ON THE RECORD: Dazzling Dreamgirls and 1943 Show Tunes

News   ON THE RECORD: Dazzling Dreamgirls and 1943 Show Tunes
DREAMGIRLS in Concert Nonesuch 79656
Dreamgirls, Michael Bennett's final completed musical, was produced with great fanfare in 1981. It did very well, running three-and-a-half years. The international touring company returned to Broadway two years later, opening just four days before Bennett's death in 1987. Business was poor, the show closed after 177 performances, and Dreamgirls — a complicated show for regional and stock companies to produce — more or less faded into memory.

DREAMGIRLS in Concert Nonesuch 79656
Dreamgirls, Michael Bennett's final completed musical, was produced with great fanfare in 1981. It did very well, running three-and-a-half years. The international touring company returned to Broadway two years later, opening just four days before Bennett's death in 1987. Business was poor, the show closed after 177 performances, and Dreamgirls — a complicated show for regional and stock companies to produce — more or less faded into memory.

Seth Rudetsky, a fine musician and a decidedly entertaining fellow, appears to have set out to prove that Dreamgirls — the score, that is — is far better than you might think. A concert version was presented on September 24, 2001, as a benefit for the Actors' Fund; that concert was recorded live and has now been released as a two-CD set. And wouldn't you know? Rudetsky was right. The CD includes some spectacular performances, but the strength is in the material. The score — by composer Henry Krieger and the late Tom Eyen — has never received the respect it deserved; it was overshadowed in its time, and at the Tonys, by Maury Yeston's Nine. As the smashing new Dreamgirls in Concert makes clear, this is one hell of a score.

The original Dreamgirls had a dream of a production. Michael Bennett's staging was phenomenal. "Move" is the title of the first major song, and that word precisely describes Bennett's entire production. The performers were forever in movement, yes; but so was everything else. Robin Wagner's scenery moved to the music, including some massive set pieces that appeared to be immovable. Tharon Musser's lights, too, were part of Bennett's overall scheme. And I suspect that's part of the reason the score was underappreciated; the visuals were so strong, and the action was so fast, that much of the underlying music sounded merely functional. The truncated original cast album [Geffen 2007] served to support that opinion, with the score apparently repackaged for pop consumption at the expense of dramaturgy. Hearing the entire score as written, it's clear that Bennett's pyrotechnics were mere trimming; Krieger and Eyen provided the art, and the heart, of Dreamgirls. Conductor Rudetsky makes the score rock, and Harold Wheeler's original orchestrations are as impressive as remembered.

The presence of Audra McDonald, Heather Headley or Lillias White — any one of them — makes a good argument for buying a CD. Rudetsky managed to get all three for his dream Dreamgirls; and let me tell you, they make some trio. (This live recording is slightly marred, on occasion, by cheers and ovations from overenthusiastic fans, often brought on by a mere phrase of singing.) Little need be said of McDonald, who plays Deena (the lead singer who — officially — was not inspired by Diana Ross) or Headley, who plays Lorelle; both are every bit as good as you'd expect them to be. White, a Tony Award winner for The Life, is less familiar to many listeners, but definitely in a class with the others. She made a memorable Effie on Broadway in 1987, and she is totally chilling in her tour de force "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." But all three women have their moments to shine. What an amazing combination! The men of Dreamgirls do well, too: Billy Porter as Jimmy, Darius de Haas as C.C. and Norm Lewis as Curtis. The CD is well performed by the stars and by the ensemble. (Hidden away in brief roles are people like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Malcolm Gets, Brad Oscar, Patrick Wilson, and — together again — Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley.) And let's not forget the orchestra, which really cooks. Rudetsky is billed as Artistic Producer/Musical Director, while Tommy Krasker has done his customarily fine job as recording producer.

Dreamgirls in Concert is a real winner. Get it.

Broadway by the Year is a proposed series of concerts, presenting an assortment of show tunes from any given year. It began with 1943, in a concert at Town Hall on March 19, 2001. A somewhat abridged recording of that evening has been released by Bayview, and it turns out to be considerably more interesting than you might have thought.

Success or failure in this sort of endeavor depends, mostly, on song selection and the assortment of performers. Scott Siegel, who created and narrated the evening, was especially fortunate in his selection of singers; three theatre/cabaret performers who can sing, who can act and who each have a strong comic sense: Heather Mac Rae, Jason Graae and Sally Mayes.

Mac Rae demonstrates her versatility with two songs from Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus. "Very,Very, Very" is very, very funny, chock full of ridiculous rhymes from punster Ogden Nash. ("Since Sally ran off with her obstetrician / Her hair's turned red and she looks like a Titian / Of course I'd hate to swear in court / What kind of Titian, beaut or mort.") Mac Rae then goes into "That's Him," a very different type of song for a very different type of voice. She does a fine job on these, as well as on "West Wind" and Oklahoma!'s "Many a New Day." Mac Rae performs this in a somewhat slower tempo than usual. Her voice is far more mature than the ingenues we usually hear singing it; this gives Rodgers's sprightly melody added weight, making it sound very much stronger.

Mac Rae also provides five minutes of reminiscences of the filming of Oklahoma! in Arizona; she was a child on the set, with her straight haired father playing Curley (in pin curls). If you're wondering where you've heard Heather's name recently, she plays a prominent part in the tale of Gloria Swanson and The Women, as related in Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

Graae, too, is versatile. He has the appearance and personality of a character comedian, with great skill at singing both comic and straight material. He teams up with Mayes for "All 'er Nothin'"; they are each 20 or so years too old to play the parts onstage, but they do an absolutely delicious job on the song. (Graae, in places, has what you might call a triple gurgle of embarrassment in his voice.) He does another comic turn on "Way Out West in Jersey" (from Venus), and sings — astonishingly — "Lonely Room" from Oklahoma! This lugubrious solo is not one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's biggest hits; it's hard to imagine anyone voluntarily performing this song out of context of the show. But Graae makes a fine dramatic job of it.

Mayes mixes her fine voice with an especially brash manner, which in some cases is a tad too much. She really takes off with Cole Porter's "Something for the Boys," merrily scatting along, and is fresh as corn on the meadow in the previously mentioned "All 'er Nothin'". But she somewhat overpowers some of her songs — like "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and "I Cain't Say No" — to the point where you wonder if it's a microphone problem. If it's not a technical gaffe, an extra rehearsal or two would surely have made the difference; Mayes is a highly capable performer, who can surely master this material. Two of her numbers are strangely presented, though. "To Keep My Love Alive" is a macabre list song; "Pore Jud is Daid" — performed with Mac Rae — is a funereal hymn. These songs are wonderfully funny, as written, because the characters are so very serious. Here, they are delivered as comedy material. The numerous jokes in these songs are far more funny when the singers don't punch up the laugh lines; "Pore Jud" is sung in a smokehouse, but that doesn't mean they should ham it up. Here, it's hokey; you even hear a coyote howling in the background.

Otherwise, the musical direction by Ross Patterson is highly supportive. There's especially good work on the close-harmony trio "The Ladies Who Sing with the Band," from the Fats Waller-John Latouche collaboration Early to Bed. Two songs are included from Lerner and Loewe's first show to reach Broadway, What's Up. This show was pretty bad, and the songs — despite the hype in the song introductions and the liner notes — sound rather primitive to me. "You Wash and I'll Dry" is one of those interesting songs that don't work out. The A sections build to the title phrase, which is a little too weighty; while everybody else is divorcing, it seems to say, we'll be a happy couple because we do the dishes together. There is also an intriguing bridge ("There'll be no Reno / If baby we know / The way to do a good job / On every prob - lem") which collapses on those last two syllables, poorly set to half notes.

It is enjoyable and instructive to hear six songs from One Touch of Venus, including two not included on that show's highly abridged original cast album. This only makes us more eager to hear the full score, which has been recorded by Jay Records and will one day come our way. But Broadway Musicals of 1943 gives us eight songs from Oklahoma!, and I wonder if that might not be too many. Some of them are performed very well. Others sound like filler, included only because Oklahoma! opened in 1943.

This starts to dampen the appeal of this CD; on the third play, I was skipping through some tracks. But that's a minor drawback; otherwise we get three very good performers doing fine jobs on interesting songs. Mostly interesting songs.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.

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