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Revival Meeting by Matthew Murray

  • SouthPacificGypsy.jpgMusical theatre devotees were afforded a rare treat last season that doesn't seem to be on track again for 2008–2009: the opportunity to see two classic musicals on Broadway with full-size orchestras capable of doing justice to the timeless scores in ways that today's usually anemic pits can't remotely manage. There, however, the similarities ended. The productions of South Pacific and Gypsy could not have been more different—something that's proven all over again by their cast recordings, which contain a plethora of material and could not better represent their respective shows.

    The South Pacific disc is, like the smash Lincoln Center production of the 1949 Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II Pulitzer Prize winner, expansive and sumptuous, gloriously sung, and reverently faithful. (The biggest change: The addition of the cut "My Girl Back Home," to no good—but not much bad—effect.) Leads Kelli O'Hara (as "cockeyed optimist" Ensign Nellie Forbush) and Tony winner Paulo Szot (as Emile Debecque) provide a steamy romantic pairing that, even on record, evinces the utmost commitment to dramatic, musical, and artistic excellence. O'Hara even comes off better here than in the theater: freer, less trapped in her own psychological conception of Nellie's torment over Emile's checkered past and biracial children. If she lacks the magmatic zing of the role's originator, Mary Martin, she nonetheless gives a performance that's as thoughtful and thoroughly thorough as Szot's is unashamedly passionate—even though, despite being a superb singer and articulate actress, she can't match the effortless, operatic grace Szot brings to the classics "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine."

    Every number, as recorded, sounds magnificent—richly theatrical, thanks to Bartlett Sher's resolute attention to detail and Ted Sperling's flawless conducting of some 30 pit musicians to do full justice to Rodgers's music. Even the shortest of tracks is infused with color and atmosphere, the world of Hammerstein and Joshua Logan's adaptation of James Michener's short stories (from Tales of the South Pacific) leaping out of your speakers to dance in your ear. This recording, like the revival itself, is of the kind everyone thought—and rightfully so—Broadway didn't and couldn't do anymore.

    If the production and the recording have one problem, it's that Sher was unwilling to devote the same attention to the show's musical-comedy underpinnings as he was its dramatic and structural integrity. Traditional showstoppers, such as "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" and "Honey Bun"—both of which, not coincidentally, O'Hara leads—aren't exactly leaden, but they also never "pop." In some way's Sher's gambit paid off, and he elicited terrific performances from Danny Burstein as the amorous-golddigging Seabee Luther Billis and Loretta Ables Sayre as a succulently earthy (but not Earth Mothery) Bloody Mary. But Matthew Morrison is utterly at sea as Joe Cable, the lieutenant who learns the hard way that not all lessons you absorb from your parents are the right ones—his underweight voice and unquenchable modernity torpedo two of the score's most vital numbers, the sensual "Younger Than Springtime" and the theme-statement "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." If this South Pacific would be stronger still with a more appropriate singer-actor in this role, Morrison can't prevent this from being one of the very few must-own cast recordings of recent seasons.

    In stark, eye-poking contrast is the blaring embarrassment that is the Gypsy disc. It preserves all that's abominable about librettist-director Arthur Laurents's heartburn-inducing revival at the St. James, while giving the shortest imaginable shrift to the one thing that should be unkillable: the score. Some of Jule Styne's best music is lumbered through by an indifferent orchestra under the unusually careless baton of Patrick Vaccariello, such that even the brassiest blasts of that timeless overture more resemble flatulence than they do music.

    This is all too appropriate for this gassiest imaginable recording of one of the canon's Major Scores. Star Patti LuPone is bad enough, spitting and speeding her way through Styne's music and Stephen Sondheim's clever lyrics as though she has mashed potatoes permanently implanted in her mouth; her rendition of the biggest songs, from "Some People" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" to the anticlimactic "Rose's Turn" (capping with a scream that's as vulgar as it is unnecessary, which is to say a king's ransom) are so self-indulgent, one can all but picture LuPone rehearsing for weeks at a time in front of the mirror. (You can even hear the facial distortions she worked out; better than seeing them live, her overwaggling brow and bulging eyes supplanting even basic character work in her portrayal.) But no one else is any better: Boyd Gaines, as the butter-milquetoast Herbie, is as blandly avuncular as he is in the theater, and Laura Benanti laid down her tracks after she had tired of countering LuPone's histrionics with emotional truth. It's unthinkable that all three of these people won Tonys—as much as onstage, nothing they do on the recording offers any evidence of why.

    Many of the supporting players are scarcely better, with Leigh Ann Larkin the shrillest and most hatefully obtuse Dainty June conceivable and Marilyn Caskey, Lenora Nemetz, and the usually delightful Alison Fraser unaccountably boring as the showstopping strippers who paw their way through "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." At least Tony Yazbeck brings a few minutes of humanity to "All I Need Is the Girl," the lone oasis of sanity in an otherwise utterly barren recording.

    The saddest part about all this is that it must be exactly what Laurents wanted. Congratulations to him on the ultimate in vanity productions, and long may it run for him to bask in his own imagined magnificence. Everyone else can find better recordings of every song elsewhere. Heck, even on the Ethel Merman Disco Album, where original Rose Ethel Merman does an, ahem, unforgettable rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses." That recording, though locked in the 1970s, seems far more in tune and intelligent than this one.

    AnnieComplete.jpgI'm usually the last person to complain about a complete recording of anything, but the "World Premiere Complete Recording" of Annie is the rare release that disappoints not because it has too little—but because it has too much.

    Its first disc documents the 30th anniversary production, which toured the country with Alene Robertson as Miss Hannigan, Conrad John Schuck as Daddy Warbucks, and Marissa O'Donnell as Annie. (When that production stopped at Madison Square Garden, Kathie Lee Gifford took over for Robertson.) The cast is, frankly, what you'd expect of a 30th anniversary production of a show directed by its lyricist: completely functional, completely faithful, and completely boring.

    No, no one will ever sing "Tomorrow" better than Andrea McArdle or "Little Girls" better than Dorothy Loudon, so hoping for that is pointless. But everyone on this recording comes across so rigidly two-dimensional you believe they just leapt off the funnies page—and not in a good way.

    Really, though, who could blame them? The sparkling, sophisticated version of the show Broadway saw in 1977 and that is (or perhaps, until very recently, used to be) the one available for license isn't what this cast is performing. They're stuck with a sanitized, overly show-biz revision that aims everything at three-year-olds rather than the savvy adults who were the original's targets. The performances have to be over-the-top because so much of the sly politicizing and nuanced character moments have been excised in favor of cheap sentiment and even cheaper laughs. There are musical changes, too, such as splitting up "I Don't Need Anything But You" and the title song, the latter of which is sung in counterpoint with "We Got Annie" (heard in the 1982 John Houston film), more and different dance music and distracting contrapuntal singing in certain songs, reassigned lyrics, and so on.

    None of these changes is for the better. They all merely point up the delicacy of the original work, and how indelible those performances remain. I think the two or three minutes of music the 1977 recording lacks are acceptable trade-offs for the energy and spirit it can't contain, but that the 30th anniversary cast doesn't even remotely seem to understand.

    The second disc is an even bigger curiosity, containing songs from the hapless and hopeless sequel, Annie 2, as narrated by Hughes Miss Hannigan, Carol Burnett. Interesting as it is to hear an all-star cast (Gary Beach, Shelly Burch, Harve Presnell) plow through the material, most of it is just so terrible that even those fine performers are soundly defeated. Three tracks, and three tracks alone, fascinate: "All I've Got Is Me," "I Guess Things Happen for the Best," and "My Daddy," all lyrical variations on the same dramatic and musical themes (written under rehearsal duress so the existing orchestrations didn't have to be tossed or redone) that at one time or another occupied the same place in the show. It's an irresistible glimpse into both the creative process and the trouble shows experience out of town. How else to explain how a song could be rewritten twice and never get any better?

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