Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Children of Eden, Sound of Music

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Children of Eden, Sound of Music THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1998 Revival)
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THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1998 Revival)

On Feb. 15, I devoted this space to a comprehensive rundown on recordings of the final Rodgers and Hammerstein score, including the first Broadway album, two London productions, two Australian mountings, the film soundtrack, and numerous studio sets. I noted at that time that with the success of the film version, all subsequent stage recordings came to reflect at least some of the musical changes made for the movie.

Already on disc are such wonderful Marias as original Mary Martin (in a class by herself, so profoundly does she connect with the R&H spirit), Julie Andrews, Petula Clark, and June Bronhill. No post-Martin U.S. stage Maria -- they include Florence Henderson, Constance Towers, Marie Osmond, and Debby Boone -- has gotten the chance to preserve the role in full, probably because there has never until now been a Broadway revival. RCA Victor, a label that cleaned up with the soundtrack album, has now given the show its first U.S. cast recording in almost 40 years.

On the new Broadway album, Rebeca Luker sounds lovely as always, and remains a smooth, near-flawless singer. But after an admirably straightforward, unadorned title number, one misses the colorful personality and distinctive style of a Martin, Andrews, or Clark; something is lacking when an established performer like Luker snares one of the great musical theatre female star parts in the first Broadway revival of a classic and fails to get a Tony nomination (Martin even beat out Ethel Merman in Gypsy for the prize, but then Maria's brand of child-rearing was probably more palatable to late '50s audiences than was Rose's).

The hushed, timid tones that served Patti Cohenour so well in Drood and The Phantom of the Opera are not right for the Abbess, which requires more heft. As Captain von Trapp, Michael Siberry doesn't sing nearly as well as either Luker or Cohenour, but offers the recording's most distinctive performance; the other principals are adequate. The hour-long CD naturally observes the production's use of two film songs, along with the film's shift of "My Favorite Things" to the storm scene; "The Lonely Goatherd" here becomes part of the next-to-closing concert sequence. Also present are this version's new orchestrations and dance arrangements, and cuts in a couple of songs. Political correctness makes an appearance in the "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" reprise, with the lyric "You're someone's wife/ And you belong to him" changed to "with him."

This is such a fool-proof score that any cast album is bound to be enjoyable; the new one is pleasant, a fine preservation of a respectable performance, but the glories of earlier Music recordings are missing. On June 16, RCA will reissue its 1960 disc of the Music score as performed by the Trapp Family Singers.


CHILDREN OF EDEN

In spite of its classy pedigree -- score by Stephen Schwartz, book and staging by John Caird, design by John Napier, choreography by Matthew (Swan Lake) Bourne -- and strong cast, Children of Eden was a critically lambasted West End flop in 1991 (no, its failure was not due to the Gulf War, as its creators have maintained). Taking up the Biblical stories of Adam and Eve and Noah and the Ark -- sort of The Apple Tree Act One followed by Two by Two, but more serious than either -- Eden has a good deal of attractive music, and is a show eminently suited to family audiences and companies with sizable forces. For these reasons, Eden did not die in London, but has continued to be revised and remounted ever since. A major revival took place last fall at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, and RCA Victor has made it the occasion of the first Paper Mill cast album (TVT's forthcoming Follies will be the second).

RCA has lavished special treatment on the recording, releasing it in both double-CD (98 minutes) and single-disc highlights (73 minutes) versions; the double set has the lyrics, the single only a synopsis. Although the long out- of-print West End cast recording on London Records runs 78 minutes and features much of the same material as the highlights version, by the time of Paper Mill the material had undergone substantial alteration. Recording Eden in its final form was probably wise, as many companies are likely to mount it, just as they have the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit Phantom, another widely produced show that will never see Broadway.

But that Phantom musical never attempted New York for the obvious reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber got there first; there's nothing stopping producers from mounting Eden in New York, so the fact that there have been no takers may indicate that some, like this observer, find Eden a less than gripping piece. No question, the score has quality, and boasts some clever lyrics and some songs that are variously lovely, haunting, or rousing. But it doesn't quite rank with the best of Schwartz, and there's something of a '70s flower- child feel about it. Then too, the subject matter has already been covered enough; while Eden attempts to make it into a tale of generational conflict, it's not quite enough to prevent it from being slow going.

Rent alumnus Darius deHaas is a standout; it's fun to hear Stephanie Mills in good form and at last taking on another musical theatre role; and there's good work from William Solo, Kelli Rabke, and Adrian Zmed. While the London cast -- with Ken Page, Martin Smith, Kevin Colson, Frances Ruffelle, and Shezwae Powell prominent, and an early Ruthie Henshall appearance -- was more interesting, this is probably the work's definitive recording. Collectors will require the complete set, which should be a particularly effective tool for promoting future stagings. Me, I'd rather listen to Apple Tree and Two By Two.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com