British & Broadwayish
STREAMLINE/ JILL DARLING
Reaching back to 1934, Must Close Saturday Records has dug up some London cast recordings and a few bonus tracks, all with music by Vivian Ellis. Broadway was dancing to Cole Porter's Anything Goes that year, but one of London theater's favorites, Mr. Ellis, was regaling theatergoers with his own sprightly tunes. His were more dainty, though frothy and fun in their own way. Nowadays they seem quaint, and your pleasure in them will depend on whether or not you go in for quaint. The songs are simple and melodic.
Back in the 1930s, most shows only had a handful of hit songs recorded, if they were preserved as original cast performances at all. Streamline, a revue, takes up about half this album's tracks, including a lighter-than-air piano medley by the composer himself. His lyricists were A.P. Herbert and Ronald Jeans. The songs emphasize comedy and romance. The main performer is Florence Desmond, who is delicate in songs of courtship, an entertaining vocal chameleon adopting different character voices, and dotty in a spoken comedy section as the first British woman to fly to the North Pole with her baby. Speaking of the tots, a character number, "Other People's Babies" sung by Norah Howard as a professional nanny, may bring a smile. The big love songs, "You Turned Your Head," and "Kiss Me Dear," get two vocal versions each. But the piece de resistance here is a nine-minute parody of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta with all their trademarks. It's a pip! With the repetitive choral figures and the changing tempi and plot twists, it's a playful play within a play. If you know the drill, you'll appreciate the cute salute.
Jill Darling is represented by six songs, and its lyrics were the work of Desmond Carter, who once wrote lyrics with George Gershwin (Primrose). Frances Day, a star of the day, is on the other four tracks; two are solos and the others duets with Arthur Riscoe. John Mills and Louise Browne are heard in two duets; one, "I'm on a See-Saw," is one of the better known and catchier Ellis tunes. (If you don't know it, you can probably imagine how a see-saw can be an inspiration for a melody's structure.) A commercial recording of this tune is included as a bonus track at the end of the album. These tunes may not date terribly well, but are sweet and sentimental. I enjoy "We'll Lay Our Heads Together," for Jill Darling's lovers whose names are - that's right - Jack and Jill.
Also included are two other unrelated Ellis bonus tracks by bands of the time, with vocal choruses: "The Wind in the Willows," and, "She's My Lovely." They're delightful in their way - and you can dance to them. The sound is best on the bonus tracks. If you have an interest in early musicals, and are forgiving of lyrics that don't strive for depth, you may enjoy a trip in this time machine.
VIRTUE IN DANGER
Quite a curiosity, this musical Virtue in Danger! This is a farce about servants and the titled folk who feel entitled to their loves and lusts despite little details like being married. It's supposed to be foolish, and it is; that doesn't necessarily mean it's wildly funny. There's some amusement to be had, but there's a lot of effort expended for limited rewards. This 1963 musical, reissued on CD from a vinyl record of the time, is based on an old play by the writer Vanbrugh dating from the year 1696. The intent was to have the flavor of plays of the period and use some of the actual language, so it's not really fair to look at it as we would another musical of the 1960s. With character names like Loveless, Dr. Syringe and Lord Foppington, one does not expect anything subtle. In its own way, it's campy.
The lyrics and book were written by Paul Dehn and the music was composed by James Bernard. Their only other collaborations were a song cycle and an opera. Their main work (separately) was for films. Not being familiar with any of their other work, I can only say that Dehn's work here shows some wit and felicity with vocabulary, especially antiquated words. If not all lyrics are the kind you want to savor, at times the rhymes are clever. The writing is never less than skilled, filled with period flavor. Unfortunately, though, many of the songs start out fine, but show their hand right away, running out of steam and surprise. That is to say, promising starts turn into anticlimaxes. This is true even though most are under three minutes in length. I did find some of the melodies charming and very strong. What really reinforced these first impressions was how I felt when I heard the finale, which is over six minutes of brief reprises. Hearing several of the numbers in very short-and-sweet versions, they are just right. I wish there were an overture, as several of these solidly constructed, catchy melodies would be a joy to hear in that form.
Patricia Routledge is marvelous as a character described as "a prospecting widow." If you know her pleasing voice from shows like Darling of the Day or Little Mary Sunshine (London cast) or her comedy work from the TV series Keeping Up Appearances, you know she's very entertaining. You can almost see her blush when she reads a passionate passage in one track combining speech and song. She has two duets in which she stands out, as well as an effective solo, "Let's Fall Together," referring to falling out of love. A few boisterous and bawdy songs seem to be suitable but the boors become more bores on repeated listenings. The numbers with Patricia Routledge and two love songs, "Say the Word," and "Why Do I Feel What I Feel?" have a sweetness and simplicity that make them endearing. The latter is a change of pace number for a leading player who otherwise is bellowing and thrashing about. He is Barrie Ingham, who has been heard on numerous cast albums (as Herbie in the Angela Lansbury version of Gypsy and Jekyll and Hyde, to name two).
I suspect this might be better appreciated in context, live, with all the elements of farce before one's eyes. It's lively and the cast has relish and energy when they attack the material, attack being the operative word. I had to remind myself that it's a farce, as I sometimes was put off by some of the angry outbursts. It's only a play.
The title of this CD might make you think that show tunes Scot Wisniewski's way is a radical departure from the way of The Great White Way. Not really. We're not talking about theater standards being jazzed-up, stripped-down or turned inside out. This is mostly traditional, always respectful and somewhat low-key. I didn't take to this album instantly, but appreciate it more each time I listen, and now I find myself very fond of it. Some albums grab you right away and some grow on you. This one has been growing and is starting to feel like a friend.
Scot has performed in cabaret in New York and has done stage work, too. This is his second CD; the first was a 2002 holiday album, A Classic Christmas.. Scot has a deep voice but it has a gentle quality, too. There's a kind of formality and seriousness to his approach. That's part of Scot's way. He has piano accompaniment and arrangements by two men who are also noted songwriters, Bryon Sommers and Tim Di Pasqua. Maybe he'll record some of their work on a future album.
When Scot uses his very pretty head tones for effect - on the ending of "Not While I'm Around," for example - it's heavenly, and I wish he'd use this quality more. I suspect he has a lot more vocal power he could unleash, but he has restraint and is not here to blast you out of your seat. Instead, you lean in a little. It's worth the lean and the listen.
There are three Rodgers and Hammerstein classics: "If I Loved You," "Love, Look Away," and "I Have Dreamed." That last one is a duet with soprano Kristen Sallico, who also joins him on "All I Ask of You." He's also joined in song by Hector Coris, who usually provokes laughter as one of New York's finest funny men. Hector takes off his clown's hat to provide support for a smooth "Sailing" from the score of William Finn's A New Brain. All of these are well executed, especially "Love, Look Away," which finds Scot freer and more emotional (it also lets him float into those dreamy high tones). He takes two picks from Jekyll and Hyde's songbook, a well-modulated "Someone Like You," and "This is the Moment." I'm of the opinion that we need a moratorium on recordings of that song, but I give Scot credit for not overdoing it.
An introspective, regretful "What Kind of Fool Am I?" opts to show a man who is stopping to think rather than trying to stop the show. In a similar vein, but on the happier side of things is my favorite track, a fresh look at "On the Street Where You Live." Scot takes his time with it and creates a character who is more in awe with being on that street where that special someone resides, rather than the usual bursting-with-joy interpretation. It really works. His phrasing shows thought and a sense of wonder. Clearly his favorite street is Broadway. The singer's liner notes ("The theater ... transforms you into a magical place") and his reverential treatments of these songs makes that clear. His website is www.ScotW.com. I hope to hear more from him soon. Scot's Way is way ahead of many.
UNDER THE RADAR
Like the album above, the next Broadway survey includes a Sondheim tune and some Jekyll and Hyde. Each singer has two CDs, one of show tunes and one of Christmas music. Here's our discovery of the week:
The voice of Andrea McCormick has many colors, all bright hues. You'll know well before the end of the first chorus of her opening track that she can really sing! She's not hiding behind any studio tricks as she pours her voice into "The Music That Makes Me Dance," from the stage version of Funny Girl. Emotional without histrionics, she's at first warm and later throws her head back and belts. Confident without sounding like a diva, she is firmly in command in this album.
"I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables is the best showcase for illustrating her range and strength, calling on vibrato judiciously. Her other Broadway songs include "Children Will Listen" and Aida's "My Strongest Suit." Her strongest suit is not inventiveness in interpretation, though they're all well sung. These recordings hew very closely to the cast album versions in tempi and general form. The attractiveness and richness of her voice makes me care a lot less about this than I normally would - her voice and projected personality are that good. Besides, she never sounds like she's trying to "keep up." I'd just love to hear her try some more creative takes on famous songs. The most blatant case of cloning is Liza Minnelli's comic special material piece, "Ring Them Bells." It was recorded live, and I have to think the duplications of the smallest details of vocal mannerisms, phrasing, and instrumental arrangement fills were meant to be a re-creation. Another choice would serve her better, especially on an album with only 10 tracks.
Andrea has been performing at The American Music Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The live track was recorded there and she employs eight musicians from their orchestra. One is the pianist Charles B. Ancheta, who co-produced the CD with her and sings a duet with her, revealing an appealing vocal quality. Their choice is Jekyll and Hyde's "Take Me as I Am."
Andrea's stage experience includes a tour of The Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt and Mickey Rooney, so she includes "Over the Rainbow." It's a relaxed version capturing some of the yearning quality without trying to sound childlike. The album ends sweetly and simply with David Friedman's tender all-ages lullaby, "I'll Be Here With You." Andrea's website, www.andreamccormick.com, will let you hear some samples of what I'm praising. She's also apparently just finished a Christmas album and has been cast in a five-person, politically oriented musical revue The Bush Wars opening next month in New York City.
As 2005 draws to a close and the days dwindle down to a precious few, I'll be listening for you between Christmas carols and Auld Lang Syne.