ON THE RECORD: Finn & Kristin: 2 Wonderful CDs

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Finn & Kristin: 2 Wonderful CDs What infinite joy to put on two new CDs, one after another, and find that they're both winners!

What infinite joy to put on two new CDs, one after another, and find that they're both winners!

INFINITE JOY:The Songs of William Finn RCAVictor 09026 63766
"The title Infinite Joy is not appropriate for one of my shows," says William Finn, the crusty curmudgeon with a heart made of salt-water taffy. "But what gives me unending pleasure, infinite joy, is a well-made song. These are my well-made songs, and you may think I'm bragging. I really don't care." And we're off, for seventy-six minutes of —well, Infinite Joy.

This CD preserves Finn's memorable cabaret appearance last winter at Joe's Pub. He was joined by a stellar group of musical theatre performers: Liz Callaway, Carolee Carmello, Lewis Cleale, Stephen DeRosa, Wanda Houston, Norm Lewis, and last—but certainly not least—Mary Testa. No need to praise the individual performances; they were all especially good.

Finn is unique among theatre writers in that he writes what he wants to write in his own idiosyncratic way, and convention be damned. If he decides to introduce a new idea in the middle of a song, he has the ability and the self-assurance to find a way to do it - regardless of melodic or rhythmic strictures. This makes his work unpredictable and edgy and sometimes unsettling; but it also allows him to reach exhilarating emotional heights. Listen to him deliver his sidesplitting account of his personal contacts with "Republicans." (This might prove a tad offensive to some Republicans. Oh, well.) Who else could possibly have written this song?

Infinite Joy presents an even mix of Finn's specialties: the ridiculously funny comic rants; the searing inner monologues that reveal his characters true selves; and the breathtakingly beautiful ballads. Like "I'd Rather Be Sailing" from A New Brain, sung here by Callaway; "That's Enough for Me," a stunning, long-lost lullaby from Romance and Hard Times, sung by Houston; and "Anytime," cut from A New Brain, sung by Norm Lewis. There's also a recent song called "When the Earth Stopped Turning," which Finn wrote in response to his mother's death. Carmello sings it, and it is a beauty. This last is a companion piece to the heart-wrenching "The Music Still Plays On," in which Finn's mother character (in A New Brain) addressed her son's impending death. That song is also included, as is the show's remarkable "And They're Off." This last is sung by Cleale, who did such a good job when he took over the lead. (The cast album of the under-appreciated A New Brain [RCAVictor 09026-63298] is still available, and recommended.) "All Fall Down," another lost song from the unfortunately unrecorded Romance in Hard Times, is yet another of Finn's insightful character studies. Testa gives it a powerful reading; elsewhere, she recreates her performance of "Set Those Sails," from Finn's early In Trousers. And Cleale gives a winning performance of "Hitchhiking across America." This was intended to be the title song for a project Finn abandoned project; hard to classify, but what a song!

Comic highlights include Stephen DeRosa performing Falsettoland's "The Baseball Game" — all seven parts, at once — in an hysterical tour de force. (If you ever have the chance to see DeRosa perform this live, whatever you do don't miss it.) DeRosa also sings the freewheeling "How Marvin Eats His Breakfast" from In Trousers, which introduced us to the unique Finn back in 1979. The composer ends the evening with a song from his upcoming The Royal Family, "Stupid Things I Won't Do." (These stupid things include "reading papers when there ain't a review.") The musical direction and piano accompaniment is by a fellow named Vadim Feichtner, and he does a fine job.

André Bishop—the originating producer of Finn's five produced musicals— provides an informative set of liner notes. He peppers his comments with words like wonderful, witty, poignant, dazzling, astounding, inimitable, glorious, hilarious, and incredibly beautiful perfection. This is overdoing it, don't you think? On consideration, though, I must say that I totally agree with everything André has to say. There are some people out there who simply don't enjoy Bill Finn's work, and I respect that; they might not want to bother with Infinite Joy. But it's a festival for Finn fans and anyone interested in adventurous musical theatre.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: LET YOURSELF GO Sony Classical SK 89384
Kristen Chenoweth arrived on Broadway from Tulsa in the spring of 1997, in Steel Pier. In short order, she sparked the City Center Encores! production of Strike Up the Band; William Finn's A New Brain; the revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (which won her a Tony Award); and Epic Proportions. All this, plus a bunch of recordings, in little more than two years. Ms. Chenoweth then went to Hollywood, where she is starring in a much-delayed sitcom that is now scheduled to debut in June. Last June she recorded a solo star album, which has been held up to coincide with the debut of her sitcom. Let Yourself Go it's called, after Irving Berlin's nifty dance tune. With the indispensable assistance of musical director Rob Fisher —and the expert playing of his Coffee Club Orchestra—it's safe to say that Ms. Chenoweth does, indeed, let herself go.

They've had the good sense to follow their opening number—in a swinging Ralph Burns orchestration, accompanied by Chenoweth's tapping—with "If You Hadn't But You Did." I can see those of you who know this early Styne-Comden-Green delight smiling already; those who don't are in for a treat. This plaint by an unrepentant housewife-turned-murderess is perfect for Chenoweth, who belts out the rapid patter like she's taking batting practice. The orchestration by Bruce Coughlin—apparently patterned on Phil Lang's original—is just right, and Fisher's band gives the song plenty of punch.

They follow this with the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On?," with Fisher at the piano playing his own arrangement. This is one of the finest performances of this song I've heard. Fisher and producer Jeffrey Lesser have presented us with three voices of Chenoweth in the first three tracks, and they're all winners. A fourth— the comedy ingenue— comes with the Gershwins' snappy "Hangin' Around with You," which Chenoweth sang in Strike Up the Band. Here she has Jason Alexander as foil, with Russell Warner's delightful charts.

There are no less than three more indispensable tracks. We've heard quite a few people sing "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," from One Touch of Venus; it's on just about every Weill anthology that comes along. Chenoweth, though, is the only singer I've heard who seems aware that the lyric was written by humorist Ogden Nash and that it's supposed to be funny. This approach also enhances Weill's humorous orchestration, to which the Coffee Club gang does full justice. Chenoweth then puts on her Barbara Cook hat and does splendidly with "Nobody Else But Me," from the 1946 revival of Show Boat. This was Jerome Kern's final song—and it's a good one, with the composer changing keys as he trips blithely along. (Russell Bennett's arrangement is similarly playful, with Fisher bringing out the laughing winds and skipping piano). Midway through the disc comes a beautiful rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "Nobody's Heart Belongs to Me." Chenoweth will just make you want to cry.

The rest of the album falls off somewhat. Twelve of the seventeen songs are vintage show or movie tunes, mostly crowded into the front end of the disc. The new songs and non-show songs do, indeed, show off Chenoweth's many talents; musically, though, they are not up to Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, or Rodgers. (Let me exempt Ricky Ian Gordon's "Just an Ordinary Guy" from that statement. It's an interesting song, set to a poem by Langston Hughes and well orchestrated by Coughlin.) The inclusion of modern songs seem slightly odd, given that the lavish packaging contains twelve stunning deco-style photos of the star in 1930s fashions. Given the numerous highpoints of this album, though, I'm not about to complain. There is also a colorfully insightful and entertaining liner note by John Lahr.

Great work, Ms. Chenoweth. And how canny to let yourself go with savvy music men like Rob Fisher and Ralph Burns and Bruce Coughlin. — Steven Suskin is the author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com