ON THE RECORD: LaChiusa's Wild Party and McHugh's Lucky in the Rain

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: LaChiusa's Wild Party and McHugh's Lucky in the Rain THE WILD PARTY (Decca Broadway 012 159 003-2)

THE WILD PARTY (Decca Broadway 012 159 003-2)

The Michael John LaChiusa/New York Shakespeare Festival version of The Wild Party has arrived on disc, and from the first strident brass discord, it is fairly riveting. Like Marie Christine, LaChiusa's other Broadway musical of the season, the Wild Party CD is sure to find many fans for the show -- especially among those who never get around to seeing it.

La Chiusa's music is variegated and intriguing, but it is his lyrics which illuminate the proceedings. Just about every one of his fifteen characters comes across in his or her words, far more so than they did in the theatre. With so much going on onstage, and with the creators bombarding us with unrelenting ugliness (seemingly on purpose), the words got minimal attention. On the disc, words and music are given our complete attention -- and it sure makes a difference. Just about all the performers sound wonderful, led by Toni Collette, Tonya Pinkins, and Eartha Kitt. Pinkins' "Black Is a Moocher (and I Like It Like That)" and Kitt's custom-tailored showstopper "When It Ends" stood out in the theatre; they are joined by "Wild Party," "Welcome to My Party," "Uptown," "People Like Us," and "This Is What It Is."

The disc also shows off Bruce Coughlin's wonderful orchestrations. Coughlin has done sturdy work in the past, but most of his shows have been revivals; you could almost always hear ghosts of the original orchestrators, and understandably so. Here Coughlin is on his own, and he proves highly capable. The same might be said for music director Todd Ellison, who does well with the score's complexities.

I left the Andrew Lippa/Manhattan Theatre Club Wild Party intent on recommending it to friends interested in adventurous musical theatre. I left La Chiusa's version intent on recommending it to absolutely no one. It is not uncommon for shows to sound better on the album than in the theatre, but this is a rather severe case. People holding tickets to The Wild Party might wish to protect their investment by first listening to the CD two or three times; this could help turn the theatregoing experience into something exhilarating. This disc certainly gives The Wild Party the edge on winning the best score Tony Award -- but only if the voters bother to listen to it before casting their vote. LUCKY IN THE RAIN (DRG 12625)

Lucky in the Rain did not make much of a splash when it filled a summer slot in the Goodspeed Opera House's 1997 season. The arrival of a studio cast album is unexpected, but fairly enjoyable.

The names Wally Harper and Peter Matz should have tipped me off. The skillful Harper not only produced the album but conducted it and provided arrangements as well. (Michael O'Flaherty also provided some of the vocal arrangements.) Matz did the orchestrations, which are inventive and cheerful. Harper brought along his favorite singer, Barbara Cook, who sang some of these same songs on her Dorothy Fields album for DRG. Other roles in this studio album are sung by Lillias White, Malcolm Gets, and Debbie Gravitte. The "stars" are filled out with members of the Goodspeed cast, including Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Smith.

The songs come mostly from the catalog of Jimmy McHugh, a journeyman songwriter whose music was also incorporated into the revue Sugar Babies. McHugh made a small splash in the late 1920s, writing revues with lyricist Dorothy Fields. Their one hit show -- Blackbirds of 1928 -- has a clutch of pretty good songs. Songs like "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" (McHugh's best by far, from Blackbirds) and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" led to a contract at RKO. When the studio needed a lyric -- fast -- for a Jerome Kern song being added to the screen version of Roberta, they summoned Fields. She came up with "Lovely to Look At," which led Kern to select her as his collaborator on Swing Time. (The 1936 Astaire/Rogers film had a sterling score, including "A Fine Romance," "Pick Yourself Up," and Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight.") That was the end of Fields and McHugh; she moved into the upper echelon of American songwriters, and he didn't. He continued writing in Hollywood into the early 1960s, with lyricists including Harold Adamson, Al Dubin, Ted Koehler, Frank Loesser, and even Johnny Mercer. (Seven of the sixteen selections on this disc are by Adamson, six by Fields.)

McHugh made a few further Broadway attempts over the years, with negligible results. (Does anyone remember Strip for Action?) I find only two of McHugh's post-1930 songs especially memorable, neither of which are in Lucky in the Rain: "I'm in the Mood for Love" (with Fields) and a catchy but unknown little ditty with Mercer called "You're the One for Me." The assortment of Lucky in the Rain songs can best be described as pleasant. The best performances come on two additional songs from Blackbirds, Cook's rendition of "I Must Have That Man" and White's "Doin' the New Low Down." But all of the energetic performers do well by the material.

Lucky in the Rain was conceived and written by Sherman Yellen (of Oh! Calcutta!(!) and The Rothschilds). After listening to the disc a couple of times, I read the plot synopsis -- which, on second thought, I shouldn't have; I got a little queasy when I read that "On the Sunny Side of the Street" was supposedly being sung by Gertrude Stein. (On this disc, Barbara Cook doubles as both Stein and Isadora Duncan.)

Nevertheless, Mr. Harper and his companions make Lucky in the Rain sound like an April holiday. -- 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).