Three cast albums look at marriage and relationships leading up to it. There's humor and drama. Along the way, we have characters straight and gay, and plans for the altar are altered. Also, other views of love and romance are on the table.
THE WEDDING SINGER
Here it is - released just several days before The Tony Awards, the original cast album of The Wedding Singer, nominated for Best Musical, Score, Book, Choreography and for lead Stephen Lynch as the title character. Although I have mixed feelings about the material itself, the cast's performances on the album are admirable and adept. Evoking the pop musical sounds of the 1980s (that awkward in-between decade after the last gasps and played-out thumps of disco and before the full encroachment of hip-hop and rap), the album is replete with the beat, with blare to spare.
The actor-singers embrace the pastiche and seem to revel in it. However, this does seem to work against the possibility of providing the kind of listening experience that reveals any additional depth on repeated listenings. Neither depth nor sophisticated musical theater are high on the agenda here. Taken on its own terms as a pop confection aimed at your funny bone and potentially tapping foot rather than your cerebrum, it succeeds in fair measure as undemanding fun.
Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin's score is best served when the actor-singers bring out comic moments and jump into the joy. "Single," a song proclaiming the joys of bachelorhood life is especially successful as performed here - it's the lowbrow beer and spam-loving "dude" equivalent of "A Hymn To Him" sung by the character of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Specific references to the era's memory touchstones like the Reagans' jellybeans, moonwalking and New Coke are not lost in the shuffle. Two songs ("Somebody Kill Me" and "Grow Old With You"), holdovers from the film the show is based on, were a good headstart. Despite having been written by others, they're fun and blend in just fine.
I give Lynch a lot of credit for a committed, high-energy workout of a job well done. He did win me over by force of personality, and he's a force to contend with, ranting, rocking, pleading, prodding and showing sharp comic timing. Likewise, neither Kevin Cahoon nor Amy Spanger can be faulted for the zing and gutsy gusto they unleash in their turns. Casting Laura Benanti in a role that doesn't take advantage of her truly glorious and flexible soprano seems a shame, though she's a welcome presence. Her gentle "Come Out of the Dumpster" is a high point, with winsome qualities and sweetness quietly triumphing over the character who otherwise seems to be one more case of arrested development. And we have the woefully underused talents of Rita Gardner as the grandmother (with a super-short solo and her game participation in a for-laughs senior citizen rap number).
The production and sound quality are satisfactory, with temptations to pump up the volume or veer towards a rock ambience rather than musical theater atmosphere mostly avoided. Still, a feel of '80s party music is intended and intense at times in production numbers. Like angel-food wedding cake with a a sugary frosting, traditional musical theater aficionados may find this album not very filling. Likewise, though, it's hard to deny the sweet quality that comes through despite everything.
Knowing the show, I was expecting the belated release of the recording of the daring Dream True to knock me out. I was right. Simply put, Dream True is a true dream of a cast album and musical. Whether your priority consideration for satisfying musical theater is charismatic performance, an engrossing story, well-crafted songs that pull at your heartstrings or challenge your thinking, you'll find it here. You won't find mindless pap or pop. Although there are a couple of flashes of humor and liveliness, this is a serious and deeply moving piece with a strong metaphysical element. It is treated with love and care by a company featuring some of today's best singer-actors. I fell in love with Dream True in its run in 1999 and again at its 2004 concert performance. The cast from that concert presentation is heard here, captured on disc with love and care and technical expertise. Tommy Krasker is the producer who gets my thank-you card, with his PS Classics' partner, Philip Chaffin, executive producer.
The tale of an early bond between two boys that survives separations and defies tangible reality is transporting. In the story, the men they grow to be are often in the "presence" of their childhood selves, allowing for ultimate theatricality via the mesmerizing power of memory. As the two confront their values, difficult life choices, their past and their mortality, their faith and relationships are tested. The especially evocative Jonathan Tunick orchestrations are conducted with grace and care by Ted Sperling for a nine-man orchestra (Sam Davis and Joel Fram on keyboards). The show's composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, provides the orchestration for "He's Gone," a cut song now restored. He also wrote his own lyrics for one version of "Wyoming" and the final number, the redemptive "We Will Always Walk Together," a 1996 song which was the seed for the project. Otherwise, the artful lyrics are by Tina Landau, who also directed and wrote the show's book, inspired by a novel from 1891, Peter Ibbetson by George Du Maurier. Notes by the composer trace the development of the piece, including intriguing comments on cut and changed musical pieces. A plot synopsis is here, too, needed in this case.
Targeting the song heart of this lovely work is slightly tricky, as it is almost all heart. However, the title song about the power of two friends learning they can will themselves to have the same dream and communicate within that experience is glorious and powerful. An analagous theme concerns the sense of home being something you can keep with you and that "Finding Home" can happen "in an unexpected place." It is warmly sung to exquisite tear-inducing perfection by Jessica Molaskey, as young Peter's mother, first as a solo and reprised at the end of "Peter's Dream," where she is joined by the cast.
And what a cast it is. The aforementioned friends are heroic and haunting: In their most satisfying and emotionally nuanced disc work to date are Brian d'Arcy James as Peter the architect who longs for "Space" in his work, environment and marriage; Jason Danieley as his gay friend is superb as well. Their sensitivity and shared strength are ennobling. As their younger selves, two child actors who've both been on Broadway as Chip in Beauty and the Beast, Harrison Chad (now in the Washington, D.C. Mame) and William Ullrich (the Nine revival), turn in admirable work with no "kid actor" show-biz glitz. Two more major assets: The Light in the Piazza's co-stars Victoria Clark and Kelli O'Hara are re-united (I should say "pre-united" as this is an earlier production). Kelli's singing uses her shimmering soprano sound familiar from Piazza rather than her belt of her Tony-nominated Pajama Game role. Sturdy Jeff McCarthy as the uncle and the trio of Michael McElroy, James Moye and Clark Thorell complete the top-drawer company. With some of the cast doubling as other characters and melting into an ensemble, they serve also as "witnesses" for some of the action and memories and empower the theories presented. Luckily, this also gives us more of the rich vocal sounds of the trio, the sterling Victoria Clark and the empathetic qualities of the treasured Jessica Molaskey.
The aching longing, the life-affirming underpinnings, the pain of loss and brave examination of the pure love human beings can have for each other all come through. They dance together with a strange grace and confront each other as the characters' pasts and presents similarly face each other down. Attachments go beyond sexual attraction and sexuality and bonds of friendship and family are mighty. The gayness of male characters here plays an important role, but is ultimately not the crux. Peter's strained marriage with his wife (Kelli) does not fully sever their relationship any more than other obstacles. Yes, it's complicated, but this a real work of art and a work of the heart.
I haven't seen Nancy Kelly's birth certificate, but she claims she was Born To Swing, and I'm here to report that swing she does. She does so while mostly singing of the happier side of love. We're in jazzland here, with the desire for swing paramount. The priority given to musical values results in an offhand approach to the lyrics on the faster-tempo tracks; the bittersweet quality in Rodgers and Hart's "Falling in Love with Love," however, remains. The lyric police will note that Nancy sometimes strays from the lyrics as written ("I bet" instead of "I guess" in "Come Rain or Come Shine" from the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and several substitute words in Ted Koehler's lyric to another Arlen melody, "I've Got the World on a String"). She's in command, however, and in the company of four top instrumentalists: the mighty Houston Person on sax, hip Mark Taylor on drums, satisfying work from Dino Losito on keyboards, and the nimble bass player is Neil Miner.
I've been familiar with Nancy since hearing her Live Jazz album, released back in 1988. Like many jazz singers, she sounds more connected and energized in a live recording; the current one is more laid back. Either way, she radiates joy and competence, and mixes Broadway standards into her sets.
On this new CD, there are ballad turns on "More Than You Know," "Didn't We" and a surprisingly tender take on Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," with much attention to and involvement with the words, and Nancy shades them gratifyingly with emotion and vulnerability. Still improvising subtly with her jazz sensibilities, she finds fresh phrasing and these tracks are especially rewarding to hear over and over.
The song choices mostly look at the early stages of relationships rather than marriage level. (She includes Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," with the line, "You'd be so nice to waken with" that movie censors asked Porter to rewrite since the characters weren't married. Nancy sings neither version - she scats instead.) When she ends with a collaboration by bass player John Clayton and singer Dee Daniels, "Let's Talk Business," she certainly gets down to business indeed and it's lusty and bluesy and bossy.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's an album that had been quietly sold on a website; it's a show that was presented in Seattle a few years ago. Like Starbuck's coffee, it began there and is now spreading out nationally (and is quite flavorful, with a real jolt of energy to be found).
EVERY LITTLE VOW
How exciting to discover a nifty new musical with music, lyrics, book and musical direction/orchestrations by David Austin. Some will know him from his entertaining performance in this year's off-Broadway musical charmer, I Love You Because. He's in the cast here as well. Well, he's also been busy churning out albums with his songs, and sells them on the website www.TMCworks.com, where sales help raise money to fight breast cancer.
Every Little Vow (recorded in 2003, but just released this year) centers on three couples' experiences with the ups and downs of love and marriage. Avoiding the popular device of marriage as the happily-ever-after ending of a story, all the couples marry at the end of the first act, with the second act showing married life and its challenges.
With a contemporary feel to its sensibilities and musical style, the songs present our sextet as analytical and self-doubting rather than passive or complacent. Platitudes and idealism are mostly absent, but optimism peeks through through the characters' defensiveness, neurotic moments and worry. These are passionate people. Thankfully, there is also a healthy dose of humor, mostly in the first half. (Yes, the second act could stand some comic relief; the going gets rather heavy, but things end more than encouragingly.)
A capable cast sings with conviction in solos, duets, two trios and several full company numbers. They are accompanied by an 11-member instrumental ensemble. As two men who meet on vacation and become a couple, the writer and Ernest Palmer do especially well charting a roller coaster relationship that results in big dose of angst. The two heterosexual couples are played by Thara Cooper and Michael Mendiola as two who prove the adage that "opposites attract," and Tracy Coe and Eric Jensen as a pair who have known each other since childhood. Their duets are standouts, charting their lack of being in the same emotional place at the same time (one cutely starts with them as kids and they're grown by the song's end). "The Story of Princess Winceless" has some of the most impressive rhyming and use of language, with a crafty performance by Tracy. Most of the group numbers that highlight the common experiences and reactions of the characters in their separate relationships are especially well done; these singers prove themselves to be particularly strong team players. All but Thara and Michael also appear on the 1999 recording of the writer's enjoyable, dramatic version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
With 23 selections and a 79-minute playing time, this is a very full listening experience, all the more so because the words come fast and furious. Little of it is light and breezy, but love and marriage can be a hurricane. This musical rides out the storm, and leaves you feeling more buoyed up than battered.
Our post-Tony Awards meltdown column next week will feature more theatrical music; The Drowsy Chaperone cast album is coming soon along with other treats.