ON THE RECORD: I Sing! and Man with a Load of Mischief

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: I Sing! and Man with a Load of Mischief
This week's column discusses the York Theatre productions of I Sing! and Man with a Load of Mischief.

I SING! [Jay CDJAY2 1378]
I wholeheartedly agree that it is important for the theatre to develop new writers of new musicals; and I indisputably admit that said new writers need to start somewhere. Understandably, they often start with chamber pieces about five young people in the big city. These "beginner" musicals are inevitable, necessary and developmentally important. But unless lightning strikes, they can be mighty uninvolving.

Lightning does strike, on occasion; when it does, I'm the first to drop my jaw in amazement. William Finn, in his early March of the Falsettos, was a marvel. You had never heard anyone quite like him before, unless you had happened upon his earlier In Trousers (which demonstrated a startlingly refreshing talent learning how to express himself). A second young-people-in-the-city musical, of a very different nature, is presently regaling audiences on Broadway: Avenue Q, from Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.

But these two are the exceptions. I Sing! has its attributes, led by an expert cast of up-and-coming-and-already-arrived musical theatre names, namely Matt Bogart, Danny Gurwin, Lauren Kennedy, Chad Kimball and Leslie Kritzer. But the cast is considerably more powerful than the material.

I Sing! shows great promise from composer Eli Bolin and lyricist Sam Forman. You might consider it altogether remarkable if you factor in that Bolin was 19 and Forman 20 when they wrote this in college, at Northwestern. For those ticket buyers and CD buyers who do not wish to factor in the age of the songwriters, I Sing! is not quite so remarkable. (If Stephen Schwartz were to turn this out today, I doubt that anyone would be so impressed. Schwartz started out with college shows, too, one of which became Pippin.)

A passage from the liner note, by director/co-librettist Benjamin Salka (who was also 20 when the show first opened off-Broadway in 2001), gives you an idea: "We could have called the show 'Sex and the City Meets Friends Set to Music,' which is how two critics described it (one as a compliment, the other as a critique). . . . I Sing! is about a group of cynical kids, just out of college, struggling (and often failing) to make wise choices in their relationships. They are ultra hip and culturally savvy, but also woefully immature." So be it. I expect that we will hear further from the Messrs. Bolin and Forman; they certainly know how to express their ideas in song. Whether you will want to listen to two long discs-worth of this is another question — unless you take into account that these songwriters were still under 21.

MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF [Original Cast Records]
Man with a Load of Mischief harkens back to a time when a six character period pocket musical could open Off-Broadway and happily play out the season. The item in question opened November 6, 1966 — a year after Man of La Mancha, two weeks before Cabaret — and enjoyed a moderately successful run of 240 performances. The original cast album, on Kapp, is long out-of-print and seemingly unlikely to resurface. A November 2003 version as part of the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti series has resulted in a new and greatly expanded studio cast recording, which demonstrates that Man with a Load of Mischief has plenty to recommend it.

"Perfectly charming!" "Sprightly and ingratiating!" and "Lively and lilting!" read the 40-year-old critical quotes headlining the liner notes. This is a fair description of the proceedings. This is not an overpowering musical; but one can imagine how it proved a delightful playgoing experience in the intimate confines of a three- or two-hundred seat theatre. (It opened at the Jan Hus, and transferred to the Provincetown.)

Another glance at the packaging displays that John Clifton is listed as composer, lyricist, orchestrator, producer and one-sixth of the cast; I suppose he conducted the recording as well. While this might raise grave apprehensions among some listeners — myself included — I am pleased to report that Mr. Clifton's performance and chamber orchestrations are every bit as charming as his score. "What style! What charm! What grace!" goes one of the songs, and I second the motion. He is joined by Stephen Bogardus, Alex Santoriello, Diane Sutherland, Brooke Sunny Moriber and Susan Lehman.

The original cast album of Man with a Load of Mischief has been sitting on my shelf for years and years, I'm embarrassed to report. The olde English artwork, I suppose, scared me off, although if you'd asked me last year I'd have told you I still planned to get around to it. I still expect to, especially now that I've been introduced to the score. The LP cast includes Virginia Vestoff and Reid Shelton, among others; but the new CD contains considerably more material than was possible on vinyl. Readers will note that this is the third recording I've reviewed in the last two columns that was put into motion by the York Theatre.

All said, I'm glad to have finally discovered Man with a Load of Mischief. And now I've got "Once You've Had a Little Taste," "Make Way for My Lady" and "Come to the Masquerade" floating around in my head.

Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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