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  • Say what you will about the new musicals that opened on Broadway last season, but each one could at least be categorized by its relationship to popular music. Three recently released cast recordings of last season's Broadway offerings present an intriguingly varied look at the way pop influences musicals today.

    Disney's TarzanFirst up is Tarzan, Disney's latest offering to swing in and slam headfirst into a wall. The genesis of this stage version was the 1999 animated Disney film that featured the unholy marriage of Phil Collins' syrupy song stylings with the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs story. The stage adaptation is, if anything, more outlandishly unwatchable than the film, directed by Bob Crowley as if to pander to and increase the numbers of both the colorblind and the deaf. It also ranked as the least theatrical new musical of the season, no small achievement with competition like Lennon, In My Life, and Ring of Fire.

    But as theatricality is not a necessary prerequisite for a solid cast recording, it's unsurprising that the Tarzan OCR is several steps up from what's currently chimping around the Richard Rodgers. Collins' finely tuned pop sensibility ensures that numbers mimic banana peels onstage hear sound juicier and more important. With a better sound balance than in the theater and an almost complete absence of David Henry Hwang's "book" (one of the worst to hit Broadway since, well, his revised version of Flower Drum Song in 2002), it's easier to accept the songs as contextless one-offs that don't have to make sense in a dramatic context. Seen (or heard) that way, "You'll Be In My Heart" (Collins' 1999 Oscar winner) is almost an attractive, contemporary ballad, and "Strangers Like Me" and "For the First Time" can almost-sort of-nearly be taken as vaguely possible character songs for two people getting acquainted. That's not to say those people could be Tarzan (Josh Strickland, demonstrating all the skills that served him on American Idol) or Jane (the ever-wasted Jenn Gambatese), but let's not pick nits.

    Of course, the songs that try to serve the story fall flat -- "Who Better Than Me" for Terk (a game Chester Gregory II) and young Tarzan (Daniel Manche) is overdone, and a pair of blabby numbers for Tarzan's adoptive ape parents (Shuler Hensley and Merle Dandridge) are at best undercooked. But if you do what Collins didn't -- keep your expectations low while leaving well enough alone with the rest -- it's possible to get more enjoyment out of Tarzan on disc than the stage show might lead you to believe.

    The Drowsy ChaperoneAt the other end of the spectrum is The Drowsy Chaperone, which avoids pop with all its might. While I remain unconvinced that the Lisa Lambert-Greg Morrison score is really reminiscent of a 1928 musical comedy, it's at least a solid attempt at creating a theatrical musical comedy score in a season that didn't have much use for them.

    Bob Martin (who co-wrote the show's book with Don McKellar) narrates here, as he does onstage, as "Man in Chair," a show queen wiling away the hours playing his cherished recording of The Drowsy Chaperone. Martin's presence, while sadly limited on the recording, gives you a sampling of the stage witticisms you're missing without interrupting the nonstop turntable of musical confections Lambert and Morrison serve up. If the songs are extremely variable in quality -- only the wedding finale, "I Do, I Do In the Sky," sung by Kecia Lewis-Evans, stands out compositionally -- they're all performed with a buoyant, loving energy. Sutton Foster's "Show Off" showpiece and "Bride's Lament" allow her to demonstrate her belty range (such as it is), while Tony winner Beth Leavel gets to masticate some scenery with her "rousing anthem" "As We Stumble Along," and song-and-dance man extraordinaire Eddie Korbich gets a couple of (all-too-brief) moments to shine on his own. (When will someone write a show around him?)

    Not everything transfers: Troy Britton Johnson, as the toothy naïf, is all liquid smarm, with none of the errant likeability he possesses onstage. Lenny Wolpe, as a meddling producer, and Jennifer Smith, as his dopey squeeze, are exactly as they appear onstage, which is not to the benefit of the recording. Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert, as a doddering duo of upper-crust onlookers, are acceptable if lifeless, strutting their stuff only in a bonus track of a song cut after the show's West Coast premiere ("I Remember Love"). As for Danny Burstein's map-defying Latin lover Adolpho, it is perhaps most charitable to say he's an acquired taste; while I think he takes over-the-top too far, your mileage might vary. Still, if The Drowsy Chaperone isn't all it could have been, this cast recording (with mock-LP liner notes that alone are worth the price) makes a better case for the show than the show itself does.

    The Wedding SingerFinally, there's The Wedding Singer, placed as uncomfortably between the two previous recordings in terms of its pop and theatre allegiances as it is onstage at the Al Hirschfeld. Existing for no other reasons than to give New Line Cinemas a Broadway brand for its 1998 Adam Sandler movie and to string together countless banal 1980s references into its "book" (Chad Beguelin and film writer Tim Herlihy), this isn't top-drawer material that ever had a chance of producing a top-drawer recording.

    But if, like our other offerings, The Wedding Singer is better on disc than onstage, it won't exactly earn a permanent place in your disc changer. Sure, you get the lovely Laura Benanti in full bubble-gum mode in "Someday" (the show's best, bounciest musical moment), and when and she and costar Stephen Lynch (as the title character, aka Robbie Hart) duet on the we're-not-in-love "Not That Kind of Thing" and oh-yes-we-are "If I Told You," you sense an inkling of chemistry. But absolute lyrical clarity is plague upon the houses of stage just-made-its like the desperate opening "It's Your Wedding Day," two numbers for jilting and unjilting hair metal-girlfriend Felicia Finley, and, well, everything else. And the numbers that bomb onstage, like everything for Amy Spanger and Matthew Saldivar as a limp secondary couple and Kevin Cahoon as a listless Boy George impersonator, are deadlier than ever.

    One can't help but feel especially sorry for Rita Gardner, as the with-it granny who gets to bitch and rap and walk away with some easy laughs in the theater, but is as lifeless on the recording as just about everyone else. Nonetheless, her natural talent (and still-shimmering) soprano shine through; Gardner's had a long, distinguished career that will hopefully still take her better places than The Wedding Singer, with scores that deserve to be heard onstage and on disc -- whether they're more musical-theatre oriented or pure pop.

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