This week, two same-titled albums of snuggle-up comfort zone love songs and lively, boisterous target practice at show tunes. The warm and fuzzies come from Ann Hampton Callaway's At Last and Beth McDonald's At Last. But let's begin with the lively before the lovely: the pleasing, teasing treats of satire in the latest Forbidden Broadway.
It's been a long, wonderful ride, with many different versions and casts (some overlapping), numerous recordings, but the spectacular spoof and spin of Forbidden Broadway has closed and closed up shop in New York for now. But we still have the recordings of the sharp, satirical parodies of the excesses of musical theater and its stars. This latest, hopefully not last, cast recording is a particularly strong one. Being topical and hard to top, each edition has been largely dependent on the luck of the draw: which and how many shows are playing on Broadway that season, and how juicy and generally known its targets and travesties and top-billed stars are. Some venturing beyond the season or specific shows and hanging on to old material is sometimes the solution when things are thinner or, darn it, too classy and well done to really rip apart. This past season offered some new cracks at familiar divas and good fresh meat, like A Tale of Two Cities coming up for poison darts for a certain derivative melody and being "the best worst show" (the novel's famous opening line brings a convenient segue to employ Jerry Herman's song "The Best of Times" from La Cage aux Folles).
Gerard Alessandrini, writer-creator-co-director (that last credit with Phillip George) is going out with a bang, with some super-funny and sometimes bruising hits to the chins. For example, a spoof on Patti LuPone, who is presented as, shall we say, solipsistic in an "it's all about me" presentation, including an exchange with someone she says she doesn't recognize, who must wanly explain that he is her leading man who shares the stage with her. She balks at the verb "share," leading into her needling him about having a "small part, isn't it?" to the tune of Gypsy's (you guessed it) "Small World." In a similar but breezier, passive-aggressive way (we love that!), there's dialogue between Kelli O'Hara and her South Pacific leading man, deftly adapting lines of dialogue from the classic musical's script. She cheerily says that they are playing playing opposite each other "and I've never heard of you." This leads to a fairly tame (but not lame) sung jibe at the "safeness" of revivals' for their pre-sold well-known quantities. The common practice of revival-itis comes up again in one of two Stephen Sondheim segments. Giving him a taste of his own recycled medicine, they borrow a key spoken line from "Move On," perhaps inevitably but perfectly: "are you working on anything new?" Also addressed is the past season revival of The Pajama Game (a bonus track) and the "annual revival of" Gypsy.
Equus' tough-to-ignore buzz about its double magnet of movie star and nude scene comes for a dressing down. Its being a non-musical and having no songs to parody is no stumbling block; disrobing is a subject for a song in Gypsy so why not borrow that? They do, to great effect. It is just one of several strong moments for cast member James Donegan as Daniel Radcliffe, breathy British accent and all. This is a particularly skilled cast, both in vocal chops and chameleon-like taking on Broadway stars' vocal tics and vocal colors. The delightful Christina Bianco, delicious and perhaps vicious going after and nailing Kristin Chenoweth's cute quotient and operatic heights, is marvelous throughout. Gina Kreiezmar takes on some of the brasher moments with vigor and vitriol, hitting one bull's eye after another. Longtime Forbidden Broadway veteran Michael West is featured on some numbers, quite hilarious with non-stop hip-hop while mocking In the Heights with many words (and stinger-zingers) per minute. Other voices are heard along the way, including the ever-clever Mr. Alessandrini himself in the final number, an original (not a borrowed show tune as usual): "Dying Is Easy (Comedy Is Hard)."
Besides the looks at shows themselves, there are looks at theatre-goers with strong points of view. Followers of this website's own happily theatre-obsessed opinion-sharing, sometimes sharp-tongued-itself message board will enjoy a nod and nudge: "All That Chat," set to Chicago's "All That Jazz," is a hoot, too, dense with clever lines and smug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug.
While some tracks might feature numbers with lyrics that go beyond building upon a one-joke key idea, there is no real dud in this batch. The sound is terrif, with pianist/musical director David Caldwell perhaps the unsung hero, but well deserving of kudos for adapting styles and capturing the many flavors, crisply and with energy. This Forbidden is fabulous, feisty fun.
ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY
Where does the music on this CD live? The place is an oasis. Listening to the rich, heartfelt voice of Ann Hampton Callaway with her tasteful arrangements on At Last is like finding a little piece of velvet in a world of rough burlap and plastic. Her latest in an ever-impressive body of work might be called her "Contentment Album." Though she has, on past recordings, shown more of the strength of her voiceor chopswailing, and unleashing more jazz tour de force and inventive swirls and twirls, much of this is in a cozy, mellow zone. The few exceptions include the end of the title song which heats up, and there is loose fun with trombone star Wycliffe Gordon's grunting commentary on "Comes Love." Also, a quick jazz romp through a tricky-tempoed "Spain," adeptly trotting and zipping through the complicated rhythms. Still, there's that underlying confident air of "life is good, I'm in a good space" here as well.
The album is dedicated to the theme of reveling in appreciating a long-awaited solid and comforting, mature loveat last. As her liner notes and recent interviews reveal, that's where she is in her life and love journey: the inspiration is her own partner, whose name gives cause to the song choice of Joni Mitchell's "Carey" (though Ann's love spells the name differently). No matter how you pronounce things, love is love and there's plenty of it coming through on these tracks. Ann carries "Carey" to a new, somewhat quirkily surprising, shuffling territory (compared to the songwriter's own version's swirling rise-and-fall treatment), with Ann's co-arranger/ bass player Jay Leonhart singing a counterpoint accompaniment.
The gem from the musical theatre, The Golden Apple's "Lazy Afternoon" is the epitome of time-standing-still calm awe, but Ann's singing and her arrangement (credited to herself and Bill Mays) manages to eschew the trap of making it somnambulistic and taking the easy path of just simple hypnotic slowness. That's even more impressive when you note the track clocks in at six minutes and nineteen seconds, but interest and even tension are sustained, like a slow-spinning spider weaving a web, or in this case, a picture of Nature. In fact, all the 11 cuts run long, each well over four minutes and a few quite a bit longer. Sometimes that is to allow the excellent musicians to stretch out a bitit's a small, intimate ensemble made up of top players, featuring a return collaboration with pianist Ted Rosenthal and guitarist Rodney Jones prominent.
No need to roll your eyes at the kazillionth record of a vocalist tackling the classic "Over the Rainbow," rest assured. The Ann Hampton Callaway way here is to not be anthem-like or cry the lonely "why can't I?" or play little girl lost. It's more hopeful that she'll make it to that place where "the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true." Pulling back, keeping things understated and pure, she rather miraculously finds freshness in straightforwardness on this very, very familiar song. Sincerity makes it work and if there's a key word to Ann Hampton Callaway's approach and persona, it is indeed "sincerity."
Especially elegant and reflective are her two original songs, "Save a Place for Me" and "Finding Beauty," offering personal, involved singing and diary-like writing. From the opening track, posing the eternal question posed by Cole Porter "What Is This Thing Called Love?" to the follow-ups that explore and warmly celebrate, gratefully, its joys, the CD is a joy itself.
UNDER THE RADAR
From the Washington, DC area, here is a gentle-voiced singer I am just catching up with, although in 2006 she made and released her first album quietly (quietly is the operative word for this low-key lady). Two other releases followed, copyright 2008; let's put one into the soft-focused spotlight at last.
Combining some child-friendly songs and re-thinking some standard love songs as love songs from parent to child, and adding her originals, Beth McDonald presents a sweet warm blanket of a lullaby album. Dedicated to and inspired by her own very young sons, and the awestruck reactions of becoming a mother, the very tender touch is just what the pediatrician ordered. As her other recording work also shows, Beth tends to take the small-voiced, modest vocal approach with instrumental backings that also keep things relaxed and on the low-energy, simple side, even with a torch song or comic piece. So, with lullabies it is a natural fit. What is key here is that her voice has a very appealing sound and she comes across as involved and communicative in a focused way. Without those qualities, it might be mellow and minimalism to the point of mush and bland. Love Songs & Lullabies is the gentlest of breezes but has thought behind it and emotions come through. The you-could-hear-a-pin-drop feel pulls us in, the loving protectiveness registers rather than being mind-numbing muzak from a cloud; at its best, it can be hypnotic and moving.
The title song is indeed the old standard "At Last" that Etta James wailed and in this season has been revisited by Beyonce and Ann Hampton Callaway as luxuriating in and celebrating long-awaited lasting love. According to her notes, Beth is singing from her own perspective of having waited a long time before she had children and then being all the more grateful and glowing in the wonderment of the magic of the responsibility and joy. Calm mom comes off as very protective, taking her charges very, very seriously but with delight at the wonder, as evidenced in one of her originals, "Dancing with Wonder." Although the recording sometimes borders on giving into the cutes ("pretzels giving hugs") with some images and background sound effects, it seems to be from the (overflowing) heart.
There is some danger, not quite avoided, in taking the very simple Irving Berlin classic love song "Always" and giving it the too casual and offhand approach she and her musicians do. It minimizes the effect rather than strengthening it or working against the plain-spokenness by adding earnestness. Generally, she's on the money and on the same page with her musicians, although there are a few times they seem to be encouraging her to add some oomph and she stays put. The staying put is ultimately more effective. Accompaniment includes various combinations, with eight instruments heard, including the refreshing choice of flugelhorn and, for a little strum with the hum, a ukulele here and there. Beth also double-tracks her voice for an extra added pillow effect.
For lullaby fare, she mines not the centuries-old fields of traditional rockabye soothers, but still familiar ground, like "Baby Mine," the Disney comfort coo-er originally addressed to the young pachyderm in Dumbo and the ballad introduced by amphibian Kermit, "The Rainbow Connection," tried and true, but truly lovely and connected to the lyric and message here. "What a Wonderful World," the pop classic referring to, amidst the "leaves of green, red roses, too," seeing also "babies cry, I watch them grow" is nice, too (but its songwriters are misidentified: they are George David Weiss and Bob Thiele).
All in all, a nice massage for the earsa child's or an adult'sherbal tea for the soul.