CDS IN review By David A. Rosenberg

It's a dilemma. Of course, we want show music to gain back at least a modicum of the popularity it once held. But how much fiddling in the name of mass appeal can there be before interpretation becomes distortion?

In her introduction to My Favorite Broadway: The Love Songs, Julie Andrews, a genuine star whose crystalline soprano has been troubled lately, advises the audience to "let the music speak." And so it does, backed by the robust orchestra under Paul Gemignani.

Don't expect all idiosyncratic Broadway sounds, however. Many of the cuts are strictly pop versions of show tunes that won't recall the contexts in which they were first heard. Heather Headley's "He Touched Me," Adam Pascal's "Seasons of Love," and Linda Eder's medley, while they have their virtues, seem designed to boost not the songs but their interpreters' egos.

Contrast the above with distinctive character-laden numbers by Marin Mazzie, Robert Goulet, Peter Gallagher, and Chita Rivera, not to mention the evening's sentimental highlight, Andrews' spinning out several bars of "The Rain in Spain," supported by a delicious Michael Crawford.

Turning to Donny Osmond's This Is the Moment, we may as well chuck any idea of a Broadway sound. This is an unabashedly pop album, arranged to draw the onetime teen idol's fans and surely not theatre buffs. That said, and understood, the CD is a pleasant dance disc.

Osmond sings with vitality and clarity, although here's a voice that surely relies on a mike's assistance. He has considerable success with the strong beats of "This Is the Moment" and "Luck Be a Lady," although nothing much can be done with "Immortality" from Saturday Night Fever.

Less well known are typically inspirational songs from a pair of Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, The Beautiful Game and Whistle Down the Wind, not yet seen in New York. Also novel are three charming numbers from Seussical and a duet with Rosie O'Donnell, that struggling musical's biggest booster.

His pairing with Vanessa Williams on "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd is the CD's best cut, closely followed by the final track, a charismatic "Give My Regards to Broadway."

Speaking of Seussical, on disc the music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty come through with charm and insouciance—at least for a time. It's certainly singable—swing, vaudeville, and lots of Latin—especially "Oh, the Thinks You Can Think," "Alone in the Universe," and the oft-repeated "How Lucky You Are."

But the score is schizoid, lacks magic, and eventually sledgehammers Dr. Seuss' wise and whimsical material into the ground. Anthony Blair Hall as JoJo and Kevin Chamberlin as Horton the Elephant best capture the spirit of a work that, even on CD, comes across as too diffuse to appeal equally to children and adults.

As for A Class Act, the Off-Broadway work now on the Main Stem barely skirts the lugubrious in saluting the life and career of Edward Kleban. Framed by a Shubert Theatre memorial, the show is a compendium of, and apologia for, the composer/lyricist who wrote lyrics only for A Chorus Line.

The songs can best be described as "bubbly" or "tender," but they don't get under the skin. Accomplished they may be, but they're no more than pleasant, with delightfully dippy rhymes like "Hansel and Gretel/Jumped over the shtetl" and some sappy lines like "If you follow your star/You'll find home."

A Class Act lacks cohesion, at least on disc, coming across as more an insider revue than a book show. The center is the neurotic character of Kleban, limned by Lonny Price with a Woody Allen appeal. In a top-notch cast, the women stand out: Carolee Carmello, Julia Murney, Nancy Kathryn Anderson, and Randy Graff are, as they always are, professionals to their core.

For pop as filtered through cabaret, there's Jason Graae: Live at the Cinegrill, an act better seen than heard. Against a background of California laughter, Graae clobbers such theatre songs as "But Alive" from Applause and "Wrong Note Rag" from Wonderful Town. Graae's light, breathy voice works best on "She Touched Me" from Drat the Cat and "It Would Have Been Wonderful" from Annie Warbucks, helped considerably by Gerald Sternbach at the piano. The penultimate track, "What More Can I Say?" from Falsettos, is the album's most heartfelt. But not for nothing is the CD subtitled "An Evening of Self-Indulgence."

At the other end of the scale, Jason Howard pays tribute to Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae in Make Believe: The Hollywood Baritones. Although the tracks are inspired by films, many songs were, of course, first heard on stage. Backed by the City of Prague Philharmonic under conductor Paul Bateman, Howard, a Welsh native, caresses the notes in arrangements so lush they practically scream "Technicolor!"

Howard sublimates his operatic voice and, like Thomas Hampson, respects songs by the likes of Porter, Rodgers, Berlin, and Kern. What's lacking, however, is a sense of fun, nowhere more apparent than in a rather heavy "Where is the Life That Late I Led?" from Kiss Me, Kate.

Ria Jones and Jill Washington join Howard on numbers from Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, and Kismet. Album highlights include the Arthur Freed/Harry Warren "Why Is Love So Crazy?" from Pagan Love Song and selections from both Carousel and Oklahoma! With all its merits and demerits (Howard doesn't always "act" the lyrics and some tempi are slow), The Hollywood Baritones at least doesn't wrench these wonderful songs out of shape. The informative booklet notes are a bonus.