Posted on October 23rd, 2010

SONDHEIM/WEIDMAN “ROAD SHOW” CAST ALBUM (NONESUCH/PS CLASSICS) Review for GRAMOPHONE magazine

The long gestation of Road Show – formally Wise Guys, Gold, and Bounce (which was also recorded by Nonesuch/PS Classics) – could eventually catch up with the 40-year time span of the show if Sondheim were not finally to let it go, once and for all. That’s a joke, of course, but it hasn’t escaped the great man’s notice that the show itself has become a metaphor for the long and winding road of the Mizner Brothers family saga.

It always appealed to Sondheim that these real-life, larger-than-life, characters (one more fallible than the other) represented the yin and yang of sibling relationships, not to say the flip sides of that elusive American dream. But rich though it is as a concept, the show in both its incarnations (Bounce made it as far as Washington D.C.) has never really gelled. Interesting that it has got progressively smaller on its journey to New York where it briefly played at the Public Theatre under the direction of John Doyle. The show may have gotten smaller but its impact hasn’t gotten bigger.

As ever with Sondheim, the play’s the thing (book: John Weidman) with dialogue kind of osmosing into song, most of it redolent of the kind of whistle-stop, snapshot, energy of the narrative. I can’t say I much enjoyed Road Show when I saw it in New York – the raciness of its exposition doesn’t allow for much engagement with the characters until the very final scene. There’s a breathless imperative about it all. Moments of reflection – like the mother’s song “Isn’t He Something!” (the stand-out song) – are few and far between. Rather more troubling for me – and this is accentuated when the score is divorced from the show – is the extent to which, musically speaking, it sounds more and more like a self-parody of Sondheim. That’s primarily because there are so many echoes of the score which Sondheim was working on when he began penning this one – that is, Assassins. Papa Mizner’s song “It’s in Your Hands Now” is a dead ringer for John Wilkes Booth’s monologue in the earlier show.

Jonathan Tunick’s piano and wind-band led orchestrations work well with a touch of Stravinskian acerbity about them and there’s a wistfully harmonised number “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened” which makes magic of a monotone whilst doffing its hat at Harold Arlen. But despite my overriding disappointment comes that searing last duet between Alexander Gemignani (Addison Mizner) and Michael Cerveris (Wilson Mizner) and fleetingly you are in the hands of a master.

Sondheim has called Road Show the longest out of town try-out in Broadway history. Maybe some things are just destined to stay on the road.

EDWARD SECKERSON

EVELYN LAYE “QUEEN OF MUSICAL COMEDY” (AVID 2 CDs) Review for GRAMOPHONE magazine

Glancing over the contents of this sumptuous collection one is inevitably pulled up short by the dates: Evelyn Laye – “Queen of Musical Comedy” reigned from the 1920s to the 1990s with the recordings here spanning an astonishing 71 years. And we talk of Elaine Paige as England’s “first lady of musical theatre”.

Laye was described by the legendary Austrian film director Max Reinhard as “that rare and Holy Trinity of the stage, a great singer, a great actress, and a great beauty”. She began in variety – a Gaiety Girl at 17 – and she never really left the West End, except, of course, for her sojourns on Broadway and in Hollywood. The first and last things we hear in this collection is the number that became her enduring signature tune – “I’ll See You Again” from Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet. She never did play the show in the West End, despite Noel’s implorations, on account that it was presented by Charles B. Cochran who had paired her husband Sonnie Hale with Jessie Matthews thus beginning one of show business’s notorious affairs and ending her marriage. But she could not resist “the part of a lifetime” and played it across the pond to great acclaim. Rarely had a show title proved more fitting.

So what do we have here? Well, much that is familiar and treasurable, including the song that was written expressly for her by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein “When I Grown to Old to Dream” (in both her recorded versions, studio and soundtrack) which aches with nostalgia and shows off that pristine operetta voice of hers with its ingratiating portamenti and what can only be described as a charmingly old fashioned way of drawing her audience closer in the hushed intimacy of the reprise. That was very much a stylistic gesture of the times.

But it’s the novelties and rarities here – many never previously released – that will appeal to the connoisseurs: wartime appearances with ENSA including a charged “Land of Hope and Glory” at Drury Lane in 1940 and “Love is My Reason” at the Navy barracks in Chatham, Kent; a late appearance – her last in a stage musical – as Madame Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, where (despite muddy sound) she twinkles devilishly recalling her “Liaisons”; she does so again, this time with Harry Secombe, in a concert rendering of “I Remember It Well” from Gigi (she was 84 and remembered it very well); and a sweet impromptu sounding reprise of “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” with Roy Hudd.

Most touching of all, though, are her last recordings in the studio. She was 91 and had lost none of her comic timing in a song by John Dalby, “Where Have I Put My Glasses?” (her comic touch is too rarely celebrated) and, an incomparably moving trifle, “Thank You” where she effectively signs off from her loyal audience keeping it simple and discreet and, as was her way, so heartfelt.

EDWARD SECKERSON

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