Bruce Kimmel's Kritzerland label has been exceptionally busy this spring, bringing both soundtrack and original cast recordings – long unavailable on compact disc – into the 21st century. For musical theater lovers, there have been three OCR's that have come out in the past few weeks that preserve three very different musicals. The pressings of these are limited editions – 1,000 copies only – so if any of them sound interesting, you might want to act quickly.
I'm going to start with Anya, a 1965 show from the men behind Kismet Robert Wright and George Forrest. For this musical that tells the story of supposed Romanov princess Anastasia, the duo turned to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff for their score, having done a similar makeover job to themes by Alexander Borodin when writing Kismet. Alas, there's no "Stranger in Paradise" to be found in Anya. And in fact, many of the melodies sound as if they should never have had lyrics fitted to them, despite some terrific orchestrations (Don Walker uses a clever array of strings) and some decidedly impressive performances. Take for instance Anya's first number "Song from Somewhere," Constance Towers certainly gives it her all, but because the music was never meant to be sung, she has to quickly grab for breaths. Other numbers are a bit more successful, including a delightful little number called "Snowflakes and Sweethearts" and "A Quiet Land," the song that delicately resolves some of the questions that are expressed and heard musically in the show's opening number.
Despite the issues with the material, I have to say that the disc and its packaging are terrific. The remastering of the recording is pristine and the sound quality is excellent. For the book which accompanies the disc, actor Walter Willison provides some truly informative background about Wright and Forrest's partnership and the show itself. If there's one quibble to be had with the materials, singer credits are not provided, but this can be easily gleaned with a bit of cross-referencing with the IBDB.
Kritzerland's release of the 1967 musical Illya Darling, based on the movie Never on Sunday, is a happier affair for listeners. There are some grand hidden gems in the score from composer Manos Hadjidakis (music) and lyricist Joe Darion (who also provided lyrics for Man of La Mancha).
A quick read through of Bruce Kimmel's liner notes for the disc proves how truly important and well-conceived this release is. Kimmel's not only gone to the trouble of putting the songs from the LP back into the order in which they were heard in performance, but also has included two songs from the show that were recorded, but not included on the vinyl release. In addition to describing the process he undertook while bringing "Illya" to disc, Kimmel also provides an informative look at the process of the show's creation.
As for the disc, well, I'll be honest – I was quite surprised by the many joys to be found here – at least after getting through a sort of over-exuberant opening in which the show's hero (Orson Bean) sings about the joys of having finally made it to Greece. Throughout Melina Mercouri, who was also the star of the film, provides an earthy vocal presence that while not being always the most musical, is certainly compelling and even alluring. I happen to be particularly fond of her work in "Medea Tango," which just happens to relate a very funny revision to the classic myth. Of course the title song – taken from the movie – is also a gorgeous piece of music and there's much to recommend a late-show big production number, "Heaven Help Sailors on a Night Like This."
I know that somewhere among my vinyl I have a copy of "Illya" that I maybe listened to once or twice. This new release on CD will certainly get more play.
Finally, Kritzerland has released the cast recording of a 1968 off-Broadway revival of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's House of Flowers, a show that had a lackluster, but star-filled, run on during the 1954-1955 Broadway season. This is a show that I know has enjoyed a lot of popularity among my peers thanks to the original Broadway cast recording, but I'll admit to never having shared their enthusiasm for the score overall. My opinion of the show, however, has changed enormously with the arrival of the Kritzerland disc, which features some first-rate arrangements from Joe Raposo. Whereas Peter Matz's original orchestrations seem to proclaim "listen you're at a Broadway show!," Raposo's succeed in capturing the flavor of Caribbean and bohemian world depicted in "Flowers."
With some songs (like "A Sleeping Bee," which has become a cabaret standard), it doesn't really matter which recording you listen to – the wistfulness of Arlen's music and the cleverness of Capote's lyric is unmissable. But elsewhere, such as in "Two Ladies in the Shade of De Banana Tree," Raposo's use of bongos and other percussion – as compared to a tremendous amount of brass – makes this playful tune absolutely irresistible.
The off-Broadway recording reorders the songs, includes numbers cut from the Broadway version, and omits others from the uptown incarnation of the show. When you combine the revised arrangements with these changes, "Flowers" emerges almost as a completely different show. Bruce Kimmel's excellent liner notes mention that the downtown version – which played at what's now the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street – didn't have the high-voltage cast of the Broadway (Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Ray Walston, Juanita Hall and Geoffrey Holder), but it's interesting to note that two of the performers in 1968 remain fixtures in New York's theatrical community: Novella Nelson and Hope Clarke. I really can't recommend this one enough. Like the others, it's a limited edition, so you'll want to act fast here.
---- Andy Propst