MEMPHIS [Delray Records]
Memphis, the first new musical of the 2009-10 season — or at least, the first (and only) musical thus far with an original score, by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro — came traipsing into the Shubert in October with a spotty tryout record and something of a question mark after its title. This sleeper status managed to pay off, big time; audiences, and many critics, found the show to be surprisingly good and highly entertaining. Sort of like a Jersey Boys with new songs, which — given the instant-fire success of the Four Seasons musical — is quite a recommendation. Memphis rushed out a "special limited edition" cast album in time for the holidays, despite the fact that a distributor is not yet lined up. Not officially, that is, although the deal is apparently set if unsigned. In the meanwhile, the CD is available at the Shubert and at the memphisthemusical.com website.
The recording handily recreates the in-theatre excitement of the show. Chad Kimball and Montego Glover head the cast; their names are in small print below the title, in a size half that of the authors and creative staff, but they are the stars of the occasion all right. Mr. Kimball is remembered along Broadway for his performance as the cow in the 2002 revival of Into the Woods (as well as a few subsequent roles). Ms. Glover was a member of the Color Purple troupe. Both quickly demonstrate, midway through the first act, that they are able to carry this show. We often see stars who live up to their reputations, and sometimes see stars who don't quite do so; it is always invigorating to see relative newcomers dazzle us.
The pair of newly-minted stars are supported by an able and energetic cast, with tasty contributions from J. Bernard Calloway, Cass Morgan, Derrick Baskin and James Monroe Iglehart; the cast, and in this I specifically include the members of the ensemble, sing this score. That said, I find I must temper my enthusiasm for what they are singing. Under present-day conditions, though, that seems to be acceptable. A recent return visit to the show, on a frigid mid-week night in early January, demonstrated that Memphis — with Mr. Kimball and Ms. Glover very much in the spotlight, and the ensemble giving their all — positively sizzles at the Shubert.
DONNA LYNNE CHAMPLIN: Old Friends [Parting Glass Productions]
Have you heard the one about the Broadway actress who challenged herself to make a CD for a flat $1,000 and did precisely that, recording it in the bathroom of her studio apartment? The fact that she did it at all is admirable, and the fact that she managed to turn out a professional-sounding item is impressive. The fact that it is a first-rate CD makes the economic discussion irrelevant. And Donna Lynne Champlin's "Old Friends" is a first-rate CD; if she didn't tell us in her liner notes that she spun it out of ten hundred-dollar bills, and if she didn't include a photo of her singing over the sink, we wouldn't be talking about such mundane matters. We would simply be saying that "Old Friends" is quite good and recommending it to your attention. Ms. Champlin is of course familiar to discerning New York theatregoers. This is the actress who played the Carol Burnett-inspired character in Carrie Hamilton and Ms. Burnett's Hollywood Arms, back in 2002; and who more recently sang a Pirelli of note in the John Doyle-helmed Sweeney Todd in 2005. (I actually remember her raising an eyebrow at her Honoria Glossop in By Jeeves, during its limited local engagement at the Helen Hayes in 2001.) Champlin is presently in Billy Elliot, earning a paycheck; an onstage injury, apparently, left her sitting around her studio apartment with the time and the energy to — well, to see if she could make a $1,000 CD by herself.
She could, indeed, and did. Mind you, this is not something you should try yourself unless you can not only sing but write your own arrangements and play them on your own keyboard. Champlin is accompanied by violinist Jessica Wright and cellist Elisa Winter, who unless DLC has a huge bathtub must have come along later to added their music to the tracks. But Champlin did the vocals (including backup work), piano, accordion, flute, tin whistle, and synthed guitar, bass, strings, chimes and percussion. In this case, the singer is very much beholden to her musicians.
The 15 tracks come from a variety of places, with only one song that the average listener might find familiar (that being Charles Chaplin's "Smile"). Seven of the songs appear to be from musicals, although four are from musicals unknown to me (and which might be unproduced). In fact, I am pretty much unfamiliar with 12 of the 15 items. No harm in this, of course. However, I am struck by a certain sameness in many of the selections; Ms. Champlin might have profited by the presence of a song selection associate. This is a minor qualm, though; "Old Friends," and Donna Lynne Champlin, make good friends.
13 [Ghostlight 8-1313]
Jason Robert Brown's 13 came and went in the fall of 2008; let's call it one of those musicals that might have worked but didn't, nevertheless pleasing a significant portion of the audience. The original cast album was recorded prior to New York previews — reflecting the show as performed in productions by The Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and Goodspeed in Connecticut — and thus included material that was cut prior to Broadway while excluding material added during previews. For a variety of reasons, including the popularity of the show with under-fifteens and the expectation of a healthy stock and amateur life, Ghostlight has seen fit to release a second original Broadway cast album. The first disc of this two-CD set apparently reflects the licensed version of the score, incorporating "Be a Geek" (which was used in the L.A. production) and a new version of "Opportunity." The cut songs from Broadway are included on the second disc, along with composer Brown's demos of two additional songs ("A Little More Homework") and "Getting Over It." The majority of the second disc is given over to 11 tracks of karaoke, so fans can sing along. And the preteens in my house, mind you, most definitely do. (Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" from Oxford 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 can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)