AUDRA McDONALD: WAY BACK TO PARADISE (Nonesuch)
In the last five years, no more talented musical theatre performer has emerged than Audra McDonald. So gifted she's almost unclassifiable, McDonald is a wonderful actress, a glorious singer, and a beautiful, stellar presence. She deserved all three of her Tony Awards, and a glorious future (with her first full-scale leading roles) lies ahead.
McDonald is able to sing show tunes, opera, and just about everything in between; because of her success in the theatre, her first solo album (to be released Sept. 22) could have been a collection of classic show tunes, or well-known contemporary theatre material. But it's an indication of her gifts that she has taken on something more ambitious and challenging, a program of songs by a new generation of musical theatre writers whose work is complex and tends to erase the line between theatre and classical music.
Michael John LaChiusa is represented by a lively number from the forthcoming Lincoln Center Theatre production Marie Christine, the Medea story transposed to New Orleans that McDonald is expected to star in, and two powerful numbers from Hello Again. The more immediate Lincoln Center musical, Parade, is previewed with the strong "You Don't Know This Man," and that show's gifted composer lyricist Jason Robert Brown is also represented with a fine number from his Songs For A New World. There's one song from Adam Guettel's Public Theatre show Saturn Returns, plus three new Guettel compositions. All but one of the four numbers with music by Ricky Ian Gordon have words by Langston Hughes and are from a song cycle called "Only Heaven." And there's one by Jenny Giering.
Joining McDonald here and there are Dawn Upshaw, Teresa McCarthy (of Titanic and Saturn Returns), and Guettel. McDonald is radiant throughout, singing ecstatically and delivering the texts intensely. It is possible some show fans will be disappointed by McDonald's decision to offer material that is difficult and less accessible than a standard theatre program would have been. But by recording albums by Upshaw, Mandy Patinkin, and the works of Guettel (in addition to Floyd Collins, a Saturn Returns cast album is on its way), Nonesuch has demonstrated its commitment to work that simultaneously embraces theatre, opera, and art song, and McDonald's disc is very much along those lines. And when an artist has the kind of range and ability McDonald possesses, it's only logical to delve deeper rather than play it safe. HEY, MR. PRODUCER (First Night/Philips)
This is not the first double-CD, First Night Records Cameron Mackintosh tribute of this title; a 1990 collection of the same name saluted the producer with tracks taken from cast recordings of his shows, with some new ones (including Patti LuPone's "As Long As He Needs Me" and a song from Just So) recorded directly for the set. The new Hey, Mr. Producer is, of course, the live recording of last June's Mackintosh salute at London's Lyceum Theatre.
This is the kind of international multimedia production that has become something of a source of frustration to fans because of the multiple incarnations in which it has been meted out. The program was recently aired in this country on PBS, and the New York area version ran about 102 minutes. The CDs contain about 50 minutes of material not shown in New York, but there will be a commercial video release (at least in England) next month which is likely to contain more than the telecast. And while the CDs run 152 minutes total, there are still portions of the concert missing.
I wish that such programs would be issued in a single version, preferably on video, and as complete the first time around as they're ever going to get; as it now works, fans must tape the telecast, purchase the CDs for more material, then get the released video, which is likely to have more than the telecast but less than the CDs.
Notable among the material not seen in the local PBS version but present on the discs: Bernadette Peters in "Unexpected Song"; Peters, Julia McKenzie, and Maria Friedman in "Broadway Baby"; Hugh Jackman doing "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" as he does in the current Royal National Theatre Oklahoma!; sequences from Carousel; an appearance by Tom Lehrer; and, most notably, the party-piece duet featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. (The New York PBS telecast featured 45 seconds of it as a bonus.) Surely the latter track was the event's piece de resistance -- did you ever think you'd hear Sondheim singing his own lyric to the tune of The Music of the Night? -- and it's irritating this could not be included on the telecast if the composers approved it for CD.
You have by now no doubt seen some version of this program, so I need not spend time describing the performances. The most collectible item: Friedman's rendition of a new song fashioned for this fall's revised Martin Guerre tour.
THE BEST OF UTE LEMPER (London)
Although she has many solo albums and other recordings, Ute Lemper demands to be seen. Admired in Europe throughout the last decade for her concert, cabaret, film, and stage (Cats, Peter Pan, Cabaret) work, and a noted Kurt Weill specialist, Lemper is a chameleon-like artist who can be grave, slinky, tough, plaintive, sexy, or grotesque as required. A stunning presence, she is perhaps best sampled on her three commercially-available London Records videotapes (devoted to Weill, Dietrich and Piaf, and the work of Michael Nyman).
London Records has promoted Lemper's work for a decade, and, in honor of her arrival on Broadway to repeat her West End role of Velma in Chicago, has released in this country a 79-minute sampler. "All That Jazz" from her current show is included, although the track is not from the RCA Victor London cast album. Most of these recordings are taken from her various discs devoted to Weill, Nyman, Piaf, Dietrich, and Berlin cabaret songs (she recorded the latter album complete in both English and German versions). Lemper is a wonderful artist, perhaps even more unclassifiable than McDonald; this disc is an excellent way to get to know her, particularly if you're going to see her (and you should) at the Shubert.
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