Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Violet, Triumph & Judy Preserved

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Violet, Triumph & Judy Preserved VIOLET (Resmiranda)

VIOLET (Resmiranda)

The cast album of Violet , the Jeanine Tesori (music)-Brian Crawley (book and lyrics) show presented by Playwrights Horizons in March 1997, has its long-delayed release from Resmiranda Records this week. The same label recently issued a CD of Tesori's music from last summer's Lincoln Center Theater production of Twelfth Night.

In recent months, Tesori (who is working on the new songs for the Broadway adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie ) was the subject (solely or partially) of three New York Times articles. Along with Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa, she is considered a key figure in the group of rising, youngish theatre composers, most of whom have yet to have their chance on Broadway. What pieces like those in the Times fail to take into account is that the musicals that have been produced in New York by these writers have evinced little audience interest, almost all of them lasting about a month beyond opening night at small off-Broadway theatres. There has always been a sizable audience for the best musical theatre talents; this much-touted group may be as gifted as some believe them to be, but they have yet to find a public. (The forthcoming Lincoln Center Theater production of Parade will be an interesting test for another member of this group, composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown.)

The tale of a disfigured young woman on a '60s journey to a faith healer, Violet , which took the 1997 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical prize, is a reasonably accomplished piece of work; I only wish it were more entertaining. Not that Violet doesn't have fine things in it: There's a rousing opening sequence ("Surprised"/"On My Way"); the stirring "Let It Sing" for one of the two men who change Violet's life; a pretty lullaby for Violet called "Lay Down Your Head"; the attractive "Promise Me, Violet"; and the "Bring Me To Light" finale. But the piece also seems to me somewhat overwritten, and ultimately not as affecting as it was meant to be.

Some of the problem may be due to the fact that the score heavily features the sounds of country and gospel music, styles which I don't favor and which strike me as not especially theatrical (at least as deployed here). And there are numerous non-character songs, performed by preachers, gospel choirs, and radio singers. Lauren Ward carries the enormous title role confidently but is not a very sympathetic performer. Michael McElroy and Michael Park are very fine as the men in Violet's life, and the company includes such other talents as Robert Westenberg, Cass Morgan, Paula Newsome, Roz Ryan, and Stephen Lee Anderson (the latter now a lead in Footloose ).

No doubt those who hailed Violet at Playwrights will love this recording. As in the theatre, I found that Violet on disc wore out its welcome before it was over. I'd rather listen to the CD of Titanic -- the show that got its only '97 Best Musical Drama Critics Circle vote from me -- anytime.

TRIUMPH OF LOVE (JAY)

A year ago at this time, Triumph of Love was previewing on Broadway. While the show would have its admirers, it was greeted overall with a less enthusiastic response than Violet , and won no Best Musical prizes (how could it in the Lion King-Ragtime season?). But perhaps even more than Violet, Triumph should find a life in regional theatres, its cast size (seven) and lightness of tone both pluses. Articles like those devoted to Tesori failed to cite Triumph composer Jeffrey Stock as a promising new American talent, yet I found the Triumph cast album more playable than that of Violet.

I was not among the show's fans, finding its comedy labored and not my cup of tea. But on the 71-minute recording, much of the strain is gone; one gets from song to song quickly, and the majority of them (lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) are catchy and enjoyable. The score has its share of routine, indifferent items ("Mr. Right" and "Henchmen Are Forgotten" for the servants, the ensemble "The Sad and Sordid Saga of Cecile"). But the duds are outweighed by the finer things, most of which involve the diva in question.

The chief reason fans continued, months after the show folded, to demand a Triumph album was the presence of Betty Buckley; she's tremendous here, and this ranks as one of her best recordings. Buckley's contribution alone makes this a required purchase, and she's happily featured in most of the impressive tracks: the memorable first act opener ("This Day of Days") and closer ("Teach Me Not to Love You"); two sharp duets ("You May Call Me Phocion" with Susan Egan, "The Tree" with F. Murray Abraham); the trio "Love Won't Take No For An Answer"; and of course the showpiece solo "Serenity." Taking full advantage of its star, the disc concludes with the bonus track of "If I Cannot Love," Buckley's soaring second-act solo cut during the first week of previews.

Leading lady Egan is a fine, confident singer, and scores in her opening number "Anything" and elsewhere. (Buckley is currently appearing in Gypsy opposite Deborah Gibson, one of Egan's Broadway successors as Belle in Beauty and the Beast .) Leading men Christopher Sieber and Abraham fill the bill nicely. Nancy Opel, Roger Bart (about to be directed by Triumph stager Michael Mayer in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown ), and Kevin Chamberlin are fine as the servants, and join Egan for the bright second-act opener "Have A Little Faith" (music by Michael Kosarin; "Mr. Right" has music by Van Dyke Parks).

Birkenhead's lyrics are wittily adept, and Stock is, on the evidence here, a better composer than he was given credit for. Very much in the mold of '60s off-Broadway musicals, the score has charm and pleasant tunes. And this is a superbly done album, very complete musically, and with nicely chosen bits of dialogue (including Buckley's celebrated last words). Triumph was not a love-fest for its creative team, and it took some doing to get this album made; it was worth doing.

JUDY (32 RECORDS)

While Judy Garland never performed in a stage musical, she certainly sang songs from them (not to mention the fact that several of the movie musicals in which she starred have been transferred -- or, in the case of Easter Parade, are soon to be transferred -- to the stage). In any case, I would assume her artistry would be of interest to readers of this column. 1999 marks the 30th anniversary of her death, and on Oct. 13, 32 Records releases a lavish boxed set -- four CDs (about 188 minutes), a 32-minute videotape, and an illustrated paperback book-- that offers a comprehensive overview of Garland's career.

The video offers sublime excerpts from her '60s TV series (why not issue the whole series on video?). The discs trace her work from its earliest stages to her final performances, with the emphasis on selections from the TV show. The book offers an interview with the star's long-time musical director Mort Lindsey, and an authoritative track-by-track guide by expert Scott Schecter.

While I think Judy Garland is the greatest singer of all time and one of the most talented people who ever lived, I'm not an expert on reissues of her recordings, so I'm not certain how much of the material on these discs is already available in comparably careful remastering. But surely this set would be a fine introduction for younger people just discovering her. And there can't be anyone unable to respond to Garland's way of not so much performing a song as sharing it with a listener. That's abundantly on display here.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com