ON THE RECORD: Mamma, Elaine's King & Charlie Brown

MAMMA MIA! (Decca Broadway 314 543 115-2)

MAMMA MIA! (Decca Broadway 314 543 115-2)

Mamma Mia!, the musical comedy juggernaut, has hurdled from London to Toronto to San Francisco. Riding a wave of enthusiastic word-of-mouth, it is presently scheduled to settle into Broadway's Winter Garden next October 18th. The original London cast album displays a remarkably cheery seventy-four minutes of song.

The plot is no doubt familiar to most readers: Once upon a time, a fiery teenage lass became pregnant by one of three men; twenty years later, her budding daughter brings the men together to figure out which one is dear old dad. The score is perky, indeed, compiled from a parade of 1970s song hits by the group ABBA. (That first "B" is supposed to be backwards, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how to do that on my PC.)

What old and nonrelated songs can not do, of course, is contribute to the action and/or characterizations. These lyrics don't give you any idea whatsoever what they are all singing about. Informative lines of dialogue, scattered about during musical introductions or interludes, are helpful; there are also a very few lyrics which seem to have been revised for the show. All in all the score sounds like - well, like a parade of vintage 70s-ish song hits (written by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, "and some songs with Stig Anderson"). And some are incredibly catchy, like the title tune.

As for those lyrics — you might do well not to listen too closely to some of them. There's one song where they rhyme "Notre-Dame" with "jam," "Eiffel Tower" with "flower-power," and "the Seine" with "the rain" (twice). Maybe that's how they pronounce French in Swedish? This is a rather pretty song, mind you - "Our Last Summer," it's called — although one wonders how it fits into the plot. As I gather from the lyric, the guy is singing about the last summer he spent with the Mamma. But what about the other two guys? How many summers did they all spend together? Siobhán McCarthy sings Mamma, Lisa Stokke sings the daughter. Both appear to be pretty good, but you can't judge their acting (musically speaking) from the CD, as most of the songs are interchangeable. Paul Clarkson, Nicolas Colicos, and Hilton McRae play the paternal candidates.

All told, this is an entertaining disc featuring a lively bunch of song hits. Some might be tempted to compare Mamma Mia! to other pop-song musicals like Saturday Night Fever or Footloose, but it is impossible to even begin to make such a comparison. Those other musicals were pretty much dead on arrival, theatrically speaking. From the evidence on this CD, Mamma Mia! will prove a massive hit on our shores.

THE KING AND I (WEA [Warner Music UK] 8573843892)

Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I has been recorded innumerable times, and here comes yet another cast album. Christopher Renshaw's revival — which originated in Australia in 1992 and visited New York in 1996 - opened in London in May. I'm not even going to begin to compare the many recordings of this score. I will say, though, that this new King might well be one of the best. The show was written for Gertrude Lawrence, an English-born star with charismatic stage presence but a wandering voice. Rodgers and Hammerstein did not cast her for the role; she secured the rights to the property and chose them to write it. Listening to Elaine Paige perform "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Hello, Young Lovers," I wonder if this might be precisely what R&H intended their Mrs. Anna to sound like. None of us can say, but Paige has Lawrence's accent; plus, she can hit the notes. She certainly suits the show, both vocally and dramatically. Paige does an especially spirited job on her soliloquy, and her second act reprise of "Young Lovers" is extremely touching.

Jason Scott Lee is not Yul Brynner, but he does well enough as the King (who, after all, only has two-and-a-half songs). The present Tuptim (Aura Deva), Lun Tha (Sean Ghazi), and Lady Thiang (Taewon Yi Kim) might sound somewhat problematic to stateside listeners. Their accents are more authentically foreign than we're used to, but they seem to slip into what used to be called pidgin English. Doretta Morrow, Larry Douglas, and Dorothy Sarnoff — who set the standard when they created these roles back in 1951 — all came out of Brooklyn. Their sound is presumably the sound that Rodgers intended.

The musical direction is crisp and fine; looking at the credits, I see that it is once again John Owen Edwards, whose name seems to be on all these London cast albums of old American musicals. He appears to be pretty good at this sort of thing; he is also responsible for at least three other excellent discs, the recent revival of Oklahoma! and the studio recordings of 110 in the Shade, and The Most Happy Fella.

Fans of Ms. Paige will relish this album. For those of you who've learned not to immediately run out and buy every new recording of every old classic, let me just say that this is one of the better ones.

YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN (Decca Broadway 012 159 851-2)

People who know You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown only from the 1999 Broadway revival — and/or its cast album — might well be surprised by the charming original off-Broadway cast recording, which has just been remastered by Decca Broadway. An earlier, poorly-mixed CD version was released in the 1980s by Polydor, but it has been long out-of-print.

The revival had its fans, certainly; I heard from several of them when I gave it an unfavorable review, as I found it overblown and underwhelming. The scenic and musical enhancements were especially harmful, it seemed to me; the unassuming, child-size characters were overwhelmed. Clark Gesner's score for Charles Schulz's beloved comic strip characters has a featherweight charm, though it is positively flimsy in places. Director Joe Hardy's original 1967 production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown was modest in just about every possible way; the main scenic elements were oversized geometric cubes, which served as props, and the two-man band consisted of keyboard and percussion. Listening to this CD - and comparing it to the revival — one can appreciate the marvelous contribution of musical supervisor/arranger Joe Raposo. This 'piano and xylophone' sound was typical of off-Broadway shows of its time, and it's refreshing to hear it again. Especially compared to the sound of the revival. Which is not to say that the 1999 music department did a bad job; it's simply that the concept of a big, new You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown worked against the inherent qualities of the material. Everything was so small in the pint-sized original that the characters could soar, and when they really got going - as in Snoopy's showstopper "Suppertime" - you totally forgot the teensy scale. When Bill Hinnant leapt from atop his doghouse and went into a cakewalk, the spirit and the show soared (as it does on the cast album). My favorite number, perhaps, is the "Book Report," in which everybody but Snoopy deconstructs "Peter Rabbit" in one hundred easy words. (The last sentence of Lucy's carefully counted essay: "And they were very, very, very, very, very, very happy to be home.") And the theme song, "Happiness," is tenderly simple, swelling to a grand finale; you get a tug in your heart when Snoopy starts ah-oooooing in the final refrain. Other cast members included Gary Burghoff (as Charlie), Reva Rose (as Lucy) and Bob Balaban (as Linus).

All in all, a tender little show - with an impressive 1,597-performance run, followed by a 31-performance Broadway visit in the summer of 1971 — and a tender little album. Bonus tracks consist of four of the songs recorded by the composer and Barbara Minkus as an audition for Charles Schulz. The cartoonist liked them enough to greenlight the project, and countless audiences in schools all over the land are glad he did. The show is understandably still popular in the stock and amateur field, where they disregard the 1999 version and wisely stick with the original.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com