New York City takes center stage this week. For your consideration: Stephen Sondheim songs recorded one year ago this week in NYC; a concert of 1935's Broadway output, recorded two years ago this week in NYC; a former New Yorker sings the contemporary Big Apple songwriters; and a Brooklyn-born Broadway boy writes his own and goes pop.
WALL TO WALL SONDHEIM
Yes, this is from the New York City Stephen Sondheim 75th birthday concert that lasted 12 full hours, so this is a very small piece of the pie, but still a treat. While it contains performances by a few who have previously recorded their assigned numbers, excellent work is on display. There are 17 selections from the marathon, with the orchestra on six, and piano accompaniment on the others. Sondheim's favored musical director Paul Gemignani is conductor, and things sound generally good, though the overture to Merrily We Roll Along feels over-caffeinated and has a few small "off" moments. With the songwriter present, it was a historic day of topper after showstopper; let's hope more of the concert will be issued on CD. Right now, this CD is only available in person at the box office of the theater where the love-in took place, Symphony Space, on Broadway at West 95th Street, or through the theater's website. The appreciation and excitement of the audience is palpable, with pin-drop attention and explosive applause.
In the most adventurous interpretation, Donna Murphy's "Losing My Mind" is a personal triumph. Taking her time with the song, she explores its many images. Sounding fragile and shaken rather than resigned, she seems to be discovering each emotion rather than reporting on what happens. She takes advantage of the fact that the lyric's tale goes through a day, from waking up to retiring for the evening, increasing the pain cumulatively. The vocal strength in the last section and the power of just-right pauses, make for a stunningly dramatic impact. It was a thrilling moment in person, and it's fascinating how much of the subtlety comes through on disc.
Michael Cerveris, busy these days as Sweeney Todd, shows a sensitive side with the title song from Anyone Can Whistle. Soprano Laura Benanti of the new musical The Wedding Singer is a purely heavenly singer here in a set piece from A Little Night Music. She's a lot more than just a voice, though, with a nuanced acting performance, joined by a low-key John Dossett and a hilariously anguished Danny Gurwin (his frenetic reading of the section with "I'll be 90 on my deathbed" is a howl). With "The Miller's Son" from the same score, Kate Baldwin sings robustly, ably maneuvering the shifts in tempo and tricky lyrics, with careful diction, too. The charm award goes to Sheldon Harnick, Sondheim's contemporary, and Michael Arden who make a delightful pair with "Free." Lyricist Harnick, who knows his way around a smart turn of phrase, sounds like he's savoring his colleague's wit. Michael shines (despite having relatively little to sing), and making the most of every perfect variation on the one-syllable title.
Telly Leung, fresh from the Pacific Overtures revival, offers a noble solo version of that score's "A Bowler Hat," with emotion appropriately cloaked in restraint. Neil Patrick Harris's fresh "Finishing the Hat" creates empathy, his youthful sound working in his favor to create a less hardened characterization than one is used to hearing. From the same show, Sunday in the Park with George, Carolee Carmello and real-life husband Gregg Edelman are stellar in "Move On." (He's the only one with two slots, also getting "Marry Me a Little.")
The jewel for collectors is the hardly known, very early (1951) ballad by Mr. Sondheim, "I'm in Love with a Boy." Fortunately, this rarity was entrusted to Emily Skinner who embraces it and handles it with great care.
BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1935
Emily Skinner is one of the main reasons to buy the latest edition in the series of recordings of Broadway by the Year concerts from The Town Hall, a few steps from the heart of New York's theater district. She scores with each assignment as heard on the new CD, The Broadway Musicals of 1935 - whether she's gracefully handling the formal "Something New Is in My Heart" (Romberg-Hammerstein) and sidestepping potential mawkishness, providing comic relief with a giddy version of "Why Shouldn't I?" or duetting with Barbara Walsh on "Over and Over" from Rodgers and Hart's Jumbo. Barbara gets two little-known contrasting numbers from the revue George White's Scandals. The first is a silly-but-fun showpiece that lets her cut loose while also displaying vocal range: "I've Got to Get Hot." Then she plays it straight and dignified with "May I Have My Gloves?"
Two other standouts are Jumbo pieces that have remained giants throughout the decades: Darius de Haas presents a paean to "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," and he's at his best. Many have quickened the pace of this lovely waltz and sung it it in an offhand or brash way. But not Darius. Including the verse, he sings tenderly and with a sense of awe mixed with joy, with a pedestal ready for his beloved. Billed as a Special Guest, Karen Akers gets the classic ballad "Little Girl Blue" and honors the standard by giving it a thoughtful, involved reading. She does not take the easy choice of just milking its potential for pity. (Darius and Karen each have only one disc appearance: 2004's 1935 had many performers and there's more material in these generous-length concerts than can fit on a CD, a situation happily being addressed with a rescue mission: the Cut-Outs releases. We await its second volume.) In this concert, Karen gamely played a non-verbal role, comically acting bored and blasé while Douglas Sills sang "Cigarette" to her. This explains what will seem like odd audience laughter on that track. This is one of several songs that worked better in the show than on the CD, and that's not typical of this series.
Douglas Sills and Todd Murray are, I regret, not ideally showcased in their Cole Porter Jubilee songs. "Begin the Beguine" for the former strikes me as overwrought, and the latter's "Just One of Those Things" doesn't find an attitude and seems unimaginative in arrangement as well. They fare somewhat better in other numbers.
More selections come from revues and the ever grand Porgy and Bess, with three of its classics getting rich, very traditional treatments. The concert's other singers are Chuck Cooper, Gretha Boston, Laurie Williamson and Lumiri Tubo. Although the 1935 entry is not my personal favorite (they've set the bar pretty high), there's much to relish among the 19 tracks. As usual, the spoken commentary - producer-host Scott Siegel's wisely chosen facts and side comments - put the year and shows in perspective and provide sly humor. The "By the Year" retrospectives continue live on April 3 with a look at the year 1956. Leave a little room on your shelf - all the albums in this ever-growing live archive are well worth having.
Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, here's a look at Ireland resident Danna Davis's album. This attractive-voiced lady calls herself "a displaced New Yorker" who has moved to the Emerald Isle, where her album was recorded. Her experience includes cabaret engagements, concert work as one of The Three Irish Divas who tour with the current Three Irish Tenors, musical theater roles, and a BBC concert of the canon of Stephen Sondheim. That native New Yorker is not represented among the writers on ... From New York, but there are theater, film and cabaret songs by writers from The Big Apple. Avenue Q's "There's a Fine, Fine Line" is a nifty choice and two Jason Robert Brown favorites, "Surabaya Santa" and the great tour de force "A Summer in Ohio," also show Danna dipping into the comedy pool. On the more serious side, she graces "Isn't This Better?" a Kander & Ebb entry from the movie Funny Lady and Rupert Holmes' reflective "The People That You Never Get To Love."
There are four choices from the songbook of the skilled craftsman David Friedman, including a persuasive "Trust the Wind" with warmth and intelligence and a beautifully sustained last note. The terrific team of Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler are well represented with three picks, including the witty commentary on a woman's attraction to an "Apathetic Man" which combines a character who's neurotic, a drive that's erotic and a musical treatment that's exotic.
Danna has an adaptable voice. She can be mellifluously mezzo and has a belt; on a ballad, she can pull back and tell a story. In some cases, what keeps the CD from being more impressive is the decision to salute the writers and songs by hewing very, very closely to the architecture of how they were heard in their original or most known versions. In tempo, accompaniment figures, general approach and even in phrasing, she makes few changes. She never sounds uninvolved or uncomfortable, but this conservatism robs some of her performances of having her own perspective and stamp. That being said, it does not prevent the CD from being enjoyable. What may be lacking in originality is somewhat compensated for by the pluses of the other evident talents.
Danna has a real sweetness and humanity in her basic sound; it's the kind of voice that makes you want to like the person behind it. In fact, the album's closer, a warm and satisfying version of Annie Dinerman's "The Lady Down the Hall" might make you wish that the neighbor in the song - or the lady singing it - were down the hall from you. Technically, she places her voice solidly and is careful with diction and vowel sounds.
Instrumentation varies by track, from five musicians to just her pianist (and primary arranger) David Wray, on a touching "Old Friend" (from the Off-Broadway musical I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road). Especially evocative is the presence of a flute played by Daniel Dorrance on five cuts. Coco Tauguchi adds to the pleasures on viola and violin in nine arrangements.
A visit to this now Ireland-based singer's website, www.dannadavis.com, is a suggested way to commemorate this St. Patrick's Day. I think you'll like the sound of the voice you'll hear there, singing the work of some talented New Yorkers.
UNDER THE RADAR
Telly Leung has made his mark in musical theater, with roles in the revivals of Pacific Overtures and Flower Drum Song on Broadway, as well as stage work around the country. He was part of two Stephen Sondheim tributes (see first album reviewed above) last year. Currently, he's playing Boq in Wicked in Chicago.
Telly has released a CD of contemporary pop music, all originals co-written and co-produced with Randy Witherspoon, who was his dresser on Broadway. (The executive producer is Samuel C. Parker, III.) For his pop music he's just using his first name, so we almost missed this. Who knew?! The New York City native, in his mid-twenties, has enjoyed and absorbed various musical styles and he and Randy have created some catchy and upbeat music. You can hear some and also catch up on his theater career at www.tellyonline.net.
I generally have, at most, a mild passing interest in most current pop music - spending little time (at least by choice) listening to dance, trance, pop, or hip-hop music. It takes something special and intriguing to make me sit up and pay attention. Telly did it for me. First of all, there's his appealing voice soaring through the beats. It's clear, vibrant, vital and full of youthful energy. The music does not bombard and has an odd innocence. The lyrics have some neat phrases, better than the run of the mill in this genre.
The title song of Getaway is one of the best, and it won me over right away, with a seductive swirl of melody and easily soaring vocal line. "2 Late" showcases his voice more than some of the others, with some high, sustained notes. Some songs are sultry, addressing sexual attraction without being in the least smutty or vulgar. There are seven tracks, with a playing time of 30:36, and the CD ends with a neat "Inspiration" wherein he thanks his sources of inspiration: his parents who escaped an oppressive government, a friend who fights cancer, his teacher and preacher (conveniently rhyming).
The background vocals are all Telly, all the time, and if it makes any sense in that situation to say it's good teamwork, it all works very well. This is a well-produced (not over-produced) album without a lot of claptrap and noisy muddle. And that immensely likeable voice and personality is simply irresistible.
And that's the report from this listening reporter in New York City from whence came most of the music and songwriters discussed above. And it keeps the air humming.