It's time to catch up on some recent cast albums. But we're not "talkin' Broadway" this time. We're talkin' off-Broadway, London, a studio cast, and the wonderful world of Disney where the on-stage cast is pretending to be in a recording studio. There are indeed recordings of the newest Broadway musicals being prepared, pressed, and packaged this month and we all look forward to hearing how they transfer to disc without the visuals, in-person energy, Arthurian armor, dangerous lamp posts, etc. We'll be covering some cabaret and jazz artists in the next column, a few days before the MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards. With this installment, Sound Advice becomes a weekly column, so count on it being here each Thursday before the sun sets on Broadway (later on London's West End).
Get ready to laugh. The outrageous British vocal trio known as Fascinating Aida has returned to the New York stage and put together what is more or less a "cast album" with virtually all of the numbers in the current production of Absolutely Fascinating. It is now playing at the Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row. First, the clarification/disclaimer: 13 of those wild and witty tracks were previously issued on other albums, but they've been collected here along with 8 newly-recorded ones in order to have this show's songs all on one CD. It also means the soprano voice is less often the newish member, Liza Pulman, rather than her also-swell predecessors. You'll only be frustrated if you have all their previous CDs and feel you're the victim of partial recycling. Give them a minute, and they'll write a funny song about that, too.
Some comedy songs don't hold up well after a couple of hearings. That's not the case with these. Having seen their live performance last week and last year, and having listened to this recording several times before writing a word here, it still is hilarious. In fact, after "getting" the main jokes and surprise punch lines to lyrics, one can then focus on the pleasures of the finer details in the craft of the songwriting and the harmonies. Two of the members (Adele Anderson and the group's founder, Dillie Keane) wrote virtually everything. The writing is skilled and chock full of clever rhymes and smart barbs as they fearlessly and flippantly satirize modern life. Topics range from aging gracelessly to social and religious pretentiousness to current politics. Nothing is sacred and they get away with murder somehow with those misleadingly "proper" British accents and graceful ways. Self-deprecating to the hilt, with fine-tuned comic timing, they are a merry, madcap, motley crew. Although their visual impact adds a lot, with priceless facial expressions, as a disc it is still laugh-out-loud funny.
Some may be offended by the frankness or well-placed naughty word, but being gentle or "politically correct" is not the goal. Utilizing pianist Russell Churney as a singer occasionally adds an extra flavor: he is wonderfully dry whether musing on being a lesbian or a New Zealander. He also addresses the musical question "Yes, But Is It Art?" With all the above-mentioned talent in writing and performance, there's no question. Yes, it is art.
If you can laugh at our modern world with its focus on plastic surgery, tacky celebrities, Viagra, mindless trendiness, genetic mutation and more fun things, you'll be in good company. Fascinating Aida is laughing with us, not at us. O.K., maybe at us, also - but mostly they laugh at themselves, and invite us to do the same.
The latest news is always good for a laugh or cry, but it's not news that milking the headlines for laughs is an old game which is not won by every player. This week, the on-again/off-again satirical revue Newsical packs up its targets and hits the road for a tour and a stay in Denver. Before leaving New York, a cast album was released, including 20 songs from the show which continues to be updated as the news changes. Some of the material on the CD dates (and dates badly) from the show when it was titled Where In the World. Other tunes have passed their expiration date and are now stale; the last election feels like a long time ago (doesn't it?). By now, many have overdosed on mocking easy marks such as Martha Stewart and the governor of California. Granted, it's hard to keep up with the Times. Composer-lyricist Rick Crom has some good ideas but the songs don't have the sharper wit, daring, and clever rhymes which make the Fascinating Aida songs so much richer.
The closing number, "Denial," the one song that is not specifically about passing celebrities and events, is miles above anything else. Perceptive and surprising, with more variety, it does not push and strain like much of the score. How much you chuckle or grimace while listening to songs about Bill Clinton, Anna Nicole Smith, computer dates, and airport security guards may depend on how much you like them .... or hate them. It will be interesting to see what else Crom comes up with: he is collaborating on a book musical. Some of these melodies are quite ingratiating on their own.
Recorded live, portraying a wide variety of ordinary folk and skewered stars of politics and show biz are Todd Alan Johnson, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jeff Skowron, and the versatile Kim Cea. This energetic cast never sounds tired, even if the material sometimes does. Let's wish them well in future updates and hope tomorrow's news brings us all something to smile about.
DISNEY'S "ON THE RECORD"
Disney has made its presence felt on Broadway, to put it mildly. Songs from their let's-make-the-hit-movie-a-hit-stage-show Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mary Poppins (coming soon from London) are included in this 2-CD set. The recording a live show which has been touring around the country, scheduled now for its last stops in Florida and Texas. 71 songs (that's not a typographical error) are shoehorned into the recording, but not quite all have been in the live show as it has toured. The storyline (not much in the way of a story, even less in the way of lines) is just about singers in a studio. Some of the tunes are performed in medleys, with a total of 45 tracks, spanning the Disney decades from the 1930s to a song from last year's Home On The Range. Except for six tunes done as instrumentals, they are performed with spirit by four principal singers and four more in a quartet: Mededith Inglesby, Keewa Narullah and two of off-Broadway's Altar Boyz, Tyler Maynard and Andy Karl. The accompaniment is by a 10-person band. Sounds like everything you could want from this beloved legacy, right? Well, no.
You can't say it isn't lively, so I won't. It's lively. You can almost hear them smiling. It's perky and bouncy in a way that's very "white bread," and, well, very "theme park," which is what it is. Sure, it's good, clean fun - but without much fun, and that can't be good. What makes many Disney songs so successful is that they are well written to show character and in the films they are performed with strong, idiosyncratic personality voices. Others have genuine innocence. Over the years, non-soundtrack performers as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Barbara Cook, Debbie Gravitte and Louis Prima have reinterpreted the songs, in full-length albums, in a wide variety of styles.
So much on this album sounds watered down with any interesting rough edges smoothed over and much of the personality drained. It feels like the direction was, "Grin. When in doubt, be bland. When confronting sadness, gloss over it or just pick up the tempo." However, there are some perfectly enjoyable moments. Homogenization gets a respite with playful animal-oriented numbers such as those from Dumbo and Lady And The Tramp. A few of the simpler plaintive numbers are fine, and the combination of "I'm Wishing" and "One Song" (both from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs) shows some welcome originality. Of the four main singers, Brian Sutherland shows the most interesting vocal quality and sneaks in some genuine emotion. Kaitlin Hopkins, who won praise as the mothers in Bat Boy and Bare does not get to show her versatility here. (She came into the show in the middle of the tour, replacing Emily Skinner.) Playing two younger singers are two younger singers, Ashley Brown and Andrew Samonsky, who sound appropriately wistful and hopeful in numbers calling for such tones, but they, alas, sound rather generic.
When there are many Disney collections on CD, including the company's own compilations from original soundtracks and the 2003 album of Sherman Brothers-penned tunes (on Fynsworth Alley), this is skim milk compared to the cream. For the most part, it feels as redundant as one of the song titles: "You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!"
Simply Heavenly was a 1957 show originally billed as a "musical folk comedy." Langston Hughes, especially celebrated for his poems, had written a series of stories about a Harlem everyman, and the tales became the basis for this show with his lyrics and book. A decade earlier, Hughes had collaborated on Street Scene, with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice, which was close to an opera. In between, he wrote lyrics for a couple of shows which lasted for a tiny number of performances. Simply Heavenly, with music by David Martin, played for a few months both on and off Broadway and was shown on television. A London production lasted only two weeks in 1958, but in 2003 the British very successfully dusted it off and found a hit.
Set in Harlem bar, a group of regulars comment on their lives, loves and ex-loves (Mr. Simple is seeking a divorce and new lady). The plot never thickens, but thickening was not attempted. It's about sharing a few feelings, a few songs and a few drinks. Langston Hughes was known for searing, sad commentaries on racism and strife, but he apparently took a holiday here. The going is not at all heavy. This bar scene is not about crying in your beer, but very much is a feel-good Happy Hour. Alternately showy, bluesy, brazen and risque, the songs are entertaining and mostly high-energy turns for the strong-voiced cast. If you are looking for character development, storytelling musical theatre, or the usual 1950s Broadway sound, you won't find it here. The songs may not stick with you or make you think deeply, but you will likely be tempted to smile, clap and shout. That's entertainment.
Thanks to a God-granted miracle, the village of Brigadoon comes to life for one day and then disappears for 100 years. This Brigadoon recording was done in 1995 and disappeared without being released, re-emerging from the mist a mere 10 years later. The recording had been announced as a 2-CD set, the first truly complete recording of the score, which would have made it an Event. Although the 2-CD set is still expected to be released, this issue is a single disc version, a bit over an hour long. Orchestrally, we do get an entr'acte and some of the dance music from the stately orchestra conducted by Martin Yates. With the original 1947 Ted Royal orchestrations for the romantic Frederick Loewe-Alan Jay Lerner score, it's heavenly and treated with respect.
The tracks made by the singer in the leading male role have been replaced by George Dvorsky, who has been on disc portraying characters as varied as a Vegas singer (Pete 'n' Keely) and the husband of the first woman President of the U.S. (I Love You, Madam President) and has his own solo album, In The Still Of The Night. He sounds fine and quite comfortable in this role, not at all surprising since he has played it in several productions (New York City Opera, Pittsburgh CLO, etc.). With a lightness in his singing, he allows his character to sound more reflective than others who have relied more on vocal blast.
Our leading lady, the more formal-sounding Janis Kelly, has a pleasing timbre but does not come off quite as invested in the character or emotion as needed to have the full effect. She and Dvorsky have several lines of dialog included to show the development of their romance. As the young Brigadoonian bridegroom-to-be, Maurice Clarke hits a sweet bull's eye capturing all the yearning of "Come To Me, Bend To Me." As the lusty Meg, Megan Kelly's rowdy songs seem rowdiness-challenged. For the most part, not much theatrical feel comes from the chorus. One of the most romantic and idealistic musicals of all time, Brigadoon's magic is not fully captured in this reserved version, pretty though it sounds. (Coincidentally, the DVD of the film and a quite good late-1950s studio cast album with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy have also re-emerged in the last several weeks. Brigadoon is here again, and here to stay, and that's reason to sing ... or fall in love.)
That's all for now. There's much more to tell you about next Thursday with singers doing show tunes and pop songs ... and all that jazz. We'll be listening for you.