Sound Advice Reviews
That power-hungry Peron pair from South America's (and Broadway's) history are back in the spotlight, with the expansive score of Evita filling two CDs. Plus, several of its songs are among those included on a double-disc multi-performer concert set surveying its composer's work. And on a single debut disc, a cabaret duo acta pair of twinsget to some Broadway material and more.
The thing about Evita is it needs to loom larger than life. Fierceness is in order. To appear to be even a little bit limply lumbering along or a employing a lighter touch won't touch off the spark for the powder keg set to explode. What looms large when hearing the big score on the revival cast album are the shadowsthe shadows of some dynamic, dazzling predecessors in the key roles who made us come to expect both soaring red-hot rages and the tension of coiled, tightly controlled energies. (Please note that, although it packed its own star power, I am not talking about the film version which might be the sole reference point for some, but is another animal altogether, and not the dangerous one with bite that this musical can be.) Besides the musical theatre legacy and its architecture setting all this up, of course, there's more to live up to: the real-life history and hindsight regarding Argentina's politics, and the drug of power for President and Mrs. Peron: a manipulative woman who legendarily "seduced a nation," someone mythologized, reviled, calculatingly re-inventing herself, and idolized. It's not so surprising that this audio Evita often fails to meet the daunting challenges and that without the distractions of the visuals, it may reveal all the more that the empress has no clothes. But there are some compensations.
To fast-forward to the end, the most satisfying performances from Elena Roger in the title role are her tracks late in the game on the second disc. After numerous sadly disappointing tracks where, when things gets demanding in frantic high belts where she's forced way vocally out of her comfort zone (and thus testing a listener's comfort zone), some gentler singing is far more pleasing. While the character is often relentlessly rabid early on, the reality of her illness slowing her down is reflected in the music and it's a relief. The star's rendition of "You Must Love Me"the number added for the film version and retained hereis lovely, pensive and nuanced. Best of all, by far, is the bonus track where the Argentinian actress masterfully sings the score's most famous number, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," in her native Spanish. With the melody that appears in various guises and with different words throughout the score, and so familiar now over so many years, it's all the more remarkable how welcome it is when listening straight through the whole album and getting to this ravishing item. So much grace and majesty comes through and everything works. Alas, it may be the iPod/download plum, but the divinely delicious dessert can't offset the many bitter or bland dishes in a big meal. It should be duly noted that the entirety of those tracks are not washouts, as there's some quite acceptable and creditable work as some songs begin and/or develop, but familiarity with where the melody is going makes one steel oneself for the steely voice being inevitably pushed.
Beyond the vocal worries, there's the matter of the acting and persona being engaging and consistently convincing. The subtler aspects of the role, the sense of the glinty-eyed wily wolf in sheep's clothing, conniving with preconceived timing on the part of the lady in the leading part, all fall short of the dramatic demands. A tall order it is to create any periodic pauses for sympathy on some human level or at least fascination for Eva Peron, despite our resistance to her cold-bloodedness, our cooler heads not being so susceptible to her charades and claims to be unselfish. The supposedly charismatic character seems sometimes to be just gamely going through the paces, mechanically, like the chorus meant to be "the masses unbound" whipped into a frenzy in support or the thirst for freedom, but sounding more moaning and droning while intoning their heroes' names or mottos.
Three men make much of the album highly listenable, each in his own winning way. As Che, Ricky Martin's vocals are smoothly ear-pleasing and as an actor, he generally sounds involved, focused, appropriately reactive and opinionated. Though one may miss the tone of fiery and unblinking, unforgiving indictment of the finger-pointing "J'accuse!!" type, his calling-a-spade-a-spade, well-played challenges are strong in their own less forceful way. Coming off as spokesman in a more thinking Everyman way, the brooding conscience of the piece, he grabs attention easily. It's a somewhat more low-key, warmer approach that might declaw some of the power of a force to be reckoned with, with less the attack dog pit bull ready to pounce and more the prowling, growling watchdog. However, his Che is quite committed, providing deriding judgments and knowing sarcasm come through quite decisively.
Michael Cerveris, ever the magnetic pro, is admirable as Juan Peron, projecting a cerebral, controlled command. The gloriously voiced Max von Essen makes one wish his role as a singing entertainer rhapsodizing about that romance-soaked "Night of a Thousand Stars" were larger (he's stepped into Che's role in the show). He sings the serenade without milking the over-the-top schmaltz potential that's clearly there.
The military chorus has some solid, tight attack drills, smugness fairly well in hand, but holding back on the venom and vitriol. Like much of this album, there's a sense of not firing on all guns as if going for the gusto or the jugular is somehow theatrically impolite. While the score has been given more of a sound that suggests authentic Spanish flavors, matching Martin and Roger's authentic Latin pedigrees and pronunciation of certain words, it still bursts with glossy bright pop/Broadway style.
Revisiting the musical, one is struck by the melodies re-used and woven in and out, some sizzling or crisp, staccato phrases that stick in the brain and stubbornly refuse to leave, days later. And, in the current fast-moving times of power changes in various countries dominating the headlines, not to mention the ever-growing celebrity culture and our own American politics and tricks, Evita seems particularly cautionary. Approach this version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice score with caution, too.
A PERFECT YEAR:
Four songs from Evita show up on a recently released concert album, following the disc's opening cluster of five fervently or reverently intoned numbers from Jesus Christ Superstar. Michael A. Ross strongly registers with two of the truth-tellers from Evita ("Oh What a Circus" and "High Flying, Adored"). The two-disc recording is a belated issue of a 2004 California benefit concert (for AIDS charities, presented by the organization known as S.T.A.G.E. and put together by David Galligan) where the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his various lyricists were on the table that year, their 20th anniversary of such songwriter-themed events. An audience favorite at these events, the irrepressibly saucy Carole Cook, sends up Evita and breaks up what is unavoidably a drama-heavy, anthem-heavy night of mostly ardent and/or earnest numbers. Her own Cook's tour of the materialwith a spoken clawing at Cats, a Sunset Boulevard one-liner and interrupting her own hammy diva moment of Eva Peron on the balcony singing to masses, claiming to be one of them, because their relentless chanting is giving her an awful headacheis a pip. It's also the only time when material from a show is not side by side with its other representatives, some sung by veterans of various productions of the giant shows, in a few cases upping the excitement ante by sharing a song that's normally a solo, with some thrilling harmonies. So, despite the absence of patter or spoken introductions, the groupings play on disc as "And the next show we'll sample is ..." chapters in the career of Lloyd Webber. This seems wise, preventing a hopscotching approach.
Much of this material is tied to its original contexts: songs specifically addressing concerns about the trials and tribulations of trains, frisky felines, Biblical figures, and those self-styled grand Perons don't become generalized ballads about just anyone's feelings on love and life. The brief liner notes for A Perfect Year tell us that not all was so perfect that year, with some technical glitches in the live recording making some songs not releasable. Valerie Perri's emphatic, bombastic "As If We Never Said Goodbye" is the only representative of Sunset Boulevard's score; thus, its song that gives the event its title is not heard. But much of what we get is powerfully performed with great style, unapologetically entrenched inand true tothe sensibilities of the shows from which the material came. Nita Whitaker's "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is an exception to the theatre-style approach, getting lots of lush pop/soul stylization and oooh-ing, cooing melisma.
This is not "Andrew Lloyd Webber Lite." The sense of "event" with its captured audience enthusiasm and a parade of dazzling performers who sound "into" it, too, prevent this from becoming exhausting or redundant. Well, yes, there are times when one senses singers tempted to "out-diva" each other, to pull out the stops rather than pull back, but most have the chops to do so. What's been especially rewarding about this series of concerts on disc is getting to hear some terrific singers who have not been voluminously recorded on cast albums or solo outings or longtime stage veterans who hadn't been as active lately, at least on recordings. We've since lost the wonderful Betty Garrett, so it's particularly rewarding to hear her having a grandly goofy time joined by a trio with the cornball country romp from Starlight Express, "U.N.C.O.U.P.L.E.D." It's another welcome comic relief moment in the sea of ardent throbbing. It's nice to have some material from this sometimes overlooked score andeven more sosamples from By Jeeves with Alan Ayckbourn's lyrics. Other treasures include Lee Lessack's refreshingly sweet and winsome "Other Pleasures" from that score and a very movingeven heart-stoppingly sodramatic a capella performance by Tyne Daly on the anti-war lament "If This Is What We're Fighting For" ("... then I don't want to win ..."). And snarky comedian Leslie Jordan is just a hoot, spoken inserts and all, for the glib take on the presumed plastic thrills of Beverly Hills in "Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad."
Of course, the more rhapsodic, uber-sincere numbers dominate, like a hall-of-fame summit of male bonding of guys taking turns ready to don that Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ("Any Dream Will Do" has David Burnham, Bill Hutton, Brian Lane Green and William Katt). And there's a collective "Memory" from Terri Bibb, Karen Culliver and Mary D'Arcy, who do the same honors as a trio on "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." Phantom of the Opera is saved for the end of the program, with big-voiced grand finale style, a glittering Dale Kristien reprising her days as Christine with dazzling high notes on "Think of Me" truly ending this 32-track souvenir on a high note.
OK, I know big bookstores and big music stores are disappearing, but if you were setting up a store that sold both CDs and books, using a typical big bookstore's category headings with the related music shelved with the reading material, you might feel obligated to put the Nunziata brothers' debut disc in the self-help/empowerment section. It features message-prominent lyrics urging perseverance and optimism, such as "You'll see the sun come shining through ..." ("Smile"), assertive philosophy such as "Walk on the grass; it was meant to feel ... If you fail, you fail" ("Everybody Says Don't"), the sunny promise that "soon your cares will all be gone" if you simply "forget your troubles" and merely "Get Happy" or go ahead and fall in love because, after all, you've got "Nothing to Lose But Your Heart" from the songbook of Flaherty & Ahrens.
Add "The Prayer," say amen, and you've got one blindingly shiny silver lining and "A Ray of Hope" that will overwhelm any cloud and an easy-to-follow, if hard to swallow, guide for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or was that "sappiness"? Well, it depends on how jaded or joyful you tend to be, whether you're eyes-wide-open cautious a burn victim you are in life or how wide-eyed hopeful you are. Where there's an anthem from Anthony (the stronger voiced sibling) and where there's more whispery, wistful Will, there's a way, maybe, to be convinced that maybe it's as easily said (or sung) as done. You can't say they're not trying. They can be disarming in these efforts, and the fact that the still-developing young performers sound somewhat tentatively in a tip-toeing, light, lilting way around some of this material with which predecessors have done more impressing heavy lifting oddly adds to the charming effect.
Singing mostly in a simple, unaffected way (unless oneunderstandablymight posit that the innocence is an affectation), the modesty makes some headway. And there's no chance of them being overwhelmed by the accompaniment of understated piano of by Brad Gardner and the subtle bass work of Michael Kuennen, the playing not at all showy or drawing attention to itself or get much time to do so between vocal lines.
Yes, they're twins. Naturally, that's more the "cute" pointed-up point and the focus and the you-gotta-have-a-gimmick on stage in their live cabaret shows. For their debut disc, the duo doings are surprisingly underplayed, with each taking two solo tracks among the 11 and some of the numbers they team up on find them alternating lines as much as singing together. The title number, from the 1960s Broadway musical Do Re Mi, gets mired in "nightclubby" schmaltz, with a two-voiced line-echoing/line-embellishing arrangement that weakens the message in an icky way (stretching out the title line at one point to be sung as "Make someone really, really happy" and the already-Hallmark-ready message that "Love is the answer" gets the noun "love" modified by the inserted adjective "undying.") Oh, dear. It owes way too much to the same (uncredited here) treatment fashioned by Don Costa, when the song was current, for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. You might call it grand larceny. (One of the set pieces I've seen them do in person also slavishly copied another recorded arrangement for that married duo).
Though it's on the second cut where this happens, the good news is that is not at all an indication that such vagaries and Vegasisms will continue to pollute their swim in the Broadway pool. They tread water in their two duetted Sondheim dips, boyishly gentle but somewhat endearing on a cheery "Everybody Says Don't" (marred somewhat by what strikes me as effortful care in being sure to crisply hit each T consonant sounds on lines such as "Don't, it isn't nice") and an awe-struck "Pretty Women." The highlight of the CD is far and away Anthony's more mature and convincing solo of "I Cannot Hear the City" (Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia, The Sweet Smell of Success), which shows depth and dimension and gets us away from the heaps of homilies and hope.
Unwisely, the fellows take on a special-material counterpoint numberone of the most indelible TV superstar moments: the early-career Barbra Streisand singing a slowed-down "Happy Days Are Here Again" against Judy Garland pleading "Get Happy," already trademarks for each. Wisely, they do not try for the legendary ladies' power and intensity, but can there be any triumph in a tepid tornado? It only underscores the lack of originality and heft in most approaches here, so for their future work, I hope they will have their feet wet enough and be wise enough to find their own musical clothing. They've apparently grown, despite rather public growing pains in high-profile engagements, and the better moments on this CD give hope for the guys who sing about hope. While some of the singing can be a bit fluttery or buttery, that can be attractive in a sentimental way, and there's some guts and glee lurking, as evidenced in the album-ending letting loose, Italian style, with the carefree and buoyant traditional folk song, the frolicsome "Funiculi Funicula" that, by sheer cheer, truly can make someone happy. Meanwhile, the Nunziata twins will be making merry and making music in Manhattan for a week beginning July 10 at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.