& Broadway's Ben (Fun with Vulgarity & Vereen) - 2/17/11
Mr. Gloomy and Mr. Sunshine:
Doom and gloom can be a barrel of laughs, if you don't mind some fussing and cussing, with the cranky, crusty, hedonistic, hard-drinking Charles Bukowskihis life musicalized as a goof. A sunnier disposition comes from the upbeat, high-energy song and dance man Ben Vereen in a live show.
It may only be February, but it's not such a risky bet to suggest that the winking, wacky, tacky Bukowsical! could be 2011's ultimate cast album guilty pleasure for those who revel in the irreverent and lyrics awash in vulgarities. It's silly and snarky and sophomoric, but that's the point: What we are hearing is not to be taken seriously as a musical or as a biography of its subject, writer Charles Bukowski. This show within a show, a musical about a bad idea for a musical that mocks musical theatre excesses and forms is in the madcap spirit of The Producers and Guttenberg!The Musical!. Like the latter show, the framework is the presentation of a backer's audition for an unlikely and misguided biographical musical with facts glossed over and over-the-top numbers many in number.
The words emblazoned on the package"Parental Advisory: Explicit lyrics" and "This CD contains material that is raunchy"should serve as fair warning about the shock value or schlock value that will be a concern for some. This record may hold the record for the largest amount of words and phrases that can be described as crass and low-class smart-ass sass of any cast album (OK, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson was pretty loose-lipped with its words chosen for political rage and vulgarized vitriol). Here, there's a casualness and cheer as selected FCC-banned words and the non-biologically proper terminology for body parts and bodily functions are flung about and sung about. It's all done in such a dementedly lighthearted way that it's both breezy and sleazy at the same time. It can't be called good, clean fun, but it's often good fun without being sophisticated wit.
Brad Blaisdell as the blithely belligerent, besotted Bukowski hits just the right note of grouchdom. The presumed musical follows the writer's life from childhood teasing, teacher and paternal punishments to punishing bouts with booze, that seductive crutch and the equally enticing lure of fame and success. And then there's true love. The song titles give a pretty good idea of the pretty bad attitudes and life seen through glasses that ain't rose-colored: "Art Is Pain," "Love Is (a Dog from Hell)" "Get Dirty (The Writing Lesson)" and the ongoing trip along "The Derelict Trail." It's all sung with weary-yet-cheery acceptance by the company, including members of the Los Angeles and New York Fringe Festival casts augmented by a chorus and additional vocalists secured for the recording. They energetically sing the lyrics by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale, the latter also the composer and arranger and pianist in the small band he conducts, with his music mocking musical theater styles and rhythms. Stockdale is also co-producer of the album with Bruce Kimmel.
Glorying, for our amusement, a world wherein "every flophouse seems to beckon/ Every gutter seems to call ..." it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. A respite from the hard-drinking, hard living and hard times of disappointments comes when the presentation is interrupted and what ensues is a battle of loyalties between New York and Los Angeles. In an anemic anthem pumped up with energy, hilariously, the L.A. loyalists try to find equivalents for New York's culture and excitement, proclaiming proudly, if desperately: "You may have Sondheim, but we've got Charlie Sheen ..." Stand up and cheer! Then, we sink bank into the mire with a brief gleam of hope for redemption through love and a 12-step program. It's diminishing returns as similar humor and attitude repeat; the shock value/cheekiness/surprise of vulgarity for ear-tickling loses some impact. But the audaciousness is so much in the spirit of being a harmless hoot that one can be swept along, despite political incorrectness. The conceit of the show (which is far more impactful in person) is that it's supposed to be a bad musical about a (many) warts-and-all real character, so no endorsement/approval is invited. And the spoof of theatrical conventions and peppy choruses bursting into song about downbeat, downtrodden people downing drinks is anything but a downer.
To quote an iconic theatre song's first line, "Let me entertain you": that has always seemed to be Ben Vereen's implicit and very determined mindset. On the in-person recording, Steppin' Out Live, just released this week, that comes through loud and clear. It features three songs by Rodgers & Hart, beginning with his upbeat proclamation of how he lives, addressed to the audience: "With a Song in My Heart." Hart lyrics come up again later in the CD, but first there is Rodgers with Hammerstein with "Getting to Know You" and Vereen admonishes the Connecticut patrons ("This is a live show. You can't change the channel") for not returning a hearty greeting to him as he calls out an enthused, "Hello, Hartford!!" But there's more to this recording than Rodgers & Hartford and hearty singing of show tunes. The charismatic star does some jazzy treatments, and major segments are devoted to salutes to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. The high-voltage Vereen occasionally slows down for a mellow moment, but most of this is what you'd probably expect from the seemingly tireless performer: arrangements and singing that are with showy, show-bizzy, busy arrangements despite the smallness of the band, which includes his percussionist son Aaron.
Now in his 60s, Vereen's vibrant voice is huskier and shows some wear, but also some attractive lived-in character in its rougher, lighter qualities. The CD, which presents highlights from a longer show still being tweaked as it travels around the country, feels a bit haphazard in truncated form, with the sound of applause edited abruptly, one track not flowing smoothly into the next, and most patter snipped out. Like many live recordings, especially one by a performer who also dances, there is the trade-off of in-the-moment excitement and communication (that sometimes is a "you had to be there" thing) for what might be more polish and smoother musical values in a studio. "Live" is not perfect. And no one ever accused Ben Vereen of being reserved or not "going for it." Shy he's not.
A medley acknowledges some of his Broadway credits, though there's only one line of "Magic to Do" from Pippin, allotted time favoring the score's popular "Corner of the Sky" which he did not sing in the show, and then he segues into Hair's "Aquarius" and its title song and then "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar and its title song. From Wicked, he does an interesting "Defying Gravity" that is intense in a more low-key, pensive way than you may have heard it.
Ben plays fast and loose with some of the material, bringing out unexpected words and thoughts by playing with tempo and phrasing at times, and purists may feel he takes too many liberties. Some of those are intentional, recreations of liberties taken by Sinatra or Davis in those tributes. Ah, the tributes: the Davis salute takes up about half the album (six of the 11 tracks). In "That Old Black Magic," he does some of the schticky embellishments that Davis did on his studio and live versions, and some phrasing and attitude mirrors the hammy Sammy persona (not that it's much of a stretch for Vereen to careen into hamminess and chewing music and lyrics with a vengeance). Those other two Rodgers & Hart standards appear here and are given ballad treatments Davis excelled at when he chose to: they are "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "My Funny Valentine," with the adept and thoughtful bassist Tom Kennedy in the spotlight for some bass-and-voice duet time. But there's a lot of Vegas in Vereen, shown to excess in the less rewarding Sinatra salute. The six-song medley seems haphazard hodgepodge, not proceeding chronologically (it begins and ends with numbers Sinatra introduced in the same half-decade) and the jump from one song to another follows no apparent rhyme or reason in emulating the Sinatra originals or putting his own stamp on. "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)" (Van Heusen and Cahn) employs some of Sinatra's bits, and there's some of the appealing, freewheeling Sinatra on "The Lady Is a Tramp" (Rodgers & Hart once again). But he goes his own way with "My Way," seemingly unable to resist reshaping the ego melodrama. And this medley is a noisy, frantic thing, with cymbal crash after cymbal crash and drum rolls, and anything subtle thrown out the window once it gets going. The many classic Sinatra arrangements sculpted by the skillful, precise Nelson Riddle don't seem to set the tone for what's hereVereen has his own Nelson arranging this section and two other tracks: his pianist, Nelson Kole.
The joy in performing and general exuberance and willing to take chances saves the day and can be infectious. The show comes to New York City tomorrow night (Friday, February 18) at The Town Hall on West 43rd Street, with numerous stops in other cities throughout the year. Buoyant Ben remains a bundle of energy all these years later, and the charm and vivaciousness and hard-working guy comes through on disc.