Concerned with big issues like prejudice, war and love, Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific can handle the big treatment - big voices, large orchestra, larger-than-life personalities. This version is somewhat more than medium-size, a concert cast who only had a few days of rehearsal. Nevertheless, it has much to recommend it.
Recorded at Carnegie Hall last June, this is a respectful version using the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations and an overall traditional (but not stodgy) feel. The 45-member Orchestra of St. Luke's is conducted by Paul Gemignani, and the singing ensemble numbers fifty-one. A fair amount of dialogue is included, making the listening experience more theatrical. As far as sound satisfaction on disc, it's mostly good news, although the large group singing seems a bit muddy to me. The orchestra doesn't sound as crisp and bright and state-of-the-art as might be hoped for in this latest version.
As Nellie the navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, we get authentic Southern country flavor. Reba McEntire has a down-to-earth unspoiled quality and a sunny demeanor that shines through. Likable and natural though her singing is, the needed ebullience meter at the core of this "corny as Kansas in August" character is surprisingly low. She bubbles up somewhat, but nowhere near the overflow point. Her happy solos sound cheery and chipper rather than truly celebratory. She doesn't really belt or burst with joy very much. However, she's certainly invested in the character and seems comfortable whether entertaining the troops with a game and sweet "Honey Bun" or having a serious moment in the tenuous romance.
Brian Stokes Mitchell is a sturdy, classy Emile de Becque, singing with power and dignity. The character's anguish and loneliness don't come through with all the subtle colors that might appear in a full production with a regular rehearsal period, but the core feeling is there. Thus, his characterization touches the listener's heart rather than breaks it.
As Lieutenant Cable, Jason Danieley holds back sometimes, too, with his two numbers, "Younger Than Springtime" and "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." He opts for acting choices over singing choices on some lines that serve the lyrics well enough but don't take the melodic line to its heights. But - now here's the good news - when he uses more power and sings with full voice, there's a great payoff. It's so satisfying to hear this golden voice really soar. If only they'd included the other two songs written for his character but not used in the original 1949 show ("My Girl Back Home," reinstated for the film, and "Loneliness of Evening," cut and recycled for Cinderella). He really is a wonderful singer.
Alec Baldwin gets third billing as the comical character Luther Billis, which isn't much of a singing part, but puts the ham in the Hammerstein playing with the lyrics momentarily in a bit of "Bali Ha'i" and elsewhere with dialogue. In "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" the men (including Alexander Gemignani) get to do their broad comedy. Last but hardly least of the stars is Lillias White who makes a super duper Bloody Mary. Brimming with life, sass and joy she is a smash here, with a very alive "Bali Ha'i" that gets both the mystical sense and the excitement. Her "Happy Talk" is infectious with its optimism and carpe diem message.
Taped for public television broadcast, South Pacific will be seen in some areas, including New York, on April 26th. Theater fans will also have fun spotting familiar faces in the ensemble (for example, three who recently appeared together in Fanny Hill - Nancy Anderson, Tony Yazbeck and Christianne Tisdale - and Devin Richards who's in The Pajama Game and was in the Broadway by the Year, 1956 concert). This version certainly captures the essence of the classic musical and does not comes off like a museum piece.
KEVIN CAHOON AND GHETTO COWBOY
Following his Broadway stint as The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Kevin Cahoon is currently in previews as George in the new musical The Wedding Singer. He's also a wild rock singer who play clubs and has his first album out, called Doll; he co-wrote seven of its selections. It could be - and has been - described as punk rock and glam rock. Those who think punk is junk and don't give a damn about glam may not be easy to convert. However, his theater name and exposed talent in that field arouses our interest here. And, lo and behold, this is hot stuff in its own arty, smarty-pants way. Personally, I'm quite a bit out of my usual depth, but found a lot to like.
Kevin's energy and gutsy devotion to the style is wickedly wonderful. The lyrics have a lot of sharp observations, some humor and there's humanity and, yes, sweet vulnerability under the hard edge. The title song is a nose-thumbing by a former school outcast with anger that feels right and cathartic. Others have sly (and not so sly) social commentary, with something to say about the fast lane, rock stardom and sex. "Mr. Curious" is a strong entry, a seductive jab from a gay man addressed to the guy who professes to be straight and has a girlfriend but seems awfully attentive and attracted. Anne Murray's old hit, "Could I Have This Dance" comes in for a revved-up re-do taking it from slow dance to contemporary dance club wake-up call.
One must be willing to give in to the style and the banging beat and stagey rage. I find some of the harder-edged, faster-paced selections much more resistible, and admit that I initially faced this with trepidation, carrying a sealed copy around for a week, shrinking away from removing the shrink wrap. Once I did and gave it a chance, I was happily surprised.
Ghetto Cowboy is the band, with keyboardist David Nehls, bass player Oliver Hoffer and guitarist Jan Tilley each collaborating variously on three songs. The drummer is Gregg Carey. Greg Garner produced five tracks, Spurn produced four others.
The Sh-K-Boom label, which is supportive of theater performers expressing their rock and pop sides, has picked up this album for a nationwide release this week. It had been released independently late last year. Thanks to word of mouth, air play and Kevin's live performances of the material, it's received attention. A visit to www.KevinCahoon.com will give you a listen (sound clips) and a look (video clips). Theater fans will appreciate the theatricality of the CD's presentation and will be pleased to see some familiar musical theater folks singing in guest appearances: Shoshanna Bean and Robb Sapp of Wicked, to name two. Kevin also has Hedwig and the Angry Inch on his resume and a bit of that persona lingers. May I say "rock on"?
There's no getting around it. Andrew Suvalsky is very cool. And very hip. His first album, Vintage Pop and the Jazz Sides, lets him show a flair and a comfort level with a variety of musical styles that betrays no preference. Like a traveler who's happy and at home in whatever country he goes to, he finds the groove and sensibility of each type of song and enjoys its native style and customs. Then he moves on. Perhaps thats analagous to the philosophy of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With"? Certainly that number is a highlight, where the album builds to a head in great forceful energy. It comes smack in the middle of this well-programmed set.
This is a seductive album listen. Andrew brings you in step by step, starting with the old rock hit invitation, "Do You Want to Dance?" that becomes a slow dance with his voice going from purring whisper to whimper and gaining strength. The dance with music and romance continues with the Burt Bacharach/ Hal David confession, "This Guy's in Love with You." Both of these have sensitivity with a low-key hypnotic magnetism, brought out by close-miked intimate singing and sexy playing by talented instrumentalists. (The guitar work throughout the album is especially tasty, with four players taking turns, and Wells Hanley doing well on keyboard for seven cuts and David Easton tearing it up on "Alright, Okay, You Win.")
There are no duds, but a few things might have benefitted from another take or a fresher approach. I suspect strongly that they will grow in live performance, as the potential is there. "Angel Eyes" has some moments that lack the overall polish most of the tracks have, and some opportunities for drama and mood are missed; also, he's not as vocally assured on the not-so-simple melodic line that must be maneuvered. A couple of others could stand more variety within the arrangement, as they don't exactly run out of steam (they're quite steamy) but could profit from a little more surprise or new twist, turn or build. And every now and then what feels a relaxed tempo borders on complacency.
I don't envy the record store manager who has to decide what category to file this under when it arrives. With drive, some of this is rock music with a touch of funky rhythm and blues feel. Also, there's tenderness and a soulfulness on "Crying" and "This Year's Love" that make the set especially well-rounded, offsetting the confident air projected frequently. The "show tune alert" is as follows: Rodgers & Hart are represented by the comical "Ev'rything I've Got" from By Jupiter and there's a movie song that's a Cole Porter standard, "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." An album like this is nice to come home to, as there's a cut to match almost any mood you might be in (or want to get in) as you turn the key in the door. But there's enough personality and presence that would make you want to go out again if Andrew Suvalsky were appearing nearby. It would be even better if he lived in the building ... because he sounds like someone you'd want to know.
UNDER THE RADAR
LOVE! AT THE CAFE!
As the Bergmans' lyric in the song "The Way We Were" goes, "Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line?" Love! At the Cafe! has a persuasive song called "Life Was Simple Then," referring to the 1950s, adding fuel to that Grease fire that the decade was fun and carefree. This tune is a name-dropper's delight with its list lyric of fifties pop culture. This is a very light, simple musical comedy perfectly happy to just breeze along its little way and have a good time. Several of the numbers are pastiches of the era's trademark pop rock with its shoo-be-doos and doo-wahs and bouncy beats. "Honey Bun" is a good example, with a nod to Elvis. I especially like "Fish in the Sea," which is catchy and quite a bit of fun.
The singing is lively and clear. There may not be a lot of meat on the bones of some of these songs, but they are plucky and well-meaning. The co-lyricist is the man who wrote the script, James Spicer Conant. One doesn't sense an attitude or agenda imposed on the proceedings, just a lighthearted diversion with some comedy and increasing sincerity towards the end. The accompaniment is simple. Indeed, simple is the key word all around.
The package containing this studio cast album included three others by the writer, Karen Sokolof Javitch of Omaha, Nebraska. A revised version of the biographical Princess Diana: The Musical veers closest to a traditional musical theater style. An ambitious and well-intentioned undertaking, it has some attractive melodies and theatricality; the imagined arguments of Prince Charles and Diana set to music are hard to take seriously, but there are other enjoyable set pieces. From Generation to Generation (co-lyricist: Joanie Jacobson) examines Jewish characters with deeply felt writing and performances, with some ethnic comic relief. Not all the singers are polished, but it's stirring and sincere. Surprise! looks warmly at a couple's long-term marital bliss. With strong family values and musical values, it's mostly peppy and poppy. These last three CDs feature a band with musical direction by keyboardist Chuck Penington. (Website for all shows: www.JMRProductions.com)
Three of the four shows use "Life Was Simple Then"! (Other titles ring a bell because a song title can't be copyrighted. Broadway lovers will find familiar titles in these shows, but with original lyric ideas and moods: "Honey Bun" borrows nothing from South Pacific, nor do other shared titles: "Get Out of Town," "Sabbath Prayer," "Once Upon a Time," "Old Friends," ... and "In My Life.") Although Karen Sokolof Javitch has variety in musical style, subject matter and collaborators, all of her projects have heart and affection for the subjects at hand.
Intermission until next Thursday.