ON THE RECORD: A Rollicking Monty and a Moody Jane

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A Rollicking Monty and a Moody Jane THE FULL MONTY (RCA Victor 09026-63739)
The original cast album of this season's first musical hit starts off with a blast, and the pressure never lets down. The Full Monty works like gangbusters in the theatre, where the score seems suitably functional if not terribly distinguished. The CD, though, displays that composer lyricist David Yazbek has done some pretty impressive songwriting.

THE FULL MONTY (RCA Victor 09026-63739)
The original cast album of this season's first musical hit starts off with a blast, and the pressure never lets down. The Full Monty works like gangbusters in the theatre, where the score seems suitably functional if not terribly distinguished. The CD, though, displays that composer lyricist David Yazbek has done some pretty impressive songwriting.

The opening number, "Scrap," brings to mind Frank Loesser's "Fugue for Tinhorns" ("I Got the Horse Right Here"). Four of the leading characters step right up and establish themselves, singing in the folksy vernacular of the milieu. Much of Yazbek's score, as it happens, recalls Loesser (which should be taken as a high compliment). The lyrics are very much specific to his characters' idiosyncracies, and as composer Yazbek is willing to sacrifice "important" music for song slots that pack comedic wallop. He isn't up to Loesser yet, naturally; Frank came to Broadway with fifteen years of experience and dozens of great songs to his credit. But hidden behind the often noisy rhythms of this score is a guy who can write for the theatre.

Stop and listen to "Breeze off the River," a tender and quite beautiful lullaby/ballad with an impatiently insistent beat (although I always thought that Buffalo was on a lake.) "Big-Ass Rock" is kind of a comedy song, related to Oklahoma!'s "Pore Jud Is Daid" of all things. The two main characters are trying to talk a third out of suicide, and manage to do so with wit; but the song has hidden strength in its sweet countermelody, as the formerly suicidal sad sack sings "I've Got a Friend." (What he sings, actually, is "I've got a friend/Like Carole King -- or was it Carly Simon -- used to sing?/I always get those two confused/ But anyway. . . ." Which makes for an unlikely, but so very real, lyric.) Yazbek also provides a strong duet in the anthem-like "You Walk with Me," the show's most touching (and serious) song. And then there's a marvel of a comic character song, Kathleen Freeman's show-stopping "Jeanette's Showbiz Number." I don't suppose that librettist Terrence McNally walked in with a four-page biography of this character, who was not in the original film. The whole thing, presumably, sprung out of Yazbek's mind - and it's 100 percent proof, with the same pizzazz as Loesser's "Adelaide's Lament."

If several of the other songs are more functional than distinguished, so be it; they all serve their purpose and garner their share of laughs. It should also be pointed out that this score is full of non-G-rated words. But the vocabulary is so right for the characters, and so devoid of animosity, that the result is really rather sweet.

Broadway newcomer Yazbek receives massive aid from his music department. Ted Sperling, one of the keenest musical directors around, handles the vocal and incidental chores; he also shares the conducting chores with Kimberly Grigsby (who puts on quite a show every night in the orchestra pit). Harold Wheeler's orchestrations are just right, handily mixing the show's pop music sounds with pure Broadway. The cast, too, sounds uniformly good (led by Patrick Wilson, John Ellison Conley, and Jason Danieley). Lindsay Law - who co-produced both the film and stage Montys - provides a five page liner note that is informative, insightful, and entertaining. The result: A score that sounds merely functional on stage sounds far more impressive on disc. And David Yazbek is not merely first-time lucky; he's pretty good, and quite welcome.

JANE EYRE Sony Classical SK 89482
After five years of wandering on the moors, from Wichita to Toronto to La Jolla and back east, poor Jane Eyre finally made it to Broadway last month and faced a rougher-than-deserved reception. The show arrived with a CD in hand, recorded before the beginning of previews and released before the opening (and therefore not reflective of some minor changes to score). This is one of those shows that you might well admire more than enjoy; it is interesting and intelligent, though somewhat hampered by a number of flaws. It reminded me in several ways of Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman's The Secret Garden, another impressive musical that never quite broke through the cloudy cobwebs. I sat there engaged by much of what the creators had done - especially John Caird's staging and his collaboration with the design team - but rarely able to actually enjoy myself.

Paul Gordon's score is - what, not bad for a beginner? (Compare this to the fall's other beginner, The Full Monty's David Yazbek.) There are quite a few nice melodies hidden away here and there, but one gets the overall impression of music by the mile. This is caused, no doubt, by the show's small number of singing characters: Jane sings seventeen of the twenty-five selections on the album; Rochester - who doesn't enter until late in the first act, sings ten. No other character sings more than two. (Mary Stout, the show's indomitable comedienne-of-all-work, has been given a third number in the theatre.)

The result is that you hear the same voices singing the same-sounding songs again and again. The voices are good, mind you; Marla Schaffel is especially exciting as Jane, and James Barbour does fairly well by Rochester. Several songs are memorable - I find myself unable to shake the haunting waltz "Painting Her Portrait," for example - but there is too much sameness. Orchestrator Larry Hochman has dressed things up very nicely, and music director and vocal/incidental arranger Steven Tyler has things well in hand; but after a while everything starts to sound alike. Still, I place Mr. Gordon's music several pegs above Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel, to which Jane Eyre has in some quarters been compared.

As for the lyrics - well, let us simply say that they are unfortunate in places. Mr. Caird is billed for additional lyrics, indicating that he might have already fixed up some of the bigger clinkers. But not enough. And just what, I wonder, is a "Secret Soul"? Does this compare to a non secret soul? Or is it something like an innersole, perhaps?

For what it's worth, let me add that the record producer - who is traditionally listed at the bottom of the credits - in this case receives billing more prominent than the authors or stars. Mike Berniker, who seems to have done a fine job, is billed on the same line as the title. (If I don't call your attention to these things, who will?) They also credit the La Jolla Playhouse with the "American Premiere" of Jane Eyre, although it has been kicking around the continent since it first opened in Wichita in 1995.

This is one of those scores that might grow on you through repeated listenings - provided that you give it a chance in the first place.

Philip Chaffin: Where Do I Go from You? ps classics
Fans of the big-band sound - or people interested in top-notch work by some of America's great songwriters - might well want to try Where Do I Go From You? Philip Chaffin is the singer, with a richly sweet voice that perfectly suits the material.

This disc comes from a small independent label called ps classics (presently available at specialty record stores and at www.psclassics.com), but production values are high grade. The disc is conducted by Eric Stern and produced by Tommy Krasker, who collaborated on those extra-special Nonesuch albums featuring Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw. They have used many of the same orchestrators and musicians here, and the results sound top-of-the-line.

Stern and Krasker also bring over their talents at song selection, a key asset of the Nonesuch discs. Fourteen songs have been selected, written between 1936 and 1951. Only a few of them are over-exposed classics; the rest are, mostly, gems that you might not be familiar with. Songs I love to hear, like Lane & Loesser's "I Hear Music" or Whiting & Mercer's "Too Marvelous for Words" (with a nifty second refrain lyric telling us that "The sweetest words in Keats or Shelley's lyrics/Ar'nt sweet enough to be your panegyrics." Love that Mercer!) Chaffin gives us an absolutely exquisite rendering of "The Way You Look Tonight" - what a perfect song that is, impeccably constructed by Mr. Kern with just the right lyric from Ms. Fields. Berlin, the Gershwins, Arlen & Harburg, and Porter are also represented.

I found Where Do I Go from You? a pleasant surprise, and I expect that fans of this style will enjoy it as well.

- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com