Cook & Feinstein: Cheek to Cheek [DuckHole DR 3192]
Back in 1959, Betty Comden and Adolph Green combined for an entertainment — really something of a living room fete transferred to a Broadway stage — and called it A Party with Comden and Green. Barbara Cook and Michael Feinstein's club act, last September at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, is nothing whatsoever like A Party with Comden and Green. The feeling one got watching them, though — and that one gets listening to the live CD recording of the affair — is of A Party with Feinstein and Cook. A different type of party, yes, but an equally delectable one.
Cook and Feinstein are well enough known to lovers of what we call the Great American Songbook that we don't need to stop and say, gee, they sing good. Both work continually, both turn out recordings steadily, both have extensive backlists. So the answer in this case is: Yes. This new CD adds value to our Cook and Feinstein collections. Both are here singing in their usual manner, sure; but the selections are canny, the duets are mutually profitable, and Barbara and Michael seemed to be having genuine fun on the nights when the set was recorded. Fun as in, let's have a party, with Feinstein and Cook.
A party that begins at the top, with fine duets to Arlen's "I've Got the World on a String" and Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek." A party that continues with items familiar like "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," and items unfamiliar like Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich's "Ever After." Items that we haven't heard recently, like Vincent Youmans' "Without a Song," and others we just heard, such as the David Loud duet arrangement of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" that Cook sang in Sondheim on Sondheim.
And a party that ends, as it begins, with two tip-top tracks. Funny. Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom's "Give Me the Simple Life" is one of those songs — not unknown but not overly familiar — that always sounds good to me. The thing is so jaunty that it is irrepressible, even when not performed so well as here. "Shine On Harvest Moon," the 1908 standard by vaudeville star Nora Bayes and her husband Jack Norworth, is the sort that I can take or leave (and most often am happy to leave). Here, at this party with Feinstein and Cook, the thing is irresistible. Feinstein and Cook — or rather Cook and Feinstein — are always good, but it would not be fair if every appearance and every recording was irrepressibly irresistible. "Cheek to Cheek" is just that.
Once Upon a Mattress [Sepia 1159]
The name Carol Burnett and the title Once Upon a Mattress are closely linked, and with good reason; the success of the 1959 musical — which began life on lower Second Avenue at the Phoenix, transferred to the Alvin, and enjoyed successful television adaptations in 1964 and 1972 — rested firmly on the capable shoulders of Burnett as the "girl named Fred." Princess Winnifred the Woebegone, more formally, from the swamps. Burnett was not the only performer to take on the role, naturally enough. Dody Goodman headed the national tour, in which she was replaced by Imogene Coca who was probably very funny (although she was 52 at the time, a good 25 years older than Burnett). Winnifred was played by Tracey Ullman in a 2005 television production; the show was also revived on Broadway in 1996 with Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead, about which the less said the better.
Which leaves us with the question, how do you compete with memories of Burnett? Not Burnett the superstar, which she was by 1968 or so; but Burnett the comic genius, who I expect was already slaying 'em when she stepped out as a veritable unknown for the earliest performances of Mattress.
The original London cast album of Once Upon a Mattress is instructive in addressing this question. Rather than casting the role locally, the producers endeavored to find a similarly young and fresh and distinctly American comedienne. Jane Connell wasn't fully unknown at the time; a familiar face in the San Francisco and N.Y. nitery worlds, Connell played Mrs. Peachum in the historic 1955 Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera and made her Broadway debut singing about "April in Fairbanks (Alaska)" in New Faces of 1956.
Connell went to London for Mattress, which opened Sept. 20, 1960, at the Adelphi. And bombed, closing after only 24 performances. This was a close recreation of the original production, presented by Richard Rodgers — father of Mattress composer Mary — and Oscar Hammerstein II under their "Williamson Music Ltd." mantle. George Abbott's staging was recreated by Jerome Whyte, Richard Rodgers' great pal and right-hand (or whyte-hand) man, with the New York physical production and choreography reproduced. The cast included at least one performance we might have wanted to see — Milo O'Shea as the King.
It's not that Connell is poor in the role; she is distinctive, as one might suppose, and not just a pale copy of the original star. But there is hardly anything she does, as Winnifred, that doesn't instantly make us think: Carol did it better. Of course she did it better; Carol was Fred, and Fred was Carol. Other oversized talents might have been able to make the role their own, in the same way that Mary Martin made a convincing Annie Oakley in the national tour of Annie Get Your Gun. That other Carol, for example — Channing, that is — might have made an interesting Winnifred; ten years earlier, anyway. Burnett sang loud, for sure, but it was a loudness masking her character's embarrassment — mixed with a certain amazement at that sound emanating from her mouth. Connell, here, is of the loud-is-funny school; and it ain't. Although let it be said that she more than proved her mettle six years later when she got her hands on Agnes Gooch in Mame. Connell always seemed like a little old character woman, and a very funny one; which might explain why she was an unlikely, and apparently unsuccessful, Winnifred. The two comediennes eventually shared the stage, in 1995, in the mirthlessly unfunny Moon Over Buffalo; watching the pair I don't suppose anyone could imagine Connell having replaced Burnett in any role, ever.
As is the practice of Sepia Records, they have filled out the CD with another piece of Rodgers. Mary, that is. "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves 40" sounds more promising than it is. This was a 1957 two-sided 78 for children from Golden Records, with the tale told and sung by Bing Crosby; Mary's music had lyrics by Sammy Cahn, of all people. But it is not, alas, found treasure.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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