Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Finn, Jiler & the BBC

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Finn, Jiler & the BBC A NEW BRAIN (RCA Victor)

A NEW BRAIN (RCA Victor)

In spite of such announced and/or workshopped shows as Muscle and The Royal Family, A New Brain was composer-lyricist William Finn's first all-new musical to get produced since 1990's Falsettoland. And the fact that it received more negative than positive reviews and did only moderate business may mean we won't see another one soon. Part of the problem is that the utterly idiosyncratic style that has won Finn many fans is also a limitation; it's not necessarily useful for more conventional narrative pieces like the unproduced ones on which Finn has worked.

Those hoping for something as powerful and memorable as Falsettos may have been disappointed in A New Brain (the almost entirely sung show has a book co-authored with James Lapine), but the cast recording amply demonstrates that the show boasted many, many enjoyable numbers, along with a top-notch company to deliver them. To single out just a few: Mary Testa (never better) in the homeless lady's biting "Change." Norm Lewis (who replaced Christopher Innvar for the recording, later joined the company, and sings beautifully here) leading the lovely "Sailing." Penny Fuller as the hero's mother delivering the score's finest number, "The Music Still Plays On" (so nice to have the superb Fuller back in musicals). And that's not to mention leading man Malcolm Gets, who, in addition to leading such appealing numbers as "Heart and Music" and "I Feel So Much Spring," is everywhere and carries it all off with great flair. Strong contributions, too, from Keith Byron Kirk, Liz Larsen, Michael Mandell, and Kristin Chenoweth. And Michael Starobin's orchestrations are indispensable.

The 79-minute CD lacks about 12 minutes of the show, but nothing crucial has been omitted. The Brain disc is highly playable, and may make an even better case for the piece than the production, which, while sleekly staged by Graciela Daniele, was carried more by its music than its narrative. While it probably has its definitive performance here, Brain is likely to turn up in regionals soon.

AVENUE X (RCA Victor) A New Brain is one of a recent trio of show releases from RCA. The label has picked up from First Night Records the cast recording of Saturday Night, the Stephen Sondheim musical that had its world premiere at London's Bridewell Theatre last year. I reviewed the recording in this space when it first appeared; if it may not offer a definitive performance, it remains a must for Sondheim fans and musical theatre followers in general, and the score is delightful.

The third release is the most marginal: Avenue X was seen at Playwrights Horizons in 1994, and has since received a sizable number of productions elsewhere. A gritty piece (book and lyrics by John Jiler, music by Ray Leslee) about racial conflict in 1963 Brooklyn, the score consists of doo-wop and rock and roll (with some gospel, blues, and jazz thrown in), all sung a cappella. To make this even less of a musical theatre disc, the songs appear to be the repertoire of the singing group upon which the story focuses; the plot is apparently related in the dialogue. That said, the songs are often catchy, the perfomances (the company includes Chuck Cooper of The Life) excellent. If these styles are to one's liking, this disc should be of interest.

BBC CELEBRATION SERIES

Unlike any U.S. radio station, BBC 2 has for years now devoted considerable attention to musical theatre, with complete broadcasts of almost two dozen famous shows, plus many compilation concerts focusing on specific composers or periods, all freshly created rather than taken from pre-existing recordings.

Reviewing several of these broadcasts in this space, I have heard from a number of readers frustrated at not being able to purchase them. But apparently there is hope: Recently released by the BBC are four packed discs of live concert tributes with full orchestra originally aired by Radio 2; three of them salute Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, and Styne, while the other offers music from Kismet, Guys and Dolls, Call Me Madam, A Little Night Music, Finian's Rainbow, and The Music Man (note that while those were the first six titles in the series of complete broadcasts, the compilation disc is from a concert that preceded those performances). And word is that BBC will soon release some of the gems from its full-length show collection, possibly Follies and A Chorus Line (although I would suggest starting with the otherwise unrecorded Royal National Theatre Sweeney Todd, which preserves Julia McKenzie's acclaimed Mrs. Lovett).

The 1997 Kander and Ebb program features the composer himself, joining the orchestra (conducted by Don Pippin) for his "Ragtime" theme from the film Blue Skies and part of the Steel Pier overture. There's an 11-minute orchestral suite from Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Steel Pier's lovely "First You Dream." Claire Moore, who gets to do both "Colored Lights" and "City Lights," sounds good in everything; Mary Carewe is a solid belter; and Dave Willetts and Darryl Knock are the accomplished male singers.

The 1989 Sondheim salute features no rarities, but does have Carewe doing a good job with the rarely recorded title song from Sunday in the Park With George. Michael Ball (who sounds great, if a bit overemphatic) does "Not While I'm Around," then joins Moore (his former Christine Daae) for "Too Many Mornings." Glynn Kerslake (Martin Guerre, Sunset Boulevard) does well with "Johanna," and Rosemary Ashe leads "Me and My Town."

More interesting is the 1998 Styne concert, which features this series' chief rarity: a nine-minute version of the handsome ballet from The Red Shoes, conducted by its Broadway musical director Don Pippin. Libby Morris, star of the 1976 South African Gypsy and its elusive Philips cast recording, here recreates five of the numbers: While she still has a lot to offer, she is much less vocally strong (particularly in "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn") than she was 22 years ago, so you will need to hear the earlier recording to get her full impact in the role. Moore gets to deliver four Funny Girl numbers, plus Dolores Gray's "If You Hadn't But You Did" from Two on the Aisle, and Tim Flavin does "All I Need Is The Girl."

With the exception of the dreadful Anita Dobson, the performances (by Marilyn Hill Smith, Stephen Hill, Carewe, and Kerslake) on the 1994 six show sampler are all fine. But this concert no doubt meant more as the kick-off event of a series than it now does on disc; as heard here, the linking of these six shows seems arbitrary. In general, I can't say these four discs are musts; pleasant as they mostly are, virtually all the material is readily available elsewhere. But one hopes they lead to releases of some of those full-score broadcasts.

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