Sound Advice Reviews
A Little Night Music and
With yet another recording of the Sondheim score, this one taking up two discs, there's now a lot o' Night Music for collectors. There are differences with this new Broadway cast recording, but it isn't quite as different as night and day. We also listen to a little "Day music" from singer-songwriter Spencer Day.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Not that we need a special reason to celebrate or relish Stephen Sondheim's work on his 80th birthday, with one New York theatre renamed for him and others lit up with productions featuring his songwriting, but the cast recording from one feels like a present. Isn't it rich?
The two-disc set contains a fair amount of dialogue, but not in an overwhelming or overburdensome way: some sets up or is interspersed within songs, some is underscored, with a few longer bits separately tracked. These sections do allow us to get a fuller picture of the show and characters, especially emphasizing the role of Madame Armfeldt played by second-billed (but always first-rate) Angela Lansbury. The generous playing time also allows for longer recorded versions of a few numbers (specifically, things assigned to the vocal quintet) than some have heard on disc with single-LP or early CD releases of the score. Although onstage the cast is accompanied by a smaller instrumental ensemble, causing some to find it too wan and thin as a too "little" Little Night Music, for the recording there arerewardingly12 musicians on hand: a woodwinds player, two playing viola, and one each of celeste, harp, timpani, bassoon, French horn, bass, cello, violin, and the piano (played by conductor Tom Murray). The sound, mix and production by Sondheim CD producer of choice and considerable experience, Tommy Krasker, is, for me, just striking the right balance between simple elegance and sumptuousness for this score. I found myself immediately and sometimes more attracted not to the singing performances as much as to the accompaniment and orchestrations as they sound here. The instrumentals have such strong color, energy and presence, feeling often equally in the spotlight rather than support or "background." There are numerous examples of solo instruments bringing a few seconds of beauty, wistfulness or punch within a number, adding more flavors to an already potent brew.
Opinions will be wildly divided on the cast performances as compared to various prior incarnations because there are indeed strong, bold choices in general characterizations and specific phrasing on lines, perhaps most noticeably on funny or biting lines. In some cases there are different voice types and approaches in these casting decisions. The quintet sounds less formal and younger, lighter, brighter than we usually expect. Alexander Hanson as Fredrik comes off as more of a gentle, lost soul with less self-assurance or bravado, perhaps trading some vitriol for vulnerability; that has some benefits for audience sympathy. Ramona Mallory as his 18-year-old virginal bride indeed has been directed to play up her character-valid vapidness, vim, vivaciousness but also unworldliness. Her crucial physical purity and pure silliness are emphasized, sacrificing what could be vocal purity for giddy glee. It's a trade-off with points won in one way, but not for sweet tones. Not that it totally kills her musical momentsmuch of her chatter and clatter are quite effective, making her more of a contrast with the other more worldly, sadder-but-wiser women who think twice or thrice before speaking. I miss some of the soaring exquisite soprano in contrapuntal moments especially, such as what we heard with the role's originator, who not so incidentally is her mother, Victoria Mallory. (Her father is another 1973 original cast member, Mark Lambert.)
Catherine Zeta-Jones is an odd mix of ingredients in the stew that is her Desiree. Inconsistent? Not so much that, as calling on different moods for different scenes and showing different sides of Desiree as she presents herself in very different relationships where she's challenging someone, pleading, saving face, seducing, unsure ... There's a lot she's contending with and, after all, Desiree is an actress by trade and all the world's her stage with very different players. And oh, she's surely a playersometimes regal, sometimes aloof, sometimes truly feeling, and often ambivalent (a favorite Sondheim mindset). At other moments, the character is played as high and mighty, then (to borrow a phrase from the score's most famous song, sung by her) "here at last on the ground." Desiree seems quirky and relaxed in her dialogue with the child in the show, played with minimal cutesiness but sometimes too-studied-sounding diction. But what about Zeta-Jones' singing? It shows all these elements without being a magnificent musical instrument but also without phoning it in and playing it safe. Some punch and sting in her attacks and timing in "You Must Meet My Wife" are missed. Her "Send in the Clowns," victim of so many high-bar-set predecessors, has dignity and some very in-the-moment (if not momentous) emotion, but heartache rather than heartbreak.
Angela Lansburyno surpriseis a delight and an original and makes the grand dame grandmother a grand role. With her strong theatrical presence and charisma, she hardly has to emphasize the character's formidable or intimidating presence. And she doesn't. Quite the opposite. She has a nice mix of sugar and spice, more joie de vivre and warmth embracing the role and brings more forgiving affection than despairing negative judgment to many moments that could easily tip the scales as more sour than sweet. Her one solo, "Liaisons," is an obvious highlight, more of a relished ride through her memories than a weeping over times lost and lamented. And she can make the most of a single word, imbuing it with attitude, here and in "The Glamorous Life" (as when she compares her daughter the actress to other daughters: "Mine tours," or tossing off "Mother's misguided. La, la, la"). Like others in the cast, she has a tendency to speak a word or two that is usually sung, to point it up or underline a turn of phrase or rhyme. I feel it usually works and is a valid choice, a splash of personality. When others do this, they seem to be jabbing us in the ribs with an elbow, as if to make sure we "get it": the pun, the word choice, the rhyme. It can be way more fun to feel you are discovering (catching) it on your own within the waltz-time flow of the songs.
Aaron Lazar and Erin Davie have some good moments as the Count and Countess, together and apart (best together, I think). Though his singing can be grand and sometimes touching (no small matters), he does not play up the buffoonery and flustered blusteriness, at least as heard here. And she could use more bite and bitterness; her shadow does not loom large enough over the proceedings as a force to be reckoned with, her sarcastic world-weariness more weary than worldly. Her long-suffering compromising does not have quite the pathos effect that is potentially there.
One can be picky or have some major bones to pick, but let me bring us back to the positive: there is so much here to please and intrigue. The emotion and story and themes of choices and regrets really stand out and have impact. There is glory and lushness and the wit of Sondheimand his craft and gift of melody are on ample display, so many moments seized and to be treasured. Reprises and bits of extra underscoring provide extra gems in what is a treasure chest, a real gift.
After impressive early independent releases of a full CD and an EP, singer-songwriter-pianist Spencer Day has re-emerged victoriously with Vagabond, this time on a major label. There's a fuller production, some tracks featuring more than a dozen other instrumentalists plus background singers, but he hasn't lost the low-key feel and intimacy. Many of his pieces are like confessionals, but they're restrained and heightened by his natural sotto voce singing style, tender manner and air of refreshing honesty. The strings, etc. are lovely, although there's often a sense that these songs would work just fine without the dressing, and I kind of wish for "unplugged," very spare versions of some of them, too. In any case, the guts and heart come through in the singing and some fine songwriting (two numbers have collaborators).
Several of the tracks are quietly haunting in their bittersweet ruminations while a few lighter pieces are sweetly catchy but less involving. Others, like "Summer," have as their strength painting a picture of a time, a memory, a mindset. Two songs stand head and shoulders above the others with strong but unfettered, unfussy lyrics and have melody lines that develop and resolve in ways that feel what I'd describe as somehow satisfyingly inevitable. One is the title song with its no-apologies, self-knowing description of the traveler (wandering minstrel perhaps?) who doesn't make lasting personal connections (" ... Anywhere the wind may blow/ That's where I belong ..."). Yet, as the song goes on, there's an increasing uneasiness about his modus operandi, as the verb choicesignificantlychanges from "moving on" to "run away." His "Out of My Hands" is the other gem, a sobering acceptance of the falsity of "the sweet illusion to feel in control" of a loved one or the future. It begins poetically ("The January rain drapes the sky in gray") and he compares his being unable to stop the rain with being unable to change someone else's feelings ("A light has left your eyes ... If you never want me the way that I want you ...").
Other strong work includes his insisting there must be a "Better Way," the Spencerized take on a political protest song that is instead political persuasiveness via common sense. Catching more flies with honey, as the saying goes, he doesn't rant and rail and play the blame game in his lamenting over war and greed and failed attempts at easing poverty. Despair mixes with dark humor in the gloomy, fragile, rhymey "Maybe" ("Tuesday Morning") with worries and hopes mingling, minor concerns big deals, as he sings about possibly making tea and, a moment later, wondering if perhaps he'll die at age 33, the incapacitating insecurities of a character admitting how difficult it can be to face the day.
On the constructive criticism side, too often there is inconsistent rhyming, sloppy false rhymesmaddening when he's shown he's quite capable of good craft in that department and some very thoughtful word choices, too. I'd also like to see him exploit his upper register, as there are some instances of its use that are not just pretty but more emotionally effective than the narrow vocal comfort zone he can linger in for quite a spell. And, though his piano playing is fine, one wants to hear him stretch out more as some intros and licks feel like they could blossom into more fully expressed commentaries and embellishments.
What a pleasure it is to see the consistent growth and development of this talent, one who can zero in on emotions and human sensitivities without grandstanding or hitting us over the head with the points he's making. Points scored there. Again. It has a real feel, with snapshots of passages through time and relationships.