It's all about charm. Here's the Broadway dream of fame (Martin Short with the charm of smarm), the centuries-old dream of a midsummer night that Shakespeare wove, plus love dreams by romantic vocalists David Burnham and Andrew Distel
MARTIN SHORT: FAME BECOMES ME
Silly is as silly does, and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, billed as "a comedy musical" is silliness supreme, meaning it's smartly done, too. The cast album, recorded in November but just released this week, is a super-high-energy hoot. It's boisterous and bursting with wicked glee. The pace rarely slows down from Martin Short's entrance, when the leading man becomes the pleading man, with "All I Ask (Is That You Love Me)," his comically crazed need for a fix of ego boost.
A little Short goes a very long way. Those who aren't fans will at least see he goes a long way to try to please, tease, amuse and schmooze, and he may wear you down if he doesn't wear you out. Enjoying his work just as a listening experience, without his mugging, jumping around and impish grin, one is reminded of his singing voice's charm and bravura sound, previously heard to entertainingly good advantage on cast albums of The Goodbye Girl and the revival of Little Me. Yes, the show is about Martin Short and he dominates the CD's proceedings in the fabulously fictionalized flashbacks of his life and possible demise, but it's not a one-man show - the other cast members work hard and are strong. Frequently joining in the proceedings as a group, each also has time in the spotlight (the plot has the star suddenly sidelined, giving the other players a great chance to pick up the ball and run with it, having a ball themselves). Brooks Ashmanskas does especially well in the urgent need department, asking the musical question, "Would You Like to Star in Our Show?" as he meets up with celebrities impersonated by Mary Birdsong and Nicole Parker (as she did on television's sketch show, "Mad TV"). With assertive, sassy humor, Capathia Jenkins belts the self-fulfilling prophecy, "A Big Black Lady Stops the Show" and also is heard on a bonus track of a cut song, "Frieda May's Lament," which has a few lines that were recycled for other spots.
The two other bonus track/score trims for Short and company are "More, More, More," an extended catalogue of more, more, more of Short's supposed addictions, and predilections and "Up Here in Heaven." It's a name-dropping description of what famous people do in the happily-ever-afterlife; if you know "Home Sweet Heaven" from High Spirits, it's the same idea but with less of the sweet and not so G-rated. There is excess here, but that's the point and the operative word.
There are musical references to and digs at the realities of Broadway: the economics, passing trends and styles, star trips, and specific winks at Wickedly intense vocal pyrotechnics, songs with Sondheimisms and a full-fledged parody of religious-based '70s rock musicals, giving new meaning to the phrase Bible Belt. Some things that may have zipped by if you saw the zippy production can be caught now, including referencing bits of classic arrangements and vocal flourishes from Broadway numbers from the past, thanks to pastiche extraordinaire. Much credit must go to two creative multi-taskers: Marc Shaiman is composer, co-lyricist, arranger, producer of the CD - and he's in the company. He sings with merriment in some of the numbers and is the pianist in the band of nine men playing a total of twice as many instruments, and they aren't starved for energy either. Director Scott Wittman is co-lyricist and collaborated with the star on the book. (Alan Zweibel is credited with additional material there; you'll hear quite a bit of dialogue on the CD but the madcap momentum hardly slows down.)
The booklet has several color production photos seen on the show's website, a synopsis, a short intro by the director, all the lyrics and included dialogue, with clear indications of who is being heard on each line.
This smarty-pants look at show biz excess and the constant need for ego boost is a boost of energy in and of itself.
If his voice is unknown to you, but you like theatrical singing by someone with vocal chops and a tender heart, with both on full display, welcome to the David Burnham fan club. If you've experienced David's singing in person or on a few isolated tracks that have been highlights on CD, you already know the beauty and power of his voice. He played across the country as the lead in various productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat before he was cast in The Light in the Piazza. He was in the original New York cast and, as the understudy to the male lead, went on as Fabrizio. He has inherited that role now for the national tour. David has also appeared in group concerts in New York and had a solo night at Birdland. A couple of benefits he guested in are on disc (the S.T.A.G.E. concerts), and he's one of the duet partners on Lee Lessack's In Good Company. The romantically yearning voice you may have heard as Lun Tha in the animated film of The King and I was David's, too. He does romantic yearning very well, and there's more of it on this self-titled CD.
This is a logical and wise debut CD, and David is in safe and skilled hands with two arranger-pianists known for their sensitivity: Christopher Denny and John Boswell each contribute about half the arrangements, and play with their accustomed skill and heart. Unlike some theater singers, David doesn't eschew the kind of material and style he's gotten attention for, but the album is not just the expected or overdone choices of show tunes. With the kind of sweet, clear voice a microphone loves, he sounds comfortable in a studio environment. There is sensitivity and nuance in his phrasing, without wholesale revamping and recasting of the theater-based songs.
From Joseph, he takes on "Close Every Door" with an impassioned performance that builds from a quiet, thoughtful first section to full-voiced dynamic and dramatically determined ending. In sound, the orchestra grows along with him, with excitement. Yes, orchestra: this is not a minimalist CD, skimping on accompaniment: there are string players on some tracks, woodwinds, and flugelhorn in addition to the basics of piano, bass and drums. You'll even hear a harp, played elegantly by Lynette Wardle, with David's gloriously sung and fully involved performance of "Love to Me" from Piazza.
There are some more relaxed moments that offer a change of pace that are ultimately not as rewarding or captivating as the ones where emotions and voice open up and soar, as in the aptly named "Flight." That demanding Craig Carnelia song, aced, is yet another high point. For extra added attraction, there are three duets: Wicked's "As Long As You're Mine," with a wonderful Wicked veteran, Eden Espinoza; the invigorating "Muddy Water" from Big River, pairing him with Destan Owens; and the fairly operatic "The Prayer" (David Foster/ Carole Bayer Sager, from the film Quest for Camelot), with Elena Shaddow. All strong singers, without question, and they do well, although I don't sense an above-average chemistry or transmitted interaction, though "Muddy Water" is clearest there.
A refreshing choice is Jason Robert Brown's "Someone to Fall Back On," particularly impressive in the variety found in moods ranging from modest self-deprecation ("I am no saint, I am not anyone's wildest dream") to determined assertiveness ("it's what you need"). Also well done, with effective and gentle guitar accompaniment at its start, is a medley of two Disney classics: "When You Wish Upon a Star" and "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes." This CD is a dreamer's holiday.
People have enjoyed shaking up Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream for many, years. We've seen the characters played on screen by everyone from Mickey Rooney to Mickey Mouse, and music has been provided by Felix Mendelssohn, Benjamin Britten and many others, including the jazzed-up Swingin' the Dream for Broadway with Louis Armstrong. This album represents music from a version presented last year, seen at McCarter Theatre and Paper Mill Playhouse, directed by Tina Landau whose introductory notes are included in a booklet with the lyrics. Most of these are the original Shakespeare texts, but three have original words by those who wrote, play and sing the score: the trio known as GrooveLily. They were also in the show and perform all the music here. The notes explain that for CD, the music has been reorganized from the way it was heard in the production, now "distilled" and regrouped into suites. Apparently, there was over two hours of material, including "magnificent underscoring," so one might reasonably wonder why it boiled down to 36 minutes of playing time, when a CD can hold twice as much.
I was a big admirer of the group's prior recording of their musical theater project, Striking 12, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl." I'm not as captivated by this effort by any means. The musical style of composition and performance here owes more to folk, jazz and pop than it does to musical theater traditions. At times, it's more like electrified art song (not sure that's a good thing). There are some pretty sounds and ambience suitable to the expressed appreciation of dreams and nature's wonders, but the wonders of the Bard's words don't always seem especially well served and fully brought out for me. However, the setting of three verses, grouped as "Titania Suite" is quite successful and attractive. A couple of consecutive tracks with "inside" references to pre-existing pop songs pass by quickly (one is about 30 seconds, the next about 60), but upset the balance and feel out of place.
The vocal and instrumental talents of GrooveLily are in evidence: with Valerie Vigoda on violin, Brendan Milburn on keyboards (he also produced the album), and Gene Lewin on drums (all three sing). There is some unbridled joy, especially in the next-to-last track, "Slings of Eros," one of the non-Shakespeare lyrics) leading into a dance and bows, with Valerie's lead vocal. It's infectious and celebratory, but as with a few other cuts, it becomes a bit repetitious, hammering its melody and underlying musical structure in the arrangement into the listener.
One other cast member, Jesse Nager, is listed as a "guest" singer on the last of the 11 tracks, "All Shall Be Well," and he has an appealing sound. The titular "dream" feel is felt here and there in musical turns with flights of fancy and sparks of mystery. It's fully expressed in the original-lyric, "When I Dream," the opening song.
UNDER THE RADAR
And speaking of dreams, here's an artist with that subject on his mind on some of his song choices:
I am happily surprised to discover the talents of Andrew Distel. With an even tone and little vibrato, he has an understated, moody quality to his singing. There's a sensitivity that is clear right away and his intriguing sound pulls you in right away. He also is an instrumentalist, playing trumpet (in addition to his vocal choruses) on three tracks, and flugelhorn on the Gershwins' "Embraceable You." It's not a big leap to posit that his playing affects his approach to singing, as his vocal lines are clean and unfettered, quite legato. A few tracks, like his "She Was Too Good to Me" (Rodgers & Hart) suggests the influence of another trumpeter-turned-singer, Chet Baker, with a similar vulnerability but a surer vocal presentation.
"You Stepped Out of a Dream" from the 1940 movie musical Ziegfeld Girl gives the CD its title and mood. By giving the number a brisker tempo that many favor, plus plenty of jazz savvy, he avoids the sappy image pedestal-placement of the love object that could be a trap in this song written in the tradition of the Follies' "glorifying the American girl." The jazz settings of the songs are varied and impressive, as are the main players. Like Andrew, they have been inhabiting the jazz scene in Chicago. Pianist Pete Benson and drummer George Fludas are especially interesting to listen to as they are inventive and thoughtful.
Two Michel Legrand/ Marilyn and Alan Bergman collaborations demonstrate creativity: The film songs "The Windmills of Your Mind" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" are pensive and take advantage of the spellbinding qualities of the melodies without being a slave to them. There are some intriguing liberties taken that still respect the original structures.
The most prominent quality of the album, its lyrical and reflective romanticism, is not the only card in the Distel deck. There are livelier numbers showing his comfort and skill singing in other languages and an instrumental I dare you not to dance to. An extra added attraction is Andrew's songwriting ability. "I Couldn't Help It" is an arresting and unusual song and "The Window Across the Way" (co-written with J. Adams Oaks) is strong, too. Both are about attraction and have a hint of mystery. The performer's website gives some more information; there are upcoming Chicago gigs in places like The Pump Room. I'm excited to recommend him.----
Coming soon: a discussion of the revised Grey Gardens and more newly recorded musical theater work and vocals for our spring musical garden of verses (and choruses).