Let it be stated, to begin, that people have been anxiously awaiting the CD debut of favored cast albums since 1988 or so, when the first CDs in their long cardboard boxes started claiming shelf space. Let us add that the last few years have, finally, brought us most of the must-haves. Recent additions include Anya and Illya Darling, both from Bruce Kimmel. Fittingly so, as he's the fellow who started the notion of dusting off non-blockbuster musicals and putting them on CD. His early label, Bay Cities, proved that people would eagerly buy CDs to replace cast albums they already owned, back in the days when we didn't quite know that vinyl would soon be obsolete.
(Older cast album collectors, by this point, had bought their Oklahomas and South Pacifics on 78s, early LPs, and later "stereophonically enhanced" LPs; so what was one more purchase?)
Bay Cities brought us A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Golden Boy, Celebration, Woman of the Year and Chicago — after which the labels decided that maybe they'd better retain their masters and do it themselves. Capitol and Columbia did just that, although they sabotaged themselves by surfeiting the market with dozens of titles within a couple of years.
What Donnybrook has, and how, is Susan Johnson. She plays a secondary role — that of a local widow — who tangles with a lovable ne'er-do-well (Eddie Foy, who received first star billing). Readers of this column have heard the name Susan Johnson from time to time; a chorus girl from Brigadoon, she took over that show's comic lead Meg Brockie (in which she was apparently wonderful) and went on to one hit musical, playing the outspoken footsore waitress Cleo (from "Big D") in Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella. Ms. Johnson has Donnybrook wrapped around her proverbial little finger; you need only listen to this not-yet-on-CD LP to become an instant convert. She starts off the proceedings, or at least her part in the proceedings, with an excessively wry comedy song called "Sad Is the Day" in which she laments her skinflint husband's early death while not quite hiding the fact that she now is something of a merry and well-heeled widow. This is one of the items on Mr. Sondheim's list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written (At Least in Part)," and no wonder. She also has two delectable song-and-dance items with Mr. Foy, "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny" and "Dee-lightful Is the Word." Dee-lightful is the word, all right, for Ms. Johnson and for Donnybrook.
Blitzstein's score, with two dozen or so musical numbers, is stock-filled with highlights. The prelude, "Want to Join the Angels"; Birdie's opening number, "Music, Music"; Alexandra's "What Will It Be?"; Addie's mournful "Blues" ("Night could be time to sleep"); the "Rain" quartet; Regina's credo, "The Best Thing of All" and her rapacious waltz, "Things"; the Oscar-Leo scene in which father convinces his son to steal Horace's "Bonds"; Horace's final scene ("I'm Sick of You"), in which he suffers a fatal seizure; Birdie's aria "Lionnet," one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the American musical theatre; and last but not least, the Finale ("Certainly, Lord") in which Zan shows signs of triumphing over Regina.
The Columbia recording, under the direction of Samuel Krachmalnick (Bernstein's conductor for Candide), favors us with a clutch of memorable performances. Brenda Lewis, who created the role of Birdie in 1949, moves into Regina's shoes and gives a fiery performance. (Jane Pickens, of the Pickens sisters, originated the role. I once traveled to Washington to see Patti LuPone do it, which wasn't worth the trip. Joan Diener did it at the Michigan Opera in 1977, which sounds like interesting casting although I wonder whether she could actually sing it.) Joshua Hecht sings Horace, Helen Stine is Alexandra, and Loren Driscoll is Leo. Best, perhaps, are Elisabeth Carron (as Birdie) and Carol Brice (as Addie). Most surprising, by far, is George S. Irving giving a fine dramatic performance as Regina's grasping but pragmatic older brother Ben. To quote Larry Hart, I never knew he had it in 'im.
Several changes were made for the City Opera production, including the loss of the onstage Dixieland band and the "Chinkypin" sequence; this material is not included on the Columbia set, but no matter. A full restoration was performed by the Scottish Opera in 1991, and released on CD the following year by Decca. This is an ineffective reading of the score, though, sabotaged further by the sound (which makes it all but impossible to pick up many of the lyrics). The Scottish Regina might be preferable to no Regina at all, but the Columbia recording — and the Columbia cast — gives full value to Blitzstein's soaring score. In fact, I think I'll put on the final scene now, as I type. If there's one obscure musical theatre recording worth searching out, this is it.
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