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Luminous, rapturous, Italian

June 12, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

"The Light in the Piazza"

Original Broadway cast recording

(Nonesuch Records)

* * * 1/2

Discovery -- heralded by a ripple of harp and the shimmer of violins and cellos -- awaits in a sunny Florentine piazza.

Adam Guettel's melodies and words -- bestowed this year's Tony Award for best score -- are keyed to a story about a visit to that soul-stirring city, made by a well-to-do North Carolina woman and her twentysomething daughter in 1953. When the preternaturally beautiful but childishly innocent daughter falls for an impetuous Italian youth, the mother must reassess her responsibilities as parent-protector.

Reviews of the New York production expressed strong reservations about parts of the plot, yet however these perceived flaws might hamper the show, they diminish neither the urgency nor the poignancy of the music captured on this disc. The daughter (Kelli O'Hara) and the Italian youth (Matthew Morrison) are swept along in heedless rapture, while the mother (Tony winner Victoria Clark), given the most complex music, finds herself wondering when her husband experienced the "dividing day" that has left him so emotionally distant.

Evocatively orchestrated by Guettel (whose mid-1990s musical "Floyd Collins" was a cult favorite), Ted Sperling and Bruce Coughlin, these songs seem to gleam and flicker, brighten and wane -- much like the light that figures so prominently in the title and in the story's imagery.


Nothing rote about the emotion

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Original Broadway cast recording

(Ghostlight Records)

* * *

Most days, life just thinks up ways to humiliate the misfits who find themselves competing in Putnam County's spelling finals; they're teased and pushed to the social margins. But in their ability to spell words like "antediluvian" and "hasenpfeffer," these kids find affirmation.

Lyricist-composer William Finn, whose work includes "Falsettos," takes listeners inside the youngsters' minds, where thoughts race ahead to the trophy presentation and back through the obstacles overcome just to get this far. Sly and amusing, the tunes bounce merrily along, though emotions have a way of welling up inside them.

Every one of these kids (played by adults) is a winner, but Tony winner Dan Fogler is a particular hoot as the boy with an inventive way of using his "magic foot" to remember spellings, and Celia Keenan-Bolger is a heart-grabber as a girl, mature beyond her years, who yearns to be closer to her emotionally distant parents.

Well observed and compassionate, this best-book (by Rachel Sheinkin) Tony winner is a veritable dictionary of life. And there's an album bonus: a song ("Why We Like Spelling") cut from the New York production.


Adrift between East and West

"Pacific Overtures"

The new Broadway cast recording

(PS Classics)

* 1/2

With its haiku-like lyrics and pointillistic approximation of Japanese musical styles, this 1976 musical remains one of the riskiest and most inventive of Stephen Sondheim's always risky and inventive scores. A 2004 New York revival put Japanese director Amon Miyamoto in charge of an American cast. The recording of that production incorporates some scene-setting dialogue not included on the original cast album and adds, as a bonus track, a 1975 recording of Sondheim demonstrating the song "Prayers," subsequently cut from the show. Otherwise, there's frustratingly little to recommend its purchase.

As the reciter who narrates, from a Japanese perspective, what happened when Commodore Perry's mid-19th century expedition forcibly opened the island nation's borders, B.D. Wong employs a style that is not quite East, not quite West. Among his cast mates, strong voices are hard to come by, and the reduced orchestra (11 players) inevitably delivers a less textured sound than on the original album.

It's always a thrill to revisit such inventive numbers as "Please Hello," and it's a kick to have original cast member Alvin Ing return as the shogun's mother in the understatedly funny "Chrysanthemum Tea." But too much of this collaboration is neither here nor there.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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