Thursday January 24, 2013

Two More Vintage Musicals Appear on DVDs

KEENE, N.H.

There are two new additions to the Video Artists International series of vintage televised musicals from the 1950s both of which are most unusual.

Babes in Toyland -- Designed for Christmas viewing, Victor Herbert’s "Babes in Toyland" was telecast on Dec. 18, 1954 and again on Dec, 24, 1955 with only two cast changes. Since both were available as black-and-white kinescopes, the good folk at VAI chose to include both on a single disc.

What makes this production even more valuable is that it is the only version seen on small or big screens to keep to the original plot. Will the beautiful Bo-Peep find her sheep? Will the horrible Silas Barnaby get his wicked way? Allow me to ignore the plot, as I am sure all but children will do, and reassure my readers that the music is the essence. How can one dislike a duet based on a math homework problem?

There are five writers listed who have "adapted" the show to fit into a 90-minute (less for commercials) slot. So allowances must be made by those who know the original version.

Those who lived through the 1950s will recognize in the casts, many a personality: Dave Garroway (Santa Claus in a framing device), Dennis Day (Tommy Tucker), Wally Cox (Grumio), Jack E. Leonard (Barnaby), and even Bill and Cora Baird and their Marionettes.


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The soprano lead of Jane Piper is Jo Sullivan in 1954 and Barbara Cook in 1955.

The highlight of "Babes in Toyland" is obviously the "March of the Toys" in which the show’s most famous music is heard and in which the choreographer can be as imaginative as possible. Given the small area of the television studio, Rod Alexander did a very nice job, using both marionettes and live dancers. In fact, the telecasts produced by Max Liebman make good use of the Rod Alexander and Bambi Linn dance team.

While the clown routines might prove a bit tiresome for adults, the tiny tots will eat them up. Many viewers, however, will appreciate the changes in the clown sequence in 1954 and 1955.

I have always thought that the opening and closing number, "Toyland," has a slight apologetic ring to it. Asking an adult audience to watch Mother Goose characters does perhaps call for an excuse. (The 1903 original was designed as a Christmas review.) But somehow the song works and therefore so does the show.

Marco Polo -- The second offering is a musical especially designed for television and is therefore recorded in its entirety.

"Marco Polo" (telecast April 14, 1956) is obviously inspired by "Kismet" (1953). The book is by William Friedberg and Neil Simon, the lyrics by Edward Eager, and the music of Rimski Korsakov is adapted by Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl. Even "Kismet" stars Alfred Drake Doretta Morrow in the leads are cast to complete the feeling of deja vu.

Somehow the whole project lacks sparkle. Except for "Is it you," which is based on the Prince and Princess theme in "Scheherazade," the melodies do not compete with the best of the Borodin themes in "Kismet." Some of the incidental music works to set a mood, but Warnick and Pahl were obviously hard put to find melodic material. And except for "Population," the lyrics lack originality or wit.

Now for the virtues. Drake can take any mediocre song and make it sound good. Soprano Doretta Morrow plays no less than four parts so that all the interesting women Polo finds during his stay in the East have the same face. And at the end, expectation is thwarted. Character actor Ross Martin does a good job as the ruler of Tibet, making the most of a cardboard character.

The dance routines are not bad, considering the small area of the studio set. The timing of the show without the commercials is 80 minutes; and the commercials are actually added as bonus material. The picture is in Kinescope black and white, the sound a product of its time. Drake and Morrow make this required viewing for those interested in the history of musicals on television.

Note: Some time ago, the sound track of the musical numbers was released on a DRG CD. Take my word, the video is the way to go with "Marco Polo."

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.