"June is bustin' out all over," to quote Oscar Hammerstein, as we show tune fans tend
to do as each new June busts in. This June starts with a warming trend, featuring
heartwarming renditions of songs by three men who write both words and music, and a
warm-spirited singer who interprets many and tries out a few of her own lyrics, too. We begin with Stephen Sondheim who, in his youthful days, had Mr. Hammerstein as a neighbor and guide.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
There are two schools of thought on alternate recorded versions of a show one likes. The naysayers' arguments include words like "redundant" and "why bother?" while the other side knows the joys of comparing/contrasting interpretations and finding material (bits or full songs) that are on one but not the other. I've sided with the same team since the age of eight when, faced with an empty shelf and beginning a collection, the first two albums I chose were The King and I and The King and I. So I'm here to advocate for the merits of owning another recording of Sunday in the Park with George (only the second one), even if I feel the original Broadway cast recording is far superior. Hear me out.
Those who know and love the brilliant Stephen Sondheim score will find the songs in a different color and light. Instead of a large orchestra, Jason Carr has orchestrated it for five players: cellist, violinist, a woodwind player and two keyboard performers. Three "additional musicians" are listed by name (but not instruments) in the recording credits. This chamber-style version provides many "less is more" moments, allowing for a more intimate feel, and attention is drawn to new details with new emphases. Despite countless hearings of the 1984 album, I found myself intellectually attracted to, and emotionally moved by, different moments in the music because of this new instrumental "casting." The exquisite sound of a solo violin or cello, especially, is dramatic in the aching and sadder corners of this highly emotional score. A synthesizer is also used, filling out the sound in some cases where more varied and bigger sounds were desired, but it's only occasionally jarring. The number where one most misses a larger orchestra is "Sunday," which sounds thin and loses some power (the ensemble singing is also less effective here than on the Broadway album).
The sound quality is masterful, with thanks again to producer Tommy Krasker; on this, the latest of several Sondheim cast albums he's helmed. Another adjustment is the English accents but - surprise! - they are only heard in act one, the story of painter Georges Seurat in 19th century France. Act two, taking place in 1984, finds the same British cast members playing their American characters with impressive American accents.
Another plus compared to the Broadway outing is that the two-disc set includes more of the James Lapine dialogue. The big news item is the last track, a long-lost treasure. It's the original, longer version of "The One on the Left," which was truncated during rehearsals way back when the show was first developed. This is in the comical park scene ("The Day Off") and involves the two young women both named Celeste and the two soldiers. (In the original, the non-speaking soldier, to comic effect, was a two-dimensional cut-out figure; the new production features projections and he's one of them.) It's not only very funny and well performed, but the unfamiliar material allows for discovery and a "fresh" hearing for those already familiar with the traditionally presented score.
The 170-seat Menier Chocolate Factory opened the show on November 29, 2005; it was later picked up for a West End transfer to Wyndham's Theatre, where it still plays. This was recorded in March, before the transfer, but features Jenna Russell, the actress who took over the roles of Dot/Marie at Wyndham's. Jenna prepared for the recording prior to actual rehearsals. Subscribing to the "benefit of the doubt" theory, I have to say that one assumes she would grow in the role after the luxury of rehearsals and performances. What's heard here, while entertaining and touching in key moments, are neither very nuanced nor specific characterizations. She has the broad strokes, but misses some of the more complex emotions: the self-doubt in her scene with the mirror, the hurt and rejection that's mixed with anger, the pull she still feels for Seurat after finding a new beau, where things sound as easy as pie. Still, her voice is pleasing, and she's funny and likeable, with bright energy.
As the two Georges, Daniel Evans presents a Sunday fan with an interesting comparison to the powerful Mandy Patinkin imprint. Daniel has a far lighter touch; his Seurat comes off as less anguished and driven. Kinder, he's easier to "like" as a character, but ultimately less compelling and quixotic. The biggest surprise for me on the first and each subsequent listen has been how much more impressed and affected I was by the great-grandson George in the second act story. By the time "Move On" comes around, I am a goner. Our leading man sings and acts well, with especially sensitive work interacting with the characters of his mother and grandmother (Marie). As Seurat's mother, Gay Soper is noble and heartbreaking; the additional included dialogue makes for a very different reaction to "Beautiful" when we hear the lines revealing that her much-missed "old view" is not all an accurate memory.
The supporting cast contributes some strong singing and much rewarding comic relief. All in all, even if this "second look" comes in second place, it has many of its own pleasures and is not a case of copycat syndrome. There are fresh takes and this masterwork feels embraced.
IT'S ONLY LIFE
Stephen Sondheim comes up twice in the lyrics gathered up in It's Only Life, a revue of the songs of John Bucchino. Like Sondheim, John writes both music and words with a pen that can pierce the heart and fills the page and stage with dense but precise lyrics. They also share that rare talent of writing with specificity and detail that often ends up capturing the universal.
In "Playbill," which references Sunday in the Park With George's "Putting It Together," we have Billy Porter on target as he acts the rush of self-doubts and hope when "the playbill from that Sondheim show" he's carrying sparks a conversation, and sparks fly with an attractive stranger. In "On My Bedside Table," a relationship has ended and Brooks Ashmanskas sings of a prized "note from Stephen Sondheim" among his souvenirs and distractions. Both numbers present characters who are not strangers to anxiety, a state of mind the gifted Mr. Bucchino draws upon well and often, sometimes in the service of comedy. Brooks is a loveable mess of nerve endings and neurotic rants in "Painting My Kitchen" as he second-guesses the thoughts of his therapist. Gavin Creel is a riot as a teenager desperately piling up lies to his parents and digging himself deeper and deeper into trouble in "Contact High." Throughout the album, Brooks shows versatility, Gavin's voice is golden, vulnerable or soaring and Billy is at his best, reined in but still possessing exciting flashes of lightning.
There are two female singers. One is Andréa Burns, who does well throughout, in solos within group numbers, harmonizing and especially notable with "This Moment." She captures its carpe diem message in a song that is a model of economy to contrast with others here that overflow with expansive language and melodic ideas. The lyric of "This Moment" consists of 84 words, each is either a one-syllable or two-syllable word. Jessica Molaskey completes the company and illuminates each emotion at hand, in both solo and group numbers. She has a particular gift for projecting honesty and perspective, confronting disappointment with the kind of clear-eyed vision that can come after tears. Her "I've Learned to Let Things Go" is a masterful presentation of a turning point that delineates the struggle behind each step that got her there.
Along with the same director, Daisy Prince, all of these cast members, except Gavin Creel, were in another revue with rich material, Songs for a New World (although Billy didn't get to be on that cast album) by Jason Robert Brown, who contributes two of the full cast group vocal arrangements on this CD: the upbeat, optimistic "That Smile" and the last sections of "Taking the Wheel," which begins as a solo for Gavin. Jeff Blumenkrantz did the vocal arrangement for the title song and John Bucchino himself did the honors for the opening number, "The Artist at 40." John is also on piano throughout (more than ably so, and it's the only accompaniment) with one instrumental solo; he co-produced this very strong CD with Tommy Krasker.
The talented cast, acting as much as singing, expertly squeezes the emotion out of the words - and what juicy words! How refreshing to find words like "ballistic," "slathering," colorized," and "tableau" and phrases like "this hand will shepherd me," "possibilities lie raveled in their skeins," and "fingers that ache to intertwine." Of the 23 selections, nine also are on the various artists CD of his work, Grateful, and some have popped up on other singers' albums over the years. Be sure to see the note in the booklet about the tracks that didn't fit on the album: they are seven short sung "transitions" which can be heard and downloaded for free at www.PSClassics.com; the lyrics for these and everything else are included.
The group numbers are more along the lines of taking turns for solo sections, or all five singing as one, with any duet or other combinations just in very brief sections. This feels like a missed opportunity, because the small mix-and-match samples are tantalizing, although many of the songs are really one character's point of view. Though a few of the pieces seem jam-packed with words and have melodies that are not as distinguished, this is a life-affirming, thought-provoking collection. Applause all around.
A dozen songs, with variety being the key word, make up Stevie Holland's newest album, More Than Words Can Say. Her appealing, warm voice graces old favorites like the pop hit "Only You," shearing it of the corn that often comes with it, singing with passion without going over the top. Restraint is an admirable quality that this jazz-leaning vocalist has, although occasionally one wishes she'd sound more involved in a lyric. Her song choices by writers with theater resumes includes "Yesterdays" (Kern/Hammerstein), which she also frees of any stodgy formality (not a small task with a lyric that includes the word "forsooth"!). Additionally, she gets to Camelot's (Lerner & Loewe) romantic "If Ever I Would Leave You," and breezes through Schwartz & Dietz's "By Myself." For comedy, Stevie takes on what was a raucous Betty Hutton number, "Murder, He Says," substituting a jazzier, subtler (anything is subtle compared to Hutton) jive for the wildness, in a sort of hip replacement surgery. Another theatre composer vet represented is her husband and musical partner, Gary William Friedman. Theater buffs know him as the writer of musicals like The Me Nobody Knows, Taking My Turn and Platinum.. The two collaborated on the album's title number, an effective and sincere look at devotion.
Stevie also wrote the lyrics to "Firefly" with Neil Wolfe's music, and Gary's music is mated to poetic words by Sandra Hochman for "Lovingly." But it's the couple's teamwork that's best: their other music-and-lyrics pairing is a touching song about a father and daughter attempt at ending an estrangement ("Evening Song"); not expecting miracles from a Christmas reunion, it feels real and has a dignified quieter drama of its own.
Gary is also co-producer (with Tim Peierls) and did the arrangements, orchestrations and conducting. The musical treatments show adventure and put Stevie in comfortable and intriguing settings. In a few instances, the string section that is added to the rhythm section feels unnecessary and counterproductive - and to my ears, out of balance. Still, there are intriguing chances being taken: With the Kenny Loggins/ Michael McDonald hit "This Is It," Stevie neatly removes the insistent rhythm that seemed to be the pop record's raison d'être and slows it down, in a romance-by-the-fireside feel. Adventurous.
The singer has a luscious quality to her voice and some exciting and pretty sound in the higher register; neither is exploited quite enough as some of the singing keeps her in a "plainer" state. When she lays into notes and wraps them in her velvety, languorous style, it's quite a joy. Stevie's New York CD release performance is at Iridium Jazz Club in midtown on June 14th. (More information at her website, www.StevieHolland.com).
UNDER THE RADAR
Lee Feldman sings charming, offbeat songs, writing both music and lyrics. I wrote about his endearing, unusual musical Starboy; after a recent presentation of the show, which involved showing the animated musical while he and his band and singers sang the score live, Lee gave me his new solo CD. It has a lot of the modest charm and humor found in Starboy, the tale of a two-dimensional but big-hearted fellow from outer space who lives in Brooklyn with dysfunctional folks, falls in love and attempts to save the sponges in Puerto Rico. Lee's gentle singing style and his warm-and-fuzzy low-key vocal sound are on both projects. The selections on I've Forgotten Everything also have some more lively, rocking tunes in addition to the introspective, shy persona that first attracted me. There are also a couple of instrumentals.
Lee's pocket-size songs are often about the day-to-day doings of life, or at least appear to be, sprinkled with a sense of humor that doesn't feel restricted by reality. With subjects like living undiscovered in a cave, shopping in a store with women on the shelves, and his social security number (somehow he has two), he marches to his own drummer (his drummer is named Bill Dobrow, one of several fine musicians, and he plays piano for himself). It's a change-of-pace dreamy trip, not in any particular genre for any length of time, but some of this is theatrical in its own little way. All of his recordings can be found and sampled at CDbaby. Fun for a lazy June afternoon.
Next time, a look at The Wedding Singer and the concert cast album of Ricky Ian Gordon's Dream True, among others.