Director/sound designer stages `The Redeemer’ between your ears

Norman Kern’s soothing voice tells you what to do: “Sit back, let your ears become your eyes and enjoy our play.”

So begins celebrated Bay Area sound designer Kern’s latest project: the audio play The Redeemer, now available as a two-disc set, the first release from Kern’s Crazy Dream Sound Productions.

The Martinez-based Kern, who grew up in Livermore, has spent 30-some years doing sound work for theaters all around the Bay Area as well as serving as a recording engineer, a filmmaker and a director.

About 15 years ago, while working on I Hate Hamlet with the Town Hall Theatre Company in Lafayette, it suddenly struck him that Paul Rudnick’s comedy would make a great audio play.

“I started thinking seriously about audio plays,” Kern says over lunch. “I knew it would be costly because I wanted to use Union actors, but I have my own recording studio, and the more I thought about it, the more serious I got.”

Kern made a bold move and approached Rudnick and his people about making I Hate Hamlet his first audio play project.

“They turned me down cold,” he says.

So Kern turned to Playscripts, Inc. ( and started looking for plays. He came upon Cybele May’s
The Redeemer, which he describes as a “gem.” The two-person play is set on a mountain near Shamokin, Penn., a rural coal-mining community. Connie Aisling is a troubled young woman who keeps to herself on the mountainside. She has psychic visions and has used her tortuous gift to help police in the past. When Detective Stewart Grant arrives at her door, he’s seeking information about a missing boy.

Connie’s visions reveal horrors to come for the boy if the police don’t act quickly, but those same visions also reveal troubling information about the detective’s dark past.

It’s a tense, hour-long play that lends itself perfectly to Kern’s expert audio treatment.

When Kern approached Cybele, who has worked for CBS television as a script reader and now writes novels and blogs about candy at Candyblog ( , she was enthusiastic.

“She jumped all over it,” Kern says.

After a week of rehearsal with Bay Area actors Anna Bullard and Darren Bridgett, Kern recorded the play in a day.

“We recorded two full run-throughs, and then just recorded bits and pieces,” Kern explains.

The finished product, in its certified “green” eco-friendly case, includes a bonus disc with Kern interviewing playwright May and the actors. The $24.95 package is available through Kern’s Web site and through Facebook. This distribution method, Kern admits, is “grass roots.” But efforts are being made to make the audio play available on the big sites such as and at Barnes and Noble.

But don’t ask Kern about iTunes.

“The compromise in sound quality is too much,” the sound expert says.

He also implores his listening audience to listen to The Redeemer at home and not in the car. That way you can better appreciate how beautifully engineered the play is. Every last bird chirp, owl hoot, gravely footstep or cricket peep is artfully placed, and it would be a shame to miss any of the incredible soundscape.

Kern’s hard work has paid off handsomely. It is easy to get lost in the tense, spooky, occasionally bloody world of The Redeemer. Bullard and Bridgett are superb in their roles such that it’s hard to imagine them being any better on stage because the intimacy of the recording captures every nuance of emotion.

May’s play itself is gripping – dark and violent – and it’s no surprise to learn the play is part of a trilogy based loosely on Sophocles’ The Theban Plays. There’s something quite juicy about the notion of a tortured psychic and the brooding detective that makes their connection seem fated, and the tense story of a child in jeopardy makes it impossible to turn your attention away while you’re listening.

“The idea is like old-fashioned radio,” Kern says. “You want to sit down and just listen. The act of listening is an act of creativity. We work a part of our brains that don’t usually get worked in our busy days. The sound design for this was more difficult than anything I’ve ever done for stage or film.”

If all goes well with The Redeemer, Kern and his Crazy Dream Sound Productions hope to release up to six audio plays a year.

“I’d like to use all local actors,” Kern says. “We have such an amazing talent pool here.”


You can listen to a sample of The Redeemer and order a copy at or on Face book at

Helping Broadway musicals go (sh-k-) Boom!

Kurt Deutsch didn’t mean to get into the record business.

The self-described “total theater guy” grew up in St. Louis going to theater whenever possible (usually at The Muny) and then studied directing and acting in college. His big break came when Evan Handler had to leave the Broadway production of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound for health reasons (he was diagnosed with leukemia, survived, wrote a fantastic book about it, Time on Fire, and went on to star in, among other things, Sex and the City, so there’s a happy ending here).

Deutsch replaced Handler and did the show for a year and half, and then went on to Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men.

After he moved to Los Angeles, Deutsch met the woman who would become his wife, actress Sherie Rene Scott, while working on Randy Newman’s musical Faust. The show didn’t go anywhere, but the relationship did.

When Scott was getting ready to do Disney’s Aida on Broadway, she was offered a record contract – every performer’s dream, right? – and Deutsch looked it over.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” he says during a phone interview. “I thought we should just do it ourselves, and one thing led to another. I had no intention of doing cast albums or any of the stuff we ended up doing. I was just going to do a record with my wife.”

That was eight years ago, and Sh-K-Boom records, co-founded by Scott (the Sh) and Deutsch (the K), has become a major force in the realm of Broadway music. Originally the label started as an outlet for Broadway performers to show their musical colors outside of cast albums. Scott, along with the likes of Adam Pascal of Rent and Alice Ripley of Side Show, released pop-rock, singer-songwriter albums.

Then original cast albums began to creep into the picture as Deutsch began to learn more about the music industry, recording contracts and business models.

“The usual recording contracts are awful,” Deutsch says. “The record company pays for the record, but then the artist never makes any money off the record. The same kind of contract is given to shows. The royalty deal is horrible because you have to sell so many records to see any money off of it. I thought it was so unfair. I couldn’t believe producers would sign these things. I realized cast albums could be an asset and make money, theoretically. Producers spend all this money creating the shows, why wouldn’t they want to create their own cast album? So we created a different model for producers to share in the revenue from cast albums in an equitable way.”

The music industry is an industry in turmoil. Technology has wreaked havoc with traditional means of recording and distribution – thank you, iTunes. Deutsch has had to be creative and to develop a mission.

“When I go see the shows, there are two aspects I’m considering: preservation and money making,” Deutsch explains. “I know certain shows will probably never make back their investments. I’m very honest with the producer or the not-for-profit that is producing it. We then find angels to support the cast album, which is probably the most important tool if the show is going to have a life beyond this production. If a recording exists, productions will happen.”

Deutsch, of course, is not running a not-for-profit organization. He has to make money to stay in business. But he has gotten good at helping shows find money, whether he taps a moneyed believer in the show, the music publisher or other sponsors.

For releasing cast albums, Deutsch created a separate label called Ghostlight Records (named for the single bulb lamp left on stages after a performance), and among the cast albums he has released are this year’s Tony-winner for best musical, In the Heights, Legally Blonde, The Drowsy Chaperone, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and another recent Tony-winner, Passing Strange, which was recorded live and has the distinction of being the first original Broadway cast recording released in a digital format before it was released to brick-and-mortar stores.

“There will always be something physical people will buy, especially collectors of recordings,” Deutsch says. “Some people will always want to read the lyrics, see photos to get a sense of the show or just have a souvenir of the show, a tangible thing.”

But there’s no denying the fact that the digital revolution has made things easier for distributors: there’s no manufacturing cost, no shipping and customers around the world can acquire the product with the click of a mouse.

With this summer’s airing of MTV’s reality show search for a new lead in Legally Blonde, Deutsch says that Blonde music sales, already one of the label’s strong sellers, increased, with about 50 percent of sales going out digitally.

There was one potentially major gaffe associated with the conclusion of the MTV show, which revealed the winner and new Blonde star to be Bailey Hanks. Deutsch and his crew had already recorded Hanks singing the show’s “So Much Better,” which was scheduled for release the day after she was crowned the winner. But someone at didn’t get the memo and posted a 30-second clip of Hanks’ song days before they were supposed to. There was no name on the clip, but anyone watching the show would recognize Hanks as the singer.

“I was on vacation in Italy and got this frantic e-mail from the executive producer of the Legally Blonde show,” Deutsch recalls. “We had had to sign a confidentiality agreement with the show, and a mistake like that one could have cost us $500,000. They eventually took the clip down. Hopefully someone was fired.”

Part of Deutsch’s creative mission with these recordings is to make original cast albums vital again. He gave away a copy of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels disc with every ticket sold during the show’s Broadway run. For “In the Heights” he created radio-friendly three-minute versions of some of the show’s songs. And Passing Strange went digital in time for its award-season appearances.

He also takes risks, like he did with the musical bare (which will have its San Francisco premiere next year). The small-scale musical about teens in Catholic school, was generating buzz off-Broadway. After meeting with producers, Deutsch recorded a 12-track disc that was essentially given away, mostly to youth groups and summer camps.

“We spent $50,000 to make the record and market it,” Deutsch says. “The idea was to create buzz to get the show to Broadway. Then the money fell apart, and it never opened on Broadway.”

Upcoming releases for Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight include an archival recording of Patti LuPone’s legendary concerts at Les Mouches (Nov. 11), Michael John LaChiusa’s
Little Fish (Sept. 9) and Orfeh’s What Do You Want from Me (Sept. 30). Recent releases include Kelli O’Hara’s Wonder in the World, the cast album for the first Broadway musical of the season, [title of show],
and Lea Delaria’s The Live Smoke Sessions.

“The whole point of this is that we’re part of the community,” Deutsch says. “Sheri is part of the Broadway community. We have a lot of friends in the Broadway community. We’re performers and producers on Broadway, not some big, bad record label guys. We want to help grow Broadway and off-Broadway. This is a great time in history with a lot of great people, and we can help make something to remember them by.”

For information visit or

Great American musical roundup


We have a tradition here at Theater Dogs, and that is to commemorate the Fourth of July by celebrating the greatest American art form: the musical.

It was an interesting year on Broadway for new musicals. Below are reviews of cast albums for three of them (I passed on Little Mermaid because I love the movie soundtrack from Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman so much that I don’t really want to hear how Ashman’s brilliance was diluted by someone else attempting to fill his shoes; and I had previously reviewed, and hated, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Xanadu). There’s also a classic American musical revival below and a pop album by current Broadway star, Kelli O’Hara.

Passing Strange: The Stew Musical ($18.97, Ghostlight Records)

Recorded live from the Belasco Theatre, this original cast recording captures everything the Bay Area fell in love with when the show had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Stew’s rock score is alternately rousing and mesmerizing. Brilliantly performed by the cast, this album has the distinction of being the first Broadway cast album to be released online first (you can find it at iTunes). It won’t be released in three dimensions until July 15. Recording live was a stroke of brilliance because the audience reaction fuels the experience of the music, especially during the more humorous songs.

My one complaint is that some of the songs ramble. The repetition grows wearisome on some tracks. But that’s a minor quibble. This is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience with a you-are-there feel that pulses with energy.

In the Heights ($21.98, Ghostlight Records)

I haven’t seen the show, but one listen to this double-album set convinced me that it would go on to win the Tony Award for best score (for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars) and for best musical. This is joyous music that incorporates rap, hip-hop, salsa, pop and more traditional Broadway sounds for a highly pleasing patchwork of songs. Miranda’s rapping is intelligent and humorous, which will go a long way toward not alienating Broadway audience members who might not care for rap while pleasing those who do.

Favorite tracks include the boffo opening number (“In the Heights”), the catchy “Piragua”, Mandy Gonzalez’s “Breathe” and the beautiful “Champagne” (by Gonzalez and Miranda). The recording quality is superb, and though there are hints of Rent here and there, In the Heights comes across on record as a true original.

A Catered Affair ($19.98, PS Classics)

A fan of composer John Bucchino’s, I was eagerly awaiting the cast album for this modest musical about a Bronx family that works itself into a frenzy over the daughter’s impending wedding (the daughter wants to elope, the mother, perhaps attempting to make up for her less-than-wonderful wedding, wants a blow-out).

The first impression from the album is that Faith Prince is amazing as Aggie, the mother. Her solos, “Our Only Daughter” and “Coney Island,” are superb, as is her duet with Leslie Kritzer as daughter Janey. Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh as Ralph, the fiancé, shine on the duet “Don’t Ever Stop Saying `I Love You,'” which is the score’s standout song. Jonathan Tunick’s delicate orchestrations are gorgeous, and Bucchino’s songs are more about heart and storytelling than about big Broadway moments.

The jarring element of the album is Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the book from previous scripts by Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal. Fierstein wrote himself a role as Aggie’s brother, Winston, and if you know the cast album of Hairspray, you know that Fierstein is more personality than vocal star. In a big splashy musical comedy, Fierstein is just fine. Here, he sticks out and causes little flinches here and there.

South Pacific: The New Broadway Cast Recording ($18.98, Sony Classical)

Gorgeous, wonderful, inspiring – there’s not much left to say about this fantastic cast recording of the Tony-winning Lincoln Center hit – the first Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 classic.

Kelli O’Hara is a vibrant, honey-voiced Nellie Forbush, and Paulo Szot, with his gorgeous bass baritone, imbues songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Is How It Feels” (cut from the original, now a duet with O’Hara) with commanding, sexy power. Matthew Morrison provides a touching “Younger Than Springtime” and a forthright “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations are brilliantly realized by musical director Ted Sperling. I’ll always love the original Mary Martin-Ezio Pinza recording, but this revival disc is a welcome addition to the library.

Wonder in the World, Kelli O’Hara ($16.98, Ghostlight Records)

Speaking of Kelli O’Hara, in addition to starring in a hit show, she has a new solo CD arranged and orchestrated by her Pajama Game co-star Harry Connick Jr. (and produced by longtime Connick collaborator Tracey Freeman). There are a couple show tunes – “Fable” from Light in the Piazza, which O’Hara was in, but she didn’t sing this song, “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I and “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi – but this is mostly a sweet pop album. There are three Connick tunes, including the duet title song, which is fantastic, and some James Taylor (“Fire and Rain”), Don McLean (“And I Love You So”) and Billy Joel (“And So It Goes”). There are also some O’Hara originals: “Here Now” and “I Love You the World.” There’s even a song from O’Hara’s husband, Greg Naughton (“The Sun Went Out”). It’s all pretty great because O’Hara is such a solid singer – effortless and compassionate. She may not be belting about being in love with a wonderful guy here, but she impresses with her skill, charm and warmth.

And can we just give a shout out to Ghostlight Records and PS Classics? If it weren’t for them, we’d be well short of the show tunes we love. Please keep up the good work. Please.

Show tunes! `Young Frankenstein,’ `Xanadu’

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.

Stage presents: A theater gift guide

So many fine gift ideas, so little space. Let’s get started with some great theater books.

In the realm of books about theater, this year’s standout comes from San Mateo native Thomas Schumacher, who also happens to be the president of Disney Theatrical, the producer of such hits as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Schumacher’s How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95) is geared toward the young theatergoer (ages 9 to 12), but it’s a hugely entertaining look at the entire theatrical picture, from the beginning of a show to the most intricate details of daily production.

The Bay Area can’t get enough of the musical Jersey Boys. For the most avid fans, there is, of course, a coffee-table book. Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons (Broadway, $40) contains the show’s libretto, lots of photos and a thorough guide to the real Four Seasons and their Broadway counterparts.

You think you know everything about The Sound of Music? Think again. Author Laurence Maslon has assembled the ultimate look behind the scenes of the world’s most beloved movie musical. The Sound of Music Companion (Fireside, $40) covers every aspect of the show, right up to the British reality TV show that allowed viewers to vote on the actress who wound up playing Maria on London’s West End.

The hottest show on Broadway is the multi-Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. Fans already have memorized the great cast album, so give them Spring Awakening (Theatre Communications Group, $13.95), the libretto (by Steven Sater) and a new adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s original play by novelist Jonathan Franzen (Faber and Faber, $11.70). Franzen hates the musical, by the way, so it’s interesting to see how the play and the musical diverge.

This was the year of the movie musical — or maybe I should say the good movie musical. If your gift recipient loves musicals, make sure he or she has Hairspray (New Line Home Entertainment, $34.98 for two-disc version, $28.98 for single-disc), the joyous movie version of the Broadway hit; Once (20th Century Fox, $29.99), a fascinating and musically rich love story about an Irish street musician and an interesting woman he meets by chance; Colma: The Musical (Lionsgate, $27.98), a locally grown musical with catchy tunes and a better-than-average cast of characters. The best of the big-ticket DVD items this year is The Noel Coward Collection ($79.98 BBC/Warner), a veritable treasure trove of Cowardly delights. The set contains seven discs and runs some 19 hours (plus another 12 hours of bonus material that includes interviews, radio plays and more). The plays included are Private Lives (with the delectable Penelope Keith), Hay Fever, Design for Living, Present Laughter, A Song at Twilight, Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill and Tonight at 8:30.

This isn’t a CD, but while we’re on the subject of Coward, this year saw the release of a fantastic volume of Coward’s letters: The Letters of Noel Coward (Knopf, $37.50), edited by Barry Day. The beauty is that the book contains letters both from and to Coward, whose beastly wit entertains in every epistle.

The fine folks at PS Classics, the show-minded label that, in addition to turning out excellent original-cast albums, allows musical theater performers the chance to show their vocal stuff, have released some terrific new discs just in time for the holidays.

The best of the bunch is Lauren Kennedy’s Here and Now, a marvelous collection of show music and pop. Album highlight is Andrew Lippa’s “Spread a Little Joy,” followed closely by Jason Robert Brown’s “In This Room” and Adam Guettel‘s “Through the Mountain” (from Floyd Collins). Kennedy’s voice is so vibrant — at times so Streisandian — it’s irresistible.

PS Classics also is offering two more Broadway divas: Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza) with Fifteen Seconds to Love, a solid collection mixing standards (“Right as the Rain,” “I Got Lost in His Arms”) and newer material (Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Red Dress,” Jane Kelly Williams’ “Fifteen Seconds of Grace”); and Andrea Burns (soon to be on Broadway again in In the Heights) with A Deeper Shade of Red, a set that mixes Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”) with Stephen Sondheim (“What More Do I Need?”) and Melissa Manchester (“Through the Eyes of Grace”) with Kate Bush and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Man with the Child in His Eyes/Something Wonderful”).

PS Classics’ Songwriter Series with the Library of Congress’ latest offering is a doozy: Jonathan Larson: Jonathan Sings Larson. The composer of Rent, who died tragically the night before his show opened, is heard singing demos and performing live, and the disc paints an incredible portrait of an artist full of talent, humor and ambition. The accompanying DVD features four live performances from Larson’s gig at New York’s Village Gate.

Carols for a Cure

During the recent Broadway strike, the AIDS fundraising charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS lost an estimated $40,000 a day without its holiday fund appeal, which usually happens during shows’ curtain calls. That makes the group’s annual holiday CD, “Broadway’s Greatest Gifts: Carols for a Cure 9” (Rock-It Science), all the more vital.

Companies from nearly all the Broadway musicals contribute songs for what amounts to a wonderfully entertaining, occasionally inspired two-disc collection.

The best of the bunch is the cast of Spring Awakening singing a stunning “What Child Is This?” And the cast of Mamma Mia! harmonizes beautifully through “My Gift.”

For comedy, there’s the cast members of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (most of whom starred in the San Francisco production) singing an original variation on of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

You can find the CD at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Web site here, where there are many other fine shopping opportunities, all of which help the group catch up to its fundraising goals.

Here are some suggestions:

The annual Broadway Bares calendar. The 2008 edition is “Myth Behavior.” $20

The annual Broadway Cares T-shirt featuring logos of 24 musicals on Broadway in 2007. $20.

From the CD/download rack

Some interesting show and show-related CDs are popping up just in time for the holidays. In the next few weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of winners and losers.

Judy Kuhn, “Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro” (Ghostlight Records) — Kuhn was Broadway’s original Cosette in Les Miserables and she just joined the cast of the current revival as Fantine. Though she has a fine Broadway pedigree (Chess), she’s more than capable of singing more than show tunes, as this excellent CD proves. Kuhn appeared in the Nyro revue “Eli’s Comin’,” and her affinity for the early ’70s groove and muscle of Nyro’s songs is apparent.
Jeffrey Klitz’s arrangements and orchestrations don’t try to modernize Nyro’s songs but rather give them a timeless sound that captures pop, blues, and great American balladry all at the same time.

The big hits, for the most part, aren’t here, and that’s OK. Kuhn trains her emotional, often thrilling voice on finding the joy, depression, funk and enigmatic pulse of Nyro’s distinctive songs.

One of the most exciting tracks turns out to be “Stoney End,” which couldn’t be more different from Streisand’s well-known version. Kuhn delivers it almost as a lullaby, backed by a soothing acoustic guitar and cello.

Then a tune such as “California Shoeshine Boys” comes along, with its ebullient horns, to liven things up. But boy can Nyro get dramatic — “Been on a Train” is practically a self-contained musical tragedy.

There’s no denying that Nyro wrote sensual songs. If Carole King was the singer-songwriter you wanted to introduce to your parents, Nyro was the one you wanted to play hooky with down by the river.

Probably the best thing about “Serious Playground” is that the Kuhn-Nyro combination is sexy. There’s heat and spirit here to spare.

Grease, The New Broadway Cast Recording (Masterworks Broadway) — Not the oil slick of the 1994 Broadway revival, this pleasant, not-really-necessary production exists (and is selling tickets) because of the reality show that preceded it: “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” let America (or the 12 regular viewers) vote on who should star as Danny and Sandy. The winners, Max Crumm and Laura Osnes, seem like nice kids, and they sound good if uninspired on this cast album, which is the first cast album to contain the songs written for the movie (“Grease,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re the One That I Want”).

Musical director Kimberly Grigsby, who did such spectacular work on Spring Awakening, wisely tries to dull the sheen of these overly shiny songs by attempting a more authentic ’50s sound — spare and percussive — when she can get away with it. More of that might have made this the definitive Grease, but as it is, the new disc won’t supplant the movie soundtrack in most fans’ collections.

The Dog House

Hey, Theater Dogs — it’s time to check in with the hip, the hot, the happening in the world of theater and beoynd. I figure that a common-denominator blog such as this one, where readers (and the writer) gather because they love theater, will also enjoy similar tastes elsewhere, in music, books, TV, movies, etc.

So, from time to time, I’ll share what’s being watched, listened to and otherwise enjoyed in my Dog House, and I’d like for you to do the same. But rather than posting a comment (which you’re still welcome to do), e-mail your hot-list enthusiasms to me directly at, and I’ll post them here in the main column, where they’re more visible and accessible.

So here’s what I’ve been enjoying recently:

TV: “Pushing Daisies,” Wednesdays on ABC, and not just because Broadway vet Kristin Chenoweth is so delightful (and she sang “Hopefully Devoted to You” a couple episodes back, which makes this television’s only musical series after the welcome demise of “Viva Laughlin.” “Pushing Daisies” is a whimsical delight and feels like a weekly dose of the French movie Amelie. And last week’s was another tiny slice of musical heaven with Chenoweth and Ellen Greene singing They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Oh, this is good TV.

BOOKS: Hero by Perry Moore (Hyperion, $16.99). They call this a young-adult novel, but boy howdy, young adult novels sure have changed since I was a young adult (but then again, we didn’t have Internet porn then, which is something that comes up in this book, along with some decidedly adult language). This fascinating book is about high schooler Thom Creed, who’s dealing with his single dad, a disgraced super hero, and dealing with his own budding super-hero powers as well as his emerging homosexuality. Moore’s deft novel combines the best of the coming-out novel with the excitement of the geeky super-hero world. This will make a great movie (or heck, great musical). Check out Moore’s Web site here.

MUSIC: Jens Lekman, “Night Falls Over Kortedala” (Secretly Canadian, $14.98). This disc is such a charming surprise I can’t quite get over my delight with each song on this Swedish crooner’s latest. I’m a fan of big orchestrations (must be the show tune genes at work), and Lekman never met an orchestral sample he couldn’t use. His sound, awash in strings, horns and catchy hooks, is somewhere between Burt Bacharach and Belle & Sebastian, but with its own unique charm. Check out the record company’s Web site here, where you can download songs (I recommend all of them, but do “The Opposite of Hallelujah” first

Here’s Lekman live singing “The Opposite of Hallelujah.”

Now it’s your turn.

Road trip = show tunes!

Howdy, Theater Dogs.

I’ve been on vacation for the last week or so, but I’m back, eager to bring you interesting tidbits of theater news and reviews.

Took a roadtrip up the Oregon coast — took 101 from San Francisco to the beautiful little hamlet known as Rockaway Beach. Breathtakingly beautiful pretty much the entire way. I highly recommend it. At Rockaway, one of the most striking local attractions is called Twin Rocks, and they’re just offshore of a gorgeous expanse of white-sand beach. Here — see for yourself (it’s much prettier in person):

But now to my point. For me, road trip means one thing: a big-time show tune sing-along. I’ll spare you all the gory details (and believe me, if you’re not traveling with the right people or person, show tunes in an enclosed space can be dangerous, so please, exercise caution), but I will tell you that there were two big hits on the California-to-Oregon playlist: the cast album of Legally Blonde, the Musical and the soundtrack recording of Hairspray.

Legally Blonde, the Broadway musical version of the hit movie that had its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco, makes for a fun listen. People who saw the show here can give a listen to the new songs (“Positive”) and all the changes made to the versions we heard (most notably, Orfeh gets a big Broadway finish on the “Ireland” reprise). Bouncy and happy, the score is light and enjoyable, but I will say it suffers some in translation to disc. It seems sillier on disc than it does on stage, and Laura Bell Bundy as Elle, so chipper and bright onstage, doesn’t have a great voice. And some of the songs (“There! Right There!” and “Chip on My Shoulder” are good for a listen or two but are definitely not worth the space they take up on the ol’ MP3 player. Some enjoyable tunes — “What You Want,” for instance — are fun onstage, but they go on forever on disc. But if you have affection for the show, as I do, the cast album is a must.

The most enjoyable album of the summer belongs to the most enjoyable movie of the summer, which also happens to be the most enjoyable movie musical to come out since…I guess Chicago, but Hairspray is an awful lot more fun because it’s not remotely cynical.

With this soundtrack, composer Marc Shaiman (a pop-show tune genius), who co-wrote the score with the equally brilliant Scott Wittman, indulges his every fantasy to beef up the orchestrations with strings, horns and even more good humor. A song I don’t like much from the Broadway original, “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” is turned into a true event thanks to Shaiman’s witty arrangement and Michelle Pfeiffer’s fabulously pinched performance. The same is true of the title song, which is pretty forgettable, but Shaiman beefs it up, and James Marsden’s surprisingly delightful performance makes it a winner (check out his little Michael Buble moment toward the end).

As for the great songs — “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “Welcome to the ’60s,” “I Know Where I’ve Been,” “I Can Hear the Bells,” “Run and Tell That,” “Without Love” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” — they’re better and brighter than ever. And I must say, I’m quite fond of the new songs “Ladies’ Choice,” sung by Zac Efron, and the end titles song, “Come So Far, Got So Far To Go,” sung by most of the cast. I don’t quite get the other end titles song, “Cooties,” but hey, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Shaiman and company have outdone themselves on this album, which I’m playing repeatedly. Sorry, Spring Awakening, but Hairspray the movie is my new favorite thing (so sue me, I’m fickle).

Show tunes and fireworks

Every year around the Fourth of July, I like to celebrate something entirely American: the musical.

I’m a little late this year, but it’s my patriotic duty. So here, better late than never, are some show tune suggestions to get you through the summer.

Of course the original cast album of the moment is Spring Awakening (Decca Broadway). The Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater score, performed by the most appealing cast on Broadway, calls out for frequent spins and rewards careful listening.

Almost as appealing, but in an entirely different way, is Curtains (Broadway Angel), the John Kander and Fred Ebb (with help from Rupert Holmes) show that has turned into a reliable hit on Broadway. The score by Kander and the late Ebb is pure, old-fashioned Broadway, with a few of the duo’s famed vamps thrown in for good measure.

The emotional highlight is Jason Danieley’s “I Miss the Music,” which is, in some ways, Kander’s musical memorial to his late writing partner.

Stars David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk are completely charming, and the disc is highly enjoyable — a classic show music experience. And for theater fans, there are abundant inside jokes (especially on Monk’s “It’s a Business) and a new theater anthem, a la “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in the rousing “Show People.”

The CD from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of 110 in the Shade (PS Classics) is worth owning for one reason: Audra McDonald. She elevates this 1964 Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones score to fine art. Just listen to her extraordinary performance — both acting and singing — on “Love, Don’t Turn Away,” “Raunchy” and “Old Maid.”

An unusal occurrence in this day and age, Grey Gardens received cast albums for both its off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. The Broadway album (distinguished by the green cover with star Christine Ebersole wearing a hat and peering around a hand mirror) from PS Classics is the one to own. It’s a more polished version of the score, and the performances (especially from Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, both Tony winners for this show) are even richer. It’s sad that the musical is closing so soon after winning Tonys, but at least the performances are preserved here.

I’ve reviewed the revival CD of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company in this space before, but I have to amend that review. After seeing the show, I fell in love with the CD, especially the performance by Raul Esparza, which I had disparaged after just listening to the disc.

Esparza was amazing onstage, and the disc from Nonesuch/PS Classics captures every bit of warmth and flawed humanity he displays in person.

Finally, we have a disc from one of the season’s major flops. High Fidelity (Ghostlight Records) never should have been a musical, and this disc demonstrates exactly why. Nick Hornby’s story about popular music snobs who work in a record store is full of very strong opinions about what makes music good and what makes it suck. The kind of music delivered here by composer Tom Kitt is exactly the kind of music that the story’s characters would make fun of. Amanda Green’s lyrics are actually pretty clever, but they’re mired in mild-to-murky pop that obscures their charms.

Two more discs to check out: Broadway Scene Stealers: The Women and Broadway Scene Stealers: The Men, both from Playbill Records and Masterworks Broadway. Hardcore show tune enthusiasts will already have most of the cuts on these discs, but they’re excellent surveys of musical theater and don’t have all the usual suspects (for instance, there’s no Andrew Lloyd Webber), and all the cuts are from original cast albums originally released on Columbia or RCA (a benefit of the Sony/BMG merger).