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THEATER CD REVIEWS

They've found their audience

January 01, 2007|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

"Grey Gardens"

Original cast album

(PS Classics)

***

Two fiercely independent women with show business dreams: Seems a fairly straightforward subject for a musical, right? To fully appreciate this frightfully clever show, however, it helps to be well acquainted with the 1975 documentary on which it is based.

The heroines are the mother and daughter Bouvier Beales -- kin to Jackie Kennedy -- who live reclusively in a once-grand, now-squalid East Hampton, N.Y., home known as Grey Gardens. Filmmakers David and Albert Maysles gained entrance to the hermitic estate and poignantly documented two lives bound by complex ties: love, need and fear.

Excitement about the musical -- which transferred to Broadway in November -- has centered largely on Christine Ebersole's performance, which involves channeling a couple of distinctive-sounding ghosts through her amber-hued voice. There's also plenty to appreciate in Michael Korie's lyrics, Scott Frankel's 1930s- and '40s-tinged music and the bits of Doug Wright's book included here, though one easily might quibble with some of their choices.

The film is a cult favorite in part because the then-56-year-old daughter, known as Little Edie, spouts what sounds like dialogue in a Joan Crawford picture and dresses in what she describes as "revolutionary" attire: bizarrely pieced-together outfits that go way beyond mix-and-match.

Her filmed comments about these raiments have been turned into a song. So has a scene in which her mother, toiling at a hot plate, enjoys the gusto with which their 17-year-old handyman eats her corn on the cob. These moments in the documentary are rife with impulsive confessions and coded meanings; so are the songs.

Ebersole portrays the mother in the first act -- which is set in 1941 and spells out events that are merely hinted at in the documentary -- and the adult Little Edie in 1973-set Act 2. Both women are smitten with performing but have only each other to play to. In Ebersole's emotionally nuanced double portrait, they are finally performing to the rapt audiences they always dreamed of.

*

"[title of show]"

Original cast recording

(Ghostlight Records)

***

Unfolding in a hopped-up adrenaline buzz of thoughts, this perky, quirky little musical chronicles a songwriting duo's race to come up with a perky, quirky little musical to submit to a theater festival.

The show's creators, script writer Hunter Bell and composer-lyricist Jeff Bowen, have labeled it "autobiofictionography," since it essentially chronicles the true-life process that brought the show into being. Emerging as one of the standouts of the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, the show progressed to an off-Broadway run in early 2006.

Though Bell and Bowen's creative process is fraught with the usual jitters, doubts and spun wheels, their songs bound along with undeterred optimism. The guys -- who are portraying themselves, more or less -- sing in voices that are as sweet and clear as their melodies. Along the way, they are joined by Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, in reality-paralleling roles as the actresses cast in the show.

The lyrics straightforwardly express the creators' goal -- "We're trying hard not to duplicate what we've seen and heard before" -- and openly wrestle with such dilemmas as the second-guessing voices that lurk in every creative person's mind (in a song wittily titled "Die Vampire, Die!").

The obscenities that burst through will jangle some listeners' sensibilities. Just keep in mind that good art is often raw, unpredictable and untamable. And this musical, sweet-natured as it is, is all of those things as well.

*

"White Christmas:

The Musical"

Cast recording

(Ghostlight Records)

**

This song-and-dance extravaganza, which visited Los Angeles last holiday season, lived by the bigger-is-better principle, sending its large cast tap-dancing or ballroom-swirling through every song possible and pumping bigger laughs into the story line adapted from the 1954 movie. Some of this was truly impressive, but much of the time, it proved bloated, irksome or without heart.

The music -- a catalog of Irving Berlin hits -- was treated lovingly, though. The song lineup is somewhat different from the movie but includes "Sisters," "Snow" and, of course, the title tune. Most of the principal singers in L.A., including Brian d'Arcy James and Anastasia Barzee, perform on the album.

D'Arcy James may be no sound-alike for Bing Crosby, the originator of his role, but his focused, propulsive baritone is just dreamy in such numbers as "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep." Barzee, in the Rosemary Clooney part, has a dark-honey tone that she deliciously drizzles into her torchy rendition of "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me."

Because dance is such a big element of this show, the songs sometimes shift into long passages of instrumental underscoring and, in "I Love a Piano," the sound of tapping feet, which seems almost cruel since it can't fully convey what happened on stage.

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