ON THE RECORD: A New London Fiddler and a Crossover West Side Story

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A New London Fiddler and a Crossover West Side Story
 
This week's column discusses the new London cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof and a full-scale West Side Story geared to the crossover market.
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Fiddler on the Roof [Musical Associates Theatre]
There's a new Fiddler in town. London town, anyway. This is a traditional Fiddler, which should come as a relief after the last one we saw hereabouts. It is also an intimate one, which by all reports concentrates on the material — score and text — rather than on newly-imagined production concepts. Performed with a relatively intimate cast of 30 (down from the original 45), the goal seems to be to present Fiddler in the manner originally intended by the authors; while I have not seen it, I am told that the values of the piece come unhindered across the footlights and into the theatregoer's heart and tearducts. This viewpoint is supported by the new CD, released on the Musical Associates label. Lindsay Posner has directed, with the original Robbins choreography carefully recreated. [Disclaimer: I wrote the liner notes for this CD, although for that matter I also did the notes for the current release of the original Broadway cast album — the so-called "Broadway Deluxe Collector's Edition" of the original 1964 Zero Mostel cast album.]

Henry Goodman is the Tevye in question. Having seen so many Tevyes, going back to Zero Mostel and Luther Adler, it's impossible to judge the performance based on an audio recording alone; this role is not about the singing, it's about the acting. That said, Goodman seems to do very well. A showy Tevye he is not, nor an enigmatic or nouveau one; he sounds like a gentle papa, trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck. Goodman is best known hereabouts as the fellow who didn't replace Nathan Lane in The Producers, and that's perhaps an unfair association; as it turned out, Bialystock's shoes were especially hard to fill. Goodman proved a fine actor when he played here in the Roundabout's Tartuffe and as a replacement in Art. What's more, he was astoundingly good as Roy Cohn in Angels in America when it was mounted in 1992, prior to George Wolfe's Broadway version, at the National Theatre in London. Musical theatre fans know him from the original cast albums of the West End productions of City of Angels and Chicago.

It is not the Tevye that makes this CD so enjoyable. Nor is it the supporting cast, led by Beverley Klein as Golde. (Singing honors, by the way, go to Alexandra Silber as Hodel; her "Far from the Home I Love" is exceedingly lovely.) The original 25 pieces have been cut to ten, which sounds mighty foreboding. Here, though — for once — is a careful and highly effective reduction. Orchestrator Larry Blank has clearly studied Don Walker's originals, making necessary alterations but retaining all the key flavors of the 1964 charts.

Walker — who as Robbins's most frequent theatrical orchestrator was well aware of the director's tendency to snipe at and tamper with the orchestrations — consciously scored the show in such a manner that everything could be effectively played even if reduced to a quartet. For that reason, perhaps, Blank's orchestration sounds small but totally complete. This is almost a chamber music Fiddler, with every instrumentalist a soloist. Even with the reduced numbers, nothing seems to be missing; in fact it sounds enhanced. This new orchestration will apparently be offered as an option for stock and amateur licenses, and that's a promising development. These ten pieces sound wonderful, which is probably a testament to musical director Jae Alexander and his band (including some fine clarinet playing by Richard Addison). A key element to the success of Blank's work is that he has retained the score's most important color — the accordion — and sensibly avoided synthesizers. Contrast this with the otherwise admirable 1995 Roundabout production of She Loves Me. Faced with a similar reduction in players, they saw fit to add two synthesizers at the expense of not only the accordion but the harp as well, robbing the orchestration of what should be a sense of immeasurably buoyant romance.

The new CD is currently available online, from the label or Dress Circle; it will presumably soon be more widely available. This Fiddler sounds so fine, in fact, that it almost makes you want to jump over to the Savoy, where the production has been playing since May.

West Side Story [Decca Universal B0009818]
West Side Story turned 50 this week, on Sept. 26 to be exact, and Decca has turned out a new recording for the occasion. "The Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim Musical" they call it — I wonder what agent worked out that billing? — and they deck it with what they term "classical crossover stars."

Vittorio Grigolo — also known as simply Vittorio — is a 30-year-old tenor from Arezzo, who apparently has quite a pop career moonlighting from the opera. He just appeared a couple of weeks ago at the Kennedy Center in the Washington National Opera production of La Boheme, and earlier this year sang La Traviata in Rome; he has also starred in the PBS special "Vittorio: Dreams of Rome" and guested on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Miss Universe Pageant. Back in 2003, he played Tony in a production of West Side Story that played La Scala prior to a tour of Japan. Which, I suppose, was the genesis of this new recording.

Hayley Westenra is a 20-year-old singer from New Zealand whose CDs have sold over a gazillion copies. Her website boasts that she has sung for the Queen "three times in one week" — imagine singing for the Queen three times in one week! — plus President Bush, Tony Blair and Condi Rice as well. I suppose that the team of Vittorio and Hayley will sell countless West Side Story discs, and that's okay by me; one expects that some people will buy it who have never heard of Leonard Bernstein before, let alone Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and that other guy. I can't help but think that some of these listeners might even like the songs.

The CD, in actuality, is pretty good. There is a caveat; Mr. Grigolo has never been to Hell's Kitchen, and it sounds like he doesn't speak no English at all. This normally wouldn't matter too much, but here we have a Tony who sounds far more Latin than Maria, Anita or anybody on the recording. ("It's un-lee jus' outta reeech, downa block, onna beeech.") He sings the role like an opera singer, but hey — he is an opera singer. I suppose that Italian listeners feel much the same when some Yankee tackles Tosca.

Ms. Westenra does all right, mostly, although she seems to be lost in "A Boy Like That." There's a strong Anita, in the person of Melanie Marshall, but Westenra can't keep up with Bernstein. Will Martin, as Riff, is probably the most likely of the group to turn up on stage playing a non-crossover West Side Story. When they all get together to sing the Quintet, he's the only one who sounds like he's ever been west of Tenth Avenue, or in the western hemisphere.

The music is extremely well played. If you use a magnifying glass, you will find hidden away — not on the cover, or the tray, or the disc itself, but in the middle of page ten of the booklet — that we are hearing The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted by Nick Ingham. Mr. Ingham seems to have a pretty good understanding of the score, which makes a world of difference. They give us the entire "Dance at the Gym," which is nice for a change. (I always marvel at the last part of the sequence; "Jump" it's called. It's not so much dance but an incidental played under dialogue as the scene breaks up. A throwaway that is barely noticeable in the theatre — and listen to the marvelous music Bernstein provided!) If they give us the entire gymnasium dance, which is a plus, we get neither the "Rumble" nor the big second act ballet. The "Somewhere" sequence, alone, is included, sung by Connie Fisher. Jamie Bernstein provides a thoughtful and intelligent liner note, too. Lest anybody be interested, let me add that the orchestrations — which sound wonderful under Mr. Ingham's baton — are by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. I mention this only because their names are nowhere to be seen. For those who think that orchestrators are merely interchangeable craftsman, I encourage you to muse what West Side Story would have sounded like if it had been orchestrated by Bernstein's regular orchestrator, Hershy Kay. (Or, for that matter, if Candide had been Ramin and Kostal rather than Kay.)

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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