This week brings us four CDs, each so different from the next. Something for everyone, you might say. Here's our very mixed bag:
AFTER THE BALL
With their acerbic wit and sophistication, Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde seem cut from the same cloth. It seems natural and inevitable that Coward would musicalize Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde's play of manners and love among the ladies and gentlemen in Victorian times. Coward, by all accounts, had a glorious time working with Wilde's work, despite the fact that the playwright was not alive to be consulted and share in the adaptation.
The musical premiered in 1954, but the songstack has changed through the years. The current recording, from the recent production at New York's Irish Repertory Theatre, cuts some numbers and rescues others originally cut, and interpolates two other Coward songs from other shows ("Let's Say Goodbye" and "Never Again," two of the strongest songs). A 1955 London cast recording is also available on CD, but this recording comes off nicely as a smaller-scale, salon musical - a good representation of the Irish Rep production's strengths and elegance.
Mark Hartman, one of New York City's musical renaissance men, is musical director and plays piano with grace, polish and attentive loving care. Invaluable for pocket-size revivals of old shows by the company Musicals Tonight! and for cabaret acts and entertaining at piano bars, he fits chameleon-like into many musical styles. Here, Hartman is joined on some songs by cello (Peter Sachon), trumpet (Paul Carlin), flute and piccolo (Elizabeth Inghram).
Director Tony Walton cast many actors he'd worked with in a Goodspeed mounting of Where's Charley?, and the 10-member ensemble sounds splendid. Kathleen Widdoes is delicious as the Duchess of Berwick (she also addresses the audience directly), especially grand in "Something on a Tray." Bits of dialogue help listeners follow the story, and a detailed plot synopsis fills in the rest for newcomers.
This is a stylized affair, considered an operetta, and the bite and social commentary lurk beneath the formal attire in which the characters and songs are wrapped. David Staller, an entertaining and skilled performer, is especially good at bringing out the sharper observations cloaked in the silk of the pretty melodies ("Love, when unjust, is more cruel than lust"). He gets a lot of mileage out of the way he calls someone "dear," with outward respect but dripping with condescension and barely controlled patience. As he finishes, another character observes, "What a charming, wicked creature. I like him! And I'm quite delighted he's gone."
While some of the numbers are as romantic and sweet as those in your typical operetta, Noel Coward's cleverness and word play are on display as well. Four of the men are especially good with "Oh, What a Century" (commenting on the ending of the 19th), relishing the rhyming while describing the century as "quite irresistible, Oliver Twist-able." Sentiment is paramount when all is said and done; that's what stands out, much as there is satire - some of which you'll miss if you don't listen carefully.
Interesting information about the show and its history are included in the booklet, plus a few photos. This is not the most instantly accessible of Coward's scores, nor my favorite, but it has many rewards for the listener, with its combination of humor and romantic spun-sugar flights of melody. It's been recorded with great care and class by Bruce Kimmel as the first cast album for his brand new label, Kritzerland. After his many fine albums of theater music for other companies like Varese Sarabande and Fynsworth Alley, it's another feather in his newest cap. This is a highly polished gem. For more information, visit kritzerland.com.
Bruce Kimmel's upcoming projects include the reissue of two cast albums including a younger Kimmel among the singers - both were issued on vinyl, and his singing voice on them reminds me oh-so-coincidentally of the vocalist on this CD. But maybe it's just my (his) imagination. The point is that this is a fun album.
OK, so the singing voice is sort of modest. But it has genuine charm and an appealing sound. What really comes through is a love for singing and for the songs. And what terrific songs are here. There's the first recording of a song by Craig Carnelia, "Cowboy Waltz," an ingratiating number from a show called Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief; and an excavated trunk song from Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, the tender "Millions Of Men," originally intended for I Do! I Do!. Schmidt and Jones are also represented by "Little Red Hat" (110 In The Shade). That one is performed with Juliana A. Hansen and is one of three duets with female singers, all of whom sound extremely young and girlishly perky. Jessica Rush is his mate for a primo "I'm Past My Prime" from Li'l Abner. It's a sure thing that theater fans will be happy to find Kerry Butler (Hairspray, Bat Boy) on hand for "Sure Thing," the delightful and optimistic movie song from Cover Girl (Jerome Kern/ Ira Gershwin). Noel Coward's title song to Sail Away is an irresistible invitation to the smooth sailing and breeziness of this whole adventure. Add in a couple of rich Richard Rodgers melodies, more movie memories, a drop of pop and even a song by Kimmel himself and you have variety in the vivaciousness.
This is very much a feel-good album where the good spirits are contagious and it feels like a party. Everyone is having such a good time, including the musicians. Pianist John Boswell is a big plus on four tracks and Grant Geissman is on keyboards elsewhere (also on guitar, mandolin and banjo for good measure and pleasure). You'll also hear brass, cello and more. The arrangements (Geissman and Kimmel) are full of joy and affection for the songs without feeling the need to radically reinvent things - the motto is "trust the material." Everyone seems to be on the same page, especially singer and producer.
The chatty liner notes give the origin of each song and tell why it was chosen. Usually, the bottom line is that the song is a personal favorite, but that part comes through abundantly in the performances and care for the lyrics, especially. The producer makes sure the sound is clear and the pleasure being had and transmitted is clearer.
Billing itself as a "musical for everyone" may seem more than a little pushy, but Mamaleh! is a musical that pushes you to like it by pushing every emotional button. It is warm-spirited and if you tend to find warmed-over cliches heartwarming, you'll warm to this CD, which was recorded a few years ago but is only now making its way into wider distribution in retail stores. The show, celebrating the friendship of Jewish women, has been produced in various versions around the country over the last several years with different size casts. The album now available features the cast from a production in the New York borough of Queens: Valerie Hill, Molly Stark and Deborah Tranelli. Many of the songs are done with all three, but when that is not the case, the packaging does not indicate who is singing what.
The women all sound invested in the material, comfortable with their "Lawng Oyland" accents, kvelling and kibbitzing about their daughters-in-law and Florida vacations, but also sounding real, inhabiting feelings of sorrow and determination. Although Deborah sounds more youthful than the her co-stars, no one sounds like she's trying to "put on" age or to sound pretty when the song calls for more of a "just folks" quality. They also work well together as a small ensemble, seeming to feed off each other's energy. Deborah also has a solo album on PS Classics, A Lot Of Livin' To Do, and although she doesn't get to demonstrate her full potential here, her presence is a draw for me. She sings with sincerity no matter what's handed to her. The other two women's voices aren't especially distinctive, but they are able to take on stock comic characters and show some heart.
Playwright-lyricist Mitchell Uscher used the friendship of his mother and her friends as the basis for this musical. His lyrics and Roy Singer's melodies are affectionate and laced with nostalgia to the point of sounding almost familiar and predictable. The songs celebrate Jewish lifestyles and stereotypes, although you won't find prayer or religious beliefs and traditions mentioned much. "The Bat Mitzvah" is about the ugly dresses and family squabbles rather than the religious rite of passage. Other sitcom camaraderie moments are about female bonding during vacations at the old Catskills hotels, growing up in the Bronx, and commiserating about raising children. The joys of being a Jewish mother serving up a mix of matzoh brie and guilt are exalted, and the struggles of a poor, selfless matriarch are ennobled. It might be tempting to find faults with the schmaltz or to say things are more simple-minded rather than light-hearted.
Although this score at times seems formulaic, it is not a pretentious or calculated affair trying to be highbrow or deeply probing. It's an old-fashioned affair (in fact, you could have easily convinced me it was written a few decades ago) that, as an album, sounds more like a revue than a plot-driven musical. Not everything is cheery as there are a few songs that face the sadder and lonely chapters of life, but there's a life-affirming sensibility poured on pretty thick.
The accompaniment is simple (keyboards), sounding thin in the big emotional moments, but generally is in keeping with the moods. James Mironchik is credited as musical director and album producer.
Personally, this is not my cup of borscht, but I know there's an audience for it. There are many who will laugh uproariously or get teary hearing lyrics that say the word "mamaleh" is "another word for love" and that a card game is really a game called love, or that "guilt is our way of showing love." By now, you can probably guess that there are numbers with "oy veh!" exclaimed at the end or where you'd expect someone to pass you the Kleenex after learning what a martyr now-departed Grandma was. I've been known as a sentimental weeper but I didn't get teary. For more information about the show, you can go to www.mamaleh.com or call 1-866-2-MAMALEH, toll-free and guilt-free.
UNDER THE RADAR
The weekly look at something you may not have heard about.
Briefly noted ... Unlike the typical week where I present a musical theater-related album I'm championing, this week I'm just letting you know about the issue of something which you might assume is such material, but isn't. Over the last couple of months, a production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along was staged in New York City and created quite a lot of chat on All That Chat. So, I thought it would be worth noting that its producer, Meredith Ellis, who also played the role of Gussie, has put out a CD. She has a pleasing vocal quality, but don't expect anything Broadwayesque - this is a pop album of original songs, some written with a collaborator. It's somewhere between rock and folk, with a bit of a confessional songwriter style.
According to Meredith's website, she has played traditional musical theater roles, but they clearly haven't influenced her songwriting sensibilities and style. She comes from Oklahoma, and perhaps it's both the remains of an accent and the recording mix that makes me have to struggle to hear some of the lyrics here. It all seems a sincere effort, though, without one standout song. I can't help but wonder what she'd sound like doing the theater roles she's performed or if her intent is to only record originals. She's only very recently graduated from college, so there's plenty of time to explore and decide. No liner notes are included, so there's no perspective or background on the songs or what inspired them.
This is not a full-length album: it consists of only seven songs and merrily rolls along for only 29 minutes. It is available at Footlight Records at a price notably lower than the average CD, and you can sample the album at her website.
Traditionally, fall brings a new crop of releases, so it's hoped that we'll have a great harvest of treats over the next few weeks. I'll be listening for you.