Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Chicago From London; Boy From Oz

News   Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Chicago From London; Boy From Oz


On January 25, I devoted this space to a discussion of the phenomenon of the Chicago revival and all previous recordings of the score, including the original Broadway, Australian, and revival Broadway discs. I ended that piece by predicting that the cast album of the smash hit London revival would be something special, but for some time, it looked as though the divine Ute Lemper's various recording contracts would cause it to go unrecorded. Those problems were finally cleared up, and the London cast recording, recently released domestically by RCA Victor, was worth waiting for.

As I stated in that earlier column, Chicago is a show that loses more than most when transferred to disc: Terrific as are the Kander and Ebb songs, they were specifically created for Bob Fosse's staging concepts, and, while there are a couple of straightforward, stand-and-deliver numbers, most of them are inextricably linked to choreography. As was the case with previous recordings of the show, the London revival disc (the original 1979 West End production was not recorded) can't convey the full impact of the production, especially Ute Lemper's wild and uniquely arresting Velma, and Ruthie Henshall's Roxie, which shifts on a dime from sweet siren to ruthless opportunist.

Lemper will replace Bebe Neuwirth in the Broadway production Sept. 8, and Henshall will join it in January; for now, the new recording captures them well, and they are vocally superior to the ladies who opened this revival. Lemper's whisky-and-honey throatiness is a great sound for Velma, her unclassifiable accent is amusing, and she and Henshall--who has more voice than just about anyone who has ever taken on Roxie-- really shine on their duets of "My Own Best Friend" and "Nowadays."

Henry Goodman's insincere crooner of a Billy Flynn loses least of all the principals in the transfer to disc; he's probably the best Billy since Jerry Orbach. Meg Johnson (who can also be heard on the London Carousel revival and Nine concert recordings) and Nigel Planer are very good as Mama Morton and Amos. The recording is a couple of minutes longer than the Broadway revival disc, and includes the Act One finale, the "Roxie" monologue, and the dialogue during "When You're Good To Mama" and "Mr. Cellophane," all omitted on the 1996 recording. Chicago fans will love it.



Most major commercial musical productions in Australia are reproductions of Broadway and West End hits. Since March, Sydney has been playing host to a genuine homegrown hit, The Boy From Oz, and its producers have made it known that they hope that Oz will "reverse the one-way traffic of musicals from other countries and become Australia's first export in the field."

The EMI cast album is fun, yet also raises doubts about the show's future. Oz is the story of singer-composer Peter Allen, from his childhood to his death from AIDS, and its score is made up of Allen songs (many of them written in collaboration with others). Something of a folk hero in his native land, Allen, while popular elsewhere, may not have achieved the degree of fame that would cause Broadway or West End audiences to turn out in droves to see his story. The show features dramatic scenes with actors playing Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, not an easy thing to pull off without looking a little silly. Then too, it might have been nicer had the first major Australian musical export featured an original score, rather than mostly well-known pop hits, even if an attempt has been made to refashion some of them into "book" songs.

Allen's catalogue remains an enjoyable one, the arrangements are glitzy, and the cast is top-notch: Todd McKenney, seen in the Australian 42nd Street and Crazy For You (where he stepped in on short notice for an injured Jim Walton early in the run, and later took over the part as originally scheduled), has had a major success in the lead, and carries the album (he's rather more attractive -- both visually and vocally -- than Allen himself). Musical theater veteran Jill Perryman, whose roles include Fanny Brice and Dolly Levi, plays Allen's mother; rock star Chrissie Amphlett is Garland; and Angela Toohey, who starred in the recent Down Under revival of Cabaret, does a fairly wicked Liza impersonation.

Flop collectors will be happy to know that, in addition to such expected numbers as "I Honestly Love You" (for Allen's male lover), "I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love" (a song of parting for Liza and Peter), "I've Been Taught By Experts," "Love Don't Need A Reason," and "Arthur's Theme," four songs from Allen's only stage work, Legs Diamond, are included; it's fun to hear "Only An Older Woman" become a duet for Judy and Peter, or "All I Wanted Was The Dream" as a big Garland solo. As I said, a little silly, but fun.



In 1980, a small-scale revival of Pal Joey at London's tiny Half Moon Theater was so well received that it transferred to the West End; with good work from Denis Lawson (who would go on to triumph in Mr. Cinders in London and come to New York in the awful import Lust) and Sian Phillips (the distinguished actress whose musical work includes Peg, Marlene, and the Royal National Theatre A Little Night Music) as Joey and Vera, the result was moderately enjoyable and had a good run, but was hardly the full blown revival that Joey still awaits (Livent has one in development for next year).

When TER first issued the cast album, the only other available Joey was the wonderful Columbia studio disc with original Vera, Vivienne Segal, opposite Harold Lang, a recording that led to a smashing 1952 Broadway revival with the same pair of leads. Since then, Angel has reissued the very enjoyable cast album of the '52 production, for which, owing to the Columbia disc, Segal and Lang had to be replaced by Jane Froman and Dick Beavers, but which boasts a big, '50s Broadway sound and Helen Gallagher and Elaine Stritch in supporting parts. Next came DRG's recording of the Encores! production (Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Vicki Lewis, Bebe Neuwirth), the most complete account of the score, and the first full restoration on disc of the original orchestration.

JAY has now issued the 1980 London cast album, and Phillips' throaty baritone Vera is enjoyable. But with three more full-bodied and superior versions available (not to mention the scintillating four tracks from the original 1954 London production with the divine Carol Bruce, available on the compilation CD Americans in London), this performance, while pleasant, is hardly a must.

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