ON THE RECORD: Aida and a Marvelously Wild Party

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Aida and a Marvelously Wild Party Elton John and Tim Rice's AIDA (Buena Vista 60671-7)

Elton John and Tim Rice's AIDA (Buena Vista 60671-7)

It has become popular sport to take critical potshots at Aida. No, it isn't the best musical on Broadway, by a long shot, and I had mixed feelings about the show. But I can name at least six musicals playing on Broadway last season -- including some long-running holdovers -- with far less to recommend. The performance of Heather Headley, the designs of Bob Crowley, and the lighting magic of Natasha Katz all made (and make) Aida worth a visit.

The score, too, took a certain amount of drubbing. The songs don't come across especially well in the theatre, possibly because the score and the libretto and the production seem to be going in different directions. But Aida makes for a moderately entertaining CD, with some memorable peaks. Headley is very good on stage, and the disc captures her performance. Her singing is exceptional, but even her spoken dialogue on this disc will draw your attention -- she has an arresting, distinctive voice that commands great authority. Sherie Rene Scott is also a plus, as in the theatre. Adam Pascal comes across considerably better here, as he doesn't have to deal with his character's lines and motivations and all that acting stuff.

The high point of the score, as in the theatre, is the Act One finale, "The Gods Love Nubia." I confess that I wanted to get ahold of this album simply so that I could hear Headley sing "Nubia" again. It really soars, and the CD displays that the excitement is real and not manufactured. But there are more than a few other enjoyable songs. Like "Elaborate Lives," which was the title tune for the 1998 Atlanta version of this show. It had little effect on me in the theatre, as by that point I had given up on the plot and was simply watching Headley and the sets. ("The Gods Love Nubia" temporarily roused me from my lethargy.) The second act begins with a good trio for the stars, "A Step Too Far." This is followed by Headley's solo "Easy as Life," which also sounds pretty good (but is it the song or the singer)? That's four interesting songs in a row.

In the theatre, only "Nubia" sounded special. Part of the problem, I imagine, was that two amusing early numbers -- "My Strongest Suit" and "Another Pyramid" -- set up expectations for a different type of show, leaving us ill-prepared for the sometimes pretty but generally humorless ballads which followed. At any rate, the score deflates in the second act; the last six songs on this disc include four reprises, which is an indication that the songwriters pretty much gave up on the plot. Even so, the CD of Aida is better than expected.

THE WILD PARTY (RCA Victor 09026-63695-2)

Theatre fans looking back ten years from now will no doubt be puzzled by the year of The Wild Party. How could there be two versions of the same book within a month? How could they both have been so good? How could they both have failed? These questions, of course, will come from people who never saw either show and are basing their judgement solely on the impressive cast albums. Things were different in the theatre.

Michael John LaChiusa's Wild Party, which was presented on Broadway by the New York Shakespeare Festival (with backing from several commercial producers), was discussed in the May 28th "On The Record." It was a difficult show to watch, with the production obscuring what on CD is a highly interesting score. Andrew Lippa's Wild Party, though, was fascinating. Flawed in several ways, yes, but continually surprising. The original productions of Cabaret, Pippin, and Chicago were flawed, too -- but that didn't prevent them from successful runs.

Lippa's Wild Party, which was presented off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club, was clearly the underdog. How do you compete with a big Broadway show with a big Broadway budget, a couple of box office stars, and the multi-talented George C. Wolfe at the helm? Lippa's Wild Party was also the victim of excessively bad timing; it might well have benefitted had the critics first seen, and been disappointed by, LaChiusa's version (which was initially scheduled to open prior to Lippa's). It was also ill-advised for the producers of Rent to announce a Broadway transfer of the Lippa show the weekend before the opening; some critics clearly seemed to respond with undo severity. The result: Lippa's Party was unnecessarily eclipsed, with Broadway audiences losing out on the opportunity to see a compelling new musical. But it has been well-preserved -- if necessarily trimmed -- on CD.

Not the least of the assets were three of the leading players. Julia Murney -- who was virtually unknown in New York when she took the stage -- gave an electric performance as Queenie, the blonde who danced in vaudeville. She takes off right from the beginning of the album, with "Out of the Blue" and "Raise the Roof" (which she very clearly does). Brian d'Arcy James, the young tenor from Titanic, was surprisingly good as the anti-hero Burrs; he even pulls off the difficult breakdown song, "Let Me Drown." Rent veteran Taye Diggs displays a strong presence and a wonderfully reedy voice as Black (a role and performance which bring to mind Frank Loesser's Sky Masterson). Diggs is especially good on his solo "I'll Be Here." Idina Menzel -- also from Rent -- does well on the disc, notably so in "Life of the Party," although I found her problematic on stage.

The four leads share "Poor Child," a tenderly beautiful quartet which displays a different side of Lippa than the rest of the score. Murney and Diggs team with the chorus for "Come with Me," which really takes off as it leads to the show's climax. Murney also gets to sing the searing final song, "How Did We Come to This?" There are several wild party songs for the ensemble, too, including "What a Party" and "The Juggernaut." The whole company works well together as they did on stage, under the musical direction of Stephen Oremus. When everything quiets down and the leads aren't holding the stage, Alix Korey comes in to steal it with "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." Composer-lyricist-librettist Lippa has heretofore been overlooked in all those press stories about Broadway's promising composers, an omission that I suppose will not be repeated. He makes a highly impressive showing, although his show would have benefitted from some editing. Interestingly enough, he chose to change his musical style from number to number. This is usually a sign of not knowing what else to do, but Lippa makes it work for him. He is well served in this by his orchestrator Michael Gibson, who follows Lippa from era to era and never fails to "Raise the Roof."

Both LaChiusa and Lippa's versions are worthy of attention. To those readers who intend to purchase only one, at least for now, there is no contest. It's Andrew Lippa's, the one on RCA Victor. It's quite a score, and quite a Wild Party.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer Trade 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