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CDs: Come to the Masquerade
by Ken Mandelbaum


MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF (Original Cast Records)

The 1960s were the heyday of the off-Broadway book musical, and many of them were based on plays, both famous (The Rivals, She Stoops to Conquer) and not so famous. One of the better off-Broadway musicals of the period was Man With a Load of Mischief, taken from Ashley Dukes' little-known play of the same title.

Man With a Load of Mischief opened uptown, at the Jan Hus Playhouse, in the fall of 1966 (the same fall that produced Cabaret, The Apple Tree, and I Do! I Do! on Broadway). It later transferred downtown, to Greenwich Village's Provincetown Playhouse. The total run was 240 performances, about as long as a good off-Broadway musical of the time was expected to play, The Fantasticks being the exception to the rule.

Set in early-19th-century England, Man With a Load of Mischief brings together by accident at the eponymous wayside inn six characters: the innkeeper and his wife, a lord with his manservant, and a lady with her maid. The lady is a former actress, fleeing a Prince whose mistress she has lately been. The plot twist has the servant unexpectedly winning the hand of the lady.

The '66 production had Reid Shelton and Raymond Thorne as servant and master; they would be reunited eleven years later, playing Warbucks and F.D.R. in Annie. Virginia Vestoff was the lady; she had recently understudied Elizabeth Seal in Irma La Douce and Inga Swenson in Baker Street, and would soon go on to create the role of Abigail Adams in 1776, a part she would get to preserve on screen.

The music and lyrics for Man With a Load of Mischief were by John Clifton, with librettist Ben Tarver sharing the lyrics. Clifton gave the manservant three intense solos ("Hulla Baloo Balay," "Come to the Masquerade," "Make Way for My Lady"), and an equal number of strong items ("Goodbye, My Sweet," "A Wonder," title song) for the lady. The maid has perhaps the catchiest tune, "Once You've Had a Little Taste," and later a wistful "Little Rag Doll." And there's a fine waltz quartet for the maid, lord, and innkeeper, called "Romance."

Clifton and Tarver provided one of the best of all recorded off-Broadway scores here, on a par with Ernest in Love or The Streets of New York. Clifton's later works include a one-performance off-Broadway piece called A Quarter for the Ladies' Room (with Benay Venuta) and an underrated off-Broadway musical (of Broadway size, staged at the Entermedia) called El Bravo! (1981).

With superb work from Shelton and especially Vestoff, the original 1966 production of Man With a Load of Mischief produced a fine Kapp Records cast LP that has long been out of print. One suspects that Decca Broadway, which controls Kapp titles, hasn't been in a hurry to reissue Mischief on CD. (And one hopes the label will first get to another Kapp title, Donnybrook!)

Because of its fine score, piquant plotting, and small cast, Man With a Load of Mischief has been performed here and there since the original. But one hadn't expected to get a second recording. The piece now has one, perhaps motivated by the 2003 mounting the show got in York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti series. Original Cast Records' new Man With a Load of Mischief CD features two of the Mufti leads, Diane Sutherland (formerly Fratantoni) as the lady and Stephen Bogardus as the lord. Clifton himself sings the role of the innkeeper.

As you would expect, the CD includes a fair amount of material not on the old LP. But it mostly takes the form of reprises or sequences extended by the inclusion of dialogue. There's little if any additional music, although one gets a fuller picture of the show as a whole.

I approached this new recording with trepidation, being quite fond of the off-Broadway disc. But if the old recording has more personality and offers an even more persuasive performance, the new CD supplies an admirable account of the score. Outstanding is Alex Santoriello (Les Miserables), who takes a far more operatic approach to the role of the manservant than did Shelton and is impressive in his three big spots.

Sutherland, who has recorded leads in Guys and Dolls and She Loves Me, has the impossible task of replacing Vestoff's knockout performance as the lady. If Sutherland isn't as touching as her predecessor in the title song and the prettiest item, "A Wonder," her soprano is strong throughout. Handling the maid's pair of solos adeptly is Brooke Sunny Moriber (Parade, The Wild Party, Follies, My Life With Albertine). Bogardus is fine as the Lord; Clifton does well by the innkeeper's big number, "What Style!"; and Susan Lehman is satisfactory as his wife.

The CD bills no musical director or orchestra; presumably in charge is Clifton, who's listed as producer and orchestrator of the recording. His score for Man With a Load of Mischief remains choice, and this new recording does it justice. It can be recommended, particularly as one doesn't expect to see the off-Broadway recording reappearing anytime soon.


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