Sound Advice Reviews
Out of the past memories from stage and screen
"My memories all are enchanting/ My memories burn in my head with a steady glow," goes a lyric in Jerry Herman's Dear World, while another questions the validity of what we recall due to the passage of time and emotions playing tricks on us. Maybe. Nevertheless, when we have in concert one of the stars of that 1969 show's original cast, Kurt Peterson, re-teamed with Victoria Mallory from other long-ago projects and their student days, memories are vivid about roles from the past. Out of the Past serves as the title for Lauren White's collection of numbers mostly heard on the screen, but bookended with theatre songs.
The more optimistic half of "Everything was possible and nothing made sense," a line from Stephen Sondheim's song "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," from Follies, provided the title for a concert reuniting two of its cast members and Ted Chapin's book chronicling the history of that show. Mr. Chapin, long the head of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organizationand who kept a diary of the behind-the-scenes creation of Follies as a college student internwarmly introduces this thoroughly engaging recital by Kurt Peterson, who'd played young Ben, and Victoria Mallory, who'd played the younger version of opera singer Heidi. Both sound simply marvelous vocally, speak graciously, and take us through a time machine trip of their separate and overlapping careers. It's loaded with affection. Of course, when we now hear the recording of this soprano sing her Follies duet, "'One More Kiss' before we part and goodbye," as a solo, it has even more of a bittersweet feeling, knowing she passed away not so long after this 2012 recital, which was released on CD only this year.
One of the lovingly told anecdotes that linger is Victoria's telling of how she was not offered a featured role in the show, but yearned so much to be a part, happily accepting an ensemble assignment, and one day in rehearsal Sondheim "crooked his finger" toward her and said, "I have something for you" and revealed his newly written "One More Kiss." As a bonus, the wonderful singerstill sounding impossibly youngfills in the female part for young Ben's duet as Kurt cheerfully recreates one of his moments in the score, as "You're Gonna Love Tomorrow" works in an even more multi-layered way. It's evident these two loved their yesterdays and honor them, especially resonant with Follies, a piece that is all about confronting memories and the innocence (or "folly") of youth.
But that landmark show is just one chapter in a rich tapestry. The two met as students at AMDA, the American Music and Dramatic Academy, in Manhattan. They chat about that in this rather tightly scripted tale where the patter is closer to narration than in-the-moment spontaneous chat. But the sweetness, chemistry, and packed-in info compensate for loss of spur-of-the-moment quips. They eschew self-indulgence in recollections because everything feels appropriately discussed and is pretty interesting. And they aren't rehashing things most of a disc-listening audience would know. They talk about getting early roles and earning their theatrical stripes in children's theatre. They gamely haul out adorable musical kiddie fare with abundant charm: The former title character of a version of The Frog Prince hops back into his amphibian past while Aladdin's princess shows an early sample of the insouciance that served her well beyond flying carpet days.
Their big break in a more grown-up world was being cast together as Tony and Maria in the Richard Rodgers-produced Lincoln Center revival of West Side Story. Only the duet "Tonight" is heard; apparently the numerous other items on the agenda precluding any more from that score. It's an abbreviated stop along memory lane, rather than the focal point. One can certainly imagine them in the roles, and the familiar musical accompaniment is well approximated by a smaller (13 pieces) orchestra bringing us to a true Broadway-style feel on these and other grander numbers. Michael Rafter as conductor and pianist deserves much praise for the elegant and varied sounds throughout the disc. On "Tonight," some usually sustained vocal notes are clipped and some sections seem reserved and cautious, rather than the unbridled release of passion so inherent in the original context. However, rarely in this recording do we become distracted or wary about any adjustments due to age or evidence of what we might expect typically in singers revisiting numbers after several decades. In fact, the most noted habit of Victoria's performance is close attention to enunciation of final consonants such as D and T sounds, perhaps being overly concerned, perhaps long-drilled-in skill to be sure the audience catches each word.
Dear World gets a generous three songs, although Kurt was only featured in "Each Tomorrow Morning"which sounds sublime and sturdy hereso "Vicky," as he calls her, takes the others. Also heard are numbers from their separate resumé itemshers in Carnival and his in On the Town (he drops the fact that he was fired; one has to wonder why) and in Dames at Sea, with a number that coincidentally shares a title with a song from Follies, "Broadway Baby."
It's Sondheim songs that make the majority of the repertoire. This is not just welcome (always for me), but appropriate, since she played the young bride Anne in the original A Little Night Music (so we get "Soon") and he put together the memorable all-star Sondheim tribute/benefit in 1973, cueing some numbers from that. Enriching an already dynamically dense evening are tailor-made pieces with music by Jesse Wiener and lyrics by him and Peterson, "There" and "There Was Once a Time," that sets up and, at the end, puts the nightcap on the experience, hearts on sleeve, memories intact, gratitude firmly in place, too.
And many theatre fans will add their own glad gratitude, for this is a very special and rewarding album that doesn't at all depend just on nostalgia for its appeal. It stands on its own as satisfying entertainment. Enhancing the experience is a booklet generously filled with photos of the two over the years, historical facts, and thoughts from Kurt and from the man who was instrumental in life imitating art: Mark Lambert, who played Victoria Mallory's stepson Henrik in the original A Little Night Music andas in the playended up marrying her (and, in the sweet, neat tie of a footlight footnote, their daughter Ramona inherited the role of Anne in the recent revival which later featured Angela Lansbury, the star of Kurt's turn in Dear World, and in the audience this 2012 night).
Everything possible works to make this a striking CD experience that feels very alive in past and present tenses.
With her newest CD, the increasingly intriguing and commanding Lauren White turns in a solid series of performances. While many of the songs chosen might bring up movie memories for many, this is no by-the-numbers set of just usual suspects done the usual way. Out of the Past: Jazz & Noir looks to the genre of film noir, but White brings light to the dark with an assured and blithe presence and a voice that doesn't linger in the languid zone only, or try to be a latter-day femme fatale. The enterprise feels satisfyingly contemporary and fresh without defeating the purpose of revisiting a style by turning it on its head to be maniacally modern. Cooler heads prevail, and few jazz minds are cooler than singer-songwriter-producer Mark Winkler, fellow West Coast jazz person and old soul. His production and the savvy arrangements by Kathryn Bostic are illuminating, adult, and thoughtful.
Familiar songs here may have more fame on their own rather than as merely tied to films. For example, "He's Funny That Way" (originally "She's Funny That Way," with composer Richard Whiting having a rare fling at lyric writing in this number inspired by his feelings for his wife early in their relationship) is well established as a classic ode to a devoted partner. But devotees of dark movie tales will associate it from The Postman Always Rings Twice. If it just rings a bell as a stand-alone song, maybe in the recorded version by the writer's daughter, vocalist Margaret Whiting, or Sinatra, or someone else, Lauren White's version navigating the melody credited to Charles Daniels and the lyric avoiding some of the self-deprecating lines is lovely. "I'm Gonna Go Fishing," one of the more vibrant pieces in a necessarily laidback, mystique-drenched moody set, lives on as association with its singer-lyricist Peggy lee, composer Duke Ellington and his great band, and the movie it was heard in, Anatomy of a Murder. And Miss White proves with her own version, which owes little to the earlier performers, that it's still very much worth its sass and drive.
Sultry vocal sounds are primo here, with atmosphere drenched in a tightrope walk of uncertainty or tension, as befits the film noir genre. Nothing is cute or pat. The muted trumpet of Andrew Carney is especially choice and carries much weight in establishing and expanding the tones. Strings and a brass ensemble highlight other aural landscapes deftly, with pianist Michael Forman and bassist Trey Henry the admirable and dynamic anchors.
Movies and jazz are front and center, but musical theatre fans will find intriguing reasons to lend an ear, too. Theatre writers Jule Styne and Leo Robin are represented with something far afield from their collaboration Gentlemen Prefer Blondesit's a little-known and quirky, hip item called "You Kill Me," included in a film called Macao. The musical for which Mark Winkler wrote lyrics with a variety of collaborators, Play It Cool makes a welcome and effective appearance with the score's 1950s era-establishing "When All the Lights in the Sign Worked" (melody: Joe Pasquale), with Lauren taking her time setting up atmosphere and luxuriating in it. Her voice is one that is a pleasure to hear, not at all show-offy, free of tricks, and this cut and others give her a chance to prove she has acting chops, too.
While some jazz-oriented vocalists sacrifice lyric meaning and "story of the song" for melodic invention and swoops and embellishments, the lyrics are well served on this CD, especially on the other theater song, from a Schwartz & Dietz revue called Inside USA. It's "Haunted Heart," a sorrowful ballad with elegance and intensity that would stymie many a lesser singer or invite melodrama that could sink it. Here, White and Winkler opt for a more bare bones approach. The numerous musicians heard on the other tracks sit this one out and arranger Bostic takes the keyboard for a time-stands-still approach that is cerebral and yet strikingly emotional. I look forward to more of Lauren White's work and her next experiment in genres.