After over a decade without a new recording of Maury Yeston's Nine, recent months have brought us an embarrassment of riches. Hot on the heels of the expanded Columbia Broadway Masterworks two disc recording of the original cast album comes a single disc recording of the current Roundabout revival, which won the the Tony Award for Best Revival this year. While the CD clocks in roughly ten minutes shorter than the time devoted to the show on the reissue, it does manage to include some lines not heard on either the Columbia reissue or the even more complete 1992 London concert version that starred Jonathan Pryce.
Those lines and the inclusion of the tango section of "Folies Bergeres," which was added to the revival to give film director Guido Contini (Antonio Banderas) and his producer Liliane La Fleur (the incomparable Chita Rivera) a chance to dance on stage, are not the chief reasons why this disc belongs in your collection. The strongest feature on the revival recording (aside from the brilliant score by Yeston that combines elements of traditional Italian folk music, grand overblown opera, intense power ballads and a myriad of other influences into one glorious whole) is the performance given by its star, Antonio Banderas. While his singing ability will not surprise those who witnessed his work in the films Mambo Kings or Evita, the delicacy and emotional honesty he brings to the role of Guido Contini, an Italian film director with a Peter Pan/Casanova complex, is a revelation (and, indeed, the reason why I dearly wished for there to be a tie at the Tonys this year).
Taking his cue from a line in Guido's first solo, "Guido's Song," Banderas plays the part of a man whose "body's clearing forty while [his] mind is nearing ten," bringing to vibrant life someone who uses the same powers of charming persuasion on his stable of women that he had when he was a young boy in knee pants. Banderas, who possesses a surer and more subtle voice than his predecessor Raul Julia, creates a character who can charm the birds from the trees, and is thus astonished and hurt when he can not get his way (a scenario familiar to anyone who hangs around children with any regularity). This approach works wonders with the majority of his songs in Nine. "Guido's Song" becomes a multi-layered soliloquy that ends with a mini-tantrum to great effect. "Only With You," in which Guido declares his devotion to his wife Luisa (Mary Stuart Masterson), mistress Carla, (Jane Krakowski, who received a Tony for her efforts), and his muse Claudia (Laura Benanti), displays a delightful playfulness and a marked differentiation between his approach to the three loves in his life. The entire "Grand Canal" filming sequence and his subsequent breakdown ("I Can't Make This Movie") show astonishing vocal and acting agility. The only number that disappoints is "The Bells of St. Sebastian," which Raul Julia blasted to the heavens to great effect. Although the number is transposed down for Banderas (the only one in the score to have been so), it lacks the oomph' of the original, mainly due to Banderas not taking part in the Kyrie Eleisons,' which musically allow the character to rail at the heavens.
The supporting cast is likewise strong. The fact that Mary Stuart Masterson can sing is a revelation enough. The fact that she is singing every song in Karen Akers' near-baritone keys is astonishing. "My Husband Makes Movies," in which we get a glimpse of what she gave up for a man who has never appreciated the fact, is gut-wrenchingly honest. Likewise, her anthem of anger, "Be On Your Own," displays every scraped and raw nerve. Unfortunately, she, and the majority of the women in the cast, are hampered by the only flaw in the album; horrible Italian accents that dampen the emotions expressed. Jane Krakowski gives a brilliant and playful interpretation of "A Call From the Vatican" (lowered from the original Anita Morris key), which, perhaps due to the fact that she spends the number concerned with acrobatics and costumes, is blessedly accent free. However "Simple," one of the most beautiful songs in the show, is hampered by a forced and phony accent that annoyingly only appears on the title word. Laura Benanti's performance is impacted the most, which is a shame, as her take on "A Man Like You/Unusual Way," is brilliantly reconceived as a woman realizing with sorrow that the man she thought she knew is weaker than she expected.
Of the women, Chita Rivera, as Guido's producer Liliane La Fleur, comes across the best and seems to be having a blast. The rest of the supporting actresses bring a richness to their solo lines that was not present in the original cast, turning throwaway lines like "Does your wife know you're traveling with this woman?" or "Thank you very much, Mrs. Contini" into gems of intentions.
Whatever is in the water in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma needs to be bottled, for it has produced a musical family dynasty that rivals the Von Trapps: the Sullivan Family Singers. While K.T. Sullivan is the most familiar name in the group, especially to New York cabaret enthusiasts, the talent of each family member is astonishing, especially when one considers that each possesses a distinct voice and style.
California based sister Heather Sullivan has released her third CD, Bound, which features eleven numbers sung and written by this talented singer/songwriter and Ron Cohen. The album is decidedly in the pop/folk vein ala Sarah McLachlan, Jane Siberry and Cindy Lauper. All the numbers, however, are highly personal, such as the breathy and breathtakingly beautiful love song, "Autumn Rains." Other highlights include "Better Place," which manages to inhabit the world of a homeless person without resorting to the maudlin or anthematic, and the driving "I Believe," which is spiritual in the best sense of the word. The songs possess intelligent lyrics, superb vocals, and instrumental hooks that are by turns catchy and relaxing, all the while never overwhelming the songs. For CD information and more, visit HeatherSullivan.com.
K.T. Sullivan has also released a new CD that preserves her recent show at the Algonquin: Ladies of the Silver Screen. As the title suggests, the show featured songs from those fabulous singers of Hollywood's Golden era, and there is no singer in cabaret today who is better equipped to recreate and reinterpret those gems. With a shimmering soprano that recalls the sirens of that bygone age and a wry sense of humor to match, Sullivan performs numbers introduced by such Hollywood legends as Alice Faye (a tender pairing of "No Love, No Nothing" and "You'll Never Know"), Jane Powell (the odd, but amusing novelty number "The Dickey Bird Song"), Bette Davis ("They're Either Too Young or Too Old"), and, of course, Jeanette MacDonald, whose personality and voice she most closely resembles. If you are a fan of old movies, the songs and information Sullivan imparts on this album will thrill you to no end.
Singer Natalie Douglas named her record company Wrong Black Girl Productions' in response to the myriad of requests she received to sing songs from what she refers to as the "Traditional Black Girl Songbook." While it is true that she is about as far from Jennifer Holliday as one can get, to hear her reinterpret a number like "I'm Not Going" would be an intriguing notion as she is one of the foremost masters of making a number one's own and being 100% committed to it emotionally in the process. As a result, her album, Not That Different, is one of the most emotionally satisfying albums I have come across. With a light, bluesy style and a dark, evocative voice, Douglas can belt when required (as with the gospel tinged "Satan's Little Lamb"), but her greatest strength is knowing how to pull back vocally without ever losing strength or focus. When Douglas sings "Where Have You Been?," a number that traces a relationship from young to elder love, she breaks your heart in the most subtle and pleasant of ways. And anyone who can turn that old chestnut "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" into a fresh, sensual seduction number is capable of just about anything.
The songs of New York songwriter Karen Benedetto are featured on Right From The Start, a compilation album containing seventeen of her songs. Featuring stars from the Broadway, cabaret and concert stage, Right From The Start is a well-produced showcase of an extremely eclectic writer's work. Thematically, it takes the listener from traditional pop-ballad numbers ("Right From The Start" and "I'll Never Lie To You" being the strongest), to comic/novelty numbers ("Swing," a highly amusing look at the unsung and underappreciated heroes of a Broadway musical), to highly spiritual numbers (a stirring "Watch Me Fly" performed by Alton Fitzgerald White and "Walking in the Light" by Avery Sommers). Benedetto's greatest strengths are writing simple songs without ever becoming simplistic and writing directly from the heart in such a way that even this highly religion-phobic listener was moved by the songs that embraced spirituality.
Incidentally, one of her songs, "The Call," a post 9/11 number that is not on the album, was a finalist at the Tipperary International Song of Peace Contest this year and won audience and songwriter peer recognition, thus making her a songwriter to watch. For more information or to hear samples, visit www.intheflowmusic.com.
A comforting tribute album has been released featuring performer Audrey Lavine: At Home With Arlen. Lavine (who has the dubious distinction of understudying both Barbara Cook and Betty Buckley in Carrie) has a long association with Arlen, as her first major engagement in New York was a program of his work in 1977. As a result, Arlen's numbers fit her like a glove; which is no mean feat, considering his songs encompass a wide range of styles, from slow, bluesy torch songs ("Ill Wind" and "Come Rain or Come Shine") to lyrical ballads (the rarely heard "Look Who's Been Dreaming") to swinging gospel tinged anthems ("Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"). Regardless of the style, Lavine is able to make each number her own and does so with the ultimate respect and understanding of the lyrics. While a number of Arlen's greatest hits are represented, equal time is devoted to obscure numbers, such as "That's a Fine Kind of Freedom" (written with Martin Charnin) and "Love Held Lightly" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), which make for a welcome change and discovery.