Sound Advice Reviews
Foys' joys &
The tale of a real-life show biz family troupe from the old days brings kids and kidding around back around for vaudeville cheer in a new cast album. It's full of old songs and a few new ones, with a mixed-age cast, featuring some young kids. And Josh Young, a strong-voiced current Broadway star and Tony nominee, has his second solo CD available to download, with a load of classic theatre songs.
THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS
"Goodnight, Mother. I love you more than applesauce," says one of the kids in The Seven Little Foys, a song-packed, sunshine-filled musical biography of the family touring act from days of vaudeville. Quite a bit of dialogue and narration, often with underscoring or piano vamping, is included to give a sense of this musical I remember vividly as a highlight a couple of years ago in the annual New York International Fringe Festival theatre caravan of new musicals and plays (which begins again in this week). The bulk of the repertoire here consists of period songs, many well known such as "Shine On, Harvest Moon" and "Some of These Days," and includes material that was actually part of the Foys' repertoire. It's supplemented by original songs by the show's director/writer/arranger, Chip Deffaa, who was born in the area where the Foys lived. A great lover/expert of the early show biz era, his contributions fit right in like long-lost unpublished genuine articles.
This mostly cheery, perky collection of nifty nostalgia is most welcome: the sentimental time-travel trip to a bygone innocent time is entertaining and loveable. Wearing its corny heart proudly, brimming with energy and unpretentious bubbling joy, the project is sweet and swell, fully embracing the style, rather than winking. No fish out of water here. The name Eddie Foy, Jr. may be most familiar to Broadway musical theatre fans as the song-and-dance man who played that jealous time-study man Heinz on Broadway and on film in The Pajama Game, preserved on the original cast and soundtrack albums. It's Eddie Foy Senior who is the father of this gaggle of kids, with Junior one of the seven. Their saga was also told in a film starring Bob Hope.
The action of the story begins during a summer exactly 100 years ago as the family puts on a show in their home to entertain each other, allowing for introductions of the characters through their specialty numbers and cramming in a bright batch of old-timey songs. There's a lot of heart and zip, although the singing abilities and projected confidence of the children vary considerably. These are not slick, overly-polished show-biz belting kids, but a more natural-sounding cast, and not all are right on mark on pitches or tempi. But the cute factor that comes through on audio is some compensation. And with so many songs and tracks (37!), there is plenty of good (some tracks are brief reprises, and there are two big medleys, themed for Irish and World War I songs). As things progress, we hear the family's stage repertoire, stop for a family tragedy, hear about sneaking around child labor laws, and get a taste of some ups and downs of life on the road.
Michael Townsend Wright plays patriarch Foy with an easygoing manner and performing savvy, and much affection as he struts his stuff in this nostalgia-stuffed songfest. A major treat is having Jon Peterson on board as family pal George M. Cohan; the live wire singer/dancer/actor played Cohan in different Deffaa plays about him (George M. Cohan Tonight! was also preserved on Bruce Yeko's Original Cast Records label). He's the "ringer" here and a major shot of adrenalin and panache. Beth Bartley sings with tremendous warmth as the mother in some rich moments, notably a throaty and tender "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland." The kids each get their moment(s), with lots of group singing, too. Zachary Riopelle, a student at NYC's performer-friendly LaGuardia High School, stands out on two featured numbers. The value of this is to get a feel for the show and the times, not to have pristine and definitive versions of numbers we lovers of the golden age have known for very long time, such as Irving Berlin's dance novelty "The International Rag."
The new songs by Chip Deffaa, who also revised and tweaked some of the oldies, are delicious. It's always dangerous (some would venture to say foolhardy) to add new bits to the mix of the authentic, no matter how successful the pastiche is. But Deffaa, who does his homework and immerses himself happily in the era and its sensibilities, is the right man for the job, and his work makes for highlights rather than also-ran wannabes. As a writer, he metaphorically slips into the tap shoes and minds of the characters, allowing for some plot songs, rather than trying to make an established, well-known song try to act as such. It's a wise move; otherwise, it would be even more of a vaudeville show on disc. "Someday" is the take-home tune to get wrapped up in here. A segment with a trio of originals, "One More Christmas," "Sometimes I Miss New Rochelle" and "Please Wait for Me," brings a sense of the old with the new; there's a "Kiss" in the "Miss" with its strains recalling the period antique survivor, "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now." Likewise, "Struttin'" brings tradition and dance steps.
Accompaniment is Richard Danley (who has worked with the writer/director on other projects, the latest being a cast album for what might be a kind of a cousin of this show, One Night with Fanny Brice) on piano and Andy Stein on violin. They are spot on. One gets the feeling of a living room salon as well as a sense of the trademarks of style of this period, while the plot songs have a more "real" flavor, without seeming out of place. With so much fun and fizz and warm/cozy factors, I love it more than applesauce.
I had one of my favorite reactions when Josh Young's CD first began its first spin in my CD player: that intro I heard didn't sound like what was listed as the opening track, the well-known "Memory" from Cats. I thought the player or I had made a mistake, but I was mistakenhappily; it was "Memory," but not the way my own memory knows it from so many other versions. I hear a guitar that doesn't offer the usual high drama pounding or mysterious eerie entry to that feline "heavyside layer" where one cat's lamenting was made generically human in pop renditions and concerts. Once the wonderfully talented guy with a golden voice enters for the lyric, there's a sense that tradition will be respected, but this high-soaring voice and musical contributors are not on automatic pilot. Involved phrasing, commitment to passion and emotions without milking melodrama is the order of the day throughout the excellent and satisfying Still Dreaming of Paradise. I was pleased to be sent a hard copy of this somewhat elusive CD, formerly available only at venues where the actor-singer was performing; now it's mainly available to be downloaded.
The selections are loaded with richness and beauty. Some is lush, a grand voice tackling "big" theatre songs, but production never overwhelms or overplays its hand and never does singing come off as grandstanding. It's showcasing the voice, not the singer showboating. Scale is matched to emotion. But this guy, the Tony Award-nominated actor making his Broadway debut as Judas in the current revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, has mega-chops. Climaxes and builds are thrilling and fierce when appropriate: this is a true musical theatre leading man in the great tradition, but he freshens everything he touches. Just as rewarding, his more tender, legato singing reveals the vulnerability and longing, especially evident in "Golden Slumbers" from the Beatles songbag.
The breadth of his vocal skill is buoyed by real emotional underpinnings and intelligence. He knows what he is singing about, whether it's the wistful musings and determined dream-believing originally spouted by a very wise frog in The Muppet Movie's "The Rainbow Connection" or the regret and pain of a man with mileage in life and loveso palpable in South Pacific's "This Nearly Was Mine," from which a phrase from the lyric gives the CD its title. While some theatre singers' albums have impressive chops on display but become exhausting from overkill as audio-only experiences, it's not a wash with Josh. There is a "real deal" feel of catharsis and confessionand also good programming, creating a balance of croon and crescendo from track to track.
Much credit must go to his longtime friend and colleague Brian Lowdermilk, the gifted musician whose work first led me to this singer in my very first months of writing for Talkin' Broadway. Brian is a pianist on the album, arranged and conducted these charts, and is the main orchestrator. The accompaniment often sweeps and soars, but can pull back for intimate moments and drama. There are 18 musicians credited; the string section includes a harp. While most numbers keep very, very true to the essences of their musical forefathers, much creativity is involved and mawkishness is, thankfully, eschewed, despite the temptation some would have of going for the jugular or angst card with such repertoire. Two of Brian's mature collaborations with lyricist partner Kait Kerrigan are pleasures to hear here, especially with the loving care and sincerity they evoke (the mature eye-opener "Not a Love Story" and, straddling pop and theatricality, "The Man That I Could Be"). The lyric in the former, "You go along, thinking that things like this never change/ But then they go and change ... You say goodbye, but do you comprehend it?," gets an honest exploration and explosion. (For a change of pace, Brian sits out the cabaret favorite "Feels Like a Home" by John Bucchino; it features just simple piano accompaniment by Franklin Brasz, honing pretty closely to the way most people have approached the number. With such spare musical clothing, the vibrato and vulnerability stand out in higher relief.)
Josh's current and past associations with Andrew Lloyd Webber-composed musicals make for three key power presentations, with his current show's "Heaven on Their Minds" riveting as the tenth track of the 13. And besides the aforementioned "Memory" opener, there's a visit to another role he has on his resumé: Evita's "High Flying, Adored." It is particularly well done here, perhaps because it is not required to adhere to the accusatory, judgmental tone appropriate to the character of Che in the musical. Thus, it doesn't take the tack of indictment and rage or mockery, but is explored with a lamenting sensitivity and ache; the melody line becomes more legato and gorgeous and the impact is a marvelous surprise that leaves one thinking as the CD ends with this rendition. However, my instant reaction was just to press "Replay."