence Naismith are far too old to be convincing as the parents of eight-year-old Huw (Frank Griso, an irritating child actor). Elizabeth Hubbard and an up-and-coming George Hearn are wasted in supporting roles. Also, the score goes conventional just when it needs to offer something special, as in Wallis’s “When He Looks at Me” or the wimpy title tune. Still, this deeply felt neo-operetta doesn’t deserve the obscurity it has suffered for decades, and its great ensemble work is all over the cast album. — Marc Miller
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2001 (RCA) (3 / 5) This minor but appealing Off-Broadway effort was adapted by playwright David Auburn from a semi-autobiographical, one-person show that had been written and performed by songwriter Jonathan Larson. It also incorporates material from an unproduced Larson project titled Superbia. The show’s main weakness is obvious: It’s a little hard to care very deeply about the angst suffered by an unsuccessful musical theater songwriter as he approaches age 30. But there are many mitigating factors, not the least of which is one’s knowledge that Larson would die unexpectedly a few years later. The show and the cast album also provided an early showcase for the brilliant singing actor Raúl Esparza. Equally effective are Amy Spanger as Jon’s increasingly fed-up lover and Jerry Dixon as his best friend, who has given up bohemia for business and who harbors a heartbreaking secret. And then there are the songs, which confirm Larson’s thrilling talent. They include the touching trio “Johnny Can’t Decide”; the witty “Sunday,” a number about working in a diner that’s also a parody of a certain Stephen Sondheim ballad; and the fervent “Come to Your Senses.” The impassioned finale “Louder Than Words,” with its wounded idealism, is excellent. A moving bonus track features Larson himself singing a cut number, “Boho Days.” — David Barbour
Studio Cast, 2001 (PS Classics) (2 / 5) Hats off to PS Classics for issuing the premiere recording of this interesting curio, a 1931 Vincent Youmans flop — and hats back on for their having made such a muddle of it. Not that the material, adapted from the old stage weepie Smilin’ Through, isn’t tricky, with its confusing, multi-generational love story and subsidiary comic romance. Youmans seems to have written two scores for the two stories: one long-lined and elegant, the other standard musical comedy, both melodically and harmonically beguiling. But, instead of the original orchestrations, the recording presents a soupy reduction by conductor Aaron Gandy, played by a 12-piece group that sounds like the Mantovani Chamber Ensemble. Leading lady Heidi Grant Murphy, much admired in opera, is flat-out dull here, while leading man Philip Chaffin ably navigates Youmans’ melodic leaps without sounding much engaged. Even the usually impeccable Brent Barrett is droopy, although he does come to life in “How Happy Is the Bride,” a tricky Youmans melody saddled with awkward Edward Heyman lyrics. The best work comes from the real-life couple Hunter Foster and Jennifer Cody, who handle the lighter pieces with a fine understanding of 1930s style. Snatches of dialogue evoke what must have been a long evening of romantic entanglements punctuated by some pretty Youmans melodies. — Marc Miller
Original Cast, 2004 (Original Cast Records) (4 / 5) In musicalizing the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who murdered a boy in 1924 Chicago, composer-lyricist-librettist Stephen Dolginoff didn’t attempt to replicate the Chicago method of dealing with such difficult and disturbing subject matter. Instead, he eschewed the splashy and comic, and he wrote a taut, chamber-musical character study that became a sold-out hit in the 2003 Midtown International Theatre Festival. The cast recording omits a few songs and lots of dialogue, but it preserves the work’s uncompromising intensity and perfectly integrated score. Christopher Totten handles Leopold’s material very well; he gives the soul-searching “Way Too Far” a beautiful rendition, and his “Thrill Me” is provocative. Matthew S. Morris imbues Loeb with a desperate arrogance and is outstanding in the show’s most memorable song, “Roadster,” in which Loeb lures his victim into his clutches. Dolginoff depicts the murderers as sparring, codependent lovers, and Leopold’s gradual transformation from a passive figure to a power player comes across well on the recording. Accompanied only by Gabriel Kahane on piano, Morris’s and Totten’s voices blend smoothly. Just try listening to the climactic number “Life Plus 99 Years” without getting the chills. — Matthew Murray