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Music: Give my regards to Broadway

It's been a while since Kim Criswell gave her regards to Broadway. In another time, another place, she might have been big there. Hell, she might have been Ethel Merman. The comparison has been drawn before. Actually, the voice is quite different - sleeker, sharper, subtler. But the attitude... this lady's feisty, this lady's full-on, this lady's not for turning. One day she'll... "have the whole world on a plate"? Well, that's how the song goes, and she sings it like she knows the outcome.

So why's she over here, instead of over there? Whatever happened to Broadway- made-me? Well, Criswell reckons the days of Broadway names are fast waning. Chorus girls don't get to be overnight stars any more. The "names" are in place before the box office opens. And odds-on they'll have been established in TV or film. Or they'll be Bernadette Peters. Criswell's been up against her a few times. And Patti LuPone, who is herself out of favour with Broadway producers. She was one of those for whom the system did work. One strike and she was in, Evita making her a big star. She beat Criswell to the 1987 revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes.

Criswell, meanwhile, was in London, setting down a recording of that same show and that same role - the irrepressible Reno Sweeney - with a man whose name has become synonymous with Broadway archaeology: John McGlinn (he of the exhaustive EMI restoration of Show Boat, alongside which the current Hal Prince revival seems positively skeletal). Their recording of Anything Goes - complete and authentic in every detail - hit stores at exactly the same time as the so-called revival cast album. And guess who stole all the thunder? I doubt that endeared Criswell to the producers of the show when they were looking to replace LuPone.

A McGlinn Kiss Me Kate followed, with Criswell giving her sassy Lois Lane (that's Bianca to you Shakespeare lovers). And then a role that had her name on it long before Ethel Merman decided to hang up her six-shooter - Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. For Criswell, it was always a case of "Doin' what comes natur'lly" (hell, she was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee). She went at it with her perennially sunny disposition and anything-you-can-do attitude: first a recording, then a UK tour and West End run for which she took home an Olivier nomination in the "Best Actress in a Musical" category. Home was by now feeling more and more like London. She got married and stayed.

Listen carefully enough and you'll probably hear her warming up in Bloomsbury. It's a voice that carries; a "belter". Only this one appears to defy gravity, which means it crosses all the natural breaks in the voice. It comes, says Criswell, from being a soprano, a lot of experimentation and a lot of listening - to singers who know how to sing. Singers like Streisand. She too scorns the breaks in her voice, disguising the mix to such an extent that all you hear is this bright, intense and ecstatic sound. The effect is of a big voice, but actually it's not. It's the focus which cuts it.

And that's just what you need in the theatre of musical comedy. Criswell has always been that way inclined. When she entered the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, she auditioned for both the Voice and Musical Theatre departments. She had no real interest in classical music at the time ("When you're 17, you're not dying to sing Handel - and in Tennessee no one is!!"), but she did once sing Handel's Messiah for the local glee club.

Later, she came to work on the "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust (and again, bear in mind that no one in Tennessee speaks French), by which time it was clear that the lyric opera was not to be her calling. She broke the news gently to her vocal coach - words to the effect of: "Go look under some other rock, I just ain't that kinda singer..."

Well, maybe not, but she knows a hell of a lot about singing. She'll tell you precisely how her voice functions, where the breaks are, particularly the very pronounced one around F and G at the threshold of the upper register. She's worked hard covering that. It's helped, she's found, to sing along with records of great black soul singers like Aretha Franklin (Juilliard trained, incidentally): "I'm not even sure that white vocal chords can do what they do, but when singers like Aretha get into the stratosphere, it's like there's no head tone in the mix, and it's so exciting... I can think of one white pop singer who has it - Celine Dion. There are notes she hits where you're thinking - `how do you do that?' "

But Kim Criswell knows. She knows there's no substitute for good singing; that no amount of fancy amplification (with added reverb) can make good what simply isn't. That, of course, tends to be more and more the norm these days. She laments the fact that there's so little natural sound any more. It's changed the way we listen and it's changed the way singers sing and orchestrators orchestrate. And not always for the better. In the days of "ambient miking", a few "mice" (small spot microphones) at the foot of the stage picked up the natural voice and gave it a little help. But now "we live in a deaf age. Our world is so noisy. What with Walkmans and mobile phones and traffic and everyone's TV's turned up too loud, our hearing has become more impaired than we know. We're all becoming lazier about listening - really listenin'."

She's right, of course. We live in the age of the hard sell. What would Ethel Merman have made of it all? She'd probably have remarked that it's not the shows that have gotten bigger, it's the stars that have gotten smaller. Microphones? Some of us are wired enough already, honey.

A sentiment Kim Criswell may well share as she heads up north - Opera North - for a rare staging of the Gershwins' 1931 Pulitzer Prize satire, Of Thee I Sing. As Diana Devereaux, the southern beauty queen who wins the President's hand as part of his election campaign strategy, only to be jilted for a girl who can make corn muffins, Criswell promises a high degree of stridency and a Southern twang that will hit the gallery wall like snapping knicker elastic. Meanwhile, in Birmingham, England, she'll be giving her Ruth - the Rosalind Russell role - in a new EMI recording of Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town under Sir Simon Rattle.

These days, Criswell tends to favour one-night stands over one-show-monogamy. She's hotter and busier on the cabaret circuit than ever (pianist Wayne Marshall is her current partner). She has control of the product and gets to sing all her favourite songs. But for the right role, she'd happily slip back into the old eight-shows-a-week routine. She'd love to do William Finn's Falsettos (will we ever see a London production?); Schmidt and Jones' 110 in the Shade is another of her "causes"; and, rather more imminently, she's definitely on for Flaherty and Ahrens' Broadway hit Ragtime (due to follow Show Boat into the Prince Edward) should the producers make her the right offer.

Meanwhile, the Wigmore Hall (yes, the Wigmore Hall) beckons. The hallowed hall of song has rarely, if ever, played host to Tin Pan Alley. So, brace yourselves, says Criswell, "the Vaudevillians are coming".

Kim Creswell performs in `Side by Side' by Cole Porter at the Palace Theatre, London W1 on Sunday as part of the Covent Garden Festival (booking and information: 0171-420 0171); `Of Thee I Sing' is at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113-245 6014) on 27 June