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GIFT GUIDE | THEATER

The Shows Do Go On

November 22, 2001|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Show folk, unite--and buy, buy, buy! At this point in what has turned out to be a somewhat tense year, buying into the notion, history and legacy of American musical theater presents itself as heartening. Patriotic, even.

The following are three worthwhile musical theater CDs: one about frogs, one guaranteed to impart a cool jazz yule, a third trafficking in overtures. Enjoy.

*

THREE STARS

***those "The Frogs"/"Evening Primrose," 2001 cast album, Nonesuch.

Thanks to this superbly orchestrated cast album, Stephen Sondheim fans can learn what the major general sang about in Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance": Those strange, ancient, "croaking chords from 'The Frogs' of Aristophanes." In 1974, Sondheim and Burt Shevelove adapted the old Greek comedy for a Yale School of Drama production. The result was staged in the Yale Swimming Pool, with Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the chorus.

It came, went, and now has returned in a very classy presentation, featuring Nathan Lane as Dionysos and Brian Stokes Mitchell as his slave. "The Frogs" recalls the mock-epic pomp of the earlier Sondheim/Shevelove collaboration, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." It's not a major work, but in such choral stunners as "Evoe!" the score opens up and finds itself. The hymn to Dionysos, god of both wine and drama, includes witty interpolations of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "Ol' Man River" and "Who Cares?" and the following:

"Out of wine comes truth,

Out of truth the vision clears,

And with vision soon appears

A grand design.

From the grand design

We can understand the world.

And when you understand the world,

You need a lot more wine."

The disc's companion selections are four numbers from the 1966 teleplay "Evening Primrose," best known for "I Remember," one of the truest ballads Sondheim ever wrote. The other three numbers serve the piece well enough, which remains more a curio than a truly compelling "Twilight Zone"-y yarn. Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick takes an uncharacteristically heavy hand, string-wise, to these songs. On the other hand, any 10 bars of "The Frogs" proves how wondrously well-suited Sondheim and Tunick were. And are.

***those "The Richard Rodgers Centennial Jazz Piano Album," Bill Charlap, Benny Green, Fred Hersch, Kenny Barron, Marian McPartland, George Shearing, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefit album.

Long title, six pianists, many delights. There is no "Richard Rodgers sound," as there is with most other first-rank Broadway composers. The reason lies in two names: Lorenz Hart (Rodgers' first, brash, major collaborator) and Oscar Hammerstein II (from "Oklahoma!" onward, his stalwart co-pilot). This lovely solo-piano showcase reveals the magic in both collaborations. Standouts include Bill Charlap's unerring strolls through "Nobody's Heart" and "The Blue Room"; Benny Green's impish "Surrey With the Fringe on Top"; and Marian McPartland's soulful, gently aching "It Never Entered My Mind."

This disc is a benefit project of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, available at (212) 840-0770, Ext. 250, or at www.broadwaycares .org.

*** "Rodgers & Hammerstein Overtures," Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Decca Broadway.

This reissue of a 1992 recording commemorates the Richard Rodgers centennial by focusing on what gets us interested in musicals in the first place. I tend to like overture compilations (I own a Gershwin overtures tape, a Kern tape and a Jule Styne CD) because I like overtures--the taste of memories to come. Of the R&H overtures handled ably here by conductor John Mauceri, "Carousel" comes off best. It's a true classic, the sound of that menacing, otherworldly carousel dominating the soundscape.

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