ON THE RECORD: Glorious Gershwin and Kat and the Kings

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Glorious Gershwin and Kat and the Kings Great Scenes from Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS (BMG Classics 09026-63312-2)
Fans of George Gershwin will no doubt agree that there are more than enough versions of Porgy and Bess on CD already, thank you very much. Complete, abridged, theatrical, operatic, even "pop" renditions. Who needs another, let alone a thirty-six year old set conducted by Skitch Henderson of all people? But here it comes, starring Leontyne Price and William Warfield.

Great Scenes from Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS (BMG Classics 09026-63312-2)
Fans of George Gershwin will no doubt agree that there are more than enough versions of Porgy and Bess on CD already, thank you very much. Complete, abridged, theatrical, operatic, even "pop" renditions. Who needs another, let alone a thirty-six year old set conducted by Skitch Henderson of all people? But here it comes, starring Leontyne Price and William Warfield.

And it's wonderful. Great Scenes from Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS easily ranks with -- and in some ways surpasses -- the best of the Porgys. Part of what makes this disc so special is something called High Performance 24/96. This has to do with bits and resolution and even kilohertzes, whatever they are. To paraphrase the technobabble in the booklet, 24/96 is real good. (The current standard, according to them, is only 16/44.) This apparently does make a difference. The sounds are far more vibrant than heretofore; the percussive xylophones of the opening, the plucking banjo in Porgy's Banjo Song ("I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'"), the beat-beat-beat of Bess's heart as she succumbs to Sportin' Life's happy dust. Gershwin's own orchestrations are crisper and more vibrant than you've heard them on other recordings.

While this is not, technically, a cast album, most of the performers were veterans of the Davis-Breen troupe which toured the world from 1952 1956. Leontyne Price is best known to modern day musical theatre fans, perhaps, for a Sondheim couplet from Merrily We Roll Along ("We'll get Leontyne Price to sing her/medley from Meistersinger"). She left the tour after playing Bess on Broadway in 1953, springboarding to a brilliant grand opera career. By 1961, she was headlining at the Met, with an RCA Victor recording contract. This album, recorded in 1963, shows her at the height of her fame -- and this is a fiery, commanding performance. And intelligent, too. (Here's a Bess who actually tries to sweet-talk her way out of Crown's clutches.)

Her Porgy is William Warfield, who played opposite Price during part of the tour and does a fine job. I don't suppose anyone will ever top Todd Duncan, though, who created the role (and-unlike his successors-had the stamina and the dedication to sing eight shows a week).

This disc also preserves the original cast performance of John W. Bubbles. Gershwin went out on a limb casting a vaudeville dancer in his Broadway opera. The composer worked closely with Bubbles -- George actually had to resort to tap dancing, to teach Bubbles the tricky rhythms -- and was apparently quite proud of the results. So we have here the only Sportin' Life trained by Gershwin himself, albeit twenty-eight years earlier. His two songs ("It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," both with especially tricky lyrics contributed by Ira Gershwin) are part sung, part chanted, and part spoken; the rhythms and pitches are charmingly approximate. The rest of the cast is first-rate; they sound, each and every one of them, like they know their characters inside out. Credit must go to conductor Henderson -- who'd have guessed that Skitch, who spent long years on the bandstand at "The Tonight Show," was capable of such a masterful job? -- and to choral director Leonard de Paur. Among the tracks is what might well be the best performance I've ever heard of "My Man's Gone Now," one of my favorite dramatic theatre songs. It is brilliantly sung, with a wailing, keening voice, by. . . who? Sorry, but it doesn't say. Which leads us to my one complaint about this disc: they don't identify the singers. "Leontyne Price, soprano" and William Warfield, baritone" obviously play the leads. Bubbles, the vaudeville dancer, is here (for the only time in his life?) identified as a tenor; he is clearly recreating his role from the original 1935 production. McHenry Boatwright, baritone, is third-billed and thus must be Crown. Otherwise, nobody is identified. Six other singers are listed, with no character parts. "Summertime" is gloriously rendered, but who's singing Clara? I dunno. Perhaps that's Price; Bess's third act reprise is not included on this disc, and Price is otherwise only heard on four tracks. At any event, this sort of thing is frustrating. The reissue producers aren't totally to blame in this; the original LP didn't identify the singers, either.

As this column is about to go on-line, I've finally gotten the vocals clarified. Ms. Price sings "My Man's Gone Now" and "Summertime," as well as Bess's songs. (Her voice is as instantly recognizable to some opera fans as Carol Channing's is along Broadway.) This makes a good deal of sense, as these are incredibly powerful renditions. Judging by these tracks as well as her Bess songs, Price does a truly wonderful job on this disc. Warfield sings Jake's role in "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," in which Bubbles -- as Sportin' Life -- also appears briefly. Special thanks to Daniel Guss, Senior Director of Product Development at BMG Classics, who dug through the archives to piece this together.

This is not a complete, three-disc Porgy but a forty-eight minute selection. All the "big" songs, as well as such lesser but welcome segments as the crap game leading into "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" (well sung by -- well, someone); the "Gone, Gone, Gone"/"Overflow" scene; and "Oh Bess, Oh Where's My Bess" with its lovely trio section. Thus, you get to hear the cream of the opera without having to dedicate three hours to the undertaking. I am so overly familiar with Porgy and Bess that I rarely choose to listen to it anymore. That will change now, with this extra-special disc.

KAT AND THE KINGS (First Night Relativity 1809-2)
Broadway's newest musical is already on disc, via the original London cast album "Recorded Live! at the Vaudeville Theatre" in June, 1998. Four of the six cast members -- the doo wop quartet, who do most of the singing - made the trip to Broadway's Cort Theatre, so this disc is very nearly a Broadway cast album.

Unlike most shows of this type, Kat and the Kings features a new score, specifically written for the characters and situations. (Music and arrangements by Taliep Petersen; book, lyrics, and staging by David Kramer.) The songs are frisky, good-natured, and altogether serviceable, although some seem highly irrelevant to the story. Fans of doo wop and 50s style rock and roll should especially enjoy this friendly and energetic score, which is given an enormous boost by the performers. (Jody J. Abrahams stands out, especially, on stage; it would be impossible to pick him out on disc without having seen the show, though, as the booklet includes the lyrics but doesn't indicate who sings what.) The recording is helped by the live audience reaction; the joint, as they say, seems to have been jumping. ("Enough power to fill the Albert Hall," says one of the London critic's quotes reproduced on the liner notes, while another calls it "The wildest, coolest most contagious show in town.") Kat and the Kings arrives on Broadway with the 1999 Olivier Award for Best Musical in its pocket. (The six-character cast was jointly awarded the Best Actor in a musical award; odd, especially since one of them was a woman.)

While I find the show an enjoyable entertainment, I don't quite expect it to take this season's Best Musical Tony. Although in some recent seasons, it might well have had a chance.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com