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Bollywood Meets Lloyd Webber

The canny composer's production of 'Bombay Dreams' is the pick of the latest litter of musical theater CDs

October 06, 2002|DARYL H. MILLER

It seemed that once upon a time, every family owned a copy of "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady."

But with rare exceptions, cast albums have always been a niche market, and their share has fallen so low that nowadays they must pass through radically downsized divisions at major labels or hope to find a guardian angel at an independent specialty label.

So when cast recordings or other related albums make their way through the pipeline, the faithful say a little thank-you to the theater gods and head to the store with credit cards handy. Here are a few recent arrivals:

*** 1/2

"Bombay Dreams"

Sony Classical

For better or worse, Andrew Lloyd Webber's ability to spot trends is key to his success. His early musicals in the '70s helped solidify rock 'n' roll's place in theater, and his grand visions in the '80s reflected and perpetuated the gaudy opulence of that era.

Now he has caught wind of the growing popularity of Indian music, envisioning a musical for which he invited film composer A R Rahman to write the score. The result is an appealing if not entirely successful marriage of the Western stage musical and the exuberant, melodically irresistible Indian film musicals for which Rahman is famous. ("Dil Se" and "Lagaan" are just a couple of the movies that have made him among the most-listened-to songwriters on the planet.)

"Bombay Dreams" opened in London in June with a story typical of the musicals turned out by the hundreds by Bollywood (so called because Bombay is India's Hollywood). Young slum-dweller Akaash (Raza Jaffrey) dreams of Bollywood stardom and gets his chance when he meets and falls in love with Priya (Preeya Kalidas), the daughter of a film mogul. Their happiness, however, is quickly threatened by the business' corrupting nature.

The best songs pulse with the herky-jerky, techno-driven rhythms that fuel the elaborate dance numbers in Rahman's movies. "Shakalaka Baby" was born for the dance floor and has been released as a single in the U.K., while Akaash's dream theme "Like an Eagle" is propelled by a chorus of voices chanting "Bollywood."

"The Journey Home," on the other hand, is a quietly insinuating ballad in which Akaash describes the simpler joys of his original life.

The drawback: Rahman and Lloyd Webber (the show's producer) stick so closely to the conventions of the Western musical that you can almost hear the songs straining against their shackles. It's a rare instance in which Lloyd Webber should have trusted his instincts still more.

The show is expected on Broadway in spring 2004.

***

"Miss Spectacular"

DRG Records

Today as in the mid-'60s, when he introduced "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame," Jerry Herman writes songs that seem to parade right off the stage.

He has turned out another batch of irresistibly hummable tunes for "Miss Spectacular," commissioned for a lavish Las Vegas casino show. After plans for the production fell through, the songs were released on this concept album.

Nothing here quite equals Herman's best writing, but it's a pleasant accompaniment to all that has come before, with the lyricist-composer bringing his pep to styles ranging from early Broadway to Rat Pack-era Vegas.

The plot focuses on a Kansas girl who travels to Vegas in hopes of winning a casino's nationwide spokesmodel search. Her daydreams erupt as a Ziegfeld Follies number ("Ziegfeld Girl," crooned by Michael Feinstein), a Jerome Kern/Irving Berlin-like cakewalk (the choral number "Sarah Jane") and so on.

The breakout songs are a ritzy ode to "Las Vegas," sung with champagne sparkle by Steve Lawrence, and the comic "Where in the World Is My Prince?," performed by Faith Prince.

***

"Only Heaven"

PS Classics

Like the Langston Hughes poems that inspired them, the Ricky Ian Gordon melodies in this song cycle are suspended between yearning and ecstasy, between life's troubles and its transcendent joys.

Audra McDonald has disseminated a couple of these songs in concert and on compact disc: the evanescent "Daybreak in Alabama" and the heartbreaking "Song for a Dark Girl," in which a woman's world cracks after her lover's lynching. The rest of this music has been roaming around for several years, with the show receiving a handful of small New York outings. This version was recorded live earlier this year at a production in Dayton, Ohio, that particularly pleased Gordon.

Opera meets the blues in the voices of Adrienne Danrich, Darius de Haas, Jonita Lattimore, Jay Pierce and Sheila Ramsey. Particularly lovely are their renditions of "Heaven," which leaps with the refrain "happiness is everywhere"; "Poor Girl's Ruination/The Dream Keeper," which dissolves at the end into sobs; "Love Song for Antonia," in which a man is transported by the intensity of his feeling; and "Litany," sung as a benediction to this wide-ranging journey through human experience.

** 1/2

"Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim"

Nonesuch

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