Nothing is more difficult than reviewing a show or recording that is merely 'good' or 'moderately enjoyable.' As a quick visit to All That Chat will demonstrate, it is far easier to extol the virtues of things we love or lambaste that which we loathe. Unfortunately, the things that fall in between present a challenge; namely how to mention the flaws without exaggerating them and making the project sound worse than it really is. The recently released Broadway Cast Album of Jane Eyre provides the perfect example of this, as it is a moderately pleasant recording which lacks that undefinable spark that would catapult it into a gripping musical experience.
For those of you who missed reading Jane Eyre in an English Lit class, here is a brief synopsis: written by Charlotte Bronte (not to be confused with her sister, Emily, who wrote another classic Gothic Romance, Wuthering Heights), Jane Eyre tells the story of an orphan who becomes a governess and falls in love with her employer, the dark and disturbing Mr. Rochester. Through events that would require a spoiler warning, her life becomes more complicated when she runs away from a terrifying secret in Rochester's house and is faced with another option for her life.
The musical version of Jane Eyre, adapted with a book by John Caird (Tony winner for his work as playwright/co-director for The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and as co-director of Les Miserables) and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (best known for writing the number one hits "Next Time I Fall" and "Friends and Lovers") has already had performances in Toronto and La Jolla on route to its soon-to-be Broadway opening. A cast album of the Toronto production was released a few years ago, and while I found it to be a pleasant enough listening experience, it did not strike me as something I needed to rush out and get.
The Broadway Cast Album is likewise non-offensive to the ears, except for one truly distracting flaw; it is almost impossible to listen to it and not hear other musicals. A resemblance to Les Miserables is perhaps unavoidable, given its dark subject matter, literary origins, and creative pedigree, but other influences stand out as well. It is almost as if the composer had absorbed elements from a host of other cast albums and unconsciously utilized them in Jane Eyre. There are strong traces of Secret Garden, especially with the use of a 'phantom' chorus, and even Oliver!. The character Jane's 'I want' number, "Sweet Liberty" not only has the same feel as "Meadowlark" but it finishes with the same interval. Likewise, "Finer Things," sung by the character of Blanche Ingram who has designs on Rochester, bears a striking resemblance to "Glitter and Be Gay," and finishes with the same interval.
This is not to say that Jane Eyre is totally unoriginal or without merit. Indeed, I found myself humming the haunting ballad "Painting Her Portrait" for days. And Paul Gordon has a surprisingly strong feel for harmonies, both in duets, like the stirring "Secret Soul" or in the chorus numbers, like "Secrets of the House." The cast of Jane Eyre is, quite frankly, absolutely incredible and perfectly suited for their parts. Marla Schaffel has an engaging voice and displays hints of steel in her portrayal of the title character. She is well matched by James Barbour as Rochester, who has a rich baritone reminiscent of Robert Westenberg. Mary Stout as the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, provides the only comic relief in the show and is a welcome treat.
Overall, Jane Eyre is one of those albums which is pleasant enough to listen to, but not enough to engender 'must have' feelings, except perhaps as a memento of a viewing experience. I hate to damn it with faint praise, as it does have a lot going for it, and I do hope Paul Gordon continues to write musicals as he definitely has a talent for it. Now that he has (hopefully) gotten all the 'influences' out of his system, I am sure that he will develop his own style and voice, and I look forward to hearing his next offering.
For something completely different, we now go back in time to 1940 when both swing music and radio dramas were at their peak. A new audio book/drama, Too Dead to Swing, combines the two to create a six hour murder mystery contained on four audio-tapes. The story centers around musician Katy Green, who joins an accident prone all-girl swing band on its California tour. As people around her get murdered, she must solve the mystery or face being accused of the crimes (or worse; become the next victim).
Audio-Playwrights has recorded this fusion of a 'book on tape' and a radio drama with a stellar cast. Susan Egan plays the narrator/heroine Katy Green and she is joined by Ann Hampton Callaway as the lead singer, Eileen, and Harry Groener as the composer/bandleader Ted Nywatt.
The back story of Too Dead to Swing is as interesting as the mystery itself. The Executive Producer, Hal Glatzer (a San Francisco based mystery writer himself) lived next door to its author, Hannah Dobryn, who had ghost written a popular girl-detective series in the 30's. Her own books were never published and were willed to Hal, who decided to develop them into a series of dramatic tapes. An interesting side note: there actually was a Ted Nywatt, who was a friend of Hannah's, and he really did compose the three songs featured in Too Dead to Swing. The songs, of course, are sung by Ann Hampton Callaway, who is backed by a killer swing band.
The mystery is enjoyable and amazingly modern in sensibility and the tapes feature excellent production values, While the story lags occasionally due to an overabundance of narrative versus action in places, the actors are extremely capable and the tapes provide a perfect accompaniment for a long commute or workout. The only complaint I have with Too Dead to Swing is that it was only released on tape, since CDs would be a great deal more convenient. But that is a minor quibble and one I hope will be fixed when the next Katy Green mystery is released. The tapes are well labeled for those who are vision impaired, and the website www.toodeadtoswing.com is chock full of fascinating tidbits on the era. All in all, this would make a great Christmas present.