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MUSIC REVIEW

When a funeral scene is a high point

A show featuring three possible maestros of the American musical is mostly a sleeper.

June 15, 2004|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

Two Sundays ago, for the Tony Awards, people gathered at Radio City Music Hall to honor the Broadway season just past. Last Sunday, people gathered at Walt Disney Concert Hall to hear Broadway's future. For its final series of the season, the Los Angeles Master Chorale presented the first of two performances of "The Next Broadway," a program showcasing the work of three composers who many believe will be maestros of the American musical in the 21st century.

Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel and Ricky Ian Gordon have long been touted as up-and-coming "serious" composers of musicals, but their work has proved difficult to hear in the theater. Only Brown has had a show staged on Broadway -- the critically praised but short-lived "Parade" -- and none has had a breakout success. In L.A., their work has rarely been mounted, so much of the attraction of this concert was simply the opportunity to finally hear some of their songs.

In addition, Brown and Gordon were in attendance, and both took turns at the piano. This added a certain amount of excitement to the proceedings, but it couldn't save the show. These three composers may indeed go on to be the next generation of Broadway tunesmiths, but the concert did little to demonstrate that their scores need (or should) be presented in a 2,000-seat concert hall.

Brown's work fared best. The numbers from his two-person musical "The Last Five Years" were diminished by the large space, but the guest soloists, Megan Mullally and Brian d'Arcy James, performed them with gusto. A funeral scene from "Parade" was the high point of the evening: The Master Chorale was well used, and Brown's music created a true sense of character and place.

Brown also performed two numbers with his trio, the Caucasian Rhythm Kings. The composer, bassist Randy Landau and guitarist Gary Sieger were energetic -- especially during a jazzy piece, "I'm in Business," written for a ballet about former junk-bond king Michael Milken -- but their inclusion on this program was odd. They seemed much more at home during their last Southern California appearance at the Laguna Playhouse, a more intimate venue that better showcased Brown's breezy, intelligent songs.

Sadly, the music by Guettel and Gordon performed Sunday was neither progressive nor encouraging. The selections were mainly traditional -- often treacly -- ballads, with little musical or lyrical innovation. Still, all three composers are known primarily for large narrative works, so performing excerpts may not have been the best display of their talents. Also, the amplification was a bit of a disaster. Levels were all over the place, and the reverb on the mikes often made mush of the singers' articulation.

Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon deserves credit for ambitious programming, but his biggest mistake was including music by Stephen Sondheim, the man whose shadow all three composers work in. The chance to perform songs like "Sunday" and "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" with a chorus of 68 must have been too great a temptation for Gershon to resist, and naturally, these numbers provided some spark to the evening. But rather than including numbers from Sondheim's finest (and best-known) shows, he might better have chosen selections from early works like "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Saturday Night." That would have given the program some context. Placing these three young composers side by side by the mature Sondheim only emphasized how far "The Next Broadway" still has to go.

*

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. today

Price: $23 to $68

Contact: (800) 787-5262

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