Show tunes! `Young Frankenstein,’ `Xanadu’

Feb 28

Am I getting old and cranky or are show tunes getting crappy?

Probably a little of both, and I should say very quickly that there’s plenty of new show music that is thrilling, moving, funny, etc.

But I’ve been listening to the cast albums for Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the against-all-odds hit stage adaptation of Xanadu. And I really dislike them both.

I have friends who have seen both shows on stage. None of them liked Frankenstein very much (“overproduced,” “dull,” “not nearly as much fun as The Producers“), but all of them enjoyed Xanadu because it was able to laugh at itself (and the tickets, unlike Mr. Brooks’ show, weren’t $400).

After listening to the original cast album ($18.98, Decca Broadway), I wouldn’t pay any amount to see the show, even to see my beloved Andrea Martin, who can do no wrong and comes across better than anybody else on the disc.

Brooks’ music and lyrics are pedestrian at best, and he’s stealing from himself. If a musical motif or gag worked in The Producers, then chances are it pops up here in an only slightly different form.

Aside from Martin’s genuinely funny “He Vas My Boyfriend,” the album’s only other real highlight is Sutton Foster’s yodel on “Roll in the Hay.” I’m supremely disappointed in the material given to Megan Mullally, another favorite. Although, mercifully, Mullally’s version of “Alone,” a song cut from the final show, is included and gives her a little something to play with. If you’r a Mullally fan, as I am, I recommend skipping this disc and going straight to her quirky new CD “Free Again” with her band, Supreme Music Program ($ ). The wonky, wonderful disc ranges from “Up a Lazy River” to “Ave Maria.”

I would probably buy a ticket to Xanadu because the terrible Olivia Newton-John movie holds a place in my heart where bad musicals go to rest (right next to Grease 2 and Newsies). I’ve heard wonderful things about Douglas Carter Beane’s hilarious book and Christopher Ashley’s direction — both of which I’m sure are delightful.

But the music on the original cast album ($19.98, P.S. Classics), taken from the movie with more ELO and Olivia Newton-John songs thrown in to beef things up, is not a pleasant listen. It’s not very funny, the campy treatment of the songs makes them almost unlistenable, and Kerry Butler’s mysterious Australian accent (an homage to Newton-John) comes across as harsh, nasal and grating. Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, by all accounts the comic livewires of the show, labor to make the funny work on disc, but the laughs — at least for me — were as low as the original Xanadu’s box-office take.

Not wanting to leave this post in a negative place (I’m so California), may I recommend a CD by a group that I was turned on to by a fellow show tune lover: The Puppini Sisters’ “The Rise & Fall of Ruby Woo” (Verbe, $13.98). This is the second disc by the British trio — Marcella Puppini, Stephanie O’Brien and Kate Mullins — and it’s as fantastic as the first. Tight, 1940s girl-group harmonies applied to songs both traditional (“Old Cape Cod,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”) and nontraditional (“Could It Be Magic,” “Spooky,” “Crazy in Love”). This album is more elaborately orchestrated, which is fun, and the girls sound better than ever. Check it out.

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