Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Three From The U.K.

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Three From The U.K. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (Polydor)

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (Polydor)

Within the space of a few months, two musicals based on films famous for their hit soundtracks have made it to the stage: In April, London got Saturday Night Fever, taken from the 1977 movie with the Bee Gees score; it's now an established hit at the Palladium and bound for Broadway. Just opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and arriving on Broadway in October is Footloose, based on the 1984 movie.

These stage adaptations were faced with an interesting problem: In both films, the songs were heard only in the background, often as accompaniment to dance; none of the characters sang as they would in a conventional musical, and few if any of the songs qualified as character material. So although these two shows continue the steady stream (42nd Street, Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Gigi, Meet Me In St. Louis, State Fair, High Society) of stage versions of live-action movie musicals, there's a difference here: The films they were taken from were not really musicals, but rather dramas with an accompanying song score that played a major part in their success.

Tranferring such properties to the stage means that what were once background songs must be (at least part of the time) placed in the mouths of actors, and made to function as character numbers. In the case of Saturday Night Fever, the recording makes it clear that a modest attempt to do this has been made: Tony gets an attractive new song (written for the show, but first offered on Celine Dion's latest album) called "Immortality" for his eleven o'clock slot. Girlfriend Stephanie gets "What Kind of Fool" (from Barbra Streisand's Guilty album) for her big apartment solo. The ill-fated Bobby C has "Tragedy"; the rejected Annette does "If I Can't Have You"; and the closing duet for Tony and Stephanie is "How Deep Is Your Love."

Still, the cast recording sounds more like a pop album than a theatre score. Adam Garcia's Tony leads many of the numbers, but he is quickly joined and backed by the chorus, making these numbers sound like dance tracks rather than show songs. The back-up voices even extend to the solos, which only occasionally sound like they're actually emanating from characters. Garcia is very smooth, and the strong-voiced leading lady is Anita Louise Combe, like Garcia an Australian, and seen as Betty in Sunset Boulevard in London, Toronto, and Vancouver, as well as in Cats and Evita down under. The songs (which are not heard on the recording in strict show sequence) are what they have long been, mostly familiar (the other major new one is a company number called "It's My Neighborhood") and hard to forget. If it cannot be said that any great theatrical transformation of the material has occurred, the score is potent '70s-style pop, and the cast album is the same. Those who have always liked these songs should find the disc very enjoyable.

STEPPING OUT (First Night)

This spring, London received four new musicals -- Saturday Night Fever, Whistle Down The Wind, Doctor Dolittle, and Rent -- that are successful, or at least running. Just a year ago, things were fairly dire in terms of new shows, and wistful losers like Stepping Out were all too freqent.

Directed by Julia McKenzie, Richard Harris' play Stepping Out, was a long-running West End hit; when Tommy Tune took it on for Broadway in 1987, the result failed quickly, and an Americanized film version starring Liza Minnelli was not a great success either. A provincial staple in England, the play ended with a lengthy dance sequence, and Minnelli got to sing a little Kander and Ebb in the movie. But it was not until last year that the play became a full-fledged musical, with Harris writing the book, Denis King (Privates on Parade, Bashville) the music, and Mary Stewart-David the lyrics. It was a resounding flop, and McKenzie, who directed the musical prior to London, departed but allowed her name to be used during the West End run; McKenzie's name is nowhere to be found on the new First Night Records London cast recording.

Playing Mavis, the instructor of the motley-crew dance class, is Liz Robertson, the last of the many wives of Alan Jay Lerner, who was excellent in the 1979 London revival of My Fair Lady, and has been seen on Broadway in Dance A Little Closer and Jerome Kern Goes To Hollywood and opposite Rudolf Nureyev on a U.S. tour of The King and I.

With a cast of 10 and eight musicians, it was a small-scale production, and a notable example of an unnecessary musicalization. There's a promising opening number, but otherwise the songs are terrible to mediocre, with the lyrics especially labored. One feels throughout that the play would be far better off without these songs, and that the original Stepping Out is likely to have a healthy future without them.

HONK! (Dress Circle)

Producer Cameron Mackintosh has for some time now been fostering the career of the team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. He produced their Just So musical twice in intimate London venues, first in 1989 (directed by Julia McKenzie), then in 1990 (directed by Mike Ockrent); he will present it again in November at Goodspeed-at-Chester. When Mackintosh revived his '70s musical The Card in the '90s, Drewe supplied new lyrics. Other Stiles-Drewe projects have included contributions to The Challenge and The Shakespeare Revue (both available on TER CDs), and a new musical version of Peter Pan.

McKenzie directed their new show Honk! (music by Stiles, book and lyrics by Drewe) at Alan Ayckbourn's Stephen Joseph Theare in Scarborough last November, and Dress Circle has released the cast recording of this well-received family musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's story of The Ugly Duckling. The company includes Nicolas Colicos, who understudies Marcus Lovett in Whistle Down The Wind.

This is obviously a Christmas entertainment, so perhaps not the kind of thing you will race to purchase. But Stiles and Drew are clearly talented, and the score is witty, tuneful, and mighty cute.

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