ON THE RECORD: Little Shop, Albertine and Zanna

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16 Nov 2003

This week's column examines the cast recordings of Little Shop of Horrors, My Life With Albertine and Zanna, Don't!

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's 1982 Off-Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors came to town as the first big musical of the fall. There was a certain amount of discussion as to whether this intimate, eight-character satire could be suitably supersized to Broadway scale. A not-so-happy Florida tryout demonstrated that a mere re-creation of the original was unworkable. Most current-day producers would have merely plunged on to failure or simply pulled the plug. The Little Shop group, who also have Hairspray and The Producers on the boards, were wise enough to go back to square one and rethink the whole thing (with director Jerry Zaks at the controls).

If there's a question of how well the show fares on a grander scale, the songs themselves do very well. Menken and his Beauty and the Beast team — Michael Kosarin and orchestrator Danny Troob — have expanded the original four pieces to ten, and the results enhance the fun. This might be the ideal size for this score, just enough pieces to provide any instrumental colorings Menken might want while retaining the show's charmingly raffish sound. The songs are well performed by cast and band (with Henry Aronson at the podium and keyboard). The new Little Shop makes a bright and energetic cast album.

Hunter Foster and Kerry Butler, two of the more talented and likable new musical comedy performers to appear in the last few seasons, head the cast in decidedly less-than-glamorous roles. Douglas Sills, another fine musical comedian, stands out as the sadistic dentist and several other comedy roles. (Isn't there a starring role for him, someplace?) Rob Bartlett, too, does a nice turn as the proprietor of the establishment of the title. The Skid Row trio (Dequinta Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove) and Michael-Leon Wooley, as the bloodthirsty plant, add to the genial spirits of this recording.

I have always found the score of Little Shop a little too up and down for my taste; the strongest numbers are good enough to make the weaker numbers sound like filler. This was not as problematic in a rundown 299-seater on Second Avenue as it is on a Broadway scale (at a Broadway scale). Be that as it may, this new Little Shop of Horrors recording will delight fans of the show. The CD has been rounded out with five demos featuring Menken and Ashman, and comes in a nifty fold-out package with enlightening notes from Jack Viertel.

ZANNA, DON'T! [ps classics ps-314]
ps classics, the independent label that Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin started in 2000, has now given us more than a dozen CDs. What initially appeared to be a risky venture has established a place for itself in a diminishing field, with the recent revival cast album of Nine demonstrating that ps can compete with the conglomerates. Releases have been of consistently high quality, including such winning CDs as Jessica Molaskey's Pentimento; Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite; and The Maury Yeston Songbook. With RCA/BMG having moved out of the Off-Broadway cast album arena, ps has brought us two short-lived shows from the spring of 2003.

Let us suppose that you are a modern dancer-turned-playwright, with a newly minted MFA from Yale Drama. Let us suppose that you come up with a cannily clever idea for a musical, and while developing it find the encouragement and backing to have the show mounted professionally. You might well stop to consider whether the idea is sturdy enough to support a full evening, but this is your first chance at the big time. If someone is willing to pay the bill, I suppose you are just going to plunge ahead.

Tim Acito came up with a bright, listenable score for Zanna, Don't! (He wrote the libretto as well.) But I'm afraid that the concept for this "musical fairy tale" overwhelms itself. Acito takes us to a more or less typical American high school, but in a world where gay is straight and vice versa. This notion works initially, with amusing twist after amusing twist. The twists go on and on, though, long past the amusement. Acito's work remains enjoyable, mind you, but you reach a point past which enough is enough.

This is a topsy-turvy world, to borrow a theme from Michael Feingold's thoughtful liner notes. Feingold sees Zanna, Don't! in the tradition of the topsy-turvy worlds dreamed up by W. S. Gilbert in his collaborations with Arthur Sullivan. Feingold — one of the more theatrically-intelligent critics around — has a good point, as he usually does.

But I can't help comparing Zanna to three similarly topsy-turvy recent musicals, Urinetown, Bat Boy and Avenue Q. Urinetown created an upside down world of its own, built on a strong satiric base. But midway through, authors Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis made an abrupt shift of gears — and wisely so. There is a point of diminishing returns on cleverness; cross it, and there goes your second act. Still, there is plenty that is enjoyable and impressive here, including at least one very nice song, "Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall in Love?"

Acito seems impressively adept at the form, especially for a beginner. He has a Chekhovian musical up his sleeve — The Sungatherers was first heard at New Dramatists, in 2001 — so I trust we will hear more from him.


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