You Must Remember Disc

The Theater’s a Seedy Business This Year, CD-er Than Ever

My guilty pleasure, among last year's Off-Broadway shows, is American Rhapsody (Jessisaraly Music), K.T. Sullivan and Mark Nadler's cabaret romp through the Gershwin oeuvre, recorded complete on two discs. It's guilty because I normally hate, on principle, the habit of squeezing piles of songs into a sort of melodic hash. Trouble is, Sullivan and Nadler are such winning performers, and are clearly having so much fun, that it's hard to resist playing along. Besides, each disc has two or three moments when Sullivan, who can dig to the center of a song as intensely as anyone on the cabaret circuit, strikes pure vocal gold. For those impatient with Nadler's tricky-fingers pianistics, Sullivan gets more leeway, and hits the center a good many more times, on her latest solo album, The Sweetest Sounds (DRG), an all-Richard Rodgers album that's presumably the first crocus of the composer's centennial. Here Sullivan's plaintive, slim-toned soprano tackles rarities ("You Can't Fool Your Dreams," "Away From You") as well as standards, with a mix of pathos and brittleness that's the essence of cabaret style. Her pianist-arranger here, Larry Woodard, makes occasional vocal contributions, which I could live without; Nadler at least has some tone color. But head for the series of late cuts that starts with a medley of "Way Out West" and "I Gotta Get Back to New York," and you'll hear what makes Sullivan essential.

With musicals no longer the torture chamber of the last few decades, the joyous malice of Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway series may in due course become less necessary. Its last recorded incarnation, Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey (DRG), a little uneven and already outdated, is a step down from its immediate predecessor, which was one of the series's peaks. At its center, however, are two indispensable gems: a takedown of the current tourist-trapped Broadway area, "Let's Ruin Times Square Again," and a contrapuntal confrontation (to the paired tunes of Irving Berlin's "Old-Fashioned Wedding") in which Ethel Merman tries to make Elton John see the beauty of show music. Alessandrini is so good at this kind of satiric left hook that you wish he wouldn't stoop to rabbit-punching helpless people no one cares about, like Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand.

To conclude, something of a surprise: The much lambasted revival of Bells Are Ringing (Fynsworth Alley) has produced a delightful recording. Nothing will ever replace Judy Holliday, but Faith Prince's reading of the lead role has a focus and vivacity on disc that weren't visible onstage. She still tries too hard—the performance is tricked out with innumerable funny voices, squawks, and growls—but her personality clearly blossoms in a studio. She's strongly backed, too: by Don Sebesky's new orchestrations, which give the show's '50s sensibility only the most delicate metallic edge; by Marc Kudisch's strong, easy baritone; and by the droll character performances of Beth Fowler, David Garrison, and Martin Moran. In keeping with record producer Bruce Kimmel's tradition, the disc preserves, on a bonus track, Moran's memorable turn as the demented songwriter-dentist who composes on his air hose. To add to the surprise, Prince sounds even more engagingly assured on the live recording of her January 2000 gig at Joe's Pub, A Leap of Faith (DRG). Singing show tunes and a range of other material, she doesn't succeed with every number, but does give the show an overarching warmth that suggests, more than anything else I've seen or heard from her, a distinctive and gifted personality. Taken together, the discs suggest that there's every reason for Faith in the American musical.

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