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From the stage to the store

Published June 4, 2006

Stephen Sondheim is among the most widely anthologized songwriters around these days, and his music routinely shows up on solo CDs by musical theater performers. Maria Friedman and Brian Stokes Mitchell both include generous helpings of Sondheim on their new releases.

Patti LuPone does not, but she's got an excuse, since she is singing Sondheim on Broadway. LuPone plays that bloodthirsty maker of the worst pies in London, Mrs. Lovett, in the acclaimed revival of Sweeney Todd, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award.

The Lady with the Torch is LuPone's collection of, yes, torch songs about love in all its misery. The best of them, such as her sumptuous rendition of Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, are perversely exhilarating. LuPone has a sulky, insinuating style that puts a sadder-but-wiser spin on classic weepers like So In Love, The Man I Love and I Wanna Be Around. Who needs Sondheim when you've got the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jule Styne and Johnny Mercer?

Friedman pitches in on her new album, Now and Then (the title of a typically glamorous Michel Legrand song), with perhaps the ultimate torch song, The Man That Got Away. But she also sings a couple of Sondheim songs on art, including his Children and Art with a rare appearance by the composer on piano. She comes by her Sondheim credentials via the London production of Passion, in which she played the obsessive Fosca.

With a bright, brassy pop style reminiscent of Petula Clark, Sarah Brightman, Elaine Page and other British performers, Friedman made her way to Broadway this season, starring in Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest, The Woman in White, which had a modest run before closing in February. However mixed the reviews were, Friedman deserves the show-must-go-on Tony, being diagnosed with breast cancer in October, getting operated upon and then going onstage for opening night in November. Her soaring I Happen To Like New York is a lusty, life-affirming tribute to the Big Apple.

Stokes - the last name preferred by the Broadway baritone - is at his best in juicy, near-operatic roles such as the Shakespearean actor-producer Fred Graham in Kiss Me, Kate, for which he won a Tony, or Emile de Becque, the French planter whom he portrays opposite Reba McEntire's Nellie Forbush in a recent concert recording of South Pacific. Nobody can belt out a big tune as well as he.

But Stokes seems determined to go against type in his first solo CD, in which he also served as an arranger, orchestrator, keyboard player and producer. In one of the Sondheim tracks, he muddles Another 100 People (from Company) by linking it with Duke Ellington's Take the A Train. He adopts an unpersuasive intimate style in moody songs like Pretty Women (from Sweeney Todd), Lazy Afternoon and How Long Has This Been Going On? when all you really want to hear is his glorious voice bringing down the house with Some Enchanted Evening.

Patti LuPone, The Lady with the Torch (Ghostlight)

Critic's grade: A

Maria Friedman, Now and Then (Sony)

Critic's grade:B

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brian Stokes Mitchell (Playbill)

Critic's grade: C

[Last modified June 1, 2006, 13:04:42]

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