ON THE RECORD: Little Shop, Albertine and Zanna

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Little Shop, Albertine and Zanna
This week's column examines the cast recordings of Little Shop of Horrors, My Life With Albertine and Zanna, Don't!

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's 1982 Off-Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors came to town as the first big musical of the fall. There was a certain amount of discussion as to whether this intimate, eight-character satire could be suitably supersized to Broadway scale. A not-so-happy Florida tryout demonstrated that a mere re-creation of the original was unworkable. Most current-day producers would have merely plunged on to failure or simply pulled the plug. The Little Shop group, who also have Hairspray and The Producers on the boards, were wise enough to go back to square one and rethink the whole thing (with director Jerry Zaks at the controls).

If there's a question of how well the show fares on a grander scale, the songs themselves do very well. Menken and his Beauty and the Beast team — Michael Kosarin and orchestrator Danny Troob — have expanded the original four pieces to ten, and the results enhance the fun. This might be the ideal size for this score, just enough pieces to provide any instrumental colorings Menken might want while retaining the show's charmingly raffish sound. The songs are well performed by cast and band (with Henry Aronson at the podium and keyboard). The new Little Shop makes a bright and energetic cast album.

Hunter Foster and Kerry Butler, two of the more talented and likable new musical comedy performers to appear in the last few seasons, head the cast in decidedly less-than-glamorous roles. Douglas Sills, another fine musical comedian, stands out as the sadistic dentist and several other comedy roles. (Isn't there a starring role for him, someplace?) Rob Bartlett, too, does a nice turn as the proprietor of the establishment of the title. The Skid Row trio (Dequinta Moore, Trisha Jeffrey and Carla J. Hargrove) and Michael-Leon Wooley, as the bloodthirsty plant, add to the genial spirits of this recording.

I have always found the score of Little Shop a little too up and down for my taste; the strongest numbers are good enough to make the weaker numbers sound like filler. This was not as problematic in a rundown 299-seater on Second Avenue as it is on a Broadway scale (at a Broadway scale). Be that as it may, this new Little Shop of Horrors recording will delight fans of the show. The CD has been rounded out with five demos featuring Menken and Ashman, and comes in a nifty fold-out package with enlightening notes from Jack Viertel.

ZANNA, DON'T! [ps classics ps-314]
ps classics, the independent label that Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin started in 2000, has now given us more than a dozen CDs. What initially appeared to be a risky venture has established a place for itself in a diminishing field, with the recent revival cast album of Nine demonstrating that ps can compete with the conglomerates. Releases have been of consistently high quality, including such winning CDs as Jessica Molaskey's Pentimento; Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite; and The Maury Yeston Songbook. With RCA/BMG having moved out of the Off-Broadway cast album arena, ps has brought us two short-lived shows from the spring of 2003. Let us suppose that you are a modern dancer-turned-playwright, with a newly minted MFA from Yale Drama. Let us suppose that you come up with a cannily clever idea for a musical, and while developing it find the encouragement and backing to have the show mounted professionally. You might well stop to consider whether the idea is sturdy enough to support a full evening, but this is your first chance at the big time. If someone is willing to pay the bill, I suppose you are just going to plunge ahead.

Tim Acito came up with a bright, listenable score for Zanna, Don't! (He wrote the libretto as well.) But I'm afraid that the concept for this "musical fairy tale" overwhelms itself. Acito takes us to a more or less typical American high school, but in a world where gay is straight and vice versa. This notion works initially, with amusing twist after amusing twist. The twists go on and on, though, long past the amusement. Acito's work remains enjoyable, mind you, but you reach a point past which enough is enough.

This is a topsy-turvy world, to borrow a theme from Michael Feingold's thoughtful liner notes. Feingold sees Zanna, Don't! in the tradition of the topsy-turvy worlds dreamed up by W. S. Gilbert in his collaborations with Arthur Sullivan. Feingold — one of the more theatrically-intelligent critics around — has a good point, as he usually does.

But I can't help comparing Zanna to three similarly topsy-turvy recent musicals, Urinetown, Bat Boy and Avenue Q. Urinetown created an upside down world of its own, built on a strong satiric base. But midway through, authors Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis made an abrupt shift of gears — and wisely so. There is a point of diminishing returns on cleverness; cross it, and there goes your second act. Still, there is plenty that is enjoyable and impressive here, including at least one very nice song, "Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall in Love?"

Acito seems impressively adept at the form, especially for a beginner. He has a Chekhovian musical up his sleeve — The Sungatherers was first heard at New Dramatists, in 2001 — so I trust we will hear more from him.

MY LIFE WITH ALBERTINE [ps classics ps-313]
As I find myself continually pointing out, commercial success (or lack thereof) is no indication of quality (or lack thereof). My Life with Albertine was problematic onstage at Playwrights Horizon, certainly. The CD, though, reveals an evocative and often moving score.

This was a reduction of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Or rather, a reduction of a small section of Proust's seven-volume masterwork. Richard Nelson, a prolific American playwright who has found far more success in England, did the adaptation and directed. Ricky Ian Gordon, one of that group of "promising new American composers" we've been hearing about for a decade, wrote the music and collaborated with Nelson on the lyrics. With the action set in 1919 Paris, Gordon has chosen to write with the sounds of Les Six (Poulenc, Milhaud et al) in his ears, with warmly romantic results.

My Life with Albertine has numerous links to the 1999 Playwrights Horizon musical James Joyce's The Dead, beginning with adaptor director Nelson. That show received widely mixed reviews, with rapturous notices countered by baffled responses. The Dead moved to the Belasco where, not surprisingly, it died. I found the score of The Dead detrimental; Nelson and composer Shaun Davey seemed to punctuate their play with authentic-sounding parlor songs, as opposed to musicalizing the story. An interesting idea which didn't work, for me at least.

Nelson chose a very different sort of composer for Albertine, with more satisfying results. Musically, anyway; parts of Albertine are absolutely lovely (like "Lullaby"). Kelli O'Hara and Chad Kimball play the lovers, with Brent Carver as the narrator (who is remembering things past). They are supported, notably so, by Emily Skinner, Donna Lynne Champlin and Brooke Sunny Moriber. Charles Prince does a sensitive job as musical director, and Bruce Coughlin (of Floyd Collins, Urinetown, and Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party) provides yet another set of impressive orchestrations.

The Joan McCracken story has always sounded intriguing. Eccentric ballet dancer finds her way to Broadway stardom (of the moderate sort), via de Mille and Robbins. Husband #1 walks off into the arms of the precocious Truman Capote. McCracken takes up with small-time dancer Fosse, who leaves his wife to marry her. The star launches her new husband as a choreographer, after which he walks off into the arms of the younger Gwen Verdon (the dancing-and-singing musical comedy star that McCracken never became). The ailing ballerina withdraws, dying at the age of 43.

Interesting, yes, although details were hard to come by. Until now. Lisa Jo Sagolla, a dance historian, has given us a biography of McCracken, "The Girl Who Fell Down" (Northeastern University Press). The Girl Who Falls Down was McCracken's claim to fame, a bit part in Oklahoma!'s "Many a New Day" ballet. This dance — in which de Mille had one of the heroine's friends 'accidentally' fall down while attempting an arabesque — garnered chorus dancer McCracken photo shoots for Vogue and a three page spread in Life. McCracken was the featured comedienne in de Mille's next musical, Bloomer Girl, and went on to star in the Robbins Abbott-Comden & Green Billion Dollar Baby and the Rodgers & Hammerstein-Abbott Me and Juliet. It was McCracken who called Abbott and implored him to hire Fosse — who had never choreographed a show, anywhere — for The Pajama Game. Along the way, Sagolla shows us the emergence of classical ballet on Broadway. The 17-year-old McCracken was an inaugural student at Balanchine's School of American Ballet in 1935. McCracken's unique set of talents — a well-trained dancer with comic flare and the ability to get through a song — served as the prototype for the new-style musical comedy heroine. Sono Osato, Allyn McLerie, Helen Gallagher, Gwen Verdon, Donna McKechnie and Ann Reinking all followed in McCracken's toe steps.

While the author is clearly more at home with dance than musical comedy, she does a fine job in the theatrical setting (and does remarkably well at the seemingly impossible task of describing the dance numbers that made McCracken famous). "The Girl Who Fell Down" is peppered with comments from the likes of de Mille, Robbins, Kidd, Prince, Comden & Green, as well as McLerie, Gallagher and Verdon. The author also went to less obvious sources, people who worked with McCracken like Bambi Linn, Uta Hagen, Celeste Holm, Dania Krupska, James Mitchell, Joan Roberts, Donald Saddler, Eli Wallach, Isabel Bigley and Ray Walston. Sagolla repeatedly asks the right questions, draws the right inferences, and lucidly sets it down for us — making this an impressive look at a forgotten, intriguing personality from musical comedy's past.

—Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com(mailto:Ssuskin@aol.com).

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