Thursday, March 15
This week's trio of CDs starts with a singing, dancing Brain and other beings who are literally from out of this world. "Out of this World" also happens to be one of the standards on another album reviewed here featuring singer Jane Stuart. After jazzy Jane comes Jordan Bluth, a singer with a more formal (but warm) approach.
Is the science fiction musical about beings from beyond landing on our planet, The Brain from Planet X, earth-shaking? Don't be silly. On second thought, please do. This good-spirited goofiness is very entertaining if you're willing to let yourself be swept up in it. The zest of the cast makes that easy. They seize their many comic moments in this broad parody but rarely oversell it. There is good stuff to work with here, and most of it works.
The new show affectionately sends up not only the excesses and clichés of stories about visitors from beyond but also musical styles. It's an off-kilter love letter to the old school musical comedy genre, and it sometimes winkingly does some self-referencing. The orchestrations by Larry Moore are a major source of enjoyment, very much on the same page as the material itself, having sparkle and splash. The delicious instrumental accents, flourishes and undercurrents dress things up and scream a love for the style of traditional, perky show tunes. Listen to a singer hold a note on a big finish while the band kicks and builds; the five-person band led by keyboardist Richard Berent is bright and spunky.
The song about tapping your brain becomes a cheery big company tap dance number called - what else? - "The Brain Tap." The plan for "The Plan" is to give us a number that works as a plot song and has spoken and sung lines (the giant free-floating Brain says, "You're giving me a headache and I don't even have a head"). Playing the actual Brain, Egbert Bernard nails the smug attitude and daffiness needed for the character.
The brains behind The Brain are Bruce Kimmel and David Wechter. They collaborated on the script (bits of cutely cornball dialogue are sprinkled throughout) and the two songs mentioned above. The rest of the score is the sole work of the comical Kimmel, who has produced many satisfying albums chock full of show tunes. He produced this one as well and directed the show in its premiere last December with students from the Theatre Academy at Los Angeles City College and guest professional artists.
"The World of Tomorrow" is a peppy pick-me-up that Kevin Spirtas knocks out of the ballpark, playing the wannabe inventor imagining the far off future year of 2007. Set in 1958, the piece is full of that era's sensibilities as well as the nonsense of the cheesiest old movies about flying saucers. Those UFO sightings allow the chorus to comment with straight-faced simplicity: "There are saucers in the sky/ And we really don't know why/ All we really know is that it can't be good." What is good is that when the spacecrafts land, so do the jokes.
The aliens have a strong desire to take over the world as we know it - but wouldn't you know it, they also have strong desires of a sexual nature. The female and male aliens (Alet Taylor and Cason Murphy) both find more than a passing attraction to the males they encounter while visiting our planet, resulting in two well-done showstoppers. "I Need an Earthman" (her solo) and "All About Men" (his) are both boisterously bawdy, providing some vamping amidst the camping. There are other references to various characters' sex lives (or, mostly, the lack thereof) that are endearing more than leering, so The Brain from Planet X is only rated "X" for X-tremely funny.
In the forty years since she joined the cast of a little New York musical called Curly McDimple (starring high school friend Bernadette Peters), Jane Stuart has been around the music business, but hasn't made her own album until now. Her debut CD may not jump out at you right away, because a lot of it is pretty laidback, and her voice, though enjoyable, is not especially distinctive. After several listens to Beginning to See the Light, I'm beginning to appreciate its more subtle artfulness. Some tracks get into a real groove but others kind of amble somewhat or overdose on modesty.
The band doesn't always pull her along, but there's some attractive playing, most especially by guitarist Len Argese. Keyboard player Rave Tesar arranged and produced with Jane, and the band includes her drummer-husband Rick De Kovessey. The best teamwork is on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" with lots of interesting things going on and a touch of the disquieting feeling the lyric explores. The same songwriters give her another standout: A free, unrestrained approach to The King and I's "Getting to Know You" is overall the most successful track. It owes little to the tempo or feel the number has in its original context, but has the lighter, looser touch it's been given in recordings from Nancy Wilson long ago and recently by cabaret singer Shawn Ryan. Jane sounds vibrant, and bites into the lyrics on this brisk and invigorating selection. The Harold Arlen/ Johnny Mercer classic "Out Of This World" is luxurious and exploratory.
Jane and jazz are usually a good match. She doesn't shy away from some more challenging pieces ("Four," "Visions"), she scats a bit and is not reluctant to bend a note or toy with tempo. The opportunity to mine sadness is less often taken. "Angel Eyes" remains dry-eyed and doesn't have the focus or arc it could. "For All We Know" shows Jane with the skill and sensibility to convey real emotion, but she doesn't get sympathetic or nuanced support from the sole accompanist (pianist) for full effect. But it demonstrates a potential that's there for more emotional singing. I'd like to hear more where that came from, too. Jane's website details her past, present and immediate future, such as CD release gigs at two New Jersey clubs: this Sunday (March 4th) at Trumpets and ten days later at one called Sesame.
UNDER THE RADAR
Next month in his home state of Arizona, Jordan Bluth will open in the musical about a fictional male pop vocal group, Forever Plaid. His self-titled debut CD finds him in a more serious mode, and it's an elegant affair with a large orchestra. This recording reveals an assured singer with a trained sound at home with a variety of music - the set list ranges from Mozart to Billy Joel.
Jordan is not a showy singer. He showcases the material and is particularly effective on extended high notes that don't blast but impress instead with their control and gentleness. Even when the material has the potential for highs and lows of emotion, Jordan tends to sound like he's being reflective rather than bursting into tears or bursting with joy.
He has three Broadway choices. "A Bit of Earth" from The Secret Garden has more than a few flickers of passion and real feeling. It's a noble and involved performance (a trip to his website reveals that he did the show in his university days). "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables is tender without the histrionics and anguish it often brings out in performers. Jordan's performance is sweeter, and the orchestral treatment is not bombastic. West Side Story's "Maria" is less gratifying; there's little sense of rapture or exultation, and the repeated word of the title doesn't find the necessary variation in color.
Whether gracing pop, art song or opera (a selection each from The Magic Flute and Manon), Jordan's instrument is a pleasure for the ears, retaining a sense of vulnerability. He never sounds stuffy or vacant. Without awkwardness, he brings feeling and some gravitas to Billy Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)" and the Beatles' "Blackbird."
The orchestra is conducted by Judd Maher and arranged and orchestrated by Lisle Moore, who plays piano and unnamed "additional instruments." The two share producer credit. There are times I wish the orchestra with its large string section sounded more up front, or surrounded the singer more. In any case, it's a pleasure to hear their playing that is sublime in its own right but also supports the vocal phrasing - it's not at all mechanical or hackneyed. The music on this CD - orchestral and vocal - is a high class listen.
Until the next items to hear appear ...