ON THE RECORD: "Tarzan," "Cook at the Met" and "Jacques Brel Live"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: "Tarzan," "Cook at the Met" and "Jacques Brel Live"
This week's column discusses the new musical Tarzan, "Barbara Cook at the Met" and "Jacques Brel live at the Olympia."

TARZAN [Disney 61541]
"It's not easy bein' green," goes a "Sesame Street" song by Joe Raposo. That sentiment more or less describes the current day doings at the Richard Rodgers, where Tarzan is more or less swingin' eight times a week. (And no, Richard Rodgers did not write Tarzan.) Green is the color, and the whole show is for better or worse swathed in it. The enterprise seems to be precisely what was desired by its producers, a West Coast outfit called Disney. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that it will do way better than Lestat, although I don't suppose this ape man will overtake the lions and hyenas that just moved around the corner to 45th Street. Green conjures up a world of trees and vines and monkey-clad actors swinging through the green-tinted air, all of which describes the main attraction of the piece. Green is the color of the Tarzan CD as well; but the songs, preserved on a platter without the stagecraft, betray a lack of theatrical imagineering. Phil Collins wrote the songs; Josh Strickland, Jenn Gambatese, Merle Dandridge and Shuler Hensley sing them; and there's little more to say. Except that listening to the score away from the theatre, I was amused to find parallels to Lionel Bart's Oliver!. This because Tarzan's ape-mama actually says she'll stay with the boy — and I quote -- "as long as he needs me," while that big gorilla Bill Sykes hollers at her and makes threats; and the boy immediately thereafter sings something like "Where Is Love?" ("Will someone tell me where I belong, where I should go?" it goes.)

A couple of interesting songs poke through, which leaves one with that age old-conundrum: If you put a hundred ape men at Yamaha uprights with bunches of bananas and reams of music paper, will one of them eventually write the "Rhapsody in Blue"? Or even the "Rhapsody in Green"?

Help is on the way, though. Barbara Cook keeps on singing, and DRG keeps on recording said singing and plying us with yet more Barbara Cook CDs. There are now 12 of them, by my count; and they seem to expect us to go out and buy each and every one of them. Along comes "Barbara Cook at the Met," recorded January 20, 2006, when Broadway's favorite Georgia peach appeared at the hallowed hall. Do we really want another CD of Barbara singing the same old songs, more or less?

In a word, yes. We can't rationally say that Cook is at her best, because that statement — at this late date — is meaningless. But Barbara gives some truly magnificent performances here. It would be foolish to list the songs — some great Rodgers, some great Sondheim, some great Arlen (including a breathtaking "I Had Myself a True Love") — as this is your typical Cook song lineup, isn't it? But every note Barbara sings here is imbued with feeling and truth. She inhabits the songs, and the songs live. Let it be added that along with the likely suspects, Cook gives us two "new" songs, John Bucchino's "Sweet Dreams" and Amanda McBroom's "Errol Flynn." We are so used to Cook singing familiar songs that we sometimes take for granted her superb acting skills; in both cases, she spins a tale and weaves a world, leaving us leaning forward — figuratively — for every word.

Eric Stern leads a five-man band, plus one tuba and one kazoo. Marcus Rohas plays the tuba on "Them There Eyes" (by Maceo Pinkard, William Tracy and Doris Tauber), accompanied by Cook on kazoo, and it's quite a number! (The handsome packaging has a photo of, but no credit for, Rohas; none of the songwriters are credited, either.) At moments you think, here is Barbara Cook at the Met (!) and all they can give her is a small combo? As the recording progresses, though, you realize that Barbara's voice alone seems to be filling all 3,800 seats, to magical effect. Cook is supported by Audra McDonald and Josh Groban, as if she needed support. McDonald sings "When Did I Fall in Love" (which we have heard her sing before, but can never hear too often) and joins Cook for an ebulliently swingy "Blue Skies." Groban sings "Not While I'm Around" and duets on "Move On."

"Tribute," the prior Cook CD, was filled with similarly interesting songs marred by distressingly overblown arrangements and orchestrations. "Barbara Cook at the Met" is a jewel, and one of those albums you'll want to repeat again and again.

JACQUES BREL: The Olympia, 1961 & 1964 [DRG 8487]
DRG also keeps bringing us more CDs of Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer-songwriter who in the 1960's was alive and well and living in Paris. I like Jacques Brel, I'm quick to admit, and I quite enjoy listening to his work from time to time. But why put more Jacques Brel recordings on the American market?

Those were my thoughts as a recent clutch of CDs arrived including "Jacques Brel: The Olympia, 1961 and 1964." This is a two-CD set containing — logically enough — two concerts recorded live at the Olympia, in Paris. The first was not just another concert. Brel went out there as a mere rising star, stepping in for the ailing Marlene Dietrich. The recording captures what happened: A veritable tidal wave of an evening, with a remarkable talent virtually setting the estimable audience aflame. The reaction is precisely the same in the 1964 concert, except by this point Brel was in the superstar class.

We might have heard these songs sung before, either on other Brel recordings or in their American adaptations. But here, at the Olympia, the renditions are electric. Brel sings away, often at top speed, and he is mesmerizing; while you might not understand the language, you get it. The liner notes include rough translations, demonstrating that the original lyrics are more trenchant and provocative than the English versions (some of which have always seemed a little garbled). What's more, the Brel that comes across on these live recordings is not only emotional and dynamic, but funny as well. He is totally in control of his audience, and he is quite something.

Do you need yet another Brel? I didn't. But for now, this is the Brel that I am listening to.

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

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