This week: two new Broadway cast albums and a solo CD by the star of one of them, plus a sweet, relaxed CD from another lady who is neither legally blonde nor a pirate queen.
Lo and behold, Legally Blonde is pretty entertaining on disc. Sure, the chitter-chatter perkiness of its poppy, plucky girl-power pack can be enervating, but in a knowing/amusing way. The cotton candy cute content is high, and some may shiver or shrug at the shallowness. For others, fluff is enough.
The orchestra for the recording is expanded by the addition of six more string players. Christopher Jahnke provides bright, energetic bounce and sass with his orchestrations; the arrangements are by conductor/keyboard player James Sampliner and Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy), who co-wrote these happy songs with Nell Benjamin. This married couple making their Broadway score-writing debut love, honor and obey the basic rules of musical theatredom: keep the story moving, let character dictate style and let your people break into song when emotions burst and mere dialog won't suffice. There are spoken lines sprinkled throughout many of the numbers and some have spoken lead-ins preserved on the cast recording. It makes the interactions and confrontations of the plot easy to follow; book writer Heather Hach's included lines are fleshed out with a synopsis she provides in the booklet. That enclosure also has all the spoken and sung words and a sampling of color photos of the stage doings.
Laura Bell Bundy dominates the recording as Elle, the upbeat gal with a passion for fashion who barrels her way through Harvard Law School and romances. She sings on 13 of the CD's 18 tracks (though she doesn't have a full solo) with some dialogue on a couple of others. Her zest and optimism charms, she nails the happy-go-lucky characterization, and she sings very well. Orfeh stands out as a comical beautician character, dreaming of Ireland as she works, playing a CD that evokes the culture (no, not the cast album of The Pirate Queen). Leslie Kritzer, Annaleigh Ashford and Dequina Moore make merry as three musketeers of sorority girl power. The convoluted plot finds Elle having a connection with another fair-haired lady, one accused of murder. The female-bonding relationship doesn't totally come through on disc, but the murder suspect/ exercise guru (as aggressively played by Nikki Snelson) provides more high-spirited hijinks. Talented Kate Shindle gets to shine near the end in the number called "Legally Blonde Remix."
The male members of the cast are hardly lost in the shuffle. Michael Rupert is the bull-headed law professor and, if the role doesn't let him use much of his musical theatre arsenal, he's great to have on board. Richard H. Blake has the right feeling for the unfeeling erstwhile boyfriend and his two doses of "Serious" butting heads with Laura's character work well. Especially skilled and ingratiating is the work of Christian Borle (late of Spamalot) as the lead's knight in shining khaki. His unforced but charismatic performance is consistently likeable. Christian and Laura create sparks in their match-ups, especially "Chip on My Shoulder."
This recording, with its youthful and brash pop sensibilities and stylings is not just a guilty pleasure but it's a polished one. Cast, musicians and record producers Kurt Deutsch, Joel Moss and Bill Rosenfield do the polishing with lively, crisp sound that is attentive to every dippy detail.
Legally Blonde's star has been moonlighting as a country singer. The Kentucky-born singer-actress is releasing her debut solo album under the abbreviated name Laura Bell. She wrote or co-wrote most of its songs. Those who are chronically allergic to country music probably won't be converted, as the recording has many of the hallmarks of the genre: a twang, false rhymes and casual grammar, instrumentation (steel guitar, dobro, fiddle) and subject matter that includes barrooms, relationships with good ol' boys that ain't so good, plus glorifying the South. Those in New York can catch Laura at Birdland on Mondays, July 23 & 30 and August 20 at 7pm.
Trading Legally Blonde's pop and musical theatre sounds for old school country western music shows Laura's versatility; she sounds equally comfortable in both styles. She digs into this stuff unapologetically and without awkwardness, having grown up as a fan. Evoking country music from past decades rather than the more pop-smoothed influences of the last quarter century or so, it's kind of fun. There's a strong sense of humor in some of this, not always a hallmark of the kind of song known more for a self-pitying tear or Southern fried slices of life.
The accompaniment is skillful and evocative. Musical director Kenny Lyon plays guitars, bass, piano and dobro, with four other players and three background singers credited. Laura's co-producer is Larson Paine who also makes contributions in songwriting, with the singer and on his own. Their nostalgic, solid collaboration "Texas" is heard in two versions, the bonus track with bare-bones accompaniment. (The back cover indicates bonus tracks without specificity; there's one other, a second version of a number co-written with Derek Gregor, Laura's lament of longing and loneliness, "Lovin' and Lyin'." With the two alternates, the track total comes to 16.)
"The C Word" (co-written with Austin Peck) is a double entendre tease that references the melodic structure of the old song "Makin' Whoopee," but its confession of lustful longings involve a tasty non-carnal desire. Others let her be raucous and irreverent , such as "Designated Drunk" (the title line rhymes with the directive to "get in the trunk," which should give you some idea). But the album has plenty of serious business to attend to as well, and the more heartfelt renderings make this far more than some casual romp.
Laura's a little bit country, she's a little bit rock and roll, and feisty and fun either way.
THE PIRATE QUEEN
Sailing into record stores and online sales sites just a couple weeks after the short-lived show gave up the ship, Broadway's The Pirate Queen can be heard, if not seen. That's especially interesting for a big musical that had a lot going on visually, notably its Irish dancing. But almost everything is super-sized here: a large ensemble, big solo voices working overtime, roaring out big numbers with outsized emotions in this story of a real-life female captain from the 1500s. If you like your history with histrionics and a heavy dose of powerhouse-style passions, jump on board. But be advised: it is almost relentless and mostly deadly serious in its fervent, feisty or florid singing.
The orchestra members are not numerous: just 11 players on the recording, some handling more than one instrument (including traditional Irish flavors with high-pitched pipes and whistles - a little goes a long way - and Gaelic harp). But the sound does pound and melodrama is the persistent order of the day all around. Subtle it's not.
The very game cast gives determined, impassioned performances of the anthems, pleas and ballads. In the lead as Grace, Stephanie J. Block belts, rages and burns through the score with much conviction and less shading and nuance, except in the most pensive passages where she is questioning rather than dictating her points. Wailing the Claude-Michel Schönberg melodies and the lyrics by Alain Boublil, Richard Maltby, Jr. and John Dempsey for the won't-take-no-for-an-answer feminist captain, she is commanding.
Playing her true love and husband (not the same person, alas for her), her male co-stars vocally fight fire with fire. The three duetted proclamations of love with Hadley Fraser are intense, yet (for me, anyway) most effective and moving in their more restrained sections. His solos of selfless devotion provide two more doses of ardent proclamation; his indefatigable sense of devotion in "I'll Be There" is, in fact, fatiguing. It reaches a boiling point early on with the title phrase, pulling all the stops out and then repeats the explosion. His "Surrender" is more focused and riveting. As the man she marries in order to unite two historically feuding Irish clans, Marcus Chait has his own brand of vocal attack, spiteful and spewing misogyny and deception.
Jeff McCarthy as her father holds his own without quite going over the top, and finds more depth and dimension than the others. Showing his character's struggles with customs and decisions, he's thus interesting to listen to from an acting point of view. Also rather compelling, singing in a high voice as Queen Elizabeth I, is Linda Balfour. She seizes big and small moments. Her encounters with our fearless leader of the ship are highlights, for when Stephanie and Linda combine forces, there's a real spark-flying chemistry. Ironically, it's when both characters are dropping their poses and and power stances. Humor that is so absent elsewhere makes an appearance as England's monarch and ministers meet up with "Rah-Rah, Tip Top" which is not only cute and catchy but has an almost Gilbert & Sullivan-esque playfulness. It's a relief in this score that is so emphatic and melodramatic without coming close to the polish and and power of these writers' better work. (Schönberg and Boublil also produced the recording.)
A booklet gives a clear and fairly detailed plot synopsis and some (mostly small) color photos. It also has all the lyrics and what little dialogue is heard (the piece was mostly sung-through); on a few occasions, there are minor variations between what's sung and printed.
Those with a taste for the broad strokes and sweep of grand passions will perhaps find themselves pulled in.
UNDER THE RADAR
Lillie Kae comes on with no thunder, but rather a warm breeze of a voice. She has a girlishly youthful sound and an unassuming manner. Communicative singing seems to come naturally as there is nothing forced or coy about her approach. Lillie's cozy approach is enhanced by the presence of marvelous musicians in small-group settings and they really get to play, more like co-stars. Billed as Lillie Kae Stevens, she has worked as a musical theatre performer on tours and on Broadway as a swing and dance captain in the revival of Chicago. This is her debut album.
Setting the CD's agenda for mostly lightly swinging, jazzy versions of older, established songs, Lily opens with a Broadway tune, "Talk to Me, Baby" from the short-lived musical Foxy by Robert Emmett Dolan and Johnny Mercer. It's playful. Bye Bye Birdie's "A Lot of Livin' To Do" brings the energy and tempo up more, about as zestful as the mostly mellow album gets. These are the two tracks prominently spotlighting veteran jazz man Tony Monte on piano and he sounds wonderfully nimble and frisky. Pianist Ken Levinsky makes one appearance, filling in on Rodgers and Hart's lament, "Nobody's Heart." It is the final track, and it seems a shame to end an album with mostly sunny material with the two darkest, downbeat moods (the other is "Cry Me a River"). But neither gets too weepy or or gloom filled.
The arranger and producer is Edward Decker, who is also the fine guitarist on many of the tracks. On three others, the guitarist is Bucky Pizzarelli, whose work accompanying and soloing is simply sensational. He's on hand for two romantic reflections, "What Is There to Say?" and "That's All" with a generous solo section, plus a jauntier track celebrating that famed demise of a nefarious powerful woman with prized shoes ("Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz.). Miriam Sullivan plays bass on the album and Jim Saporito adds percussion.
This is the kind of album which becomes more impressive the more you listen. It didn't knock me out at first, and I had put it aside. It's not that it's inaccessible at first - not at all - it's just that it's mostly low key and easygoing with a rather traditional approach to mostly well-covered songs. Not drawing attention to itself, Lillie's musicality plus her ease with the songs and musicians is more appreciated with repeat listenings. She's more than just another pretty voice.
Lillie will be one of three vocalists (the others are Jane Stuart and Brandon Cutrell) performing for free on July 25 at 6 pm at Barnes and Noble on the corner of 66th Street and Broadway. The show is part of their weekly series called "Any Wednesday."
And we'll be back any Thursday.