Sound Advice Reviews
Here are two ladies whose talents have helped light up Broadway. Their first names both begin with A and they've come up with Grade "A" releases on the Yellow Sound label; Alysha Umphress has an album that, like her role in On the Town, has lots of moxie and sass, while it's low-key lullabyes on the agenda for Anika Larsen (Cynthia Weil in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical).
I've Been Played has a cheerfully retro feelfrom the design of the cover which proudly proclaims "Stereo" to the booklet with its photos of the CD packaged as if a vinyl 33 1/3 record album, to recently written songs dropping names like Astaire (twice) and the title song blithely using a dated word ("dame") and wry wordplay ("played"/"played out"). To continue the trend, may I say that gosh, it's swell how Alysha Umphress joins her jazzy and juicy vocal pizzazz to songwriter/arranger Jeff Blumenkrantz's inventive and eclectic work. Indeed, the album serves as a showcase for both artists' versatility, and they make a cozy team. "Disarming" is the word that leaps to mind, as the lighthearted numbers are unpretentiously joyful and the serious tracks are treated with a believable directness.
Most of the material was written by Renaissance man Blumenkrantz and his arrangements are enhanced by the expert playing of top musicians such as sterling pianist Tedd Firth and simpatico drummer Ray Marchica who've graced recordings and cabaret shows with welcome regularity. It was in a cabaret settingand co-hosting an open micthat, for several years, I was exposed to the immediately obvious skills and powerhouse pipes of Alysha, well before Broadway called for work in American Idiot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and now as Hildy in On the Town (cast album reviewed in my last column) after its stint in Massachusetts. Actually, before all that, it was as a singing waitress at Ellen's Stardust Diner in the theatre district that I first heard her and was among audience members thinking she made her own brand of stardust. An earlier solo album (reviewed here ) let us know her exciting way with a song could be captured on disc minus her megawatt in-person personality and presence. That was a live recording, however, so it's especially interesting to note that her quicksilver quality can adjust to a studio setting where there's much more on display than her ace-in-the-hole bravura belting and riffing. Her voice and presentation adjust to the needs of each number: vulnerable or vivacious, thoughtful or sly.
Most of the originals, some written for a musical or song cycle, are instantly accessible and stand on their own well. "May Day! M'aider!" may be distancing and puzzling for those who won't know the meaning of its French lines and miss the point that the two parts of the title sound alike, with the second part meaning "Help me." (The lyrics to all pieces are in the booklet.) Moods range from the romantic yearning and tentativeness of "Why Can't I Kiss You?" to a defensive stance in accepting opinions with everybody's "Two Cents" hurled her way ("My skin is tough enough"). The latter lyric is solidly structured, swings brashly, and employs the device of the kind of satisfying wordplay that seems inevitable but fresh ("Mister, have a ball/ Because I'm bettin' your two cents make/ No sense at all"). While the songwriting and arranging skills are boldly and impressively on display, it is the gorgeously simple and endearing set of questions addressed to the "Man in the Moon" that is most affecting for me. Gentle and pensive, it also is special in that it evidences a speaker concerned not just with personal issues but the larger specter of loneliness and pain of the many others under the moon. And yet it does this without being a weeper or preachy, and its references to the moon as being made of cheese ("Your cheddar face") add a quirky warmth.
There are a few duets and some counterpoint singing. While a zingy girlishness is one of the quivers in the Umphress arsenal, singing alone or with Blumenkrantz (with his idiosyncratic, warm and fuzzy sound), a rich maturity is revealed in her loner's solo melancholy medley of Rodgers & Hart's "Spring Is Here" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman. The composers of these are represented elsewhere in duet moments: a Rodgers & Hammerstein combo of Allegro's "You Are Never Away" and Cinderella's "Ten Minutes Ago" that is pleasing and a bit dense, originally created years ago as an arrangement for the creative Blumenkrantz himself and Victoria Clark. The other Wolf piece is a bit of bouncy jazz fluff written with Harry Stone, "You Smell So Good," listed here as a "bonus track." But maybe the immediate grabber of the duets is their mega-cute "I Don't Need Anything But You" from Annie, with some additional lyrics kept in period, name-dropping nicely ("Cole Porter needs praise/ In order to write more./ Lugosi needs teeth,/The better to bite more/ And Charlie Chan, to get his man/ He needs a clue").
While the grace of the sweeter, unguarded sides of Alyshaand Jeff's conversational unpretentious styleare what really gets to me, there's no doubt that the lady's jubilant and snazzy persona still shines brightly as a major attraction. But whether it's the unleashed genuine emotion that appeals to you or the energetic pow of the lady who might as well be named Ooomph-ress, there are many reasons why I've Been Played will be played many times by those of us who like personality and a point of view pouring out of our speakers.
Coming from a family of nine mostly adopted siblings who've grown up and produced 14 offspring for Aunt Anika Larsen, the actress whose early-career day job was as a nanny, she's had a lot of lullabyes to learn. Good practice for her role following her stint in Beautiful: as a momshe's on maternity leave from the show. There are two nods to that recent stage role: co-star Jessie Mueller joins her for a touching and gratifying duet on James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes"; and the real-life character she plays, Cynthia Weil, is the lyricist for one of the tracks"Somewhere Out There" from An American Tale (music by Weil's writing partner and husband Barry Mann, along with the film's composer James Horner). Some back-up vocals are provided by Broadway performer Kenita Miller who was in Xanadu with Larsen, who mentions in the album's liner notes that she's the only person who was in the original casts of the sound-alike titles Xanadu and Zanna, Don't!.
Another thing the singer points out in those notes: the tracks are programmed so that the tempi progressively get slower and slower, so as to subtly encourage sleep. To this point, I find some of the first three tracks' few arrangements less appealing with what is, for me, distractingly jarring rhythm and clutter that don't serve the emotions and intended sweetness of Porgy and Bess's "Summertime," and the aforementioned "Somewhere Out There" and "You Can Count on Me." Guitar is often prominent (Pete McCann is the player) and the arrangements are by pianist-organist David Cook. Arrangements and overall musical accompaniment feel more in synch with the songs as they do slow down and become plainer (in the best sense of the word). On second listening, I appreciate more the variety provided by these somewhat funkier arrangements on the beginnings of this dozen-track CD. Sara Caswell (fiddle) and Freddie Maxwell (trumpet and flugelhorn) provide sounds and melodic lines which are touching and even haunting.
Sources for the lullabyes come most prominently from the world of pop, such as Sting's evocatively lovely "Fields of Gold" particularly well served. And Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" is a satisfying balm to end the album on a note that is cozy, but not corny. "Baby Mine" from the Disney animated classic Dumbo, with the guitar soothing and effective without being the least bit bland, is a highlight, sung sincerely and straightforwardly without guile or gush. A number in Spanish, "Al Otro Lado del Rio," adds variety. In addition to the iconic "Summertime," musical theatre is represented by The Robber Bridegroom's "Sleepy Man," addressed to an adult in context, of course, but it's perfectly fitting here as crooned so lovingly by the likeable Anika Larsen.
Perhaps the album's greatest achievement is its finding the happy medium between a recording of largely pop songs that might feel not so kid-friendly and the other extreme: lobbing on the honey and "cute" factor to make it gooey or watered-down for the sake of simplification. There's no blatant condescending to a kiddie audience, no layer of sugar coating. And, from a grown-up perspective, it's far more than a musical sleeping pill to dull the senses. Sing You to Sleep is highly listenable as music and communication.