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THEATER CDS

The bachelor and his rooty-toot-toot friends

March 04, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

"Company"

2006 Broadway cast recording

(Nonesuch/PS Classics)

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AS this Nonesuch recording of the new Broadway revival of "Company" reminds us, no one in contemporary theater writes songs with the brain-tingling, foot-activating wit and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim.

In this 1970 musical he created with book writer George Furth, the meditation is on marriage, that "sorry-grateful," "regretful-happy" paradox that Bobby, the show's bachelor protagonist ambushed by his 35th birthday, has been studiously avoiding.

The appealing Raul Esparza essays the role of the enticing commitment-phobe in director John Doyle's production. And while he can certainly drive women crazy with his looks and talent, he doesn't solve the mystery of how "so single and attentive and attractive a man" as Bobby can be at the same time such a "deeply maladjusted" and "never to be trusted" guy.

As with his highly lauded 2005 reinvention of Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "Sweeney Todd," Doyle asks his ensemble to double as the band. Unfortunately, the effect is less revelatory this time around. "Company" requires actors to deeply investigate and even supplement the work's elliptical psychology. It's the little things that need an interpretive push, but Doyle's cast members already have their hands full with instruments.

The staging mostly succeeds in stylishly laying out the general thematic terms of the show, which explains why this recording flourishes in the early choral title song (in which Bobby is surreally addressed by his numerous needy friends and lovers) and later group numbers (particularly the saxophone-accented "You Could Drive a Person Crazy").

The bridal-day panicking of Heather Laws in "Getting Married Today" is unquestionably the hilarious highpoint. But less memorable are the dramatically complicated solos meant to offer an internal X-ray. Barbara Walsh in "The Ladies Who Lunch" can't seem to get out of Elaine Stritch's formidable shadow, and Esparza conveys but doesn't quite illuminate Bobby's narcissism in "Marry Me a Little."

On the plus side, "Barcelona" invites the most probing exploration of Bobby's neurotic condition, and Esparza and Elizabeth Stanley, who plays the stewardess leaving to catch a plane to Spain after an uncommitted night of passion with him, lay bare the post-erotic poignancy.

And while it might not be clear how Bobby arrives at his epiphany in "Being Alive," the big finale in which he recognizes that having someone to share his life with isn't a silly luxury but a basic existential need, Esparza sings with a maturity of feeling that suggests a genuine if still mysterious leap in self-knowledge.

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Brecht and Weill, for the masses

"Happy End"

Original cast recording

(Ghostlight Records )

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THERE are many reasons to celebrate this first English-language recording of "Happy End," the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht 1929 "melodrama with songs" that was a follow-up to "The Threepenny Opera," the Berlin sensation of 1928 and still the most popular of the duo's collaborations. But it's the mesmerizing sound of jaunty cynicism that makes one especially grateful to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater not only for having produced this rarely revived musical last year but also for bringing out the company's first original cast album to commemorate it.

Conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, this "Happy End" is a respectful effort that will, with any luck, introduce a new generation to a lyricist-composer team that represents one of the more marvelously challenging musical theater sensibilities ever to emerge.

The show, a kind of precursor to "Guys and Dolls" with sharper switchblades (based on a play by Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann), boasts some of the most catchy and cunningly corrosive Brecht-Weill numbers. The song list includes "The Bilbao Song," "The Sailors' Tango," "The Mandalay Song" and "Surabaya Johnny" -- each a cabaret classic worthy of another extra dry martini.

There's no getting around the difference in attitude and style between German and English. (A quality of onomatopoetic harshness can't help getting lost in translation.) But Michael Feingold's adroit adaptation captures the flavor of history -- the racing raucousness foreshadowing the encroaching Nazi disaster.

Hearing the songs grouped together, one can experience their thematic echoing and brooding build. By the time the epilogue repeats the prologue's hosannas to Rockefeller and Henry Ford and asks God to send "big oil and coal and steel" their "just reward," one has a better handle on the savage irony of Weill's up-tempo beat.

As "Hallelujah Lil," the Salvation Army lieutenant who tries to save tough guy Bill Cracker (Peter Macon) from a lonely doom, Charlotte Cohn lights up "The Sailors' Tango" with her lilting soprano. And Jack Willis' agreeably gruff "Mandalay" epitomizes the compulsive beer-hall energy of this happily rediscovered classic.

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Songs abuzz with adolescent feeling

"Spring Awakening"

Original Broadway cast recording

(Decca Broadway)

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