Around the World: France, East Hampton, and LingoLand by Matthew Murray

    Musical theatre lovers should be perpetually thankful for PS Classics which, like Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight, often seems to do more for shows' future prosperity than do the writers themselves. While PS Classics deserves, as always, applause for preserving productions that might otherwise be lost to time, two of the company's recent recordings are of dubious necessity.

    Sunday in the Park With George and Grey GardensThe first is of the Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George. For many, Sondheim's music and lyrics will be draw enough, and it's certainly nice to have a supplement to the slightly truncated original 1984 cast recording. Though this British production was acclaimed for its emotional urgency, that quality never manifests itself in this otherwise elegant, two-disc recording.

    The two leads, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, sound perfectly adequate, but lack the force of personality that defines their roles originators, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Similar problems affect the supporting cast, not one of whom either utters a notable phrase or strikes even a partially false note. This is obviously a well-integrated cast giving solid, if workmanlike, performances. But neither their array of colorful accents (cleverly spreading across British class divisions to suggest differences in the French characters' stations) nor the anemic orchestra (a pitiful five pieces) make Sondheim's distinct, impressionist score sound particularly engaging. Connoisseurs will appreciate the included dialogue and more musical material, the booklet containing full lyrics (and photos that insufficiently convey the production's reportedly arresting visual look), and the bonus track of the cut song titled "The One on the Left," but this Sunday offers little else.

    Nor, in its own way, does Grey Gardens, the musical by Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics), and Doug Wright (book) that attracted spring audiences to Playwrights Horizons, desperate to see Christine Ebersole giving what some reviewers would have you believe was the Performance of the Millennium. While I can't quite agree, it can scarcely be argued that Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson were doing top-notch work as Kennedy cast-offs Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little" Edie, who rose to sad fame as the subjects of the same-titled 1975 documentary about their lives in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion. The show itself, however, never seemed to match the caliber of its stars; this recording cements this feeling, and makes the score's weaknesses easier to discern here than in the theater.

    Frankel and Korie devise some fine, agile pastiche numbers for the first act (set in 1941), including "The Five-Fifteen," the morbidly mocking "Hominy Grits," and the aching "Will You?" (all of which are led by Ebersole at her most thrilling). Others, like the droolingly derivative duet "Better Fall Out of Love' and just about anything else the perennially bland Sara Gettelfinger (playing the younger Young Edie) and Matt Cavenaugh (as Joe Kennedy, Jr.) sing, impress considerably less. The second act, set contemporaneously with the documentary, is packed with more original offerings communicating the Beales' fractured lives, though I'm unconvinced that musical whining like "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" (by Ebersole, now playing the fashionably unfashionable adult Edie) and filler numbers like "Choose to Be Happy" (for Norman Vincent Peale, of all people, played by an excellent if misused John McMartin), however characterful, is great writing. Many of the second act's songs, with titles like "The Cake I Had" and "Jerry Likes My Corn," strike me as high-level Fringe Festival material that unintentionally satirize even at their most serious.

    The recording, however, is of superb quality: The sound is rich and clear, and the booklet contains lyrics, photos, and an illuminating interview with the creators that contextualizes the musical better than the actual writing often manages. Time will tell whether the show will receive the serious work it will need to succeed on Broadway when it arrives there this fall; assuming this disc does not ultimately act as dramatic formaldehyde, the creators will still have a tough road ahead in making this fascinating, but fragmented, work thrive in ways the Beales in the real Grey Gardens could not.


    LingoLand.jpgWeirder than musicals based on a painting or a camp documentary was the York Theatre Company's 2005 musical tribute to Kenward Elmslie, LingoLand. No one who saw it will ever forget -- or understand -- this part-old, part-original revue dedicated to the writings of a man whose greatest claims to fame are the book and lyrics to a seven-performance Broadway flop. Great though The Grass Harp might be  -- I count myself, at least partially, among its admirers -- it's not exactly the stuff of legends. Neither, for that matter, is Elmslie, a dedicated wordsmith, but one whose work lacks the intricate intelligence of Stephen Sondheim's or the sensual bite of Cole Porter's.

    So why LingoLand, and why JAY Records's recent, unthinkably extensive two-disc recording of it (complete with seven cut numbers)? Easy: York Producing Artistic Director James Morgan, a longtime acquaintance of Elmslie's, wanted to give him the opportunity to strut his musical and dramatic stuff. When that's what friends are for, shows like this one are the usual, predictable result.

    If Elmslie possesses a unique ability for describing and prescribing human emotion, it represents itself in his vocal performance with the supple timbre of a block of concrete. However astute Elmslie's prose and poetry -- which generally focus on "relationship crud," and recur through the evening like a chronic cough -- his inability to make them listenable renders each such track skippable. (As their titles are printed in lowercase letters in the included track listing, this task is not a chore.) While you may miss better readings from additional cast members Jane Bodle, Jason Dula, Jeanne Lehman, Steve Routman, and Lauren Shealy, there's little discernible worth in the spending much time with, say, the "drop-outs and has-beens" of "Touche's Salon" (an impenetrable Latouche parody from the revue Taking a Chance on Love), or with a trilogy of haikus concerning Vermont.

    But pass at your own peril the tracks in capitals -- Elmslie's songs might also be earthquake-mixed bags, but genuine gems glitter among the rubble. The Grass Harp selections, for example, which are marvelously mated with Claibe Richardson's music: They include Lehman's sumptuous "Chain of Love," Shealy's thumpingly funny "Marry With Me," Dula's undulating "Floozies," though "Brazil" has received a thorough (and unhappy) rewrite revolving around President Bush and his cohorts. Or intriguing opera excerpts from Lizzie Borden (music by Jack Beeson), Miss Julie (Ned Rorem), and The Seagull (Thomas Pasatieri) that display Elmslie's craft with weightier topics and music.

    Or, especially, "Who'll Prop Me Up in the Rain," a gorgeous, rural plaint by a man longing for a partner to bring him permanently indoors. Sung so simply and optimistically by Routman, it unassumingly becomes one of musical theatre's best explorations of the male mindset toward love. If you find yourself tearing up at the song's straightforwardly searing sentiments, don't be surprised -- unless it's by the identity of the song's composer: Elmslie himself. He may be a Renaissance man of the English language, but are his overall accomplishments of great enough value to demand a show and a recording? LingoLand may have nearly as many highs as it has lows, but it never successfully makes that case.

    Sunday, August 27, 2006 at 2:02 PM | 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.