Sound Advice Reviews
Now on Broadway!
Here are two shows currently on Broadway, both with lyrics by skillful wordsmiths by the first name of Brian, putting words in the mouths of central female characters meeting men who might be meaningful in their lives. "Here I Go," sings the leading lady in If/Then as she embarks on yet another chapter, while the title figure in Violet sings of being "On My Way" along with others on the bus she hopes will bring her to a new beginning. We want to root for both, as we soon learn their paths so far haven't been so easy, and we respect their guts.
Knowing full well the answer is a frustrating "Of course," Stephen Sondheim in Follies has a character ask, "'The Road You Didn't Take' hardly comes to mind/ Does it? Does it?" Similar sentiments abound in this new show ("And every chance I took, or did not take/ Connections that I made, or did not make/ But I'll never take those turns to other roads" they rue in "The Moment Explodes." Results of decisions based on life's multiple choice questions are explored and traveled in If/Then, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's New York-y musical. That city of dreams that never sleeps is the setting and we see various versions of how things might have worked out in proposed "alternate-universe" scenarios had different choices been made, immediately set forth in the appropriately titled opening number "What If?." As the plethora of choices is increased when we remember that making no choice is a choice, too (staying on the road instead of veering towards a different one), it can be overwhelming.
The central figure of Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) feels her life clock ticking, with some mileage at age 39 ("flirting with 40" as she says). However, at times the style of speech for her and other characters may seem more like angstier 20-somethings or maybe symptoms of arrested development. Be that as it may, it allows anyone who's been "youngish" or at the crossroads of "could've and should've" to identify. Some of the more articulate language choices (there's that word again) allow the people to sound more mature, even if "older but wiser" doesn't always apply and insight and perspective sometimes seem at a premium. The shrugging acceptance of the ubiquity of four-letter words in speech (here, in song) is not my favorite musical theatre trend, and I think it cheapens the message. (Look for plenty in the rage of "I Hate You"no surprisebut it's casual or even almost "cute" in lightheartedness elsewhere.) The themes of carpe diem and grabbing opportunities are heavily threaded through several songs. It may be a bit redundant, but it's arguably the most important lesson in life. Take the leap. At least you tried. You get the idea. It may feel like overkill cliché to some "We're none of us getting any younger/ you can feel the time go by/...love wherever and whenever...Love is always good" is sung in the song with the direct title "Love While You Can." But there's a sincere unpretentiousness beneath what might be preachiness that makes it seem newor new to those spreading the gospel. Folks straight, gay, and bisexualoverlapping friendships within the relationshipsadd to the variety and feel of universality.
The Menzel method of singing is less keening here than it has been on other recordings and appearances. There's less vocal "push," but still plenty of glibly ebullient energy and devil-may-carelessness cheer. She's entertaining and likeable. She does pull out the stops for her closer, "Always Starting Over." (Here comes the pounding and builds-upon-upon-builds, crashing percussion and climaxes.) James Snyder as Josh is, for me, the most appealing character and the most ingratiating performance. His gentle and genial "You Never Know" has humor. It radiates low-key warmth, acknowledging human foibles. Jason Tam is endearing in his solo "What Would You Do?" although it feels frustratingly too short. There are bright and thought-provoking moments in love songs to characters and to the city as a memory-filled wonderland of adventures ("A Map of New York") and a place of interrelated lives ("Ain't No Man Manhattan," featuring Menzel's Rentmate Anthony Rapp).
Music director Carmel Dean leads an orchestra with a generous representation of string players. The sound, while not lush, is cracklingly bright and nicely balanced. But, alas, the score and some performances would have benefited from more balance and discretion. LaChanze and a seemingly underused Jenn Colella are too often at full throttle so that things can get hyperbolic and shrill, hardly a balance for the tends-to-intense-mode Menzel. Happily, there's some change from the diminishing returns of so many similar numbers about the aforementioned themes when the score is allowed to explore issues of unplanned parenthood and death.
A child experimenting with primary color paints soon discovers that blue and red make violet. In this new cast album for a once-longer musical called Violet we get that blend of the blues of sadness and the reds of rage, love and blood that make up the facially and emotionally scarred young woman for whom the show is named. Like that title character going on a long bus ride down South in 1964 to meet a televangelist she is sure will miraculously change her face, Violet the show has had a lengthy journey that included an Off-Broadway premiere in 1997 and some regional productions where it got mixed reviews with different casts and was a two-act piece. Now tweaked, shorter, intermissionless, and starring key members of a company who presented it for a concert reading in the Encores! series, it has received a reception not short on praise.
And this packaging of the new album is hardly short on supplying a view of Violet: It's a two-disc affair from PS Classics, with plenty of dialogue recordedand printed, along with the lyrics in a booklet with many full-page color photos, synopsis, and a chatty and hyped-up background essay (by Amy Sherman-Palladino, writer-producer of "Bunheads," the TV series with the same star, Sutton Foster, who is also a co-producer of this current version).
Miss Foster admirably gives us more than pluck and naiveté in her portrayal of the North Carolinian. Not stinting on the self-protective tough exterior, nor leaning on playing the sympathy card, she and the writing/direction present a delicate balance. Her singing doesn't depend on belting or feel-good self-empowerment posturing. While some reflects bravado and a sense of desperation, the gentler and cathartic moments shine through satisfyingly. Her version of the balm-like "Lay Down Your Head" is lovely and nuanced, and her moments of hope and heartfelt caring buoy things along the way. Closer to her work as determined, eye-on-the-prize Jo in Little Women than her sunnier, showier characters, she holds her own quite fiercely.
Composer Janine Tesori (this was her first produced score, back in '97) and lyricist-librettist Brian Crawley make layers of back-and-forth interaction of music and words, sometimes overlapping, like a dance. In flashbacks and reveries, often interwoven with the scenes in the present, Emerson Steele as the adolescent Violet and Alexander Gemignani as the father are valuable assets. They add texture and serve to help us understand aspects of the title character as an aching but emboldened adult. What could be more ordinary scenes become psychological high-stakes drama with the overlapping interaction of father and daughter in past and present. Regrettably, Gemignani's previously displayed glorious voice and sensitivity don't get to be exploited for their full range here, but it's not in the cards in this role.
Much glory, however, goes to (and comes from) Joshua Henry who has a kind of plum role as Flick, one of two soldiers Violet meets on the bus. Heroic, with an understated dignity, all the while quite three-dimensionally human, his character gets the galvanizing song which understandably emerged from the show long ago: "Let It Sing." And he does well by it, finding an integrity in what could be overwhelmed by a by-the-numbers self-help salve. And a little showmanship at the end feels justified rather than self-indulgent. Also strong is Colin Donnell as the often blunter other soldier Monty (both vie for Violet's attention in their own ways). While his macho posturing in "Last Time I Came to Memphis" makes him a kind of Prince Not-So-Charming, there's a truly gorgeous vocal by him in the middle of the "Promise Me, Violet" (first version) where there's a breathtaking calm in this often stormy score. While I longed for more pure liquid gold like this, I'll be a ready witness to the fact that the gospel roof-raisers are pulse-quickening and terrifically done. While shows from Purlie to the more recent Leap of Faith and Sister Act have given Broadway its share of shoutin' and testifyin', there's pastiche proof positive here that the well need not feel dry when such material is done with real energy and commitment.
For me, each too-brief appearance by resourceful veteran Annie Golden is call for celebration. As two unnamed charactersa sweet, talkative old lady on the bus and a wearily lamenting hotel hookershe adds just the needed spice and sparkle. Despite the competition of counterpoint and some cameo-like flashes in group numbers, she is never lost in the shuffle. Brava!
For those who prefer more of an immersion in the theatrical experience of getting to know the characters through dialogue interaction, this is right up your alley. It may be a lot to get through every time, as much of the talk can't easily be skipped over, with some blended into sung sections, and the tracking often places some dialogue at the beginnings of selections (as opposed to tacking it onto those prior to make skipping-over easier). And, while some longer swatches of talk are isolated, you'll find a section that's mainly dialogue includes a bit of singing. This all means re-hearing some appropriately realisticbut hardly gripping, witty, or poeticsmall talk, card game chatter and challenges, bus driver announcements of rest stops and the rest, as well as more drama-laced brittle arguments. While all that is hardly compelling, there is a "you are there" feeling that is inescapable and has some pay-off.
The eight-piece band is led ably by Michael Rafter, who helmed the Off-Broadway premiere as well as Sutton Foster's cabaret outings after conducting her in Thoroughly Modern Millie. They succeed in adapting to chameleon-esque demands of the music's genre-hopscotching among a potpourri of country and gospel, character numbers, and complex counterpoint. I would have enjoyed some instrumental-only respites to underscore the score's more yearning moments. But Violet adamantly resists softening and sentimentalizing, despite its underlying message to look beyond the obvious surfaces and first impressions"Look at Me" and "Bring Me to Light" demand two titles of its songs.
Violet the character and Violet the musical, a belated surprise graduation to Broadway, is worth re-considering. And, given the commitment of the company, and that includes the laudably attentive recording company, this new Violet will probably bring new shades of resonating color as it continues to grow on me and get under my skin.