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A Blizzard of CDs Puts Some New Spins on Show Music Style

Two less significant resuscitations, You Never Know (Fynsworth Alley) and Billion Dollar Baby (Original Cast), have fewer flaws but also fewer high-water marks. The first is chiefly remembered as the show Cole Porter was writing when he had the horseback-riding accident that lost him the use of his legs. The unhistorical but pleasantly performed disc records Paul Lazarus's recent stage revision, meaning the usual patchwork of snitchings from other Porter scores; I wish, in such cases, they'd at least record omitted songs from the original as an appendix. Still, the show has several great Porter numbers—"At Long Last Love" and "From Alpha to Omega" rank high in the canon—and Steve Orich's arrangements make neat use of a jazz-violin sound all too rare in the genre. Billion Dollar Baby, a '40s show with a '20s setting, was Comden and Green's follow-up to 1944's On the Town. Bernstein being unavailable, they settled for Morton Gould, whose score might be described as always on the verge of a catchy tune. Which ironically suits this tale of a gold digger who always comes in second, marrying a millionaire—final joke—just as the 1929 crash hits. If the material's thin, the recording, based on the York Theatre's concert presentation, gives it as good a shot as it's likely to get, with lively performances by Debbie Gravitte, Marc Kudisch, and the late, endearing Richard B. Shull as the millionaire daddy of every gold digger's dreams.

Both albums also display, in lead roles, the musical's current flavor of the month, Kristen Chenoweth, who now has a disc of her own, Let Yourself Go (Sony Classics). I like Chenoweth's singing better on disc— studio engineers tend to soften the buzz-saw edge she puts on her top notes—and I very much like her choice of material here, mostly classic show and film tunes, well conducted by Rob Fisher, often using the original show orchestrations. My problem is knowing who Chenoweth is: She has so many disjunctive voices that Sony could have marketed the album as The Three Sopranos. After a few hearings, though, you begin to perceive the great talent behind Chenoweth's vagaries. Her vocal styles may be schizophrenically varied; she may yelp her high notes, gabble her lyrics, or lapse into the animated-duck voice she seemingly associates with comedy, but she has within her a strong technical grounding, an innate musical sense, and an ability to let go of all her mannerisms and just open up in a song. I hope her apparent multitude of handlers lets her cultivate that.

My brain-beating over Chenoweth has left me minimal space for two favorite albums by singers with better-integrated vocal personalities. Craig Rubano's Finishing the Act (AF Records), like Chenoweth's disc, is so lavishly produced it's virtually a cast album (six orchestrators! five guest stars!). But Rubano has a witty premise—every number is the first-act finale of a Broadway show—and he has an appealingly shameless aural presence, with a dogged, sweaty flair. You can almost hear him pant as he goes back for the high notes. Add some ingenious surprise selections (the first-act finale of Dance a Little Closer) and inventive arrangements (a chorus of "The Impossible Dream" sung in Spanish), and you have something a good show album has to be: not exactly like anything else.

Golden voices: Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson in Urinetown
photo: Joan Marcus
Golden voices: Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson in Urinetown

And then there's Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim (DRG), a live recording of the diva's recent Carnegie Hall concert. Cook, after half a century, needs neither explanations nor encomia: She's the essence of the artist who knows how to do what she does, and what she does happily takes up most of this two-disc set, with periodic assistance from Malcolm Gets. Even tackling the most improbable material ("Hard-Hearted Hannah," "Everybody Says Don't"), Cook's a joy.

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