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Bouncing back with a low profile

June 27, 2004|Don Shirley; Lynne Heffley


Nonesuch Records


High expectations helped sink the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical "Bounce," which played Chicago and Washington but never made it to Broadway this year as planned.

Now, however, with expectations drastically reduced, this recording of Sondheim's modest score is going to surprise some people -- along the lines of "Gee, this isn't so bad."

Or even better than that: A stranger approached me in a subway station as I was carrying this CD and volunteered how wonderful it was, "especially on the third or fourth listen."

Many of Sondheim's scores require several repetitions to fully appreciate. But this isn't one of them. This story of the Mizner brothers -- the scheming entrepreneur Wilson and the Florida Gold Coast architect Addison -- is very accessible. In fact, its main problem is that it's sometimes too conventional, drawing on melodic and rhythmic riffs that sound like cliches from musical comedy in general as well as from Sondheim's previous work.

Of course, Sondheim is a master at introducing cliches only to undercut them. Note how the memorable romantic ballad "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" is transformed into a sour critique of the relationship in question. Indeed, the whole show is a critique of the American dream, but it applies a much gentler hand than does the same team's "Assassins." Still, "Bounce" might eventually bounce back at musical theater companies that would never do "Assassins." Some like it mild.

-- Don Shirley

A touching pair of amphibian friends

A Year With Frog and Toad

PS Classics


Damon and Pythias, Hamlet and Horatio, Matt and Ben -- famous friendships all, but when the subject is brotherly love, amphibians Frog and Toad should, er, leap to mind, thanks to the late children's author-illustrator Arnold Lobel, composer Robert Reale and writer-lyricist Willie Reale.

Frog and Toad, whose loyal friendship and gently humorous adventures are featured in four of Lobel's beloved early reader books, have been transported to the musical stage. Sparked by Lobel's daughter, stage designer Adrianne Lobel, who approached the Reales about a stage version of the books, the show premiered in 2002 at the esteemed Children's Theater of Minneapolis before last year's Tony Award-nominated Broadway run.

This beautifully produced original cast album with all-ages appeal stars Mark Linn-Baker as bumptious Toad and Jay Goede as mild-mannered Frog in a spring-to-winter journey through simple pleasures, small concerns and "cozy cups of tea." With unwavering loyalty, the friends support each other through bad bathing-suit days, kite-flying successes, sledding mishaps and razzing by less-well-bred neighbors -- a turtle, a lizard, a ladybird and a trio of happy-go-lucky birds.

Sunny, witty and unexpectedly touching, the music has a jazzy, Tin Pan Alley sparkle deepened with wistful, resonant observations on companionship and the passing of time and seasons. The 32-page CD booklet with lyrics and photos is an enjoyable bonus.

-- Lynne Heffley

Might as well be vintage '80s pop


DRG Records

** 1/2

Boy GEORGE'S Tony-nominated score was often singled out as the best thing about "Taboo," the Rosie O'Donnell-produced musical about club life in 1980s London. Charles Busch's book got relatively awful reviews; the producers of the cast CD apparently decided to ignore it as much as possible.

They provide no synopsis of the story. So for listeners who didn't see the show, an air of uncertainty hangs over the characters and the plot.

It's probably just as well. Regardless of the show's dramatic context, the album is a savory slice of faux-'80s pop. The musical styles make the rounds from driving rock to tender balladry to rousing ensembles. Some of it sounds Top 40-worthy. Oddly, the small fraction of the score that is genuine Boy George material from the '80s -- "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" and "Karma Chameleon" -- sounds less like hit material than some of the other numbers.

Boy George (a.k.a. George O'Dowd) was in the cast, but he didn't play himself. On the CD, worthier performances are turned out by Euan Morton as Boy George and such theater stars as Raul Esparza, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Liz McCartney.

-- D.S.

Staying true

to the tradition

Fiddler on the Roof

PS Classics

*** 1/2

The new Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" drew several enthusiastic reviews but also a couple of prominent notices that accused David Leveaux's staging of being too muted or insufficiently Jewish. These criticisms don't make much sense to one listening to the CD. The classic Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick score sounds as robust and Jewish as ever.

In "If I Were a Rich Man," the main difference between Alfred Molina's new rendition and Zero Mostel's original is that Molina's Tevye sounds more amused by his own pretensions. But when he sings of the more abundant time in the synagogue that a rich man would enjoy, he sounds even more reverent than Mostel's Tevye did.

The most substantive difference is that a new song, "Topsy-Turvy," has replaced the original score's "The Rumor." Yente reflects on the diminished business for matchmakers when young couples pick their own mates, in contrast to the earlier song's depiction of a how a rumor magnifies as it spreads. But the songs serve the same purpose of comic relief.

-- D.S.

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