This week: the long and bumpy theatrical road that led to Road Show shows its mileage and magic with a recording that begins with the afterlife and has had more than one afterlife of its own. Much of it is indeed heavenly and some intentionally hellish. Secondly, singer Sarah DeLeo is In Heaven Tonight.
Let the celebrating, debating, cries of "frustrating!" and maybe hating from some corners begin. Why? Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, whose works always bring forth strong and divided opinionseven among ardent fanshas been tinkering and rethinking his long-gestating project with collaborator John Weidman. This trip to Road Show shows signs of change and in some cases, shows the payoff that can come from thoughtful re-working, re-working and some "recycling" within the same piece. There are still many signature Sondheim stylings and turns of musical and lyrical phrase and twists, along with what we've come to recognize as smart, pungent orchestral choices by frequent collaborator, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, whose musical accents and counterpoints and instrument choices in flashes of style and substance spell subtext. I say this lovingly and loyally. If it works, it works, and so much of this works wonderfully and powerfully, even when familiar buttons are pushed.
It's a pleasure to report that that album of Road Show is admirably performed and produced. Often riveting, by turns heartbreaking or funny, splashy or haunting, it nevertheless holds together and flows, with only occasional moments that feel overstated or overlong. The actors' performances and full immersion into their flawed and not very heroic characters feels true rather than a manipulative attempt for any likeability. It does require careful listening and familiarity with the fact-based story; fortunately, the synopsis and included lyrics with key stage directions are included in the booklet.
For Sondheim fans, any new cast recording, revival of an old favorite recorded once or more before or, certainly, a new score is An Event. There hasn't been a truly first-time recording of a Sondheim score since Bounce several years ago, and anyone mildly interested probably knows that Road Show is a revision of that show, which had two known titles before that, the piece having been rewritten and rethought for years. Sondheim fanatics want everything; that's a given. For those in-betweeners who purchased Bounce and wonder if there are enough changes for them to make it worth the while, let me say that it's more different than it may seem because you can't judge what's new or old by a glance at the song titles. There are changes (big and small) in songs where the title and gist may be the same. And then there are some songs with different titles that come in the same point in the plot, more or less, and cover a lot of the same ground. Showing entanglements and investments of the Mizner brothers, who are the protagonists, "That Was a Year" is a bigger swath of music and time covering and expanded what was, more and less, Bounce's "I Love This Town." The melody of the old Bounce title song pretty much remains as the new opening number's music, with totally different lyrics and attitudes, in the less optimistic "Waste." In fact, much of the tone throughout the piece, and the way it is interpreted by this new cast, is different: it's darker, sharper, and ultimately deeper and more emotional in many parts. Some things, though, haven't changed much with the score: the mother's song, "Isn't He Something!" is intact, as are big chunks of other numbers. The love song "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" now belongs to Addison Mizner and the young man who is his love interest, as the heterosexual love interest for the other brother, Wilson, is the big cut as far as major characters. Some of what's not on the Bounce recording is not truly new: there are some things that were brought forward from earlier incarnations, going back to the unrecorded version known as Wise Guys.
As the brothers at the center of the story, Sondheim show veterans Michael Cerveris (playing the seemingly more conniving, selfish and impulsive Wilson and) and Alexander Gemignani (as the often gentler Addison who develops a backbone as a survival technique) are convincing, giving committed and multi-layered performances. Cerveris mixes charm with cold-hearted determination impressively, singing with brio and bravado and more than a bit of seductive persuasion so right for the character. Gemignani makes Addison somewhat of a thoughtful and determined tragic figure of sorts, a bit of a stoic but showing his vulnerability. He downplays some of the character's comic potential, and trades that for sensitivity and regret. It's a nuanced and three-dimensional, sympathetic performance, sung with grace and attentive care, with powerful thunderstorms of rage from frustration and regret coming through. Their songs together set off sparks.
Claybourne Elder as Addison's lover makes a strong impression with his persuasive and version of "Talent"he has plenty of it, and it shows in this especially effective number, and he radiates determination and some joy in his other opportunities. Alma Cuervo generally makes for a non-traditional and affecting mother, although her solo feels underplayed to me. William Parry as the father is, interestingly, a returnee from the 1999 version in the same role; his early "It's in Your Hands Now"clinging to a wish to pass something onis impactful and gallantly sung. The ensemble, playing many roles in various scenes, is quite versatile and provides some needed comic relief. Though their individual assignments and bits are not credited, a standout is the canny (or should I say uncanny) expert performer Kristine Zbornik (Forbidden Broadway veteran and recently in A Catered Affair). Her daffy Mrs. Yerkes in "That Was a Year" is zippy and great fun, for example.
The orchestra is strong and an equal partner in the dramatic impact, sounding engaged and energized, intense but never ever to the point of overpowering or upstaging. Mary-Mitchell Campbell is music director, playing keyboards and, with precision that does not border on militaristic, leading the twelve players. The sound and spectacularly theatrical feel of the whole project is masterful, with veteran producer of choice for so many recent Sondheim projects, Tommy Krasker, thankfully at the helm doing a yeoman's job.
What is the bottom line? Everyone here is serving the material and ultimately, then, the material is the star and the main attraction. The highly crafted work of Sondheim and the many intertwined lines of Weidman's are sharp, packed, concise and full of character specificity. It's an ambitious project, no doubt, and it often succeeds and will often be played and appreciated by more serious fans of challenging and interesting musical theatre.
When Sarah DeLeo gets into a cozy, snug groove, it's not too far from musical heaven. I've listened to the album from time to time since it first came out earlier this year, and have returned to it this week in anticipation of her performance in New York on July 15 at the Metropolitan Room.
It's a pleasure to linger with her in her comfort zone of velvety smooth sounds (as in the title song) or the confident briskness of self-assuredness (a refreshingly hip and non-coy take on West Side Story's "I Feel Pretty"). Her sound can be pretty and usually feels that wayan attractive tone is her great assetthough on some other tracks I feel like she needs to be looser and let go. Things sometimes feel tentative, at least at first. But the appeal of her sound and her warm, unpretentious persona win me over and put most of this in the "win" column overall.
Full of surprises as singers swimming in the jazz waters can be, there's a no-fuss sensibility about her approach, whether she is taking a rather standard take on a standard or shaking things up. "On the Street Where You Live" steers clear of the awestruck, dewy-eyed romanticism with a faster trot down that street, but it has its own sense of casual joy. The opening track is not at all representative of the rest of this jazzier album, and I'll confess it thus put me off somewhat at first. It's an odd take on the old pop trifle "Rockin' Robin" which tries to find something hip in a new, more laidback ambience instead of exuberant rocking out. (Listening back this week, for obvious reasons, it's hard not to think of the peppy Michael Jackson version.)
As the album gets more into a pop-jazz feel with a bit of blues, it works rather well, most especially when she digs into the mellower sound. And when she sings in her higher register, it's most attractive and lovely and glorious. "No Moon at All" is light but terrific, a real mood-setter, solidly presenting a picture of a sultry but calm summer night where things hang in the air and "even lightning bugs have dimmed their light." Sarah's first album, the very pleasing The Nearness of You was somewhat more outwardly romantic, and I like her best on ballads. Though they are in scarcer supply this time around, for me the best is saved for last with a thoroughly successful, meltingly slow version luxuriating with "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me." She shines here. Perhaps because it's the best and last track on the album (there are only ten songs), at the end one is left wanting more music and more flavors and, well, more like this track.
Keyboard accompaniment is sometimes piano, sometimes organ, and the band seems to be on the same page in the sense that the priority is keeping things rather simple and clean. There isn't much grandstanding, no esoteric abstract distracting side trips. We "get" the main color of each arrangement and mood early and they stay right on the main road without feeling overly redundant. Seemingly still a singer finding her way and breaking out of safe or traditional boxes, she's one to keep an eye and ear on.