Off-Broadway CD Roundup (7/21/2006) by Matthew Murray

    The fine folks over at Ghostlight Records have been working overtime, preserving for posterity even more shows that might not otherwise receive recordings. But what will posterity say about several of the Off-Broadway shows from last season that Ghostlight has recently recorded?

    Bernarda AlbaOne can only assume (hope?) that future musical theatre historians will treat Bernarda Alba better than did many reviewers upon its premiere at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater this past season. But whether this recording of Michael John LaChiusa's latest will spur that reconsideration is an open question. As directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, doing what may have been her finest work since Once On This Island (1990), the show was an intensely visual experience that found precise (and stunning) musical analogues for the emotions of Lorca's modern classic, The House of Bernarda Alba. Without those visuals, and without much of the piercing dialogue, this recording doesn't adequately convey the oppressive heat that made the show such a gloriously suffocating stage experience.

    But it does preserve a cast so spectacular that everyone must be mentioned in equal measure: Yolande Bavan, Judith Blazer, Candy Buckley, Nikki M. James, Sally Murphy, Phylicia Rashad, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Saundra Santiago, Laura Shoop, and Nancy Ticotin all display, even on disc, enough of the inherent power of their work onstage to convince you you're listening to something very special. While you walk away from the recording with certain aural images -- the distressed plaintiveness of Rubin-Vega at the absolute peak of her powers, the myriad complexities of Rashad's Bernarda -- it's LaChiusa's songs, seamlessly blending Andalusian and LaChiusan styles, that uniquely haunts and insinuates. Expect to find imprinted on your mind certain phrases such as "I will dream of what I saw" or "That's how the boys talk to me," as well as the entirety of "The Mare and the Stallion," in which the trapped girls' sexual longings are projected onto two horses in one of the most bracingly beautiful sequences ever in a musical. Like most LaChiusa, Bernarda Alba requires (and rewards) multiple listenings, but if the full range of the show's power is never completely evident here, what's present is nonetheless an invaluable document of a superb show.

    George M. Cohan Tonight!George M. Cohan Tonight!, which landed at the Irish Rep in March, would seem to be a less necessary recording. After all, haven't most of Cohan's zesty compositions so wormed themselves into the national consciousness that we seem to know them instinctively from the moment we're born? And wouldn't recordings of The Man Himself (1878-1942) always be infinitely more interesting than those of any mere imitator?

    But history occasionally needs a little push, and -- as far as I know -- Cohan didn't record many of the songs in George M. Cohan Tonight!. So it's a treasure to have so many of them in one place, given the kind of energetic, ingratiating performance that Jon Peterson does here. Peterson's bright, youthful, and amazingly resilient voice brings truckloads of honest affection to standards and lesser-known tunes alike, painting Cohan as perhaps the most straightforward, emotionally honest American songwriter who ever lived. He might have worn his patriotism (like his heart) on his sleeve, but even the staunchest cynicism dissolves with the opening notes of songs like "The Yankee Doodle Boy," "You're a Grand Old Flag," or "Over There." The recording, like the show, is a bit relentless, and Peterson's marathon tapping (one of the show's highest points) mostly fizzles on disc. But with songs this great, who cares? Slice up an apple pie and bliss out.

    [title of show] What are historians to make of [title of show]? What are we to make of it today? Perhaps the most virulently self-referential musical ever, this creation from Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) was a stupefying sensation at the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, telling the story of, well, Bowen and Bell writing the show for the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004. The show worked then partly because of its rampant unpredictability, partly because of the immediacy that forced you to believe every word, every event, and every emotion was true. The show, which (heavily rewritten) opened at the Vineyard this past spring and produced this recording, is no longer about that: It's now a considerably more generic look at the artistic process, with most of the original's tantalizing specificity removed. (NYMF is now any musical theatre festival, references to 2004 have been mostly elided, and so on.)

    The raging battle between the originality of that first go-round and the convention that's slowly crept in rages full-force on the cast recording. This uneasy blend of old and new is not at all tempered as onstage by Bell's often hilarious dialogue, which has always better captured the show's whimsical unintentionality better than the music. But from the pedantically rewritten opening number (the lyrics of which, "A, D, D, D, D, F Sharp, A / Will be the first notes / Of our show" set the tone for most of the evening's newly crafted wit), through an extraneous "second act" about life after NYMF (they won't say it, but I will) that robs the piece of what little integrity it once possessed, this show drips with the sweat of trying to cash in on its amateur street cred while behaving slickly professional. The unfocused quality even extends to the performances, which here lack all the bite they have onstage -- Bowen, Bell, Susan Blackwell, and Heidi Blickenstaff all sound so precious and syrupy, they might as well be laying down children's books on CD.

    The orchestrations remain the original piano-only variety (which probably proves the authors' artistic steadfastness after all) but the changes in general suggest that Bowen and Bell would rather be a hundred people's ninth-favorite thing rather than nine people's favorite thing. (Good thing there's no song about that.) The bonus tracks, however, do more than anything else on the disc to suggest the informal fun the show has lost since 2004: The raucously roundabout title song, which envisions the words "title of show" as all different parts of speech, is an off-hand delight, while the "hidden" finale is a glimpse of the NYMF insanity that current audiences are denied. It's just a fragment of Retarded Girl: The Musical, a surprise interpolation that padded out a too-short original, but magically suggested you were watching a show where anything could happen. It may leave those who didn't see the show at NYMF -- including those pesky historians -- scratching their heads. But that's what [title of show] should do. How sad that it no longer does.

    Friday, July 21, 2006 at 7:10 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    09/01/2008: By the Book

    06/27/2008: An Uncomfortable Visit to the Boundaries of Show Business

    05/29/2008: Revisiting Life on that Wicked—and Wonderful—Stage

    05/10/2008: Ticky Ticky Tock... Please Make it Stop!

    05/06/2008: Welcome Playbill Radio listeners!

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.