The World Premiere Cast Recording
Book and Lyrics by James Lipton
Music by Laurence Rosenthal
Starring Nathan Lane, Bernadette Peters,
Carol Burnett, Tommy Tune, Mike Myers
Produced for Records by Robert Sher
Angel Records 7243 5 33757 0 6

Reviewed by David Spencer

After a fashion, the CD release of "Sherry!" is as much a theatrical event as anything worth noting onstage.

The musical, a flop from the late 60s, is an adaptation of Hart and Kaufman’s "The Man Who Came to Dinner"–but its historical distinction is that the music is by prolific film composer Laurence Rosenthal, and the book and lyrics by none other than James Lipton, host of Bravo’s "Inside the Actors Studio". (Indeed, the album is a two CD release, and the second disc is "enhanced" to include computer-viewable filmclips from the special and excerpts of "ITAS" interviews with the stars.)

Fairly faithful to the original play, "Sherry!" is about curmudgeonly radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (Nathan Lane, who recently played Whiteside in a Broadway revival of the straight play), forced via foot injury to be a wheelchair-ridden houseguest in the mansion of a too-patient late middle-aged couple, and the screwball antics include his faithful secretary (Bernadette Peters), her new boyfriend (Tom Wopat), an antic comedian (Mike Meyers), am extravagant Broadway diva (Carol Burnett) and a Noël Coward-like bon vivant (Tommy Tune).

There’s a quite touching story about the restoration of the long-thought-to-be-lost score that I won’t spoil for you (Mr. Lipton’s own CD booklet notes about that are part of the experience, and a Bravo teevee special about the recording of the album is imminent), so I’ll just jump to the main course.

First of all, "Man…" is a debatable idea for a musical, because its locale is static (the inside of a house is historically one of the dullest and least effective places to set a musical because it’s prosaic) and its plot permutations don’t cry out for musicalization so much as they seem to pleasantly withstand it. The play doesn’t seem appreciably better for the effort.

But that said, the effort is an astonishingly noble and respectable one. The source material is treated with love and respect, and the score derived from it–though not a great score–is built and motivated solidly. The songs are apropos and exist (most of them) for the right dramaturgical reasons. Not easy when adapting a piece like this.

It was the intent of the authors to reflect the heyday of late 1930s Hollywood musicals in the score, and that has been evoked very successfully, though with only a few nods to overt pastiche. Also not easy. Laurence Rosenthal’s music doesn’t seem to have a point of view about the period (as does, say, Stephen Sondheim’s "Follies"), which keeps it from achieving greatness, but you admire its attractive and elegant assurance of purpose nonetheless.

The biggest surprise are the lyrics by James Lipton. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that, had fate been kinder to his musical theatre ambitions, he might well have rivaled Sondheim in a number of respects. Sophistication of wit and rhyme are of course evident, but more remarkable is the sophistication of structure, and the amounts of story and forward motion the songs absorb and achieve. Songs that move story and character along have of course been part of the literature since at least the 1940s, but getting to this specific and intricate and mature kind of development-in-song as the signature of an entire score is a relatively recent evolution. We often tend to mark Company in 1970 as the musical that began creating the ripple that would be felt ever since (with Sweeney Todd representing perhaps the apotheosis of the technique)–but Mr. Lipton’s stanzas predate that startling turn in Sondheim’s career (and musical theatre vocabulary) by at least two years. For him to have been denied due recognition must mean that the Broadway production of "Sherry!" was not only fraught with problems onstage, but with the kind of backstage politics and pressures against which young, untried are often unprepared to defend themselves fully. I’m willing to bet that the Mssrs. Lipton and Rosenthal, in their desire not to lose a hard-won opportunity, felt coerced into saying yes to several key things they’d rather have said no to.

As to the album performances: Marvin Laird’s vocal arrangements and musical direction (67 musicians, orchestral tracks recorded in Prague) are top-notch.

As for the above-mentioned stars–Ms. Burnett is energetic and fun, but a slight deterioration in her diction, a slight heaviness of timbre that can come with a certain age, makes her sound slightly too old for the role (which she is); Mr. Meyers understands Banjo’s comic rhythms, but he and that kind of rimshot delivery are not the most natural fit (or maybe I was just spoiled by Lewis J. Stadlen in the role); and though Mr. Tune has the Coward air, his vocal presence is a bit light and the character not as fully communicated as one might wish.

But the rest, who carry the burden, are solidly on target, and if the album’s energy doesn’t have quite the consistent zip and buzz of a well-recorded show actually in production, it doesn’t miss by much and doesn’t miss always. Lane is as feisty and fatuous a Whiteside as he was on Broadway; Ms. Peters evinces touching sincerity, Mr. Wopat is a can-do leading man, and there are delightful cameos by Sioban Fallon, Lillias White, Keith David, Phyllis Newman and the authors themselves.

All in all, this premiere recording of "Sherry!" is a unique and interesting treat, and should it actually lead to the show’s resurrection in production as well, I would not be surprised.

In the end, by conscious intent or just the gestalt of the universe, that’s what albums like this are really for…

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