Sound Advice Reviews
Broadway by the Year,
This time, three very different albums side by side by side. First, with a concert by today's performers, we go back to the sounds filling Broadway in 1978. Then, albums by female singers whose shows played the Metropolitan Room downtown from the theatre district: Lina Koutrakos's district is the land of the sorrow, and Connie Francis's pop territory is claimed by Jenna Esposito.
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1978
Previously, the past years of Broadway surveyed by Broadway by the Year concert series have been various theatre seasons ranging from 1925 to 1964, so 1978 is now the "youngest" member of the family. However, songs from earlier decades are very much in the mix, with two revues playing the boards in '78 that recalled old hit songs once played on those heavy 78 rpm records. The revue saluting Fats Waller is well represented here with six classic songs, most handled in audience-pleasing, all-stops-out fashion by Chuck Cooper or Mary Bond Davis, who share the honors on the playful number that gave the revue its title, "Ain't Misbehavin'." The other revue, Eubie!, which saluted songwriter Eubie Blake, only gets one number on the disc (which cannot contain the full concert) but savvy showman Lennie Watts makes "I'm a Great Big Baby" a hilarious show-off showstopper, growling, belting and fully committing to its strutting pride and pluck.
Two shows that didn't get commercially released cast albums are part of the party. The Charles Strouse/ Lee Adams score from the short-lived show about the challenges of putting on a show, A Broadway Musical, gets two numbers. The peppy anthem that was its title tune is done by the company with spirit and splash and the concert's director Bryan Batt scores as he gleefully takes poison-dipped aim at the necessary evil of "Lawyers." Another 1978 fatality that came and went in the blink of an eye was a musical called Angel, but, alas, all we get is an instrumental version of one number, "Railbird," feeling incidental.
Christine Pedi gets two show piece solos to sink her comedy-sharpened teeth into, delivering zingy tour-de-force performances for characters who are self-congratulatory. They are "I Rise Again" from On the Twentieth Century and "It's an Art," the waitress's work ethic pride from Working. Nancy Opel likewise has two solos from the same two shows that have anger, contained and inward (the lament of "Just a Housewife" from Working). They feel rather rushed, intense and frantic on disc, perhaps because they start so emotionally "hot," leaving little room to build, but her bold investment in them is admirable.
The disc has plenty of bright entertainment factor and solo bravura tracks but its serious side is quite rewarding and moving. Carolee Carmello brings the needed gravitas of dignity to Working's "The Mason," building a strong case for the builders' pride but also suggesting the larger theme of any lasting legacy. And I get chills from the honesty of her nuanced performance of the eyes-open look at a relationship with a married man, "Fifty Percent" from Ballroom, as she brings a personal and fervent dignity and acceptance of reality to the woman's point of view therein.
With more opportunities to shine, and hitting an emotional bull's eye with each, Lari White is the heart and soul of this album and concert, and she does it with no telltale show bizzy or vocal tricks up her sleeve. It all feels disarmingly and refreshingly real, passionate and in (each) character. She brings vulnerability and wistfulness to "Doatsy Mae," employed at The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and engenders the same empathy as part of a female quartet with that score's "Hard Candy Christmas" where there is also some marvelous harmony as hope soars. Hope is conspicuously and appropriately absent in her solo about the relentless, unfulfilling task of "Millwork" (another Working portrait) that gives voice and face to the millions of anonymous laborers tied to machines and monotony. And from Ballroom, Lari and her character triumph with "There's a Terrific Band a Real Nice Crowd," the widow's self-addressed pep talk about diving back into the social/dating pool. As the music and her confidence start tentatively and then build together, it's riveting and we root for her.
The next chance to catch a Broadway by the Year night live, with its reliably astute and sharp host Scott Siegel and its small but able band led by Ross Patterson, is the Broadway Musicals of 1948 concert on March 22 at The Town Hall in Manhattan, as the series goes forward looking back.
Welcome to the recovery room for the very wounded and very alone veterans from the fields of romance, broken heart unit. Only the strong or masochistic may enter successfully, but it's a powerful and adult experience. The Torch songs by Lina Koutrakos don't rant and rail and wail with belted bitterness. Mostly, this is a haunting, harrowing look at pain unafraid to get deep, deep, deep into the abyss of being alone or unable to let go of a lover ("Don't Explain") or his memory. Lina's voice can sound as effectively raw as the emotions laid out so nakedly. Her husky, deep tones bring a credibility but only rarely show glimpses of purer tones and the powerhouse rock and bluesy vibrancy she has made a trademark in the past. Working often as a teacher/director of others' cabaret shows, she demonstrates the path to making a strong choice and sticking to it fully so that it works and is shorn of fakeness and frills.
Presenting a weary, wary woman seemingly energy-sapped, trapped in the web of addictive love and still blind-sided by its side effects, the pace can be uncompromisingly dirge-like. There were times, on first listen at least, when I wanted to scream, "Come on, get on with it!" but I have to admire the integrity of the project, the willingness to stay in and explore the deep blue of pain. It's impressive in its bold starkness, with artfully minimalist piano choices by longtime musical partner Rick Jensen whose instrument is the only one heard. He is stunningly sympathetic here, the ultimate "less is more" example, with some stark one-finger notes, deep purple colors, and subtly mournful chords; where others would milk the maudlin, he paints the pensive picture. Eschewing release of frustration or anger, the tightly-coiled tension only rarely builds to a head with some force, as on the latter part of "Stormy Weather." It's mostly quiet crying in your beer and the intensity might suggest a relentlessly heavy cabaret show with a six-drink minimum (in fact, it's based on her cabaret show) but the included "One for My Baby" (and One More for the Road)" feels like just a beginning of the needed self-medicating, even though it ends the CD. Like classic good cabaret, it all feels truly intimate, here even becoming voyeuristic.
Usually approached with a sense of wonder that one has discovered the ecstasy of love after having missed the boat, the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On?" seemingly focuses instead on lamenting that so much time was spent alone ("I could cry salty tears ...") and the worry that it may not be the real thing (" ... Let me dream that it's true"). Talk about seeing the glass half empty! And the usually playful Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh "You Fascinate Me So" turns from playful fascination to an obsession that may not at all have an emotionally healthy or happy ending. Its ending reshapes the title line to suggest a challenge about the next step: "You fascinate me. So?" The most successful of the "Let's see how seriously we can take lighter songs" experiments is the very old "It Had to Be You." Usually sung sweetly and brightly, glossing over negative aspects of the lover's behavior, taking them forgivingly in stride, Lina accepts them but is all too aware of the price being paid for someone who maybe too often will be "cross or try to be boss." It makes this ditty grow up. It's a killer in disguise. Who knew? (She did.)
The show was performed at The Metropolitan Room, whose usual sound and lighting man, Jean-Pierre Perreaux, produced the album (on other projects, he's sometimes her guitarist and is always her brother-in-law); I don't know if this Frenchman encouraged her to take on the French version of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" but it brings a romantic respite to the sadder tales, whether you know the English version, understand the appealing but not exact French equivalent, or are just taken in by the tenderness of the melody. But I do know he'll be joining her on guitar for her new show happening one Tuesday each month at the Iridium on Broadway, starting March 16.
It's a good fit: the youthful, chipper Connie Francis hits of the late 1950s and early '60s and the sparkly energy and bounce and let-me-entertain-you eagerness of Jenna Esposito. Jenna is a frequent performer in New York cabaret and a fixture at its numerous open mics, including one she for which she took over as host, the monthly Friday MetroJam at The Metropolitan Room. Her Connie Francis tribute show, recorded live there, presents her bright energy and clear affection for all characteristics of Connie and the era. She and her musical director/guitarist/father, Fortune Esposito, echo the Francis trademarks and sounds and styles smacking of the era without being consistent slaves to them. Joy abounds. Affectionately, it embraces all that and the melodrama of the teen angst in some of the hits, without being squashed by the embrace or blinded by love for it all. They wink at the commercialism and catchiness of it all, the marketed innocence, but steer way clear of condescending or mocking. Either extreme could be tiresome, but they hit just the right balance. Adding so much to the flavor are the just-right back-up vocals of Rob Langeder and sister Kelly Esposito-Broelmann, keeping things further in the family with Brian Broelmann playing mostly sax, but embellishing the Italian seasoning with mandolin.
Although they stay mostly in Hitsville, spinning merrily on 45 rpm, hardly skimming the surface of Connie Francis' broader recorded/ supper club repertoire, it's not all sticky bubblegum. A few more serious songs and the Italian-language numbers show more of Jenna's (and Connie's) range. The weepy nasal excesses, stickiness, and heavy corn syrup that coagulated with some records from that era are mostly absent or just suggested briefly. A little of the weepy, wimpy wallowing can go a long way and Jenna projects more of the cheery while Connie milked teary back in those days. "Among My Souvenirs" is touching and sincere rather than a pity party. But, still, there's more fluff and cotton candy than meat, making it not everyone's cup of soda pop.
The recording includes just a bit of the narrative from this enjoyable live show, like the story of how "Who's Sorry Now?" became Connie's first hit, just when she was hitting bottom, with her recording contract cancelled. Updating the 1923 tune was the strong suggestion of her strong-willed father. He was against her early romance with Bobby Darin, also mentioned in the (edited) patter here. This leads to a song Darin co-wrote with Don Kirshner, "My First Real Love," conveniently titled for our too-brief biographical tour.
Jenna's enthusiasm for jaunty early rock 'n' roll makes her romps through material like "Stupid Cupid" (one of four Neil Sedaka/ Howard Greenfield collaborations included) gregariously goofy fun. She jumps into these pools of musical spunky fun with both feet and splashes around. "Roundabout" (by Tony Hatch, a writer who went on to give Petula Clark many of her big hits) gives Jenna a chance to be reflective and more subtle. There's a cumulative sense of acknowledgment of more innocent times and music aimed at younger listeners who might want a good cry over a broken heart or just a good beat to dance to. And maybe there's even a sense that she almost wishes she'd been born in time to hear and dance to all those songs when they were currentand to wear those new-fangled poodle skirts. I guess it's never too late to go back to the past for a first-time visit via music. Not included on the disc is Jenna's story about how she met Connie Francis at a concert, told her of the project and got a supportive follow-up phone call. (More recent positive comments came after her idol heard the recording.)
Jenna brings some Connie and other Italian singers to a special show on March 22 at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.