ON THE RECORD: Wonderland, The Merry Widow and CDs From Matt Cavenaugh & Jenny Powers and Alice Ripley

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Wonderland, The Merry Widow and CDs From Matt Cavenaugh & Jenny Powers and Alice Ripley
We listen to the Broadway cast album of Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland; two separate discs by Alice Ripley and Broadway couple Matt Cavenaugh & Jenny Powers; and the CD debut of the 1964 revival of The Merry Widow.


Wonderland [Masterworks Broadway 88697-88669]
I had an altogether non-wondrous time at the new musical Wonderland, which opened April 17 (and closed May 15) at the Marquis Theatre. This is, as you might have guessed, a new musicalization of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" — although little of the tone or feeling of Lewis Carroll made it to the stage. In this case, the Alice of the title is an adult; she has a ten-year-old daughter called Chloe, yes, but it's the mother who travels down through the rabbit hole. Where she experiences things which are not exactly Wonderlandish, causing most of the audience to grow not curiouser and curiouser but just plain peeved.

The Wonderland CD has now arrived; it was released prior to the Broadway opening, actually, testament to the producer's faith in the success of the project. There seems little sense in belaboring the point. Let it be said that the score seems marginally better on disc, divorced as it is from the onstage goings-on.

The CD arrived with a sticker on the wrapper saying "the new musical from the composer of Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War," which in itself might scare at least some prospective customers away. Let me say, though, that I find the music of Wonderland to be an advance over earlier Frank Wildhorn musicals. So there. If it's credits you want, we can add that the lyrics are by Jack Murphy. The central role of Alice is played by Janet Dacal, with Darren Ritchie, Kate Shindle, Jose Llana and Karen Mason among the supporting players.

Does anyone here remember the Mike Nichols Alice, with Debbie Allen in the title role? Featuring Jane White, Alice Ghostley and Cleavant Derricks (among others)? Which shuttered at the Forrest in Philly, in 1978? Pretty bad, it was. But with at least a few passages more interesting than any of this new, wonderless Wonderland. *

Two recent CDs lie outside my field of interest, in that the songs are far more contemporary than what I like to sit around listening to. But they come from tried and true musical theatre folks, and thus might be within your field of interest.

Jenny Powers & Matt Cavenaugh: Gonna Make You Love Me features the recently-married Powers and Cavenaugh. He is well-known along Broadway for four performances, starting as star of the ill-fated Urban Cowboy in 2003 and most recently as Tony in the 2009 West Side Story. In between came the bridegroom in A Catered Affair and a memorable turn as Jerry, who likes corn, in Grey Gardens. Ms. Powers played Meg in Little Women and Rizzo in the 2007 Grease.

And then there's Alice Ripley: Daily Practice, Volume 1 [Sh-k-boom 8-3001]. Ms. Ripley is presently on tour, taking her Tony-winning Next to Normal performance on the road. The show is currently at the Ordway in St. Paul, with upcoming stops in Cleveland, Philly, at Kennedy Center, and in Toronto; out-of-towners might well want to catch this Pulitzer Prize-winner.

The Merry Widow [Masterworks Broadway/ArkivMusic]
The then-spanking new Lincoln Center complex wanted some musical theatre in the place, so they called old man Rodgers and offered him a barn. Well, not a barn, exactly; the New York State Theater. Thus began the organization which was called Music Theater of Lincoln Center. Richard Rodgers started his six-season regime of musical revivals in July 1964 with The King and I, starring Rise Stevens and Darren McGavin. The second of two offerings that first summer was Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. This was a cross-country transfer, with stars, sets, and revised book & lyrics from Edwin Lester's 1961 Los Angeles Civic Light Opera production.

RCA dutifully recorded most of the Music Theater revivals, a parade which included three musically valuable original star recreations (Raitt in Carousel, Drake in Kismet, and Merman in Annie Get Your Gun). The most obscure cast album in the series, The Merry Widow, has finally been unearthed and remastered, available digitally and through ArkivMusic.

Most of The Merry Widow has always sounded quaint to me. The best of the songs, though, are memorable. "Vilia," one of those mysterious witch-of-the-wood songs, is a showpiece for the leading lady which remains hauntingly lovely; and both "I Go Off to Maxim's" and "Girls, Girls, Girls" retain their dated charms. There is also a sweeping waltz contained within the first act finale, here with the lyric "there's magic in the waltz, now, hear it playing."

And "The Merry Widow Waltz" ("I Love You So") remains unforgettable. I wouldn't be surprised if Rodgers, who was five when Lehar's operetta first opened in New York, had that song so drilled into his musical memory — as a child he lounged beneath the family Steinway while his mother played showtunes — that it is the germ that generated his string of remarkable waltzes (such as "Lover," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Hello, Young Lovers" and "The Carousel Waltz"). That Merry Widow hit was hijacked in 1943 by Alfred Hitchcock, who made it an intrinsic plot element in his thriller "Shadow of a Doubt." Romantic operetta connotations were permanently wiped out for those who remember "The Merry Widow Waltz" running through Joseph Cotten's murderous mind. In fact, the discussion at hand makes me long not for a production of The Merry Widow, but for "Shadow of a Doubt." I think I'll go watch the DVD again.

How did The Merry Widow sound to audiences in 1964? What one must remember is that most of the patrons — at least those over thirty — had grown up hearing the music, and some had seen the 1907 original or one of the many revivals (including the 1943 edition, a wartime hit). The Merry Widow was only 55 years old — which is about the same as West Side Story and The Music Man today. Does Guys and Dolls sound as quaint to a modern-day ten-year-old as The Merry Widow sounded to me in 1964? I daresay not! Even so, this Music Theater of Lincoln Center recording does make it possible to appreciate the Lehar score which instantly swept the world: The Merry Widow was the Phantom of the Opera of its day. (This despite the 1961 set of lyrics by Forman Brown, which don't much improve the 1907 English translation by Adrian Ross). Patrice Munsel, the Metropolitan opera soprano, plays that merry widow Sonia; Prince Danilo is Bob Wright, who spent a chunk of the 1950s singing the Alfred Drake role in Kiss Me, Kate. (Wright was a replacement in the Broadway and National companies, and star of the 1952 Broadway return engagement. He also starred in Hit the Trail, which was the Urban Cowboy of 1954.) Wright, whose name was Robert Wright, was here billed as "Bob" — presumably at the behest of Ed Lester, patron to the other Robert Wright, who wrote the scores for Lester's earlier hits Song of Norway and Kismet.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)


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