Sound Advice Reviews
In the Studio: Solo CDs from Stars of Broadway
A musical theatre performer going into the recording studio for a solo album sometimes allows us to see new musical colors and a new persona/personality: a star is reborn, maybe, as a pop presence. And sometimes you can take the performer out of the Broadway arena, but you can't take the "Broadway" out of the singer.
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL
Star Brian Stokes Mitchell begins Simply Broadway simply indeed: singing a cappella. But, when the pianist glides in, it's clear the robust glorious-voiced vocalist has a full co-star. Both are billed as the arrangers of this often riveting recording. On tracks less dependent on established accompaniment figures and stricter tempi, pianist Tedd Firththe only instrumentalist on the albumis a formidable interpreter, too. Both are so much in the moment, with dramatic tension or tenderness or bursts of honesty. Sometimes a theatre fan who knows every word and turn of these famous show songs may yet be pulled in, kept on the edge of the proverbial seat. Almost everything carries weight and feels important, rather than tossed off. That first piece of passion and exultation about appreciated freedom is "Feeling Good" from The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd. A downbeat number by the same writers (Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse) is equally involving; "What Kind of Fool Am I?" takes its rue quietly for the first part, the character disabled by despair. It gathers force where it makes sense, through determination and realizations, catharsis buoyed by the masterful instrumental break.
Simply Broadway follows 2006's eponymous debut album, and the baritone finds the right balance between cast album style (singing in character with theatrical flair) and a studio session as "vocalist." In the earlier CD, impact was somewhat diffused by jazz settings suggested a lighter touch on some traditional leading man material. There'd been two numbers from Company, and a third, "Sorry-Grateful," shows up here. A maturity of thought and lived-in understanding informs the usual ambivalence without anything being pat or too detached. Another Sondheim choice, "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George, is a tour de force that is a multidimensional mix of strength and vulnerability.
A glance on the track list lets us know that these are mostly the "big" numbers among Broadway classics. However, the intelligent, varied treatments and quiet moments of introspection and intimacy of the just-piano accompaniment make it special. This is no showy show tune baritone bombardment recital or tour of tours de force. Likewise, revisits to two of his recorded roles are not just "been there/done that" powerhouse declamations for the same reasons: Man of La Mancha's "The Impossible Dream" has subtlety of numerous shaded phrases and time is liquid. The first part of South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening" is reverential, gentle and imbued with a desire to communicate its message. Another Rodgers & Hammerstein opus, the lengthy "Soliloquy" from Carousel, while respecting tradition, gets personalized shadings. Singer and pianist find many details and shadings of character; flights of fatherhood fancy make it a banquet of a three-act play in itself.
In lighter, looser fare, the album also wins points for new territory-staking and showmanship. "It Ain't Necessarily So" is delicious. It has ever-shifting tempi and attitudes, from sly and slinky to wild scat to broadly funny (Methuselah) to exuberant. "If I Were a Rich Man" might take some getting used to, but there are some juicy bits. It features Mitchell's mirth on certain words to Firth's piano progressions adorably suggesting the "one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down." And he sprightfully and comically "plays" the fine-feathered fowl flapping in the yard.
We also get "Stars" from Les Misérablesthere's your visceral vocal K.O. punch. For all-out characterization, observe Camelot's "How to Handle a Woman," complete with the intro addressing Merlin, rather than the shortened pop version some singers stick with. Very much the actor on this one, musing and recalling, whispering words, singing with a smile, he finds an adaptation of the speech/sing style used by stage and screen kings Richard (Burton; Harris). "Some Other Time" closes things, adapting the second line from "Haven't done half the things we want to" to "Haven't sung half the songs ..." Indeed that makes one anticipate another solo album. Let's hope it doesn't take another half-dozen years.
Talk about doing a very eclectic solo album and then nailing each challenge within that variety! When a guy can succeed equally with a fierce Broadway showstopper (Hello Dolly!'s "Before the Parade Passes By"), be totally disarming with the sincere yearning in a simple folk song ("The Water Is Wide"), and then sing from the point of view of a young pregnant girl without even veering into a wink or camp or weirdness (Madonna's hit "Papa Don't Preach"), that guy is pretty versatile. Telly Leung is quite a guy. The Broadway veteran (Pacific Overtures, Flower Drum Song, Godspell) is just terrific on his album. With its cover songs from the worlds of theatre and pop, it covers a lot of ground and shows this young performer's immense charm, energy, smarts, and versatility. The danger of covering well-known songs, especially those identified with their original artists, is the risk of seeming redundant by copying, or desperation-style gimmicky just to be different. Not to worry. Telly and his retinue avoiding those pitfalls with arrangements and interpretations that feel fresh and so right.
An enjoyable, spicy 30-minute-long release in 2005, with a handful of pop songs he co-wrote, had him billed just by his first name. That was just a prelude. This new full flowering of talent brings 13 selections, and all register strongly and strikingly. Despite the all-over-the-map mix of genres and subject matter, a certain buoyancy and endearing youthful, very positive spirit prevail. And that serves the material and the artist and his musicians well. The optimism and mature joy is crystallized in a glowing, life-affirming version of "I Can See Clearly Now," an old hit written and sung by Johnny Nash. Michael Croiter, leader of the prolific and relatively new Yellow Sound Label, is on drums, and he co-produced the CD with Gary Adler, pianist and arranger of all but two tracks. Those were designed by Mary Ann McSweeney, the CD's sometimes Broadway-based bassist. Also on board are Clay Ruede (cello), Entcho Todorov (violin and viola) and guitarist Brian Koonin. The strings give the material gravitas when needed and vibrancy.
Things begin with McSweeney's kicking arrangement of "Knocks Me Off My Feet" by Stevie Wonder (one unfortunate omission: no songwriter credits are printed, although all the titles are listed on both the outside and inside). Her other arrangement is for a very different flavor and style for another "Stevie": Stephen Sondheim's song of an urgent call to attention, "Children Will Listen." Without getting preachy or pedantic, priorities pierce the air, as does Telly's singular voice, along with the calibrated emotion informing his invested phrasing. In the album's title song (double meaning, of course), Telly powerfully takes another crack at a number he sang as Angel in the last Broadway company of Rent.
From the oeuvre of The Indigo Girls, "Galileo," with its reincarnation-focused wonderment about "How long 'til my soul gets it right?", becomes a more intense cry of anguish, frustration and hope that sears and soars. The Beatles' gem of retrospection, "In My Life"gently crooned with aching sincerityis one more highlight, featuring guitar and the singer's tender, high head tones. Much more of those would have been welcome as those purer sounds are definitely in the "strong suit" column. We get a bonus bounty of that in a live soulful and reflective track ends the album: "I Believe in You and Me," once the territory of The Four Tops and later Whitney Houston, where the singer provides his own piano accompaniment, and relies on thoughtfulness even more so than bravura showmanship.
"Gentle, but strong" sums up Telly Leung and, though it sounds oversimplified, that phrase about covers I'll Cover You, a real joy.
It's my sad duty to convey that the debut album of Broadway's Robert Cuccioli, famed for being both Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway and currently going green on the Great White Way as Spider-Man nemesis, is frustrating and disappointing in large measure. It's not a total washout, but to merely say it is "uneven" would be understating the problems as I hear things. Although there are some nice tracks to be sure and some mixed results within others, he too often seems to sound vocally uncomfortable or forced. In some cases, it may be the keys, but there's also a sense of being miscast in the ill-fitting garb of a swingin' nightclub singer on songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and others.
Things seem overwrought when they need to be underplayed, self-conscious when they should be casually loose. In his own liner notes, the singer characterizes the albums material as "these standards from the '30s and '40s," but quite a few were written after that time: from the 1950s ("Witchcraft, "Cold, Cold Heart, " "Love, Look Away" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song) and the 1960s ("I Like to Lead When I Dance" and the ballad "Once Upon a Time" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, from All American) and even beyond ("How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" and the finaland perhaps besttrack, "All the Way Home" by Teddy Randazzo, a sincere and tender lullaby-like list song Sinatra recorded but that wasn't released for some time). As in the Gershwins' "Love Is Here to Stay," when Cuccioli is truly laidback, instead of trying too hard to be and ending up overplaying or straying or straining, the calm, unforced crooning can be lovely.
While he's known for his grand, intense, big performance style with an intense, big voice, he does not go what might be the obvious route and trot out a bunch of Broadway's high-drama leading man anthems. On The Look of Love, we get: of course, the title song (not the restlessly romantic Bacharach/David hit, but rather the mildly cute rouser of a list song by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, a lyricist represented five times); "Day by Day" (not the Godspell prayer, but rather the older big band-era ballad-there's Cahn again); and "or All We Know" (not 1970's Academy Award winner, but rather the old standard). Four of the 22 tracks feature two songs colliding in odd couplings and there's a three-song medley, too. The sequencing feels random.
Although pianist/organist/accordionist (!) Barry Levitt did the arrangements and co-produced (with Joseph Baker), it's a very strange case where the musicians, with flair, are quite often playing swell figures and licks and layers ... but the singer seems to have a different agenda. They're at odds and it's odd. These top-drawer musicians whom I've often heard with other singers (live and on disc) to great effect seem to be going for a jazzy approach. Listening to the album a second time and concentrating on the accompaniment, I realize what good, solid work Levitt, bassist Jon Burr, drummer Ray Marchica and guitarist Jack Cavari are doing splendid things, despite some heavy leaning on other versions and some veering into "lounge" territory. They're relaxed and natural, floating along on the graceful "Sleep Warm" while the more staccato Cuccioli's attention to final consonant sounds seems labored and we as listeners become too aware of that.
In many vocals, a feisty spirit is evident, as is relishing of the material and an old-school nightclub milieu. The bold leaping into unapologetic, big-voiced drama that we've heard from him in stage roles translates in a gung-ho, splashy way with the weepy "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" in the old Tony Bennett mold. Similarly, the self-pitying poetic "Prisoner of Love" melodrama is ripe and ready-made for the full-throttle treatment.
It's maddening to see an established performer so out of his element, especially when we've seen and heard him (here and elsewhere) shine and know he canwhen things align and material suits him.
As life imitates art, Natalie Toro's single of "Just in Time for Christmas" has just come in under the wire. Natalie, seen on Broadway on Les Misérables and A Tale of Two Cities and who recorded a strong solo CD, is an always-welcome pro of the first order. And this number by David Friedman and David Zippel, the title song of Nancy LaMott's memorable holiday album, is one of the top latter-day seasonal entries. Told from the point of view of someone basically untouched by all the tacky trimmings and tinsel of commercial Christmas until a certain someone comes alongno, not Santa, but someone who enters the person's life just in the St. Nick of time ("Just in time for Christmas you showed me what Christmas is about"). The lyric makes clever but not overly cutesy use of titles of famous yuletide perennials like "Silent Night."
The arrangement and structure respects the original blueprint, but Edward B. Kessel's arrangement gives it a new brightness (he was the arranger on A Tale of Two Cities). Natalie's marvelous voice finds many colors and moods within this generous-length track. A strongly lingering sense of wonder and awe, self-deprecation and self-amusement, knowing self-appraisal mixes with eye-opening realization, leading to the climactic exultant "joy where there once had been doubt." There's a satisfying arc to her interpretation as the piece builds with her personality-rich, big belt of a voice. This little gem can be found as a hard copy single disc at CDbaby.com, but getting it delivered "just in time for Christmas" might be risky; fortunately, downloading it is as easy as jingling bells.