Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Three From Willison

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Three From Willison A BAG OF POPCORN AND A DREAM (Original Cast)
Since appearing in their Grand Hotel, performer Walter Willison has devoted considerable time to promoting, adapting, and recording the work of Robert Wright and George Forrest, best known for Kismet and Song of Norway. He and the team are involved in all three Original Cast Records releases at hand this week.

A BAG OF POPCORN AND A DREAM (Original Cast)
Since appearing in their Grand Hotel, performer Walter Willison has devoted considerable time to promoting, adapting, and recording the work of Robert Wright and George Forrest, best known for Kismet and Song of Norway. He and the team are involved in all three Original Cast Records releases at hand this week.

Although it's billed as "an intimate bigscreen revue," A Bag of Popcorn and a Dream is for now a Willison-produced and directed CD sampler of Wright and Forrest trunk material. The 25 numbers include songs from Jane Froman's '50s club acts; songs from revues at the Copacabana and Camp Tamiment; songs from unproduced shows and movies; and unused songs from Grand Hotel, At The Grand (an earlier musical version of Grand Hotel that folded on the road), and Kean. You'll even find such curiosities as the Copa number whose tune became that of Kismet's "Rahadlakum."

There are gems here, like an At The Grand song (sung by Diane J. Findlay) written when Marlene Dietrich was the desired star, and the Kean cut-out "Inevitable" (Judy Kaye). In addition to Findlay and Kaye, there is fine work from Karen Murphy, Joan Barber, Karen Akers (in a song she might have sung in Grand Hotel), Lucie Arnaz, Marcia Lewis, Willison, and many others. If there's also some silly stuff here, it's a very enjoyable collection, particularly for those with a taste for '40s/'50s sophisticated, campy cabaret material. The quality arrangements and orchestrations are by musical director Fred Barton.

ANASTASIA (Original Cast)
This disc is a reissue of Bay Cities' 1992 CD The Anastasia Affaire, the title perhaps altered owing to the recent success of the animated film musical of the same name. The disc has Regina Resnik joining cast members (Judy Kaye, Len Cariou, Steve Barton, Willi Burke, David Green) of the 1989 Merrimack Repertory Theater production of The Anastasia Game, a revision of Wright and Forrest's 1965 Broadway flop Anya. Willison was associate producer of the recording and appears on it. The performers work hard and the result is worth a listen, but the schmaltz level is pretty high, with the team not at their best in the lyrics (the music was adapted from themes by Rachmaninoff, just as Wright and Forrest had used Grieg and Borodin for Norway and Kismet respectively). And this kind of lush operetta stuff comes off better with a full orchestra than in a chamber version, so United Artists' cast album of Anya (unavailable on CD) is actually more fun.

The Original Cast Records reissue offers a 15-minute, Willison-produced appendix of unknown, unrecorded Wright and Forrest material from Grand Hotel / At The Grand, Kean, and Betting on Bertie. The latter is an unproduced musical based on the P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Bertie stories; Willison has been involved in revising it and attempting to get it produced, although even Andrew Lloyd Webber has had difficulty getting his By Jeeves to New York. The appendix singers, who include Marcia Lewis and Simon Jones, are also to be found on A Bag of Popcorn. MARCIA LEWIS: NOWADAYS (Original Cast)
Too often theatre performers take on solo recital discs without careful attention to appealing to the audience familiar with them. That audience is not necessarily interested in hearing them sing standards that have been recorded by a thousand other people and to which they can't hope to add all that much. Even before one plays Marcia Lewis' first solo CD, Nowadays, also produced by Willison, one is impressed by the program, filled with material of interest to collectors. Included are songs from two unrecorded musicals: The quick Broadway flop Roza in which Lewis appeared and understudied Georgia Brown, and Busker Alley, the Tommy Tune road-closer in which Lewis was featured. Also present are songs from the Larry Grossman-Ellen Fitzhugh Paper Moon musical that has had several mountings but folded prior to its scheduled Broadway arrival; the forthcoming Mark Waldrop-Billy Stritch musical Lily & Lily; Cabaret (Lewis did the post-Broadway national tour of the Joel Grey revival); and of course Chicago (the disc's title tune, rather than one of the numbers Lewis does in the show, plus her club-act version of the old song "Chicago" with special lyrics about the revival). There's even a bit of special material inspired by Lewis' appearance in the Broadway run of Vanessa Redgrave's Orpheus Descending.

Lewis' is, of course, a character voice rather than a leading lady voice, but she uses it with care and sings with warmth. And the program is exactly what those who might be interested in a Lewis disc would like to hear.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com