Cool Covers and One Hot Show

Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

*** 1/2 "PLAY IT COOL," Lea DeLaria, Warner Bros. It's no cinch to make fresh music from even good old Broadway tunes, let alone newer, lesser-known ones. Lea DeLaria's slick, cool and hot new album passes the freshness test, turning Shubert Alley into that smoky cocktail lounge of your dreams.

It gets off to a bracing start with DeLaria's "Moondance"-flavored version of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," backed by piano, bass and drums. A few bars in, you may feel a grin spreading across your face. She makes Stephen Sondheim's walloping Industrial Age lament a swinging spiritual heir to that improbable serial-killer hipster anthem, "Mack the Knife." DeLaria's vocals throughout the 11 cuts are precise, contained, rhythmically sharp. Her emotional range isn't exactly wide, and her interpretations carry a slight parodic overlay. (That's what stand-up comedy and Broadway will do.) But when she's in her groove, she's all the way in, as on "I've Got Your Number" (from "Little Me").

The larger-group charts by Gil Goldstein have a nice Marty Paich sheen to them, especially on "Welcome to My Party," from Michael John LaChiusa's undervalued score to the recent Broadway flop, "The Wild Party." I could have done without the overexposed "Losing My Mind" (from "Follies"). But overall, "Play It Cool" is a jazzbo's delight.

*** "THE PRODUCERS," Original Broadway Cast Recording, Sony Classical

The multiple-Tony Award-winning ber-smash has been captured well on disc, in a cast album retaining much of the show's giddy comic spirit--surprising, really, because it was recorded before Mel Brooks' musical version of the 1968 film opened on Broadway.

Brooks' music and lyrics are what they are: Simple, bonk-on-the-nose rhymes wedded to melodies alternating between infectiousness and multidirectional plagiarism. Somehow that's part of their charm, thanks in large part to Doug Besterman's charts and Glen Kelly's arrangements. Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock, the producer with the leastest, shines here, especially in "The King of Broadway." Matthew Broderick's Leo Bloom, the mouse that roared, sounds far more confident in this assignment than in his previous Broadway musical, the revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." The tune everybody knows going into this one is, of course, "Springtime for Hitler," here treated to 81/2 minutes of variations (including Gary Beach doing Roger De Bris doing Adolf Hitler doing Judy Garland).

** "BAT BOY," Original Cast Recording, RCA Victor

With "The Producers," "Urinetown" and "Bat Boy," this truly is the season of musicals whose scores sound like they're made up of a million earlier musicals. An L.A. export still going in its off-Broadway version, "Bat Boy" is the spoofy saga of its titular character, his bullying tormentors and his loving adoptive family. Listening to the album, featuring Laurence O'Keefe's energetic if often generic music and lyrics, you can hear why Kaitlin Hopkins--one of Southern California's finest all-around stage performers--got such raves as Mom. Her deadpan timing and full-throated comic attack bring to life a song like "Three Bedroom House" (in the vein of "Somewhere That's Green" from "Little Shop of Horrors," a big influence on "Bat Boy"). The score's gospel rousers, Tin Pan Alley spoofs and soft-rock krraannnggg! chords tend to fight among themselves in search of a real personality. The pastiche game means anything goes, of course, but there's anything, and then there's anything.

*** "BRIGHT EYED JOY--THE SONGS OF RICKY IAN GORDON," Various artists, Nonesuch

Beautifully wrought, this showcase for Gordon's art songs (set to poetry by, among others, Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker) and more Populist efforts couldn't have gotten more sympathetic interpreters than those heard here. The names include Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw and Judy Blazer, for starters. Gordon's own lyrics carry a certain hard-working, straining quality; so too do some of the less easy-breathing flights of dissonant fancy. But at his best, Gordon is a genuine musical-theater voice. He's a strikingly good orchestrator as well. The music owes plenty to those who have traveled similar roads before him (credited influences include Marc Blitzstein, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim), but Gordon's capable of distinctive, aching insights all his own.

*** "INFINITE JOY--THE SONGS OF WILLIAM FINN," Various artists, RCA Victor

William Finn, the irrepressible and often exhilaratingly inventive composer and lyricist of "Falsettos" and others, could serve as a polar opposite to someone like Ricky Ian Gordon. Both, however, believe in joy, even as they acknowledge what a complex and elusive matter joy can be. This album, recorded live, has a chummy, clubby feel to it. Finn's song stylings--a bark, a bite, a rasp and a happy wail all at once--are, ahem, unique in contemporary musical theater, and he's surrounded himself with first-rate singers ranging from Carolee Carmello to Mary Testa. "Drag out the ukuleles/This Israeli's gonna fill the air!" Finn promises in "Mister, Make Me a Song." That's a handy indicator of the Finn wit. Another, more sustained one: Stephen DeRosa's number from "Falsettos," or rather, his impression of the version he saw performed by the East Milford Community Center. The result is a hoot. *


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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