Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Daddy, Dickens & Democrats
Cast Albums of Daddy Long Legs;Our Mutual Friend; Clinton
Reviews by Rob Lester

We start with two musicals based on novels wherein a case of concealed identity is key to the plot. One is by Jean Webster and the other by Charles Dickens. Then we turn to more recent days, for a satirical look at goings-on in American politics with the Bill Clinton presidential years, where present presidential hopeful Hillary, of course, is present, too.

DADDY LONG LEGS
ORIGINAL OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records

I wonder if author Jean Webster ever could have imagined that a musical version of her novel "Daddy-Long-Legs" would be running in a theatre 100 years after her death. She was the first to adapt this 1912 work as a play; her four-act version was playing in New York in 1914. The next year she published the novel "Dear Enemy," a sequel to the original book, was married, and then in mid-1916 she died during childbirth shortly before her 40th birthday. The girl was also named Jean, the name the author had taken on in college, after growing up with the name Alice Jane Chandler Webster. In the novel and some of its adaptations, the female protagonist named Jerusha starts calling herself Judy, but in this version she is always Jerusha (maybe that less common, three-syllable word sings better?). The story has been adapted numerous times on stage and film, including a musicalization by Johnny Mercer starring Leslie Caron as the female lead (there renamed Julie) and Fred Astaire as the wealthy benefactor who insists on remaining anonymous.

Like the novel, the charming, well-recorded musical by Paul Gordon (songs) and John Caird (book, direction) is primarily letters from her to him, with the exception of the opening section and the latter scenes. So, mostly it's a static situation. Our heroine is simply settling down to write—as the financial arrangement stipulates—monthly letters to the man, relating her educational progress (but she digresses!) and him reading them aloud to himself. This lack of other activity may really may put the "sit" in "situation," but that is not an issue when we're just listening to the songs and bits of spoken material without seeing the performers. In fact, it brings a listener who hasn't attended the show a little bit closer to the characters' almost double-blind experiment.

While many musicals have resulted in more than one cast album, it's more surprising for this one to have a second go-round just several years after the first CD, especially considering that it's the same actress, Megan McGinnis, playing Jerusha, in a show with a cast of two. She'd already turned in a lovely performance the first time and her interpretation and sound aren't much different here, although I do notice some new shadings and more distinct differences between the naïve, awkward girl in the early numbers and the more confident young woman she becomes after her years at college. And I can't help but be impressed that the performer, who has been involved with the show since its beginnings in 2009 still sounds so fresh and natural, never coy or artificial in her scenes as an 18-year-old. Since I'd reviewed the earlier release, I pretty much knew what I was in for as far as limitations, but this is overall a better listen.

Additionally, a couple of numbers that didn't do much more than re-stating complaints and vexations are gone. McGinnis rips into the opening number, her feistiness-filled lament about being "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," and firmly establishes her character's personality, pluck, and tendency to worry and over-think things ("Where did I go wrong?/ Were the sandwiches not thin enough?"). Her desperate longing for belonging, pouring out her heart and concerns and new discoveries in letter after letter—with no response—makes us care about her; it's not about what she says, it's about the attitudes and sweetness. (Oh, and it's also a cute inside trivia point that when singing about the great works of literature she's devouring that she mentions "Little Women" since the actress appeared on Broadway in the musical version of that novel.)

And, to my ears, Broadway's Paul Alexander Nolan has a more appealing, richer singing voice than his CD predecessor. He deepens the character nicknamed Daddy Long Legs (actual name: Jervis) while making him more sympathetic, which is crucial here. While the bulk of the musical consists of Jerusha's letters being sung by her, the male character is afforded singing opportunities by taking some lines—that is, he is reading them aloud as he opens them, sometimes overlapping with her singing, so that we have the aural variety of the voices together and each alone. He also gets to express his thoughts and reactions in solos. While one might wish for more from Jervis' point of view and just more about his life apart from her, his soliloquy "What Does She Mean by Love?" now gives us some clues into his earlier days and Nolan makes us curious about him in ways beyond Jerusha's list of wonderings. Later (in "When Shall We Meet?"), his poignant and emotionally naked delivery of the lines "I'm not good at friendship/ I'm not good at attachment/ Or family or commitment/ I roundly despise my relations" tell us a great deal and the impact is a heartbreaking one.

While "The Secret of Happiness" is the score's super-standout and gloriously articulate moment of epiphany, and deserves to be widely heard, there are other gems, too. "My Manhattan," replacing an earlier number also about a day enjoying the city, is a prize. It's a joyous, rapturously sung appreciation of the Big Apple that I think can have a life outside the show, even though some of its references to attractions reveal its time period—a trolley car and buying something for two cents (arguably, the presence of George M. Cohan could refer to the statue of him next to the TKTS booth). But we can still get the addiction to the town with lines such as "There's a bustle on the street/ And you feel alive/ But you don't know why/ And you're dizzy from the heat/ The traffic moves in rhythm/ With your own heart beat," "The New York Times at your door," and "Rendezvous in Times Square" still work.

A comparative glance at the song titles of both cast albums isn't a sure guide; for example, what looks like a new title, "The Man I'll Never Be," is a brief segment with another title in the earlier CD. But there are certainly swaths of song appearing on one album, but not the other, so completist fans may want both or at least may want to do some downloading.

The instrumentation is also different; there are just three musicians this time—cellist Jeanette Stenson, guitarist Craig Magnano, with Brad Haak on the keyboard, conducting his own arrangements and orchestrations.

While, at first, many of the songs seem like mainly torrents of words from an enthused or enraged young woman bursting with feelings and frustrations, there's craft behind the floodgates. Rhymes don't feel forced, but are natural and solid, so that they don't draw attention to themselves, but rather serve the situation and character. Vocabulary and tone are appropriate to each section: the more gushing younger Jerusha, the more thoughtful and self-protective older one, the initial cerebral and bemused Jervis and the more open and vulnerable man he slowly becomes.

In these times when the omnipresence of short emails—sometimes read just a minute after they were written, and then hastily responded to—have eroded the habit of thoughtful letter-writing, an epistolary form seems both more quaint and nostalgic. Thus, as years go by, this musical may have even more of a pull as a look at old ways of old days. (How long before the item featured on show's poster design and the CD cover, a fountain pen, is unrecognized by many?) But let's hope our ever-quickening life styles don't prevent us from setting aside time to appreciate an old-fashioned story sung to us in old-fashioned ways because talents like composer-lyricist Paul Gordon are worth our time to slow down and really listen carefully to.

CHARLES DICKENS' OUR MUTUAL FRIEND: A NEW MUSICAL
STUDIO CAST
IAM

You can't say Charles Dickens has been ignored by the musical theatre. In addition to the many musicalizations of "A Christmas Carol" and being on a first-name basis with Oliver! Twist, composers and lyricists have had their way, albeit with less success, with David Copperfield, Pickwick (based on "The Pickwick Papers"), and A Tale of Two Cities. There was a TV musical adaptation of Cricket on the Hearth. His last completed novel, "Our Mutual Friend" now has a very promising start as a studio cast album, with songs by Larry Gelb. (Of course, Broadway didn't let his later but uncompleted novel go without being turned into a musical; for that, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the audience simply chooses the ending and the "who" for this whodunit.)

Like other Dickens works, "Our Mutual Friend" was published in serialized form in magazines over a long period, perhaps a factor in the somewhat rambling style with lots of details, a great many characters, and overall overwhelming length. Adaptors have their work cut out for them—or rather, a lot to think about cutting out to get to a standard length for a two-act show. (The non-musical theatrical version of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, you may recall, took the marathon route of a theatrical mini-series over multiple performances.) Gelb and his wife Elizabeth did the book adaptation together and she's the album producer. This studio cast did a live promotional reading of the show late last year in conjunction with the then-imminent release of the album.

I'm happy to report that, based on this recording of 26 musical tracks, the piece has a lot to offer and should pique the interest of theatre companies (and, for now, theatre fans). The songs are extremely accessible, many being very catchy without being sing-songy simplistic. There's plenty of period atmosphere and a bit of brittle British quality, some of the ol' stiff upper lip and even nose-in-the-air class-conscious attitude, but also romantic ballads and stirring songs of determination and gumption and a touch or two of fatalism. Indeed, variety is one of its major selling points.

Establishing characters quickly is a priority in a piece with many dramatis personae, and the songs generally get down to business quickly and crisply without seeming too much like cartoon-like types. But, similar to other Dickens portraits, some folks seem exaggerated in their pure goodness and pedestal-worthy admirable qualities, while the selfish, lying scoundrels and snobs can be painted with broad dark-hued strokes. So be it. A cast of ten sings a total of 14 roles, using British accents with aplomb. Unlike the situation on some CDs, there's no problem clearly hearing the words due to an accent barrier or rushed, blurred speech. There are solid and appealing voices here, although a couple display a less than secure vibrato here and there. (As might be expected under the circumstances of a studio cast, not all have the juiciness of lived-in characterizations with phrasing that take full advantage of some of the more colorful lyric lines.) But, by and large, it's a rather dandy group with lots of energy and welcome diversity of sounds in their voices.

Matt Amira sings heroically as John, central romantic male figure in the story. His late father's will stipulates that he doesn't get his inheritance unless he marries the woman he's never met whom Dad hand-picked as his bride; her name is Bella. Through the kind of coincidence-filled plot twists that Dickens made a specialty of, before he can meet Bella, he is attacked, falls into the river, and is presumed to be the drowned victim recovered. John takes advantage of the assumption and assumes a new identity in order to meet Bella to see if they might be mutually attracted without money being a factor. And the plot of Dickens thickens too much to go into a lot of detail. So, let's concentrate on the music, as there's a lot of plot to be thickened, with numerous complications, confrontations, and conflicts.

The album is bookended by an instrumental version of the instantly pleasing "Bella's Waltz," sung toward the end ("... a feeling all over my skin/ Like spring is about to begin ...") by Kathryn Boswell, the album's Bella. The occupations of several characters, and their attitudes about them, inform several numbers. First up is a lawyer's lamenting about his disappointing reality of work in the glib "I Hate My Profession" ("I'm feeling nothing but old!"), with James Patterson rather good at the instant weariness needed. Later, two other characters chime in with a kind of uncompanionable companion piece, "The Law's Not for Everyone," with more brisk attitude.

On the other hand, working on their boat and scouring the waters, a father and daughter (who find the body) are more humble and dedicated, acknowledging the "River in My Blood." And John's father's manservant Mr. Boffin, who's taken over his coal dust business, leads the sardonic "We All End Up as Dust." Kyle Bradford plays both this role and one of the aforementioned lawyers and is a major asset to this recording, also enlivening three other numbers he shares with Elizabeth Urbanczyk as his wife and one of the score's perhaps most irresistibly peppy concoctions, "The University of You" ("And when I graduate the 'U. of You,' I will have a different point of view/ And everything I thought I knew of you/ That really wasn't true of you ..."). It is shared with talented Mark Blowers (who is double cast as young Charlie, showing more vocal colors and moods in that role). Jamie Buxton as Lizzie gets a hefty share of the singing and is a formidable, serious presence.

A few numbers feel overly earnest and florid, with some singing featuring wide, even wobbly, vibratos. These elements add to that heavy feeling and make for an uneven album. But all the material itself is well worth hearing indeed, and much of it is done well.

A boisterous barroom bottoms-up, forget-your-troubles number is the welcome sing-along treat, "Six Jolly Porters Drinking Song," delivered with gusto galore by the ensemble ("The world outside is a dangerous place/ Filled with disdain for the whole human race/ But here at the Jolly, we laugh at our folly ...").

And one can assume that Larry Gelb is proud of the show's big and blissful romance ballad, "I'm Not Supposed to Fall in Love"—as well he should be—since it appears on three of his other albums! It is a gorgeous, old-school musical theatre song, heard twice here, that truly satisfies with a swelling melody and perfect ending line (no spoiler here) that suits the plot points perfectly.

Having received a copy of the cast album well in advance of its availability online, I've played it so much that Our Mutual Friend is feeling like an old friend, even one whose shortcomings you kind of accept because the heart is in the right place and there's a lot to truly like.

CLINTON: THE MUSICAL
OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records

Given that George S. Kaufman told us all once upon a time that satire is that thing that "closes on Saturday night," it's not surprising that satirical musicals going for a longer-lasting run can get more silly than sophisticated and aim to aim at easy targets. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the giggle potential of any musical comedy skewering political events that dominated the news would have diminishing results when the scenarios become non-current events. How much fun can you have from rehashing and re-trashing the days of Bill Clinton's Presidency of the 1990s now that we are well into the new century?

Those days will seem ancient to some and milking more humor from the obviously non-sacred cows' political low points can produce what might seem like sour milk with a salty taste that comes from rubbing salt in wounds. Or does it have an odd tang of nostalgia so that we can chuckle again because everyone survived the period and we can look back from the safety of hindsight when things are resolved for better or worse? And, really, can we expect to extend the shelf life of such comic snarkiness by retreading the headlines or offering a not very refreshing refresher course? Obviously, the producers and two Australian brothers Paul Hodge (songs) and Michael Hodge (his collaborator on the book, which we hear samplings of on this cast album) think so. Of course, the present-day Hillary Clinton campaign adds some relevance, and their 1990s adventures could provide a poisoned-pen backstory. Much of it feels like a very extended "Saturday Night Live"-type sketch with songs.

The cast seems to dive in with drooling glee and major winking, in a brash and boisterous way. Pick your favorite buffoon—nobody comes off as much of anything but that. The show seizes upon its major concept and hammers it home with repeated references. It is this: President Clinton is presented as a split-personality kind of guy—the more engaged politician and the fun-loving, libidinous guy—with these sides played by separate actors, so that we see the contrasting co-existence. His wife is the only one who can "see" both at the same time. The musical styles ape some lightweight passing pop style sounds of the period to spiffy if noisy effect. It seems appropriate and kind of fun, but reinforces a kind of overall tacky ambiance and "been there/done that" sense extended to the music. You might think you stumbled on a parody sketch comedy with songs that was written at the time, but that you'd somehow missed. So do you want to re-visit those years or not? Come on along and you will likely find some clever bits and talented performers.

When the material dwells on the unfortunate Monica Lewinsky scandal—oh, yes, they go there ... over and over—it can seem heartless or, for some, maybe it's safer to snicker with the comfort of distance. But "that woman—Miss Lewinsky" is a frequently appearing character and Veronica J. Kuehn shows some restraint and an ability to make her more than a cartoon. While lyrics throughout include every naughty word that your mother and the F.C.C. have frowned on saying (or singing) out loud, the juxtaposition with the music and breezy way vulgar words are used de-fang them to an extent.

Kerry Butler is relentlessly aggressive, shrewish, and peeved as Hillary Clinton, only rarely calming down. Her voice, which can be shrill and nasal, shows a few more colors here, with some big song-ending notes that are impressive and pleasing. The cast is full of energetic performers, such as the always-welcome John Treacy Egan as the mocking and self-satisfied Newt Gingrich. In ensemble roles, the cast works well, generally, with brisk and tight efficiency, although I think the accompanying booklet comes in handy when words start flying fast and free, voices overlap, or the four-man band's accompaniment tends to cacophony.

While there is some cleverness and smart writing in the cobwebs of well-trod turf, some of the lyrics' effectiveness is dulled by ultra-frequent false rhymes. Sometimes the rhyming is not even close enough to be considered a "near rhyme." Some underwhelming examples at what is meant to pass as rhyming words: amateur/character ... more/story  ... republic/in public (an identity, not a rhyme) ... forever/together ... weakness/secrets ... crazy/baby  ... halves/paths  ... hand/plan  ... peace/East ... Hope/broke—you get the idea.

But there are some satisfying spot on rhymes, too, that effectively use key phrases redolent of the era: welfare/health care ... so P.C./hug a tree  ... goodwill/ double Bill  ... frozen DNA/of JFK  ... interrogations/sexual relations  ... tragic flaw/ good old Arkansas  ... "I won't slit his throat/When you bring in the vote."

Some songs strike me as good ideas (effective comedienne Judy Gold as Eleanor Roosevelt coming to life in those advice visits Hillary once spoke of), their initial premises get weakened by heavy-handed overstatement and less than elegant lyricizing, including incorrect grammar: "No one can be President on their own/ They must stop their fighting/ It's time for reuniting/ And that's a task for you and you alone/ You must stay with him./ Do it for your country ... " That last-quoted line rhymes with the number's title, "Brew It for Your country," for it, uh, compares women as helpmates to brewed tea, strong or weak. But others, such as "Awful—Awesome" feature more successful wording, like "I know you're scared of debt and tax/ But from now on you can relax/ You know that I will have your backs/ And I play the sax!"

While the Kenneth Starr investigation and Linda Tripp may require footnotes for some with short memories or who have successfully blocked out those headline days, or younger listeners with bad American History grades, the score's most accomplished piece is ever relevant. While focusing on a specific story (Whitewater), the dogged, dirt-digging TV reporters hounding the Clintons and regaling their viewers with facts or sidestepping the lack thereof is right on the money. In stretched-out news cycles—repetition reigning today, tomorrow and the next day and "The Day After That" (and beyond) shows expert timing in performance as the ensemble pounces, pounces again, seemingly endlessly ... until the next scandal and hot topic emerges.

We now return you to your current real-life political peculiarities. And, yes, perhaps a musical comedy version of the past political upheavals and squabbling and accusations may be a welcome escape from 2016's drama as Clinton may indeed function. Or for that matter, Hamilton or 1776 or Irving Berlin's more fictional Mr. President. To liberally paraphrase the old adage: The more things change, the more they stay insane.


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