ON THE RECORD: Mandy's 'Kidults' and a British Birdie

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Mandy's 'Kidults' and a British Birdie KIDULTS Nonesuch 79534
Mandy Patinkin's "Kidults" is touted as "a collection of beloved songs designed for the kid inside every adult." The inclusion in the song list of three of Danny Kaye's Hans Christian Andersen songs (by Frank Loesser), plus two rapid-paced Kaye-like specialties ("The Minute Waltz" and "Holiday for Strings"), implied that this might well be a Kaye-like collection for kids and adults. Having grown up with "Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water" — won't somebody please let us have that, on CD? — Kidults sounded intriguing.

KIDULTS Nonesuch 79534
Mandy Patinkin's "Kidults" is touted as "a collection of beloved songs designed for the kid inside every adult." The inclusion in the song list of three of Danny Kaye's Hans Christian Andersen songs (by Frank Loesser), plus two rapid-paced Kaye-like specialties ("The Minute Waltz" and "Holiday for Strings"), implied that this might well be a Kaye-like collection for kids and adults. Having grown up with "Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water" — won't somebody please let us have that, on CD? — Kidults sounded intriguing.

Patinkin is a wonderful singer, with an ability to deliver a song — music and lyric, words plus subtext — as well as anyone around. Portions of Kidults are as good as you could hope, including Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" (from Sweeney Todd) and Maury Yeston's stunning "New Words" (from In the Beginning, which never made it to Broadway). There is also a superb Harry Chapin song called "Cat's in the Cradle" which illustrates what Kidults, presumably, was intended to be. But Patinkin has a tendency to insert his own, sometimes extreme ideas into other people's songs. That is his prerogative, and it has won him plenty of fans. For me, though, such histrionics take away from the effectiveness of the performance.

For example, he is joined by Kristen Chenoweth for "Soon It's Gonna Rain." (Chenoweth is heard on three tracks.) This is a truly beautiful rendition of the song — until the pair run head-on into a creaky-doored mansion, a ballroom filled with echoes, and a virtual monsoon. What had been an emotionally-fulfilling rendering of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones's song turned into a sound effects demonstration.

And then there's "A Tisket a Tasket," Ella Fitzgerald's novelty hit. What a good idea, I thought; that song swings, and it's time we heard it again. Everything was just fine until Patinkin brought in police sirens and detectives and the whole danged racket squad making a racket. (The lyric is about a lost green-and-yellow basket.) Out went any possible enjoyment of the song. ("Daddy turn that off, said my four-year old.) Stuff like this made Kidults difficult for me to sit through. This despite several exceptional tracks where Patinkin is content with merely performing the material. And despite first-rate musical handling from conductor Eric Stern, arranger/pianist Paul Ford, and a fine band of orchestrators. These include Larry Hochman on "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "Not While I'm Around," and Doug Besterman on "Cat's in the Cradle."

Patinkin also sings Schwartz and Dietz's "Rhode Island is Famous for You," into which orchestrator Dick Lieb slyly inserts a couple of bars of the Grand Canyon Suite. My lack of enthusiasm for parts of "Kidults" made me apprehensive about attending Mandy Patinkin in Concert when it made a one night visit to the Neil Simon last month. (It is currently on tour.) I needn't have been, as it turned out. Patinkin was better than I've ever seen him, singing with intensity, intelligence, and feeling. The concert includes less than half of the Kidults selections, offers a good dose of exceptionally well-performed Sondheim, and is recommended.

*

BYE BYE BIRDIE Decca Broadway 314 586 432
Why, you might ask, should you bother with the British cast recording of Bye Bye Birdie, starring Chita Rivera but not Dick Van Dyke?

The music, that's why. Not the songs themselves, although Charles Strouse and Lee Adams provided a delectable assortment. Endearingly charming songs like "Put on a Happy Face," "One Boy," and "Rosie"; skillful (and very funny) novelties like "The Telephone Hour," "Hymn for a Sunday Evening," and the musical scene "Normal American Boy"; Presley pastiches like "Honestly Sincere"; the rollicking "A Lot of Livin' to Do"; and the crowd-pleasing "Kids" (set to a modified Charleston). All this plus the mellow "Talk to Me," of which I have always been inordinately fond.

The Original Broadway Cast Album was remastered in 2000 by Sony Broadway [SK 89254], and sounds perfectly respectable. But the 1962 London album — originally released on the Philips label, and now on CD for the first time — has infinitely better sound. This is not a question of remastering, I'd suppose; the instrumentalists were simply recorded more clearly. Birdie happens to have a great set of orchestrations by Robert Ginzler: colorful reeds; bright xylophones; playful brass (sometimes swinging, sometimes crisply muted); guitars (electric and acoustic); and Ginzler's distinctive flute-writing. If you like this score as much as I do, you will find the vibrant London CD a whole new listening experience.

Red Ginzler was one of three orchestrators — the others being Irv Kostal and Sid Ramin — who came along forty-odd years ago and revolutionized the sound of Broadway. They worked extensively in TV through the Fifties, picking up Broadway experience and extra money ghosting for Don Walker (among others). Ginzler's first official credit was Gypsy (1959, with Ramin). This was followed by the Bert Lahr-Nancy Walker flop The Girls Against the Boys (with Ramin); in 1960, Birdie, Irma La Douce, and Cy Coleman's Wildcat (with Ramin); in 1961, Bob Fosse's The Conquering Hero (with Ramin), Donnybrook!, and Frank Loesser's How to Succeed; in 1962, John Kander's A Family Affair, Strouse's All American, and Bravo Giovanni. Half of these were flops, but the orchestrations make them a great pleasure to listen to. Ginzler's heart gave out during the tryout of Nowhere to Go Up — his fourth musical of 1962, the eleventh in four years — and he died shortly thereafter. He is remembered mostly for Gypsy, Birdie, and for the work of his protege, Jonathan Tunick.

As for the cast, Chita Rivera repeats her original Broadway role. She is more assured here; by 1962 she sounded like she knew she was a star. Van Dyke, naturally, is missed, but Peter Marshall does fairly well as Albert Peterson. (Marshall went on to fame, of sorts, as host of the game show, "The Hollywood Squares." His other musical comedy experience included costarring as Julie Harris's leading man in Skyscraper and serving as replacement lead in La Cage aux Folles.)

If this CD sounds great, musically speaking, it falls off drastically in the vocal department. Sylvia Tysick makes an attractive-sounding Kim; Robert Nichols capably fills Paul Lynde's shoes; and Marty Wilde — a British rock star at the time — is fine as Birdie. The rest of the cast — particularly the male singers — are quite poor. The notes are often indistinct, the accents questionable, and the cutoffs random. But don't let that bother you. Fans of Bye Bye Birdie will feel like they're hearing it again for the first time. AND OFF THE RECORD...
If it's fine acting you're after, catch Kate Burton's spinetingling Hedda Gabler at the Ambassador. Ibsen's Hedda is a lethal monstress. By camouflaging her behind a facade of measured laughter and steely charm, Kate makes her all the more lethal (and contemporary). Ibsen wrote his play in 1896, but this Hedda is just like someone you or I might have had brunch with last weekend - and that makes Burton's performance dangerously fascinating, with icy teeth.

— by Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.