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CDs of 2008: A Retrospective - Part 4 (PS Classics, Ghostlight Records Parts 2)

Today, more thoughts on discs from PS Classics and Ghostlight Records, in addition to one release from Ghostlight's sister label, Sh-K-Boom Records.

First off, PS Classics and a correction. Yesterday, I mistakenly attributed the cast recording of the tuneful Adrift in Macao to Ghostlight Records. It actually comes from this label. As I mentioned in my previous post, this noir parody has some real delights, but the score's charms may not always come through for the folk who didn't see it during its limited off-Broadway engagement.

PS Classics has added to its off-Broadway cast recording catalog in recent weeks with the release of The Marvelous Wonderettes, a girl-group jukebox musical that's wowed audiences in Los Angeles and is now playing in New York. I adored the show when I reviewed it for TheaterMania, and have found myself enjoying the CD just as much as I did the show. The four actress/singers (Farah Alvin, Beth Malone, Bets Malone and Victoria Matlock) who play the Wonderettes, an amateur quartet seen at two periods in their lives, are all in great voice on the disc. Some highlights from the show that is a compendium of hits from the 1950s and 1960s: Alvin's passionate rendition of "Secret Love" and Matlock's "Son of A Preacher Man." This disc will be particularly useful for folks who are trying to figure out something unique to give to their mothers during the holiday season.

Another recent release from the label is Dear Edwina, a kids' show from composer Zina Goldrich and lyricist Marcy Heisler. Now, even though this show's running off-Broadway currently at DR2 – and based on the recording I'm going to go check it out – this isn't a cast recording of this musical that's been engaging audiences around the country for about 10 years now. Rather, it's a studio cast recording that features some powerhouse Broadway talent, including Kerry Butler (late of Xanadu) in the role of Edwina, a little girl who's something of a budding advice-columnist, even though she's yet to reach her teens. Alongside Butler, performers like: Danny Burstein, Rebecca Luker, Kate Shindle, Andrea Burns, and Terrence Mann.

Goldrich's music is a sprightly combination of musical theater and pop sounds, and Neisler outfits the tunes with some rather sophisticated lyrics. Two particular highlights on this disc that will be a great thing to consider giving nieces and nephews are "Up on the Fridge," a plaintive in which Edwina describes how she wants to succeed and the slyly amusing "Say No Thank You," in which she doles out advice on how to turn down things like Tabasco cake.

Now what may be one of the must-have/give releases from PS Classics this year has just hit stores – it's Howard Sings Ashman - a terrific two-disc set that is part of the company's Songwriter Series, which is administered in association with the Library of Congress. The first disc of "Sings" features demo recordings of some of the most famous songs for which Ashman has provided lyrics; things like "Be Our Guest" (which differs from the song which was finally recorded for the movie Beauty and the Beast), "Under the Sea" (from "Little Mermaid") and the title song for "Beauty." There's also a wonderful tune that he and Alan Menken wrote for the movie version of "Little Shop," three demo recordings for the first Ashman/Menken collaboration - God Bless You Mr. Rosewater) and tunes from two baseball themed shows – the aborted Babe and the little-known Diamonds. Anyone who knows musical theater knows that Ashman's ability to play with language is extraordinary and these songs, with him interpreting his own lyrics, are total delights, offering up unexpected rhymes and clever twists of phrase. What might be most interesting is a sort of theme that one can pick up from the disc – Ashman's love of food-list songs – which are found in abundance here.

On the second disc of "Sings," PS Classics has put together 15 tracks that bring a much-fabled show to disc for the first time. The show is Smile, a musical based on the 1975 Michael Ritchie film of the same name that Ashman penned with Marvin Hamlisch. Although the show only lasted 48 performances during the 1986-1987 season, Ashman received a Tony Award nomination for his book for the piece. One gets a sense of some of the arc of Smile from the recordings here, but what's more important is the sense of the musical's scope and the hidden gems that are part of the score (I’m particularly fond of "Nerves" – in which the beauty contestants of the show express their fears about the pageant process they're about to embark on). It's rare that a disc is both a joy and an important historical record, but in the case of Howard Sings Ashman, these two qualities meet. (One other disc mentioned below - Patti Lupone – Les Mouche - fits that bill too.)

Finally, let me briefly mention that the twangy, country-infused Jason Danieley and the Frontier Heroes is a joyful mix of standards and pop songs. On this disc, tunes from Sammy Cahn and Lionel Bart brush up against ones from George Michael, Melissa Etheridge and Steve Wonder in terrific ways. I'm particularly fond of Danieley's impish take on "All of Me" and his upbeat, almost inspirational, "Spread a Little Love Around." In addition to Danieley's superb vocals, special note should be made of Christian Hebel's contributions on the disc. His fiddle-playing is simply terrific and gives this theater-related disc its truly unique sound.

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ATW Review - Dust - ‘Thriller’ Plot Settles and Bites the Dust

Like a persistent tickle in your nose, Billy Goda’s Dust and its unlikely plot about two men driven to destroy each other over a trivial matter titillates, but never delivers the big sneeze.

Well-off businessman Martin Stone (Richard Masur) works out in a hotel fitness center where Zeke Catchman (Hunter Foster) is employed as a handyman. Stone demands that Catchman, who happens to be an ex con, clean some dust off an air vent and has him fired when he doesn't comply. “This isn’t over,” Catchman warns, and then delivers dust busters to Stone and his daughter, Jenny (Laura E. Campbell), as portents of his plot of revenge.

Jenny, rebellious and contemptuous of her father and his money, falls for Catchman, enjoying her father’s discomfort with the situation. Stone hires a body guard, Ralph (John Schiappa), who suggests that the business man's problem might best be solved by eliminating Catchman. Meanwhile, Catchman battles a drug addiction, with the help of his childhood friend and parole officer Bobby Lawton (Curtis McLarin, who, in a curious piece of doublecasting also plays Catchman’s old drug dealer Digs).

Catchman and Stone do go through periods of self examination and want to call off the vendetta, but the dust just won’t settle and tragedy ensues. “Everything is out of control,” they say in unison. (Especially the plot and character development, we’d add.)

Despite humor, some nice fight scenes (directed by Rich Sordelet) a really nifty blood effect and some intriguing plot possibilities, the dust never clears enough so we can understand the characters or their actions. The performers, under the direction of Scott Zigler, aren’t able to get below the surface of their underdeveloped characters. Masur seems bored, and even with a gun to his head, doesn’t seem all that concerned or frightened. Maybe that’s due to the fact that it’s hard to look at the wholesome Foster, cast against type here, and believe he’s a violent psychopath.

On some levels, playwright Goda seems unsure about this characterization of Catchman himself. Although the conflicted script tells theatergoers Catchman is dangerous a few times, many of his actions say something different: he stands up for underdog Lawton; he doesn’t hurt Jenny and even cares for her; he doesn’t kill Stone when he has the chance; he seeks help for his drug addiction; he wants to call off the vendetta and live a normal life. Are these the behaviors of a psychopath unable to control his violent rages?

Foster does manage to explore some of the recesses of his infuriatingly enigmatic character, and the most compelling moments in the production come when Catchman succumbs to the lure of his addiction.

Caleb Wertenbaker’s set, laid out in three sections, serves as the fitness center, Catchman’s home; Stone’s home and the exterior of Lawton’s residence with a few changes of pictures on the walls or furniture. A bland mustard yellow color extends from paint to paneling, to wallpaper to carpet linking all of the scenes. A lack of colors in the set and props and nondescript clothing from costumer Theresa Squire contribute to the feeling that nothing and no one stands out and what starts out as an intriguing thriller bites the dust.

---- Lauren Yarger


Dust plays at the Westside Theater (downstairs, 407 West 43rd Street). Performances are Tuesday - Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3pm and 8pm; Sunday, 3pm and 7pm. Tickets are $65.00 and can be purchased by calling (212) 239-6200.

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ATW Digest - Liza's at the Palace... - read the reviews

AmericanTheaterWeb

Review - Liza's at the Palace...! - A Most Welcome Return

New York Times

To Godmother, Old Chum
A pure entertainer like Liza Minnelli — and there is none purer — is at once voracious and extravagantly generous.

New York Daily News

Liza dazzles in holiday show
Liza Minnelli's spectacular holiday happening "Liza's at the Palace ..." finds Liza with a Z fit, funny, surprisingly energetic and in her best voice in ages.

amNY New York City Theater

Theater Review of Liza's at the Palace
“Do you remember when I used to sit down during the second act? Now I do it during the first act,” says 62-year-old Liza Minnelli, who is making her first Broadway appearance in a decade at the Palace Theatre, where her mother Judy Garland once triumphed.

Newsday

Liza Minnelli reigns in opening at The Palace Theatre

New York Post

It's Liza with an A+ in latest comeback
It may be time for a moratorium on Liza Minnelli's ca reer death watch. This in defatigable performer has endured so many problems - ...

Associated Press

Liza Minnelli lights up Broadway's Palace Theatre until Dec. 28

Bloomberg.com

Radiant Liza Minnelli Glitters, Struts at New York Palace: Jeremy Gerard
The shimmering outfits -- white, black and, of course, red -- are by Halston. The familiar anthems are by John Kander and Fred Ebb. The backlit silhouette -- legs apart, hair spiky, right arm thrust skyward, is unmistakable.

Variety

Review: Liza's at the Palace
There’s a standard set of questions to be asked about any Liza Minnelli show: 1. How did she look? 2. How did she sound? 3. Did she open wearing black, white or red? 4. How many superlatives did she spout? 5. Did she mention David Gest? 6. Was she fabulous? A trainwreck? A fabulous trainwreck? For the peace of mind of all the hardcore acolytes desperate to know about...

Back Stage

Liza's At The Palace... reviewed by David Sheward
This entertaining show displays the second-generation star in fine (if not always perfect) voice and shape. You can see she's had some hard knocks but she's still here — and she's got what it takes.

TheaterMania

Review: Liza's at the Palace...!
Superstar Liza Minnelli serves up a highly energetic and occasionally extraordinary new act that's sure to satisfy her fans.

Peter Filichia's Diary: Liza with a Smash
Most of the audience stood when the curtain opened, and after she sang her opening number, many stood again. As the evening progressed, there was only one number for which no one stood, ....

Talkin' Broadway

Review: Liza's at the Palace...!
Only some titanic rearrangement of the laws of arithmetic, or perhaps a disruption in the space-time continuum, could explain the tempestuous violation of temporal logic that’s resulted in the vortex of pure show-biz at the Palace. The woman immersed in it all looks a lot like Liza Minnelli: the drawn kewpie-doll face, the elegantly mussed bowl of hair, the eyes alight with weary playfulness. But that dancing! That emoting! And especially that singing! Isn’t this really an exquisite impersonator 40 years the real Minnelli’s junior? . .

CDs of 2008: A Retrospective - Part 3 (Ghostlight Records, Part 1)

Ghostlight Records

This labels has delivered a truly extraordinary range of music during the past year. Under the founder Kurt Deutsch's stewardship, Ghostlight has released three original Broadway cast recordings: Passing Strange, In the Heights, and 13. Not only have these shows been preserved on disc, they've also made exceptional use of digital downloads to expand the reach of show music to new generations. Passing Strange and 13 were both released digitally before they hit brick and mortar stores, and for "Heights," just Grammy-nominated, the company produced a quartet of singles that are appropriate for airplay on pop channels.

In terms of gift-giving, any of these discs would be great for the musical theater enthusiast, and because of their pop roots, each disc has a special appeal for people who may not necessarily think they'd like an original cast recording this season. Stew's Passing Strange, with its driving rock beat and indie sensibility, would be a great disc to share with someone who spends most of his or her time surfing through contemporary rock. The Tony Award-winning Latin score from Lin-Manuel Miranda for "Heights" makes it a grand gift for the person who gravitates toward the stylings of Celia Cruz or Mark Anthony. And Jason Robert Brown's smart songs for the tween-set in "13" make this a grand gift idea for the HSM fanatic that you know.

It's worth noting that these discs come generously packed booklets, that feature full-color photos, lyrics and terrific liner notes, marvelously continuing the tradition of having original cast recordings serve as the record (no pun intended) of the production for theater fans.

In addition to these cast recordings, Ghostlight also preserved two off-Broadway shows and two L.A. productions during the past year. In the former category, one show truly stands out – Make Me a Song, the delightful revue of composer-lyricist William Finn's work.In "Song," tunes from most of Finn's major shows are represented – the "Falsettos" trilogy, "New Brain" and "Elegies" are represented alongside other shows like the almost forgotten Romance in Hard Times and an unproduced musical version of Kaufman and Ferber's The Royal Family. The spirited and emotional vocals from the show's four-person ensemble somehow make Finn's already infectious tunes even more so, and this two-disc set is a grand way to celebrate Finn's achievements, and as a gift, is a great way of introducing him to people who might not be aware of the breadth of his work. The company's second off-Broadway cast recording is of Mark Baron and Jeffrey Jackson's musical Frankenstein. It's has been released under the auspices of the newly created "Friends of Ghostlight" label, and really is good for the person who wants a copy of every cast recording that comes out during the year

From the other coast come two highly different releases. The first is of the Blank Theatre Company's production of Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish, a show about a young woman's travails in life after quitting smoking that debuted in New York at Second Stage Theatre a few seasons back. Like the company's release of First Lady Suite, "Fish" is notable for two reasons – and will be welcome as a gift for them as well. It not only preserves the work of one of the country's most exciting musical theater composers, but it also has been sumptuously produced so that the intricacies of LaChiusa's writing are evident. For a recent production of Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney's Reefer Madness, Ghostlight has gone all out with a two-disc set that features not only the cast recording, but also the movie soundtrack. This might seem a bit much for a tongue-in-cheek musical theater piece, but there's so much cleverness involved, it all seems grandly worthwhile in an off-kilter sort of way.

Tomorrow, more on discs from both Ghostlight and PS Classics.

---- Andy Propst

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ATW Review - Liza's at the Palace...! - A Most Welcome Return

Fans of legendary singer and performer Liza Minnelli got an early holiday present with the opening last night of Liza's at the Palace…!, a limited one month engagement that brings Minnelli, in almost all of her glory, back to Broadway.

Directed and choreographed by Ron Lewis, and featuring a great-sounding band under the direction of conductor Michael Berkowitz, with another grand entertainer in his own right, Billy Stritch, at the piano, "Palace" divides into two parts. During the first half of the evening, Minnelli, looking fit as a fiddle in a white-sequined pantsuit, offers up some of her signature numbers like "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret" with gusto. Her voice zings around the theater, and with these two songs, which she's been singing for some thirty-plus years now, there's a palpable electricity. Perhaps even more exciting is her delivery of "My Own Best Friend," another John Kander and Fred Ebb song, which Minnelli turns this into an anthem of survival and as her rendition soars to its conclusion, she transforms what is a duet in Chicago, the show from which it comes, into a personal triumph along the lines of And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going from Dreamgirls.

Among Minnelli's other varied, and often intriguing, selections during the first act of "Palace:" Charles Aznavour's "What Makes a Man a Man?" – which she delivers with quiet power and poignancy, and "If You Hadn't, But You Did", a comic song from Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which she serves up after offering some humorously self-mocking comments about marriage, and in particular a recent one of hers.

The first half of "Palace" is rounded out with "Palace Medley" – a suite of songs from the years that the theater itself was the pinnacle of the country's vaudeville circuit and a sequence that her mother delivered in the same space. David Zippel, John Kander and Billy Stritch have given the medley a new introduction, and Minnelli has a ball with songs like "Shine on Harvest Moon" and "My Man" (of course one of her mother's signature tunes) and lighting designer Matt Berman wisely makes sure that the theater itself turns into a character while the medley moves forward, illuminating the intricate proscenium arch of the theater.

Minnelli starts and finishes the second half of "Palace" with other Kander and Ebb songs from her signature songbook, and in between these numbers, she pays tribute to songstress, songwriter, and general "renaissance woman" Kay Thompson, who just also happened to be Minnelli's godmother. Here, Minnelli resurrects some of Thompson's own songs – "Hello, Hello" and "Jubilee Time" as well as some of the songs that are associated to this day with the performer, notably the Gershwin's "Clap Yo' Hands," which Thompson delivered in the movie Funny Face.

Unfortunately these numbers, which feature some intense choreography from Lewis for Minnelli and the four terrific male singers (Johnny Rodgers, Cortés Alexander, Jim Caruso and Tiger Martina) who are with her during this portion of the show, prove to be a challenge for Minnelli – not vocally, but rather physically. During the spoken portions of the tribute on opening night, Minnelli was audibly winded, and it was difficult to not worry about the performer's ability to continue. Any concerns, though, were (and most likely will be) unfounded as she recovered beautifully, and continued to belt out numbers like "Mammy."

The new around Broadway this holiday season has been pretty dark with news arriving daily about shows closing. Minnelli, and company, are helping to make the Great White Way a little brighter.

---- Andy Propst


Liza's at the Palace…! continues through December 28. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8PM with matinees on Sundays at 3PM. On Wednesday, December 24th there will be a special 3PM matinee performance and no 8PM evening show. Tickets prices range from $125 to $55 and can be purchased by calling 212-307-4100 or 800-755-4000 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. Further information, and online ticketing, is available at www.LizasAtThePalace.com

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