Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The Scarlet Pimpernel CD

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The Scarlet Pimpernel CD THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (Atlantic Theater)
I have a feeling we're all going to be listening to Atlantic's new Broadway cast recording of The Scarlet Pimpernel more than we might wish to admit. In the theatre, the staging and story-telling of The Scarlet Pimpernel let down juicy source material. But on disc, the score's brand of old fashioned, retrograde corn is more enjoyable than you might expect, even if you weren't among the show's admirers when you attended.
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THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (Atlantic Theater)
I have a feeling we're all going to be listening to Atlantic's new Broadway cast recording of The Scarlet Pimpernel more than we might wish to admit. In the theatre, the staging and story-telling of The Scarlet Pimpernel let down juicy source material. But on disc, the score's brand of old fashioned, retrograde corn is more enjoyable than you might expect, even if you weren't among the show's admirers when you attended.

For Jekyll & Hyde, Frank Wildhorn composed in a fairly creepy pop opera vein that was, in spite of a few hard-to-forget tunes, rather unsavory. This time out, he has supplied material far more along the lines of traditional show tunes. True, he remains a composer whose work is too firmly planted in the pop charts to ever sound fully appropriate to the story, characters, and period of his musicals. Yet it's equally true that the Pimpernel music is much more appealing than Jekyll's; "Into The Fire," "Vivez!," "Falcon in the Dive," "When I Look at You," "The Riddle," "Storybook," even the inappropriately Vegas-beat "Where's The Girl?," all possess melodies that are hard to resist and likely to lodge in one's head. If songs like "You Are My Home" and "Only Love" are too pop for comfort, Kim Scharnberg's orchestrations are a big help in making this score sound theatrical (even Scharnberg couldn't quite manage that trick for Jekyll). And while there are a number of silly (the title song, "The Creation of Man," "They Seek Him Here") or indifferent items, the score is the kind of thing one rarely hears anymore; with traces of such Broadway scores as Kean and First Impressions, or such West End ones as Ambassador and Two Cities (the latter as in A Tale of. . ., a story with obvious similarities), the Pimpernel score is campy fun.

All three leads have more than their share of big opportunities and showy pieces; indeed, while there are supporting people mixed throughout, the entire score seems to be performed by the trio of stars. One of the happier things that happened this season was the emergence of Douglas Sills. It's unheard of these days for a relative unknown --at least one not already celebrated in another country or medium-- to make a Broadway debut in a demanding, crucial star part. Sills turned out to be better than anyone could have guessed he would be, particularly in his willingness to go all the way with the ridiculous, effete fop side of Percy. While the recording can't fully capture that aspect of his performance, he comes through solidly on disc.

One hopes Sills will find other suitable roles after Percy; having heard him in a Los Angeles Chess (where he played Freddy to the Florence of L.A. Ragtime leading lady Marcia Mitzman, who was Svetlana in the Broadway Chess) and the national tour of Into The Woods (where his "Agony" partner was Chuck Wagner, who sang Percy on Angel's 1992 concept disc of Pimpernel), I suspect Sills will have a future. I would also suggest that Germany's most popular musical theatre leading man, Uwe Kroger, star of Elisabeth, Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevard, and currently Beauty and the Beast, should, if necessary, produce Pimpernel himself just to get the chance to play Percy, a role he would be perfect for.

Christine Andreas' melting soprano, with its distinctive spinning vibrato, has been too long absent from Broadway cast albums. She does beautifully here, even managing as few show sopranos could to handle tessitura clearly designed for Wildhorn muse Linda Eder. And Terrence Mann is in much better form on disc than he was in the theatre, where the somewhat muddy sound rendered his "Falcon" lyrics virtually incomprehensible. The Pimpernel score is likely to be less admired by a younger generation fond of Sondheim and/or pop opera than by those familiar with '50s Broadway and the last gasp of Broadway operetta as purveyed by the team of Robert Wright and George Forrest. The latter group should be well aware that there are dozens of cast albums, particularly from the '50s and '60s, that are great fun to listen to, even though one is aware that the score in question is not genuinely distinguished. Add The Scarlet Pimpernel to that category, and don't be ashamed to like it.


"LITTLE BY LITTLE"/ "THE TIMES": THE MUSIC OF BRAD ROSS (Original Cast Records)
The 14 songs with music by Brad Ross on this disc are taken mostly from two productions: Little By Little, a cabaret revue with lyrics by Ellen Greenfield and Hal Hackady, and The Times (seen five years ago at the Long Wharf Theatre in CT), a revue-like book show in which a couple peruses the Sunday Times, sections of which come to life (words by Joe Keenan, the novelist now producing and writing Frasier).

The sampler boasts a top-notch cast, including Marin Mazzie, Brian d'Arcy James, Faith Prince, Karen Ziemba, Lucie Arnaz, Nancy Dussault, Kevin Gray, Mary Gordon Murray, Carolee Carmello, Gregg Edelman, Phillip Officer, Mary Testa, Andrea Marcovicci, and Jacqueline Piro.

From the evidence here, Ross is a talent, and the disc has much that is attractive. But like the work of a number of other young talents these days, the material here is largely revue-style pieces, seemingly unattached to a narrative and suitable for anyone's club act. While I grant that this kind of writing can provide useful exposure, it's not exactly musical theatre writing, so it's difficult to know how Ross would fare with a plot (yes, The Times has characters and a story frame, but its concept allows for all sorts of "special material" numbers). Even Maltby and Shire, who mastered this kind of material with Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever, have had a harder time with narrative shows.

I do wish that those with melodic gifts like Ross' would immediately apply them to real musicals; the kind of thing on this disc is pleasant but wispy, and seems to me something of a dead end, at least if one has aspirations of writing book shows. I had exactly the same problem with Varese Sarabande's Broadway Bound CD, which featured two Ross numbers, so it's possible that others will be more interested than I in this kind of material. And the level of performing talent may make this an automatic purchase for some.


Finally, an update: There may not be a London cast recording of Chicago after all. Olivier Award-winning Ute Lemper is an exclusive Polydor artist, and the label has refused to allow her to record a West End cast album of Chicago for RCA. For a new "Best of Lemper" compilation, Lemper did record "All That Jazz" with members of the company (but not with Ruthie Henshall's spoken portions); the fact that this track used the show orchestration has apparently perturbed RCA quite a bit. The possibility remains that terms can eventually be worked out, or that the London Chicago will be recorded after Lemper departs. As indicated in my recent Chicago piece, this is unfortunate indeed, as no other Chicago production has ever boasted two top- flight, much-recorded vocalists in the leading roles.

Also: Dreamworks has recorded a double-CD cast album of The Capeman. RCA will release the double-CD sets of Ragtime and Children of Eden on April 28, and its cast recordings of the new Cabaret and The Sound of Music on May 19.

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