REVIEW: Three Alfred Drake Reissues

Recording CoverAlfred Drake is having a moment. Sure, he died nearly a quarter-century ago, but with three of his albums newly available, it’s a great time to be an Alfred Drake fan – or to become one.

Once Broadway’s leading baritone, Drake famously originated roles in Babes in Arms, Oklahoma!, Kismet, and Kiss Me, Kate, recording the latter two twice, with later stereo discs complementing the original monaural versions.

That stereo version of Kismet, a recording of the 1965 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival, is the first of the Drake reissues, out now from Masterworks Broadway. Drake reprises the role he originated, Hajj, joined this time around by Anne Jeffreys as Lalume, Lee Venora as Marsineh, Richard Banke as the Caliph, and Henry Calvin as the Wazir.

The cast is uniformly excellent, although not necessarily preferable to the similarly excellent original cast. Drake’s performance is somewhat more relaxed in this recording, in good voice throughout. His greater comfort with the role allows him to take some of the tongue-twisting patter songs at a faster tempo, an impressive trick although one that may not actually best serve the songs.

In addition to its stereophonic sound, the revival cast album boasts one number not on the original, “Bored,” written for Dolores Gray to sing in the film, here a showcase for Jeffreys. This is a fine disc on its own, but hardly essential for those who already own the great original album.

align=leftThe two other Drake albums making their digital debut were originally produced by Enoch Light for his own Command Records label, and both team Drake with opera star Roberta Peters: Carousel and Alfred Drake & Roberta Peters Sing The Popular Music of Leonard Bernstein.

At this point in his career, Light was as interested in perfecting the technology of recorded music as he was in the music himself, and Command Records was his venue for demonstrating what new musical avenues stereophonic sound opened. One technique he favored was “35-MM Sound,” which involved recording on 35-millimeter film rather than magnetic tape. The resulting LPs were less susceptible to certain kinds of audio distortion, a feature that was perhaps more exciting in the early 60s on vinyl than it is for today’s digital download.

Regardless, Light brought that same obsession with perfection to the musical side of his work, and the result shows, especially in the Carousel album. Stepping aside from his usual spot at the conductor’s podium, Light enlisted Broadway vet Jay Blackton as musical director and choral arranger. Devoting months to preparing the album and a full two weeks of recording sessions interspersed with rehearsals, Light spared no expense to preserve what he hoped would be a newly definitive recording of his favorite musical, designed specifically for the ear.

Listening today, it’s hard to claim the result as definitive, sounding more like a performance aimed at a concert hall than Broadway, but it offers quite a few delights. Drake and Peters are joined by Lee Venora (previously Drake’s co-star in Kean – the aforementioned Kismet still yet to come) and a handful of names from the opera world (Jon Crain, Norman Treigle, and Claramae Turner, reprising her role as Nettie from the Carousel film). They bring the heft and skill of opera to the score without sacrificing its folksy charm. While Venora and Crain may lack a bit of the playfulness others have brought to Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, they sing the roles beautifully. Similarly, in Peters’s voice, “What’s the Use of Wonderin’” takes its place as a top shelf aria.

On some level, though, any recording of Carousel is only as good as its “Soliloquy.” Here, Drake falls a bit short, offering bravura vocals but a characterization that’s a bit patrician and measured for the blowhard carny Billy Bigelow. As concert singing, it’s a marvelous performance; but in a cast recording context, it falls a bit short, which is more or less true of the entire album. Regardless of its theatrical shortcomings, it’s a treat to hear Rodgers & Hammerstein sung so beautifully.

align=left In this reissue, Carousel is paired with Alfred Drake and Roberta Peters Sing the Popular Music of Leonard Bernstein. Here, Light takes up the baton for a fun, if slightly dated, collection of songs from Candide, On The Town, West Side Story, and Wonderful Town. The arrangements are full of swingin’ 60s brass and the slightly too-corny cheerfulness of the Ray Charles Singers.

The song selection for the most part plays to the duo’s strengths, enabling Drake to show off his versatility as he easily switches from the lovestruck Gabey of “Lucky to Be Me” to the self-serious Pangloss of “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” Peters is a little out of her element in the jazzy “New York, New York,” but if that’s the price to get her “Tonight” and “Glitter and Be Gay,” it’s worth it. One number from the LP, “Gee, Officer Krupke” performed by the Ray Charles Singers, has been left off the CD issue. You won’t miss it, but if you do, it’s available as a free download from Stage Door Records.

The Drake/Peters Twofer has been issued as part of the Stage Door Records Collector's Series in an edition limited to 500 units, so if you're interested in adding this to your collection (and you should be), don't wait.


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