Sound Advice Reviews
Campbell's On Broadway and two shows
The ever-thickening Broadway songbook gets thumbed through once more for a solo vocal album, with mostly pleasing if hardly groundbreaking results. David Campbell's approaches and arrangements on his newest album generally take one of two very different paths: they trod the Great White Way in the footprints of those who first brought them to us, or go the route of iconic pop star cover records. An example of the latter is his tip of the fedora to the Sinatra arrangement and attitude heard on records and in concert on "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls. (Though Sinatra was in the film version, the lead on that song went to a fellow named Marlon Brando.)
The CD opens agreeably with a mini-overture that lasts less than a minute but manages to get in phrases and moods of about half the numbers on this 13-song set to set an anticipatory mood. Arrangements, with one exception, are by Bill Elliott, who evoked the Sinatra sound so well for Michael Feinstein's big band CD The Sinatra Project. He sips on the Broadway straw just as easily on the first vocal track, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" (Oklahoma!), with the gratifyingly familiar-sounding orchestration evoking that peacefully pretty and pleasing way the "sounds of the earth are like music." This gently swells to robustness and all is relatively right with the world for the CD's start. Next up is the uptempo "When I Get My Name in Lights," written and introduced by Campbell's fellow Australian Peter Allen in his short-lived Broadway musical Legs Diamond. There are some sparks here, although it might have benefited from a breezier, lighter touch than the hard sell. Hard swinging and some hard-nosed attitude and old school nightclub sensibilities take over in a few numbers, like the title song from "Hello, Dolly!" It's fun in its way, especially if you don't have oh-so-similar old records lodged in your old memory bank or iPod. But it's frustrating, too, because you know he had shown himself to be a sensitive interpreter on his early cabaret-informed albums from the 1990s. The final track, "Some Other Time," serves as a cool-down from all the brass and bravura bits, and shows some tenderness and heart.
Two of the selections let him revisit shows he played in back in Australia and theynaturallyfind him sounding somewhat more involved in the lyrics, though still swept away by his own sound and fury: Although it wasn't his song to sing in his time as Marius in Les Miserables, he takes on "Bring Him Home" heroically; then there is a fervent but not especially needy "Being Alive" from Company, the plea for connection by the character of Bobby which he did play. The Campbell connections to singing pensively and truly in a character's skin and a more strutting, showy style coincide with Chicago's intentionally smarmy "All I Care About" where three female singers join in raucously.
Of special note among the oldies on On Broadway is a number from a show that intends to be on Broadway soon, as Campbell debuts "Goodbye" from Catch Me If You Can (Marc Shaiman/ Scott Wittman). Its contemporary and driving sound may sound out of place on this memory-encrusted collection, but it is intriguing to hear. Although difficult to fully appreciate out of context (research shows that it is sung in the show by the main character, Frank Abagnale, Jr.), one can appreciate the unrelenting determination and fierceness in the number. A show that closed before it got to Broadway is also represented, and its arrangement is the one exception to the Elliott credits, with The Baker's Wife's "Proud Lady." It gets a towering, all-stops-out performance. Thanks are given to its songwriter Stephen Schwartz for the borrowing of the arrangement.
Much of the pleasure in hearing this CD comes from the presence and performance of the big, full orchestra conducted by Rob Fisher. (Hearing most of the same numbers recently in David Campbell's engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency with just four musiciansalbeit sterling oneswas a very different experience and leaned towards much more of a playful hipster-goes-Broadway approach.) On disc, the orchestra's size supports his big singing style and their lushness tempers it and eases him into a much more theatre-based approach for the majority of the tracks. If it's vocal power you want, there's that and then some here.
Despite a penchant for steamrolling and grandstanding, there are flashes of charisma, and the Australian accent and the fellow with it have a certain charm.
On Broadway, Seussical, based on the writings and wild imagination of Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel), was big and there was big talk about it. It opened just about ten years ago (November 30, 2000). Since then, it was rethought, reshaped and retooled and scaled down, with its big battle scene tossed out some other tweaks. The newer cast album, belatedly released this autumn, was recorded in June of 2008 and uses the cast members from the Theatreworks production seen at Greenwich Village's Lucille Lortel Theatre, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the previous summer. Now called the "Theater for Young Audiences version," the artwork seen on the cover suggests the cuddlier, perkier, sweetened approach you'll hear here, and that I remember from seeing that mostly quite youthful cast in a mounting which also was notable for its simpler and brightly colored visuals and creatively playful prop choices and puppets. The audio-only experience emphasizes the choice of going for cute and bold instead of edgy and sly in singing and characterizations and musical accompaniment. Characters are painted with broad strokes, making their personalities very clear but losing some wistfulness, and some animals lose their once more apparent pseudo-humanity for they become more generically children's theatre here. The savvy Broadway veterans in the original cast had more layers and adult sensibilities. It's a matter of taste and choices and toneSeuss ain't Shakespeare and should be fun. There's joy and jesting and fun here for sure and it's an earnest, high-energy romp without heavy winking.
The original Doug Besterman orchestrations were adapted and conducted by Bryan Louiselle, with W. Brent Sawyer credited for Musical Direction (the size of the orchestra and names of players are not given). As in the original, the musical's composer, Stephen Flaherty, is credited with the vocal arrangements. All of Lynn Ahrens's lyrics, and the numerous brief bits of dialogue by the writing duo, is included in the booklet and on the CD whose playing time of 71 minutes is very close to the playing time of this downsized version of the show which their liner notes indicate they are happy with.
There is a cast of 12 busily at work, with a female playing the hosting Cat in the Hat (a mischievousness-challenged but amiable and enthused Shorey Walker). As heroic Horton, the elephant determined to keep his promise to look after a bird's nested egg even after she flies away for months, Brian Michael Hoffman is straightforwardly sincere and circumspect, his low-key manner and voice a break from the shriekier and loopier voices. Karen Weinberg as Gertrude McFuzz, the long-ignored plain bird with feather envy, has some pleasing moments as she suffers, pines and gets a make-over of sorts. Some of the group singing has the ladled-on giddiness of children or children's theater performers jumping up and down at the smiliest birthday party with cupcakes and games ever.
There are some differences between this and the Broadway cast album, with more dialogue and reprises and short pieces here, the Broadway battle song gone, etc. As always, JAY Records brings a thoroughness and fine production, with JAY's Executive Producer, the veteran and show-loving attentive-to-detail and bright sound, John Yap producing with the writing team. With 33 separate tracks from overture to exit music, there's a lot of Suessical sunniness and sass in the re-hatching of this popular musical gush of glee.
Back in 1976, when America was busy celebrating its bicentennial, a Broadway musical based on Carl Reiner's novel "Enter Laughing" entered and exited quickly. It was titled So Long, 174th Street which has a delightfully catchy song about a nice Jewish guy named David from the Bronx with stars in his eyes because "Broadway's calling me." Reverting to the original title of Reiner's book, it came back, thanks to the York Theatre which made it part of its Musicals in Mufti series on a weekend of staged readings in the fall of 2007, just months after the writer of its score, Stan Daniels, who'd found more success as writer of big hit TV sitcoms, had died. This was followed by a 2008 run after a strong reception. That cast was brought to the recording studio a year ago this week and we have another charming recording of the score. I say "another" because, despite its brief run of six previews and 16 performances, the Broadway company cast featuring Robert Morse, Kaye Ballard and George S. Irving was preserved by Original Cast Records in a recording still available on CD. This new version, wherein Mr. Irving repeats his supercilious character with vim and vigor, doesn't trump or replace the original, but has similar charm, an endearing lead performance by Josh Grisetti as David, and a lost song, "The Man I Can Love," reinstated. There is also an overture that lasts just about one minute and an Entr'Acte close to three minutes long; it's good news for a score with such ingratiating melodies. (The earlier album, with no such instrumentals, has a number called "Bolero on Rye" not included in the later production and CD.) This JAY Records souvenir sounds great and the energy jumps from the disc into your ears.
Set in the late 1930s and affectionately nostalgic and full of hammy moments in a story of seeking success, family squabbles, and innocently blushing fumbling with the opposite sex, with fantasy sequences, this is a broad, cheery musical comedy. It thickly lays on the shtick, the stock Jewish mother guilt, pastiche and there's much bright-eyed goodwill. Veteran Broadway bookwriter Joseph Stein, who died earlier this year, was actively involved in the York Theatre productions and had adapted his original script; some dialogue is included on the disc. The dialogue heard, a song-by-song synopsis, and all the lyrics are included in a booklet with a dozen color photos and a few brief comments from Mr. Stein, the York's James Morgan and director Stuart Ross who added additional lyrics for two numbers: "Undressing Girls" and "Hot Cha Cha." Music director/pianist Matt Castle (who also sings in the ensemble, playing a character named Roger Hamburger in 14-member cast) leads a nimble band with six other musicians.
Josh Grisetti with eager-beaver aw-shucks personality agreeably sings and shmoozes and flirts and swears his friends to secrecy about his lusty thoughts, and shouts out the theatrical ambitions he celebrates. With all this, he retains a puppy dog-like modesty. Janine LaManna as an actress is more manic in her man-hungriness (in "The Man I Could Love," she sings that, basically, as long as he's alive, availableor nothe's OK by her). As the sweeter girl-next-door type of girlfriend, Emily Shoolin has a couple of adorable duets with Grisetti and at one point lets loose leading the vitriolic attack against "Men" who are "all the same." Jill Eikenberry does the "whatever you want" not-so-subtle Jewish mother bit, maybe not a natural fit but she gives it a game go, dreaming of her dear boy's more-reliable-than-theatre future in "My Son, the Druggist." Her husband is played by her real-life husband, actor Michael Tucker, who has some dialogue and the late-in-the-show number bemoaning kids nowadays, complaining that they just want to "Hot Cha Cha," duetting with Ray DeMattis.
But it is once again and always the remarkable George S. Irving who steals the show. He is once more hilarious in the fantasy scene as the butler (in the solo tour de force "Butler's Song," dryly ticking off the lothario actor's connubial calendar appointments) and as the pompous Harrison Marlowe of his own Marlowe Theatre. Leading a group number, he sings in his superior-than-thou way that an actor merely has to "Say the Words" in script, and the general publiche adds with cheering, sneering insultswill be oblivious to the fact that he is a "drab, unimaginative, vapid and vacuous twit." Bravo! And his new co-stars join in merrily.
It's a merry time all around with this punchy bunch of pastiche and pizazz, delivered with panache. And the once-title song that ends the shenanigans and sweetness is a vaudeville valentineyou can almost see Grisetti grinning a mile wide and exit laughing with him.