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Kern: The Cabaret Girl / Borowitz, Ohio Light Opera

Release Date: 02/10/2009 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1103/04   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Jerome Kern
Conductor:  Michael Borowitz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ohio Light Opera
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 54 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

KERN The Cabaret Girl Michael Borowitz, cond; Lindsay O’Neill ( Marilynn ); Julie Wright ( Lady Harrogate ); Sahara Glasener-Boles ( Little Ada ); Karla Hughes ( Lily ); Stefan Gordon ( Jim ); Paul Hopper ( Quibb ); Anthony Buck ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Gravvins ); Jacob Allen ( Gripps ); Ohio Light Op O & Ch ALBANY TROY 1103 (2 CDs: 114:08 Text and Translation) Live: Wooster 2008

This release finds the Ohio Light Opera doing what it does best, dusting off a nearly forgotten corner of early American music theater otherwise undocumented on disc. As with their landmark recordings of works by Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, Sigmund Romberg, and others of that generation, the Wooster, Ohio-based company presents the complete score and dialogue, without condescension, with great care for phrasing and stylistic nuance, and, as far as possible, using original or reconstructed orchestrations. As such, this recording of a Jerome Kern musical is self-recommending. Yet, when it is difficult to find complete performances of his post- Showboat musicals, Cat and the Fiddle, Music in the Air, Very Warm for May , or even Roberta , it is perhaps puzzling that just the third complete-text recording of a Kern operetta, after the John McGlinn reconstructions of Showboat (EMI 49108) and Sitting Prett y (New World 80387), should be such an obscure show as The Cabaret Girl.

From 1915 to 1924, Kern collaborated with the popular British comic author P. G. Wodehouse on a series of musicals in both London and New York, including a seminal string of four musicals for the Princess Theater in Manhattan. These shows are usually seen as paving the way to the modern book musical, tying songs and skits to realistic plots and character development, and it is helpful to realize that the artistic triumph of the 1927 Showboat did not spring from nothing. From a music-stylistic perspective, it is easy to understand why Kernophiles have targeted the Wodehouse/Bolton shows for revival. They wed the richly germinating style of one of the subtlest and most versatile Broadway composers to his most effective script partner before he would hook up with Oscar Hammerstein II.

The Cabaret Girl opened at the Winter Garden Theater on September 19, 1922, and ran for 361 performances, an impressive run for any musical of the day. Unlike most of the other London shows, though, it seems never to have been brought back to New York during the composer’s lifetime. The show was written as a vehicle for the American musical-comedy star Dorothy Dickson (who had already scored a success with the West End run of Sally ). She remained in London after her success in Cabaret Girl , and the close resonance of that show with her own life story may explain why it was not easily transplanted.

The plot, with its specific points of satire, was also aimed specifically at the social understanding of its British audience. Marilynn Morgan, a music-theater actress looking for work meets Jim, a young heir who can only come into the family’s money if his aunt approves of the woman he marries. Marilynn auditions for a cabaret run by the music publishers Gripps and Gravvins. (The owners sing a comic greeting song early on, whose punch line recurs throughout the show, not only as a running gag but also as a unifying musical motive, especially in larger ensemble numbers.) Taking a liking to his young star, Gripps invites her and the neighboring elites to Gravvins’s estate so that she can impress an upper crust that would normally shun the social upstart. Much of the comic action entails the cast of theater players acting like and trying to impress the “real” aristocracy. Though confusions ensue, the play ends predictably happily.

After a strikingly weighty overture, Kern cleverly sets the scene in the music-publishing house by quoting melodies from other sources, especially a snatch of a Chopin waltz, which leads into the chorus, “Chopin at one and Chopin at two.” Most striking, though, is his willingness to begin in a melancholy and chromatically inflected minor mode before shifting to the sunnier mood befitting a musical comedy. Among the early gems of the score is the ballad, “There She Stood,” a lilting, soaring tune for the male lead that points the way to later classics like “On the street where you live” or “I didn’t know what time it was,” or even the composer’s own “All the things you are.” Stefan Gordon’s baritone brings the perfect balance of clarity, security, and lightness to a song enlivened by Kern’s characteristically unusual harmonic turns.

For hardcore Kernophiles, Jim and Marilyn’s duet, “Journey’s End,” will recall the enchanting “Magic Train” duet from the 1924 Sitting Pretty . In the title role, Lindsay O’Neill’s soprano is occasionally tremulous but remains clearly focused and firmly in the idiom. Elsewhere, the novelty sextet, “Whoop-de-oodle-do,” captures the devil-may-care giddiness of 1920s British musical comedy as well as a kind of silliness suggesting a kind of pre-jazz Lady Be Good.

Like many of Kern’s shows, The Cabaret Girl is about show business and the process of song-writing. The act I finale foregrounds this by introducing the play’s signature tune, “Dancing Time,” as a tender Léharian waltz, before the young Quibb (tenor Paul Hopper) introduced a light syncopation, transforming it into a swinging foxtrot.

As in the first act, act II opens with a chorus blending major and minor modes, in this case tinged by the soft orientalism that creeps into the show until its end and marks the social pretensions of the aristocrats. Many of the numbers in this vein highlight the attention Kern and his arrangers paid to orchestration. One song that enjoyed some success apart from the original score, the act III “Kahlua,” employs violin harmonics to give an orientalist tinge to the final statement of the melody. The grand finale, “Oriental Dreams,” also uses a haunting, surprisingly melancholy but clichéd orientalist timbral palette, replete with percussion.

Apart from its unusual provenance, there are several reasons why Cabaret Girl remains a fairly obscure corner of the Kern canon. The songs arise from the dialogue and lack the show-stopping quality of his best work. But they are, in virtually every case, lively and intriguing (thanks to Kern’s ever-present harmonic and melodic sophistication), and very much products of the stylistic nexus (pre-jazz, post-foxtrot) of the early 1920s. Beyond all of these issues, the main reason was that it never appeared on Broadway. As the lovers intone in the ending reprise of “Dancing Time,” “London is the only place to be.” In the 1920s, it was the only place to catch this strikingly effective show.

The recording is taken from a live performance in the summer of 2008, and reflects the dry acoustics and other pitfalls (the occasional slipped tuning, stage noises, etc.) attendant on those circumstances, though such glitches are rarer here than in other offerings from this source. While the stock booklet note from the artistic director, Stephen Daigle, describes the company’s recordings as keepsakes of their live performance, the success of this recording makes it considerably more than that. The attempted English accents in the dialogue are mostly passable and non-distracting, less over baked than expected. This disc has repaid multiple listenings as few OLO productions have, and simply whets my appetite for more Kern. Next summer?

FANFARE: Christopher Williams
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Works on This Recording

The Cabaret Girl by Jerome Kern
Conductor:  Michael Borowitz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ohio Light Opera
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1922; London, Engalnd 

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