The Moment’s Musicals

This is not a blanket indictment: Our musical theater has any number of singers, conductors, orchestrators, vocal coaches, and even sound designers who know and care about voice production, and are anxious to ensure the life, the freshness, and the individuality of every voice in their charge. But they are outpaced as well as outnumbered; miking is a perpetual invitation to vocal laxity, and the long-run system can grind down the warmest and best-trained voice. The splintering yells that escape from Marla Schaffel's Jane Eyre and James Barbour's Rochester at the end of every number—applause-catchers that reduce any sense of ongoing musical drama to rubble—reverberate like announcements that these voices will soon need replacing. The remarkably named Aloysius Gigl, who sings the lead role in the tiny Off-Off musical A Child's Garden, has toured in Les Miz and Phantom; the metallic rattle of his upper register now sounds exactly like your mother getting down the cookie sheets for her holiday baking. It doesn't have to happen: Jane Eyre boasts, as Blanche Ingram, the would-be Mrs. Rochester, Elizabeth de Grazia, whose tones are free, bright, and carefully supported, and as chattery Mrs. Fairfax, the redoubtable Mary Stout, who knows how to husband a comic actress's smaller but more varicolored resources. The two best voices in A Child's Garden, of which more next week, belong to Jessica Walling and Thomas Scott Parker, whose program bios are low on musicals but heavy on Shakespeare.

And then there are, perennially, the astonishing vocal (and physical) mimics whom Gerard Alessandrini unearths for his Forbidden Broadway series. The current edition, less generally satirical and more personally targeted than its immediate predecessor, features two women whose skill at this sort of parodic makeover is beyond brilliant: Christine Pedi and Felicia Finley. Pedi, who can instantly reproduce the flaw in any star's sound box, must have a dozen sets of vocal cords waiting backstage to be Velcroed into place; I can't think of any other way by which she could morph from Judi Dench's nicotine-scarred tonal breakup to the gin-watered gargle of Elaine Stritch (during which you can virtually hear the polyps growing), without injuring her own voice. Finley's principal comic weapon, in contrast, is the body: You can watch her grow Rebecca Luker's stately neck, or reshape her elbows to the exact angle of Heather Headley's when the latter hits a high note. She's acquired Marla Schaffel's lofty cheekbones, too—had them before Jane Eyre opened. The male half of the cast, Danny Gurwin and Tony Nation, are funny and strong, but it's the divas who scoop the evening.

The cast of Forbidden Broadway 2001: ready for takeoff
photo: Carol Rosegg
The cast of Forbidden Broadway 2001: ready for takeoff

Details

Jane Eyre
By John Caird and Paul Gordon
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Broadway and 47th Street
212-307-4100

A Child's Garden
By Louis Rosen, Arthur Perlman, and Charlotte Maier
Melting Pot Theatre
311 West 43rd Street
212-279-4200

Forbidden Broadway 2001
By Gerard Alessandrini
Stardust Theatre
Broadway and 51st Street
212-239-6200

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Next week: More small musicals, and some general conclusions

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