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Reviews are in: B'Way cast recordings

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Curious about the changing sound of the Great White Way? Times Theater Critic Charles McNulty weighs in on five noteworthy cast recordings from the year on Broadway -- four from new shows that couldn't be more wildly disparate and one from a classic that's been absolutely revitalized.

In the Heights

Original Broadway cast (Ghostlight Records)

***

The barrio merengues into the theatrical limelight with this 2008 Tony winner for best musical.

A love letter to Washington Heights, the upper Manhattan neighborhood in which a diverse Latino community is invited to take an extended bow, “In the Heights” mixes salsa, hip-hop and " American Idol"-ized show tunes into a package that's meant to leave everyone feeling happy and full.

Stuffed is more like it. This double-CD cast recording, with sunshiny music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Usnavi, the show's narrator, seems to go on interminably. Blame that on Quiara Alegría Hudes' unwieldy book, which tries to combine two love stories in an oversized mural celebrating the vibrant life around a corner bodega.

Miranda's numbers work best when they're not pushing the huge narrative boulder uphill but simply lazing about in local color. "Paciencia y Fe" (Patience and Faith) gives voice to the unshakable creed of Abuela Claudia, the block's resident grandmother who infuses those around her with a sense of belonging and hope. "Piragua" is a memorable ditty that summons not just the snow-cone refreshment but also the swelter of summer in the city and the sizzling romance that goes with it.

Miranda, who won the Tony for best score, writes the swooniest songs for Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), the girl most likely to succeed, who returns home from Stanford University feeling like a failure, and Benny (Christopher Jackson), the attractive young man who works for her father's taxi business (and therefore isn't worthy of his daughter's affection). "Sunrise" and "When the Sun Goes Down" movingly track the couple's amorously hindered path.

As for the rap Miranda prolifically offers -- it's more storytelling device than sharp word slinging. Less would have indeed been more, but there's no denying that the overriding spirit is as genuine as it is generous.

A Catered Affair

Original Broadway cast (PS Classics)

*

No one likes to kick a show that just received a good hard one from the Tony Awards, especially after the production announced it will be closing in July. But listening to “A Catered Affair” for the first time since reviewing it last fall at San Diego's Old Globe, John Bucchino's dribbling, low-grade score hasn't grown on me. It's still a chore to undergo, as unmusical as it is unmagical -- and about as theatrical as cleaning up the banquet hall after the party's done.

Everyone's favorite Broadway foghorn, Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the Paddy Chayefsky property and stars as the newly conceived gay uncle character, has chalked up the not rousing critical reception to the ambitiousness of the piece. " 'A Catered Affair' is to Broadway musicals what a foreign film is to movies," he has said.

It's a curious defense when you consider the work's profoundly mainstream origins. "A Catered Affair" began in the 1950s as a teleplay and was subsequently adapted by Gore Vidal into the one Bette Davis picture you probably never want to see again.

The style is pallid rather than pianissimo, with a 2-by-4 construction that could make Odets seem like Chekhov. And a tepid score can't be fobbed off as arty.

But how does the cast recording play? Better than Faith Prince's uncharacteristically shaky performance at the Tonys, thankfully.

The production has been blessed with a stellar cast (Leslie Kritzer's edgy Bronx bride impressed me even more this time around). And though Fierstein tilted the balance of the show from chamber drama to schlocky farce, there are a few fleeting moments suggesting the aesthetic that Bucchino, better known as a cabaret songwriter, just isn't skilled enough as a musical theater composer to pull off.

Amid the prolix recitative and simmering sentimentality perpetually threatening to erupt in a full boil, you can't help feeling enormous sympathy for the actors' plight. They deserve better material, and even though Fierstein assures us that he "couldn't be prouder of the show," he deserves better material too.

Xanadu

Original Broadway cast (PS Classics)

**

Who would have expected the crummy 1980 film that took the wind out of Olivia Newton-John's sails to make such a sprightly Broadway musical? Kudos to book-writer Douglas Carter Beane for his winking sendup of the movie and Christopher Ashley, who directed the show with frenetic roller-skating lunacy.

In this risible rebirth, an L.A. street artist's dream of owning his own nightclub comes to fruition with the help of several muses, one of whom falls headlong for the mortal against Zeus' strict decree.

Unfortunately, this nutty act of translation doesn't quite come off on the cast recording. To fully experience Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman's hilarious mischief-making version of "Evil Woman," you have to see their vaudevillian madness and mugging, not just hear their crazy cover of Electric Light Orchestra's demi-classic.

Sure, it's fun to hear the game leads, Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson, deliver such ephemeral singles as "Magic," "Suddenly" and "Don't Walk Away," and Butler brings a nice oakiness to her Chardonnay rendition of "Have You Never Been Mellow?" But why not download the original hits if you're stricken with the nostalgia itch?

For those who like their levity on the loopy fringe of parody, "Xanadu" is definitely worth catching when it arrives at La Jolla Playhouse this fall. But no need for this foretaste -- it might spoil your appetite for the real kooky thing.

Passing Strange

Original Broadway Cast (Ghostlight)

*** 1/2

The phenomenon known as Stew, the show's subject and principal creator, is one of the more exciting things to have happened to Broadway in a long time. Working with his Negro Problem band mate Heidi Rodewald, he's delivered an indie rock score that hasn't been pasteurized into the usual sappy piano bar sound. “Passing Strange” is one of those rare contemporary cast recordings with music that's as enjoyable to listen to as it is to experience live in the theater.

Lyrically, Stew is a wizard -- introspective, verbally playful and unafraid to challenge convention or himself. This is a journey of self-discovery in which a bohemian young black man from middle-class Los Angeles gets to transcend the prison of labels and expectations to become a unique creative force.

Fortunately, the musical is too witty, not to say self-ironizing, to succumb to the genre's clichés. Even the ending, in which Stew imagines a conversation with his mother, who died during his long European search for realness, reaches beyond sentimentality to a more philosophical species of regret.

"Keys," the number that was performed on the Tony Awards telecast, finds an apt metaphor to explore issues of trust in the context of racial difference as well as to register the unexpected largeness of the world. After landing in Amsterdam, Youth (Daniel Breaker in a dynamic portrayal of young Stew) is befriended by strangers who welcome him into their hash-smoking fold. Skin color is less important than cultural attitude in this "Alice in Wonderland" mind-blower, which becomes only more happily surreal when Marianna (De'Adre Aziza) lets him crash at her pad.

Of all the moody grooves, "Arlington Hill" is perhaps the most hypnotic, with its meditative recollection of an adolescent casting about for deeper meaning. But there's a wealth of music to savor, and the CD invites repeated listening, so you can hear the electric-guitar arpeggios and lush orchestrations mapping out a soul's unsteady but unstoppable progress.

Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific

New Broadway cast (Masterworks Broadway)

****

Lincoln Center's Tony-winning revival of “South Pacific,” directed by Bartlett Sher, was blessed with two vocally sumptuous leads -- Broadway sweetheart Kelli O'Hara and Brazilian opera star Paulo Szot. These two singers could make the phone book sound harmonious, but this score -- a treasure trove of Golden Age hits -- lifts them to sublime heights.

Szot lends "Some Enchanted Evening" the resonant masculine purr of a middle-aged widower greeting romance back into his life after too long an absence. O'Hara sparklingly turns "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "A Wonderful Guy" into the natural outpouring of a gal in topsy-turvy bliss.

My only qualm about the production had to do with O'Hara's otherwise too sophisticated characterization of Nellie Forbush. This "cockeyed optimist" seemed a bit too brooding and introspective to have such a provincial conniption when she discovers that Emile de Becque is the father of those two adorable Polynesian kids trilling about his island dream home.

But while O'Hara's approach may engender a few melodramatic shrieks and gestures as she fumbles to make sense of a dated plot, it also helps deepen the romantic stakes. We root for Nellie and Emile's future because we can hear -- and feel -- how much it means to both of them.

Danny Burstein spryly leads a chorus of crackerjack Seabees in "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," and Loretta Ables Sayre's Bloody Mary hauntingly lures us to set sail to the tropical paradise of our imagination, "Bali Ha'i."

But let's give credit where credit's due: The entire company, magnificently supported by a 30-piece orchestra, is transported by a melodious score that is one of musical theater's loveliest definitions of timelessness.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Albums are rated four stars (excellent), three (good), two (fair) and one (poor).

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