Sound Advice Reviews
....in love and war
This column shows you some love, with or without war.
The approach to the World War II-era songs on Stage Door Canteen, a studio recording based on a March 2011 concert in the long-running Lyrics and Lyricists series at NYC's 92nd Street Y, is as it often was when the songs were new. That is: to let songs provide comfort, lift spirits, reinforce patriotism and hope, or simply serve as needed escapism. The ugly realities of war's fears and dangers and tragedies were all too real and present. So, this look back is more of a flashback/snapshot rather than invoking the perspective or hindsight of latter years. Emphasis is often on the lilt and bounce of the period songs, rather than delving into the lyrics too deeply.
We get Nazis as comic fodder in "Ve Don't Like It," with a broad German accent and broad burlesque comedy, whining about being labeled "ruthless murderers." It's a little-known Irving Berlin bit. His "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" is presented in a mash-up with the praise for that time of day, Oklahoma!'s "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'". Yet another Irving Berlin contribution calls for expressing and embracing animosity towards "Japs" and Germans via channeling such feelings into a dance craze called "The Kick in the Pants." Song-and-dance man Jeffry Denman perkily instructs how to give that kick to Asians while they're "down on their Japa- knees." Berlin's anthem "God Bless America" is, thankfully, sung with quiet sincerity rather than button-pushing flag-waving. Brandon Victor Davis, perhaps the company's most emotionally nuance performer, makes it one of the few truly moving pieces. Also impactful are his vigor and piercing determination which inform "The Song of the Free" composed by, notably, German emigre Kurt Weillwith words by poet Archibald MacLeish. The sustained, strong last note is rather thrilling, as his commanding voice can be in general. A more blithe kind of cheerleading comes with Frank Loesser's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." Other writers from Broadway are heard from, too: Sailors on leave are recalled in On the Town's "Some Other Time" and the five-member company merrily romps through Cole Porter's name-dropping and impish take on celebrities taking up the fad of "Farming" that is "so gay".
Nostalgia need neither numb nor dumb down emotion and, while there's some wistfulness and guts with the sunshine, some slower-tempoed tracks feel pallid. Most egregious is Betsy Wolfe on two Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein pieces. Crooning "The Last Time I Saw Paris" she sounds as if she's unperturbed, merely musing about pleasant picture-postcard memories rather than seriously lamenting the fact that the Nazis have invaded, occupied, and changed a beloved city. On "All the Things You Are," considered by many songwriters to be the ultimate love song, she is instead the ultimate bland ingenue, singing the introductory verse with mindless metronome-like (or military) precision and not convincing in her ardor and worship in her phrasing in the chorus. This is all the more apparent when bookended by Anderson Davis's involved and believable work, enthusing how "you won't believe your eyes," sounding infatuated with "Wait Till You See Her" (Rodgers & Hart). The good news is that Ms. Wolfe is wonderful with well-aimed, well-timed comic arrows in "Military Life" ("He Was a Jerk") from Harold Rome's musical about folks getting out of the service, Call Me Mister. And she's more than OK in group numbers in the cheerleading squad.
It's a treat to have Debra Monk's acerbic and savvy skills and star power in the mix, but her strengths are not fully exploited. It's ill advised to have her campily overplay and go for schtick in Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin's "The Saga of Jenny" rather than underplay it with slyness and sophistication. She finally gets to exercise her muscles of striking attitudes and wryness with the playfully self-pitying in "Little Surplus Me," another wisecracking commentary from Call Me Mister.
The much-represented Irving Berlin is heard from again in two songs well shaped by Jeffry Denman, invoking a serviceman's longing and loneliness. He finds the happy medium of sweet vocalizing and lurking emotion on "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen." This singer-actor-dancer-choreographer is assigned "White Christmas" in a men's medley of songs about that holiday when its merriness might not be assured. With "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with Dixon, and Davis delivering "I'll Be Home for Christmas," the three take turns and then overlap lines in a perhaps overplayed tug of war.
As I hear things, sentiments are sometimes at odds with the arrangements of pianist/ music director/ orchestrator/ arranger/ associate album producer Andy Einhorn, leading his five-man band, but at other times it's more satisfying listening. There's a generous number of songs27, with even those in medleys getting sizable samplingplus an overture, with a few rarities among the famous, oft-recorded "usual suspects" that evoke the period and are part of its fabric.
The Lyrics and Lyricists program comes back for another season in a matter of days with Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn first to be surveyed, with a cast of Broadway voices.
TEARS OF HEAVEN
If your idea of musical theatre hell is unabashedly florid and torrid tunes, heartfelt, heart-pounding, familiar-sounding melodies with melodrama melding into declarations of undying love and tortured souls fearing dying in wartime, run for your life. But, if you revel in all that and dig big thrills in big emotions and big voices musicalizing matters of life and death, with cascades of catharsis and confessions, Tears of Heaven may be pure musical theatre heaven. This show about the Vietnam war has had a NYC workshop, this "concept recording," and a production way out of townin Korea. (Its young, in-love soldier protagonist, Joon, is Korean.) Subtlety is rarely on display, but when lives and homelands are ripped apart, when hearts soar and break, and death and disaster come calling, grand-scale dramatic songs seem appropriate. Such scenarios seem made to order for composer Frank Wildhorn, veteran of The Civil War, known for churning melodies and power ballads that can be the musical equivalent of thunderstorms.
Dominant or going solo on eight of the 18 tracks is Wildhorn's frequent muse, interpreter and one-time wife, Linda Eder. Here on full display are her trademark throwing-caution-to-the-wind use of her power pipes, undeniably exciting and impressive, as well as some lushly rosy crooning and breathy phrasing. Other Wildhorn project alumni include Rob Evan and Christiane Noll. The studio cast of pros gives the material their full commitment and full-force vocals, and fans of these three will find satisfactions in their graceful and gripping singing on these roller coaster rides and some gentle respites. Evan is particularly effective with anguish and love proclamations as Joon. James Barbour, the leading man blessed with a powerful and commanding style and voice, unleashes his rewardingly reliable lightning bolt dynamics on two solos, "Moving On" and "Without Her." Morgan James displays a glorious voice on the opening and finale, as an opera singer. Two bonus tracks at the CD's end are more smoothed-out, contemporary-sounding commercial versions, listed as "radio mix" items, revisiting the title song and "Can You Hear Me?" and voiced by sweet-sounding, polished Deborah Lew, cast member of the recent Korea production.
The lyricist, Robin Lerner, favors plain-spoken, often plainer-rhyming declarations of love and war and weeping or unashamed romantic rhapsodizing. Sometimes, in seeking the rhyme scheme, it's difficult to know if some words are meant to be close-enough rhymes or not (lives/is; surface/purpose; flexed/cigarettes; insane/planes; steel/heels; flame/remain. Here are a few examples of her lyrics:
For me, the highlight is the gentle breeze in the eye of this hurricane, "The First Time I Saw Paris," indicated in the plot outline as simply the "favorite song" of the Colonel who is set to marry the female singer character. It is tender and gentle, wistful and warm, and Linda Eder is at her thoughtful best with it. Also quite strong is a song about a character's nagging curiosity as an orphan who doesn't know her origins, with some understated elegance as well as light pop sensibility, on "Shadows on My Heart." In more dramatic swamps, Rob Evan's cry of pain and self-recrimination as a solider realizing his power to take another's life is chilling and involving in "I've Had to Learn."
Wildhorn, who's had his own losing battles with critics and Broadway success this year with quick closings of Wonderland and Bonnie and Clyde, continues to have numerous projects on front and back burners and in development. There's certainly interesting and dazzling work here, with frequent musical colleague Jeremy Roberts arranging and conducting the orchestra with panache and serving as pianist and programmer to flesh out a big sound with just five other instrumentalists credited (David Weiss on wood flutes provides evocatively haunting atmosphere.) It will be anyone's guess as to what the future holds for this project: like a war, the outcome can't be easily predicted and stakes will be high. For now, the concept album gives a strong impression that should engender strong reactions from all sides.