Sound Advice Reviews
One recent Broadway show
Perhaps our favorite toast for this column is: Hooray for musical theatre scores being recorded for posterity! Even when productions don't run very long, like these recent ones both concerned with family interactions, released after their shows closed, we can revisit (or newly visit) them at will. In the case of Rothschild & Sons, it's a revisal to revisit. Like never-aging characters in our first considered piece, Tuck Everlasting, the cast performances from both shows can exist exactly as they are now, from here to eternity.
What a joy it is to hear the loving and life-affirming material that tells the tale of Tuck Everlasting. Charming, endearing, and with its initial sense of mystery so well captured, it very much creates its own insular world for us to be beckoned to enter. It pulled me in right away. Welcome to a New Hampshire town in the summer of 1893. A kind of fountain of youth is a stream in the woods that the Tuck family drank from, not knowing its magic powers would make them stop aging.
It is, of course, a mixed blessing, especially for the offspring who drank from the spring. Like Peter Pan, they'll never get older. Is this idyllic? The cast is convincing as they sing and speak their points of view, the plot thickening with conflict when Cupid's bow hovers around 17-year-old Jesse (the delightful Andrew Keenan-Bolger sans any coyness or irony) who meets a much younger girl he hopes to convince to wait several years and then knowingly partake of the spring and commit to being his permanently teen-aged companion. Sarah Charles Lewis finds a fine mix of feistiness and uncertainty as the decision hangs over the proceedings. And the young would-be lovers get their own cheery vaudeville-styled number, "Partner in Crime," which they deliver with panache.
More tension and bubble-bursting comes right near the outset with the nefarious character Man in the Yellow Suit, conniving and threatening as played by Terrence Mann, who seeks to discover and steal the secret for his own gain. Song by song, we seem to skip or dance along and proceed with caution, with stops along the way for Mann's gallivanting and the others' pauses for reflection. His numbers build neatly as the solid, lively ensemble joins in.
As the mother, the rewardingly rich-voiced Carolee Carmello brings her reliably thorough immersion in character and distinctively heartfelt singing. Anchoring the numbers she sings in with a sense of loving with gravitas, she raises the stakes and the bar. In "My Most Beautiful Day," she brings a bittersweet nostalgia to her singing about what makes "Each memory a melody" and when "looking back is something to look forward to." There's an economic poetic feel to lyrics like this as Nathan Tysen's words meet Chris Miller's graceful melodic flow, a rarified elegance results. And the different characters have strikingly different musical personalities, with Mann's numbers rowdy in contrast, and the younger characters getting their suitably mixed sets of angst and guilelessness.
Michael Park as the Tuck dad gets satisfyingly philosophical, reasoned portraiture, and is captivating unspooling it in "The Wheel." Robert Lenzi completes the Tuck clan; while he gets almost lost in the shuffle for quite a while, his solo of "Time" is exquisite in its sad, controlled beauty ("Time, where my regret resides ..."). Tysen and Miller, whose intriguing collaboration on a CD some years ago of their work Fugitive Songs signaled their versatility, are adept with sincere and aching emotion bursting through song, and can also spin out bouncy old-school musical comedy numbers. Michael Wartella and Fred Applegate as colleagues, a constable and his deputy, get spiffy spotlight moments they sink their teeth into. It's comic relief that also adds effectively to the mechanics of the plot.
All of the above works marvelously together for a varied listening experience that is truly "a story in songs," with different musical hues that blend together so well. I found myself returning to this recording and wanting to spend time again with the characters and their unusual perspectives that ultimately send a message of embracing life and caring for others that is more general. Tuck Everlasting has the kind of delicate tone and temperament that could get precious or sticky in the wrong hands. But this cast is so fine and believable in a story that is frankly fantasy. But we care. The engaging company makes us care.
Tysen and Miller enter the challenging world of musical theatre writers (with bookwriters Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, adapting the novel of the same name by Natalie Babbitt) under the direction of in-demand Casey Nicholaw (who also choreographed). The songs are dressed for success in the caring decorations of music supervisors Mary-Mitchell Campbell (conductor) and Rob Berman, with John Clancy's inventive and astute orchestrations for an 11-piece band. Composer Miller did the vocal arrangements for the score which often finds overlapping lines in the bigger group numbers. (The ensemble numbers 19 people.)
This relatively short-lived musical will have a long shelf life in my album collection. The CD comes with a booklet that has all the lyrics, helpful but concise action summaries between the numbers to get us "up to speed," full color photos, and an introductory essay by Shears tracing the project's history. I suspect that Tuck Everlasting's history is far from over. And I look forward to more from talented Tysen and Miller. I'll drink to that ... even if it's just plain water.
ROTHSCHILD & SONS
Because of its themes of family and Jewish characters fighting anti-Semitism in another time and place, two shows with scores by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick have been cousins. Fiddler on the Roof, the mega-hit now enjoying yet another revival, has had in its shadow the team's last full score together, 1970's The Rothschilds. This portrait of the banking dynasty dealing with everything from Napoleon to nepotism was recently revamped and retitled Rothschild & Sons after one of the original score's retained lively numbers skillfully performed with brio on the new cast recording.
The show's new name emphasizes its new emphasis: the relationship between patriarch and progeny, jettisoning the romance of one son which took up much of the second act. Now it's a long one-act, and the re-tuning of tunes and script makes it something old, something new, something borrowed (from the Bock & Harnick trunk of numbers discarded the first time around) and something blue (that hue of sadness that permeates some of the material, despite considerable hope and robust tone). Original bookwriter Sherman Yellen reworked the piece with the very active 90+-year-old Harnick who took new looks at the lyrics, with pen in hand, and put back some material he and the late composer Bock had developed when the show was gestating.
The recording is its own entity, seeming more intimate with a far smaller cast and far smaller orchestra. But intimacy works for this project, which could be high and mighty otherwise with its noble attitudes, ego, determination at all costs, relentless drive of the characters, and wars within wars. A decided earnestness prevails, which is not inappropriate in a tale of survival and struggle. It's leavened by humorsome perhaps awkwardly "cutely" folksy ("He Tossed a Coin") and some less laboriously adorable. Big scenes of song and dialogue where the sons of family head Mayer Rothschild are given their mantras and instructions, all eventually singing in delicious counterpoint, has immense charm. But it also shows strong acting skills in 100% showing the mutual affection and the sons' unquestionable desire to please and rise to the occasion.
The real-life family's history of involvement with historical figures, wars, etc. is complicated and makes for a challenge if it's a history lesson at length you want. But here, enjoying the musical numbers, we can put much of that out of sight and out of mind. The biggest "artistic license" as far as simplification of the family tree is that, in addition to the five Sons, Mr. and Mrs. R. also had five daughters in real life. (That may also remind you of the parents at the center of Fiddler, even though in the original Tevye stories, he had more than fivebut who's counting?).
Robert Cuccioli is suitably commanding as the patriarch. He sings and acts with more subtlety and calibration than his famous melodramatic earlier roles would allow. At this point in his career, his bigger vocal moments evidence a prominent vibrato, butconvenientlynumbers when this is most obvious come toward the end when indeed the character is older. Thus, it's more appropriate. But there's passion in the voice and qualities it shows, overpowering everything else. He's warm in the dealings with kin and tough talking when that's needed. Fans of the rarely produced original production may recall a 1990 Off-Broadway revival in which Cuccioli played one of the sons. Interestingly, his performance of the score's big and most memorable song, "In My Own Lifetime," sounds more sadly pleading than the optimistic and stoic hope I've heard in other renditions. It's kind of heartbreaking, but more of a downer than expected. It's reprised by the sons later with a more measured and serene approach. This mounting for the York Theatre in Manhattan last year presents a fine cast of strong singer-actors, and results in a sturdy and admirable cast recording souvenir.
While devotees may long for the M.I.A. songs, any theatre fan of the accomplished Bock/Harnick too-small but impressive oeuvre will be delighted for the light of day belatedly shining on hitherto hidden material and note Harnick's rewrites. For me, the most interesting "new" piece is "Just a Map" for the mother of the family, played with dignity and discretion by Glory Crampton. The number laments the fact that in reality countries are volatile and can be enemies, while on a map with its pretty colors the nations look so innocent and harmless. She brings a wistful quality to this and is a major asset to the material, adding the character's own unique backbone of integrity and strength, rather than just being a helpmate or fretting mother and wife.
The five men playing the sons (both younger and older versions) and filling in other roles are effective, with their different timbres well exploited in harmonies and vocal overlaps. However, the material doesn't allow each to be distinctly different as characters and personalities. Like the brothers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, it's more of a functional group persona much of the time. There is the one exception of a son who fumbles in his duties and has a more fleshed-out moment. The judiciously included dialogue supports the sung material to give a fuller picture of the story.
Now that it serves as the title song, "Rothschild & Sons" takes on new prominence and it's up to the challenge in this cast's buoyant performance. The paternal pride is palpable, making the selection a major highlight. Reprises of a few numbers work well dramatically as performed.
JAY Records and its eponymous (initials) producer John A. Yap, as is custom, bring a well produced, theatrical sound with actors recorded after freshly putting their stamp on the material, having gone through their paces on stage in rehearsal and performances first. And, as usual, there's a booklet with numerous color photos from the represented production, the lyrics, and an introduction by the bookwriter. While comparisons between the original 1970 version and this Rothschild & Sons in production or on paper are for days past, there is no denying that there are new worthy performances and splendid alternate elements here. Like a family, each plays a role and works together for the common good.