Two very different musicals that made their mark first in the 1960s, and two very different ladies taking on songs by musical theater writers: one newly recorded (Elizabeth Harmetz) and one album happily brought out of mothballs: Charlotte Rae's sole solo LP from 1955.
JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND
The sheet music for the intense songs of Jacques Brel, with or without the English translations of Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, might well come with a warning label for singers. The antithesis of "easy listening," they are inherently dramatic, with their subject matter including death, war, regret and deeply felt emotions. Interpreters taking a melodramatic approach can make the mood insufferably morose or find themselves drowning in self-pity and writhing in anguish. Some of the character pieces can come off as overly brittle when the hard shell of the character gets too much focus. Fortunately, the new production of the revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris generally avoids the possible traps and uses the material in a way that communicates story and longing. Though the word "intense" still applies to the feel of the performances on the 2006 cast album, and caution has been thrown to the wind at times (fiercely building renditions of "Sons Of" by Gay Marshall and "Amsterdam" by Robert Cuccioli), there's restraint and nuance elsewhere. The same singers have more reflective moments that work especially well (her "Ne me quitte pas", sung entirely in French; his beautifully shaded and vulnerable "Fanette," and "Song For Old Lovers," two of the most moving tracks).
Rodney Hicks adds a welcome burst of energy, especially when leading the company in the quick-paced "Madeleine." Natascia Diaz is an exciting new theater personality. She has great presence; her rich and compelling vocal qualities come through very well on disc. Though capable of being a thrillingly powerhouse singer, her velvety tones and sensitivity are well used, too, in "My Death" and "Old Folks."
The musical dressings are an intriguing mix of ideas. Some songs are treated in ways more loyal to earlier cast album treatments while others are infused with more "new blood" ideas. Music director Eric Svejcar (who co-produced the CD with Greg Arnold) plays six instruments in the band and also sings with the cast on a few tracks. He, plus bass player Stephen Gilewski and drummer-percussionist Brad Gorilla Carbone from the production, are joined by three other musicians on several tracks: George Petit on guitars, Sean McDaniel on drums, and most effectively Joseph Brent on violin (and mandolin).
Productions of the revue and a film version have mixed and matched songs over the years from the impressive Brel catalogue. This album contains an alternate translation of "Le Moribund" and an early Brel composition about the devil ("Le Diable") used to open the show.
Bonus Tracks: The album is very full with 22 tracks, nearly 77 minutes long, but there's more! Seven additional numbers are available as digital downloads on iTunes or as a CD in a plain sleeve from the label (see www.ghostlightrecords.com). Rodney Hicks, who has no track all to himself on the main disc, gets to dig into more here. He has "The Statue" and "The Bulls" as solos, two tour de force numbers that really let him cut loose. He's also on the male-bonding trio of "Bachelor's Dance." Another highlight is having the whole company together for the joyful "Brussels," celebrating the mostly happy times in Brel's homeland.
Though along the way there's wit and some tenderness plus irresistibly catchy melodies that sweep you along, the bite and grit are what stand out. Unsettling and bracing, the way strong theater can be, Brel is always a rather relentless ride on the roller coaster called reality. It's skillfully done here, and with some fresh perspectives.
The wheel has not been re-invented for The Fantasticks and thus the cast album from the new production, directed by its lyricist/book writer, Tom Jones, is not radically different in feel or sound. The universality of its themes and a heartwarming score that refuses to grow stale let The Fantasticks run Off-Broadway in a small Greenwich Village theater for 42 years, and it has been produced all over the world. Four years after it (and its home theater) finally closed, the show has returned, this time just steps from the big Broadway houses, at the new Snapple Theater Center on Broadway and 50th Street.
It's hard to argue with success, and it's also hard to argue with those of us who welcome any new version of a beloved score. The truth is that this doesn't feel like a terribly necessary release, and it's not filled with stunning knock-your-socks-off moments that surpass earlier versions. Still, it's perfectly enjoyable, and the magic still is there.
This is a more low-key, naturalistic Fantasticks. Some people may prefer that, and that element stands out. It appears on disc that Burke Moses' interpretation of El Gallo/The Narrator does not have as much assertiveness, wisdom or sense of seductive danger that others have brought to the role. However, his strengths are an entertaining brashness in the showier moments and warmer, more low-key readings on some lines throughout (sing and spoken). As the young lovers, Santino Fontana and Sara Jean Ford, find a nice middle ground, not playing their naive characters too broadly, nor overly sweet. "They Were You" is the best of their duets, lovely and understated. As the fathers, Martin Vidnovic and Leo Burmester are entertaining and fun without fully exploiting the hammier vaudevillian potential in their numbers.
Writer Tom Jones returns to his role of Henry, The Old Actor, which he performed in the 1960 production using the stage name Thomas Bruce. He's heard a bit on this CD in the brief comic reprise of "I Can See It" (joined by Robert R. Oliver) and some dialogue. He does more of the wonderfully dotty character's dialogue on the 1993 tour cast album on DRG Records, which has more spoken material, plus composer Harvey Schmidt on piano and a now-deleted song written for the tour, "A Perfect Time To Be In Love." This new album, however, has some of the dialogue and a bonus track recorded in 1959: Schmidt singing and playing what was completed for an intended number for El Gallo called "O Have You Ever Been to China?," which is a charming bit of history, though not quite in the character of what the rest of the musical became. It's more on the cute side. The musicians here are Dorothy Martin on piano and Erin Hill on harp, playing crisply and skillfully, with sensitivity as well.
It's worth noting that "It Depends on What You Pay" has had lyric revisions, entirely removing the word "rape" which was used repeatedly in the original, and had been replaced on just some lines in the 1993 recording.
The sound quality for this gentle little musical has not been subjected to any temptations of technical toying; its simplicity and warmth are only enhanced by the clean and lean production. Joel Moss is the producer, with Dan Shaheen as co-producer, and it was recorded just before the show officially opened this past August.
As we approach the holidays, this new recording is a worthy candidate for cast album collectors who might appreciate a respectful variation on a classic score - "deep in December, it's nice to remember" the charms of this life-embracing musical.
The album may be decades old, but that is just added proof that Charlotte Rae has been very, very funny for a very, very long time. Long out of print on LP, this album first recorded and released in 1955 has now been released on CD for this first time and it's deliciously daffy and grandly goofy. The booklet includes the original liner notes and new ones by the performer plus a detailed bio with photos from key points in her career.
It also shows a comedienne who knows the importance of detail and characterization. An amusing performance of an amusing song that merits repeated listenings is one with a lot more than the broad strokes. Rae fills in the blanks and shades little moments with bits of business. With sharp timing, she waits the extra beat for effect, giggle, change pitch to emphasize a word and fill everything with attitude. Part of the fun - and there's a lot of fun - is that her character often seems on the verge of getting carried away in the frivolity and the pleasure taken in the words. The singer loves words, and chose material by writers who love to use juicy vocabulary and word play. She collaborated on two of the pieces with the great Sheldon Harnick, the spoken piece parodying Zsa Zsa Gabor and her family ("Gabor the Merrier") and a send-up of a "Backer's Audition" by a self-aggrandizing musical comedy artiste parading her own opus of questionable quality. But the quality of the spot on parody is tiptop. Harnick is also co-writer (With Stanley Orzey) on "Gus the Gopher," another cute hoot.
Other musical theater writers represented are Cole Porter with two showpieces and Rodgers and Hart for the more serious number, "Why Can't I?". Marc Blitzstein wrote the English lyrics for one of Charlotte's early successes, a production of The Threepenny Opera, but this is much frothier fare. She is a lusty and lascivious lass loving lechery in the song deceptively named "Modest Maid" (there's nothing very modest about it except the pleasingly structured melody line). Blitzstein serves her special skill at being flustered and flighty with "Fraught" as she becomes progressively unwound as the song goes on.
This is just good, old-fashioned slick schtick that still works. It's not brittle, mean-spirited, devastating satire. If "silly" is not your cup of tee-hee, you may find some of it too broad, but don't be surprised it if wins you over.
Musical accompaniment is billed as "John Strauss and His Baroque Bearcats," John Strauss being her husband at the time and he co-wrote the final piece, "The Nail in the Horseshoe," with John Latouche to let Charlotte have another chance of the kind of character she does especially well: the pretentious woman who thinks she's high class but is oblivious to how she really comes across, and shows her true colors. Charlotte Rae's true colors are all bright and shiny, and it's great to have this well-tailored set of humorous high jinks in print again.
UNDER THE RADAR
And while we're on the subject of revisiting, here's a newly recorded album by a singer covering some musical theater items ranging from the 1920s to the 1990s. As Charlotte Rae had one serious song to be a change of pace on her comic set, the next singer does the opposite: one funny number on an otherwise serious outing.
Elizabeth Harmetz is a classically trained soprano who sings musical theater and opera. Her album Stars Fill the Sky shows her theater side, but the operatic qualities are evident. She can really sing, and it's nice to hear these songs treated with a generous voice with attention to the words, too. These are traditional, respectful renditions, no agenda to reinvent. There are two choices from Show Boat: "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" that are well done, formal without being stodgy. More recent songs include "In His Eyes" from Jekyll & Hyde and The Secret Garden's emotional and soaring "How Could I Ever Know," wise choices for the sweep of her voice.
The album's unique comic moment is the terrific "Everyone Wants to Do a Musical." It's one that musical theater aficionados (and maybe sarcastic resisters) can cherish. She has a ball and is very effective portraying the character of the limited singer who wants to be a big Broadway star. It's a little gem of a song from the score to the short-lived musical Nick and Nora by Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, Jr. Elizabeth shows real comic abilities here on this otherwise straightforwardly set of sincere songs.
She includes a number from a show she's played on stage, "So in Love" from Kiss Me Kate, which showcases her grand sound and range. Of particular interest are two selections from a show being revived: 110 in the Shade by Jones and Schmidt, writers of The Fantasticks. They are "Simple Little Things" and "Old Maid," done with more emphasis on the melodic lines that the drama of the lyrics. (All the lyrics, by the way, are printed in a booklet.)
Musical accompaniment is just piano, nicely done by Mollye Otis, without drawing attention to itself. Elizabeth lives in California and has been working recently in Florida. She's also a singing teacher. Her mother, by the way, is Aljean Harmetz, whom some readers will know for her writing on film in books, including one on the making of The Wizard of Oz and many pieces for The New York Times. Those seeking a real soprano sound, with vibrato and verve, without taking a lot of liberties with the songs as written - here's your lady.
And that's all for now, but we have some interesting things to talk about before the year's end and our annual Best Of The Year wrap-up in January (speaking of revisiting).