Continuing the label's outstanding reputation for quality releases of recordings of overlooked music of the past, Sepia Records' latest batch includes the surprisingly invigorating show Arabian Nights.
Created for the open-air Jones Beach Marine Theatre on Long Island in 1954, the piece was a spectacle produced by the bandleader, restaurateur and speedboat racer Guy Lombardo with a score by his younger brother Carmen and their brother-in-law, John Jacob Loeb. In his lively and informative essay in Sepia's liner booklet, operetta expert Richard Traubner explains that Arabian Nights came about when the Marine Theatre couldn't get permission to stage Kismet. The resultant work is reminiscent of the more famous Wright and Forrest show in many ways; there's no competition for the great love songs of Kismet here, but Arabian Nights seems to be a lot wittier and more willing to embrace an eclectic range of styles, from an overt Broadway sound to a pastiche Gilbert and Sullivan number ('The Grand Vizier's Lament').
Traubner explains how the book for Arabian Nights was written by George Marion Jnr of Love Me Tonight and The Gay Divorcee fame. Of course, from a recording of the score one can't appreciate the librettist's work in its totality, but the light touch of Marion's treatment of the Scheherazade story is apparent both in the diverse range of characters and the plot-clinching opportunities of which most of the numbers seem to take advantage. Evidently the book was written to allow the show to be an audience-pleaser on a grand scale: the personnel included a team of acrobats and a 'Disappearing Water Ballet' comprising seventeen swimmers, with the stage filled with 112 people during the finale, while the props included a floating Chinese junk and a seventy-foot mechanised whale.
Lombardo and Loeb's score takes advantage of the score's diverse cast. At the heavier end of the spectrum, we have Danish Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior as the Sultan and Chinese Emperor, following on from a trend started by Ezio Pinza in South Pacific of an opera singer taking to the Broadway stage (something that would continue with the likes of Cesare Siepi, Giorgio Tozzi and Robert Weede). Melchior is given a couple of slightly pompous songs to perform, 'Hail to the Sultan' and 'A Long Ago Love', which are not particularly to my taste, but 'Marry The One You Love' is a charming and memorable Viennese waltz. At the other end of the scale, comic soubrette Hope Holiday provides two of the highlights of the disc. 'It's Great to Be Alive' is a wonderfully catchy showstopper with a hilarious lyric – 'The Persian lamb says that's the reason / I don't want to be a rug next season' – while I find her rendition of the undeniably silly 'Teenie Weenie Genie' ('I'm just a pocket-sized Houdini') totally irresistible. Helena Scott's attractive voice production enhances both the lovely 'Hero of All My Dreams' and the romantic duets 'How Long has it Been?' and 'A Thousand and One Nights'. The wittily delicate 'Bath Parade' and the fabulous Overture complete a treasure-trove of a score.
The Overture also highlights the excellent job done by Sepia in remastering the original recordings. The depth of sound in this lavishly-orchestrated number hints at the pleasures to come; throughout, the recordings are delivered to us with immediacy and vividness. Added to this, the CD contains ten bonus tracks (mostly dance-band arrangements of the songs by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians) and the excellent liner booklet contains a wealth of illustrative material about the show and its performers.
Although Arabian Nights could never be put on the same level as a Show Boat or a West Side Story, it never really aspired to be that kind of lofty book musical. What we have here is an entertaining romp and a fascinating document of an uplifting and oft-overlooked 1950s show.
Previous reviews of musical theatre:
Lost Musicals' Sail Away at the Lilian Baylis Theatre
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO