Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Camelot and South Pacific
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's open our minds and ears to alternate versions of classic musicals as presented in cast recordings: Camelot's recently opened revival and a complete South Pacific with a studio cast from 1996 reissued with improved sound.

Broadway Records
Digital | CD (to be released 6/30)

I know it sounds a bit bizarre, but in Camelot-listening, with the new cast recording playing, the controversial and much-discussed changes and choices made for this new revised production aren't a big deal or deal-breaker for enjoyment. Oh, there are prominent examples of dialogue and altered attitudes in performances reminding us of the overhaul. And having been sent a pre-release copy of the CD version that will come out on the last day of this month, I also see that the photo-filled booklet accompanying it presents more focus on the different approach, dedicating a page to book(re)writer Aaron Sorkin's comments on his decisions and reasoning as well as points brought out in the synopsis of the adjusted plot. There are plenty of enjoyable, entertaining moments on this cast recording. It may well be welcomed by collectors with a lot of Camelot who relish recipes making variety the spice of life (even if every course in the meal on the the menu isn't equally tasty). The accompanying metaphorical glass is at least half full.

Traditionalists and others who are ready to be enraptured by the Frederick Loewe melodies will be richly rewarded as the 30-piece orchestra sounds splendid and very present, with the original 1960 orchestrations (Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang) and dance/choral arrangements (Trude Rittman), plus additional arrangements by the production's music director Kimberly Grigsby. Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics, clever or passionate, come through well articulated and with some fresh phrasing. I am grateful to have an "Entr'Acte" on the 19-track release, although I would have been glad if "Follow Me" and "The Jousts" weren't cut (although they often are).

There's a disarming gentleness with Andrew Burnap's performance as King Arthur, endearingly sweet and vulnerable. It's a trade-off because gravitas and mature perspective in this role are typically the assets, but the more youthful yearning and dismay evoke sympathy. These qualities come through in "How to Handle a Woman" and a lengthy monologue. The recording also brings out some appealing humor and spunk in Phillipa Soo's sung and spoken lines as Queen Guenevere.

The Lancelot of this Camelot, Jordan Donica, certainly seems to be quite in love with Guenevere (and with himself in "C'est Moi," as required), even if "If Ever I Would Leave You" becomes overwrought and anguished more than ardently devotional. But I kind of love "I Loved You Once in Silence" being reassigned to his character as it's nice to hear it in a male voice, exposing the hurt in addition to heart and heroism other songs parade. I appreciate Taylor Trensch's bright bombast in the role of the King's snide illegitimate son Mordred, a character with the potential to be annoying if resentment is overplayed.

While not every experiment or excess brings excellent results to be improvements, this Camelot is worth exploring.

(2023 DigiMIX Reissue)
JAY Records
2-CD SET | Digital

Like other giant hits from Broadway's golden age, South Pacific's songs have been treated to many recordings since the original cast's documentation debuted back in pre-stereo 1949 on a set of those heavy, fragile individual 78rpm records. It wasn't until 1996, however, that fans got a full recording of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's work in all its glowing glory–with full-length numbers, reprises, dance music, exit music, and more.

The orchestra, under the baton of John Owen Edwards, is lush with no mush. Chorus numbers have vitality. Some melodies get heard in different flavors than their vocal renditions, with the accustomed boisterousness of the song "Bloody Mary" also becoming cute and courtly. Room was made for some dialogue and underscoring, too. Music producer John Yap's complete and completely loyal presentation has a studio cast and the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations played at their original stage tempi. He gathered together a cast that included people who'd been in various productions of the musical, but hadn't had the opportunity to record their performances. The only thing better than having a score that is beloved being belatedly recorded so completely is if it is completely re-engineered for improved sound and reissued. Well, this JAY Records re-release does the trick, made possible by its DigiMIX process (used to enhance the listening experience for some other re-releases in the label's catalog). It sounds resplendent indeed and the orchestra's colors and crispness are marvelous to behold, keeping me happily rapt (as it's wrapped around my eager ears).

As the self-described "Cock-Eyed Optimist" navy nurse Nellie, Paige O'Hara projects plucky personality more than a big belt or her voice's potential for beauty (Beauty and the Beast's heroine was her creamy Disney voicing assignment earlier in the 1990s). Idiosyncratic, she's less like her surnamesake Kelli, who was New York's most recent Nellie, and more in the merry Mary Martin mold of 1949. There's been a long line of mature romantic leading men as Emile, and the star of the New York City Opera 1986 production, Justino Diaz, reminds me of, but is no clone of, other powerful Emiles–such as originator Ezio Pinza, Giorgio Tozzi (1967 Lincoln Center cast and dubbing the film's star, Rossano Brazzi), and Paulo Szot of the 2008 Lincoln Center cast. I don't know what it is about the role that attracts men with a Z or two in their names, but Mr. Diaz dazzles and is dignified with "Some Enchanted Evening," enchanting when more relaxed reprises reveal a low-key side of the character, as does some dialogue showing Emile to be casual and content. The two stars have chemistry in the cuddling and conflicts that come with this "opposites attract" relationship. Each gets a mini-reprise of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair."

Pat Suzuki brings tenderness to the role of Bloody Mary, with her vocal on "Bali H'ai" subtly seductive and nuanced. Sean McDermott is a satisfyingly sensitive Lieutenant Cable, besotted with love and then shaking himself from its dreamy state. He's heard (with an assist from Miss O'Hara) in "My Girl Back Home," cut from the original show, then restored for the movie and some stage productions. (This elusive track wasn't on the 1996 double-CD set, but showed up on a single-disc version, which also plucked "Bali H'ai" from the full set issued in Britain that presented Shezwae Powell as Bloody Mary, but was otherwise identical.)

The double CD comes with a booklet that has photos, some historical perspective, and a detailed plot synopsis. This rich return trip to South Pacific brings it to vibrant life.