Sound Advice Reviews
It's time for "the music of the night," as your favorite Phantom might say, as we spend One Night with Fanny Brice, with the one-person show just opening in NYC. And live from New York, it's the performer opening in Anything Goes who goes solo in cabaret bringing us An Evening with Sutton Foster. Then, Julian Yeo returns with a double CD of songs for romantic nights or nightcaps.
ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE
Here's the Fanny Brice story in a one-on-one way, with the famed comical singer of vaudeville, The Ziegfeld Follies, and radio talking directly to the audience and telling her life story, informing the period songs used as its score. The cast album presents Kimberly Faye Greenberg as a brash and brazen Brice, traipsing through the old songs with the old-time, direct, sock-it-to-'em punch you'd imagine hearing on an unmiked vaudeville stage where one is proud to be loud and non-subtle to grab the audience's attention. The sentimental and the silly sit side by side. Strident and strong, plucky and playful, she presents the nonsense in a no-nonsense trouper-like way, with as much wham as ham delivered.
What starts out with a steamroller style on Irving Berlin's very early collaboration with composer Ted Snyder, "That Mysterious Rag," becomes increasingly involving as songs are interrupted to tell of the star's ambitious rise to fame and her troubled marriage. When the song is reprised, she keeps the bulletproof forceful singing style, but the song's uncomplicated silliness is dramatically altered in light of the pain from revealed facts about husband Nick Arnstein's hidden activitiesa more serious mysteriousness than the celebrated novelty musical number.
The album was recorded when the show played out of town; it has now taken up residence at Manhattan's St. Luke's Theatre (where Greenberg also plays Sylvia Fine Kaye in Danny and Sylvia). This show, a very different approach to the Brice tale than Funny Girl, has script, direction and musical arrangements by theatre multi-tasker Chip Deffaa, whose affection for and knowledge of early-century American entertainment icons successfully and sympathetically humanized two other driven-to-success entertainers, George M. Cohan and Eddie Foy, Jr., in other shows.
Although Deffaa hasn't given us any of his own pastiche numbers here, he has plenty of period numbers to pick from, including a Cohan number that sums up the stiff-upper-lip/ show-must-go-on mantra of the clown crying on the inside, "Always Leave Them Laughing." It comes just before the end, after we've learned of some woes of our "Second Hand Rose" and "Rose of Washington Square" singer who has more troubles handed to her than just hand-me-down clothes. Most of the narration is delivered in a survivor's matter-of-fact, shrugging way, with flickers of anger rather than vulnerability and tears. "After You've Gone" allows for some catharsis and resentment to emerge. The famed "My Man" torch song is not milked for sympathy and could seem too surface-skimming for those expecting, at last, a real weeper and full letting down the guard.
Kimberly Faye Greenberg successfully adopts Fanny Brice's trademark Yiddish accent schtick for her broad comedy in "I'm an Indian" and her feisty nuttiness with "Oh! How I Hate That Fellow Nathan." There's an eagerness to please and a glibness here, the coarser singing occasionally alleviated by some prettier and more relaxed work on the occasional true ballad. Brice is presented as a tough cookie, which matches the way she's portrayed in books I've read about her, and the persona presented in the singing suggests what we've heard of Brice's surviving recordings and film work, but the voice is not a clone by any means. Pianist Mark Goodman and violinist Jonathan Russell do well as they evoke the period and energy; the arrangements have the ring and zing of the past without self-consciously co-opting it. This cards-on-the-table telling of a life on the stage makes for an interesting cast album as the narration goes from remembering early dayshaving coins tossed by approving audiences ("Hey, look! A nickel!"), which she increases with her claims her mother is hungry and needs some lox and bagelsto the ending comments telling the play's audience about her death and being immortalized by her son-in-law who produced Funny Girl. Kimberly Faye Greenberg is a rather funny girl herself here; she may be a bulldozer, but she's likely to wear you down and make you smile at least even if you aren't quite ready to echo her "You Made Me Love You."
In her patter recorded on the last night of an engagement at New York City's Café Carlyle nine months ago, Sutton Foster refers to the experience as the best two weeks of her life. Well, it does sound like she's having a fine old time, and her spunky joy and bright energy are infectious. Projecting an uncomplicated, unpretentious ingenue freshness with a clear and pretty sound, she steers pretty clear of coyness most of the time. We get a sense of her buoyant personality, but we learn very little about her; the included patter provides mostly just song segues and a cheery, down-to-earth attitude.
Those Foster fans who purchased her only previous solo album, Wish, may wish for more new territoryor at least different approaches. It seems a frustrating cheat that eight of the 15 songs from that album are sung again here in very similar ways. She doesn't seem to have found new depths or nuances in the material she recorded in mid-2008, but still sounds invested in it. That album had a band, including strings on some tracks, and here we have just two musicians (who were both prominent on the studio album): piano/musical director Michael Rafter and Kevin Kuhn on guitar or banjo. For those who prefer a "less is more" approach to the arrangements, here you go: it's stripped down, but doesn't feel emaciated with two such competent musicians at hand. I would have welcomed hearing them featured with some lengthier instrumental solos, but that doesn't happen here. The spotlight remains front and center on the vocalist and her mostly lighthearted or wistful presentations. Like the title of the included ballad from Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, the glowing feeling about the proceedings and persona is "Warm All Over" and she seems to be a most happy lady, a sense of optimism certainly infusing even the brief side trips into uncertainty or regret.
Sutton's Broadway roles get some attention, but don't dominate the album. From The Drowsy Chaperone, she reprises the comically showy protestation of the gal who claims she no longer wants to "Show Off" and then does so as she sings. A well-done three-song medley gives nods to her roles in earlier shows as she brims with optimism and determination, showing her strong skill set presenting the mindset of confident, bright-eyed young women looking forward to adventure. The medley includes truncated versions of Thoroughly Modern Millie's "Not for the Life of Me," followed by "NYC" from Annie (she played the Star-to-Be and other small roles in the revival) and "Astonishing" from Little Women. As for the recent Shrek, we get a treat rather than a retread: a sung cut before opening night, "More to the Story." This number takes the fairy tale princess's lot with a lot more seriousness than the zippy score otherwise did, and is sung with sensitivity and passion.
As part of her show, Sutton Foster put the names of five Broadway showstoppers in a cup and asked an audience member to draw one. Two are included on the album (the second serves as a sort of bonus track, an encore after the encore). In both cases, the agenda is not to put her own stamp on the songs, or come up with a new arrangement, but to referencewith a winkthe way they are "diva-ly" done (or, maybe, overdone). With a game, knowing manner, ready, willing and able to belt away, she refers to having a songbook called Really High Belt Songs and laughingly suggests that listeners might want to move backmaybe to the lobby. It's for fun (and it is fun), not for letting us get involved in the emotions. So there's no real gravitas to "Defying Gravity" from Wicked, and Dreamgirls' drama of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is jettisoned for a stomp through the number for laughs, aping Jennifer Holliday's idiosyncratic big, gutsy guttural gasps and grunts and metallic melisma moments.
A Sondheim medley (another new-to-disc item for the singer) puts the title song of Anyone Can Whistle in the company of Company's "Being Alive." Instead of having the umpteenth fevered pleading version of the latter, it is informed with the gentler questioning and insecurity of the former (whose melody is woven through it in the arrangement). It works nicely as a more reflective piece, a wish rather than a cry for help.
That also seems to suit the persona of Sutton Foster, with Anything Goes in previews at the venue recently-renamed The Stephen Sondheim Theatre where she'll be bringing along plenty of the radiant sunniness she has here with the splashy Cole Porter score. Meanwhile, we'll get a kick out of this live set.
Cole Porter shows up a few times on Julian Yeo's new project, as happened on his first and third albums. It's always a good match. "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "It's De-Lovely," both heard in the now-previewing Broadway revival of Anything Goes, are done in non-showy, more personal ways. In addition to his own charm, the singer seems to have a special affinity for Porter's work, but he brings a refreshing warmth and modesty to them, rather than playing up the word play and parading a cheeky, above-it-all attitude. For example, his "At Long Last Love" is taken more thoughtfully, painting the song with joy and hope for the real-deal kind of love, rather than spinning out the collected quips with clever queries like "Is it the real turtle soup or merely the mock?" as a wary pessimist might. And there's nothing arch, comical or coy in his fourth Porter piece, "Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today)"spoiler alert: she's dead and she killed her lover. He deals with it not as a put-on, and doesn't put on a smile, but sings it as just one more lament about love gone so very awry.
The 2-CD set places mostly happier and/or lighter songs (the show tunes "I Want to Be Happy," "Manhattan," "If I Were a Bell" and a rarely-done cute Irving Berlin oldie, "After You Get What You Want, You Don't Want It") on one disc, with a jazz trio; the second disc is just piano accompaniment, with sad or reflective numbers such as "'Round Midnight" and "The Party's Over." The pianist is the same on both: musical director Adam Birnbaum, a deft and pensive player who takes the piano bench after Julian's four prior albums with Jesse Gelber. Instrumental breaks are more jazzily adventurous on the trio tracks, whereas the moody, mellow piano-only disc feels more traditional, sticking more closely to the recognizable outlines of the melody without simply restating it. The trio tracks, with skillful-but-low-key bassist Evan Gregor and drummer Bryson Kern, have mostly easygoing, easy-to-like treatments, rather than gutsy, assertive attacks or big bursts of joy or volume or anything that would rock the boat in this smooth ocean of emotion and music. Genial Julian, with his smallish voice and modest manner, is more apt to glide than strut or soar on the trio numbers and is reflective and reserved rather than rhapsodic or rollicking.
And, while he's not wailing and flailing about in torchy self-pity on the sadder songs, it's this second set that is more rewarding and successful and special. Here, the singer shows his ability to get inside a lyric and make us listen to standards we know by heart and have heard so many other vocalists take on over so many years. That he does it in a quiet way, delivering lyrics as if unwrapping and examining the thoughts they convey, is all the more remarkable. The slow tempos feel not lugubrious but like someone taking just enough time to collect his thoughts and his wits when blindsided or burdened by memories, loneliness or longing. The approach chosen reminds me of the line, "How my love song gently cries for the tenderness ..." from one of the included classics, "Prelude to a Kiss." And taking one of the grandest of warhorses, he dusts off "Star Dust" and makes it sound fresh because he sounds so involved in the words and feelings. The poetic lyrics ("... purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadow of my heart ...") don't trip him up as the sorrow and loneliness come to the fore ("... though I dream in vain .."). "Dancing in the Dark" misses its deeper level of woe and concern; more needs to be at stake.
His "After You've Gone" emphasizes the anticipated loneliness and second thoughts of both parties after a split, rather than the toughened, "I-told-you-so" sympathetic stand often presented with this number (as in, for example the Fanny Brice version reviewed above). Instead of ending the CD with full-bloom gloom, or a jarring change of pace, a compromise of sorts comes with a slowed-down version of "Avalon," from the Al Jolson repertoire, more often sung briskly. It works as a pretty ballad!
Less marked is the accent that sometimes seemed to create a stumbling block in the earlier recordings by Julian, a Malaysian who came here several years ago after living in Australia. Only a few times is something distracting, such as a vowel sound seeming a bit uncomfortable in the pitch or holding of a note or a long "A" vowel sound where it should be short, or vice-versa (pronouncing the mention of the play Abie's Irish Rose as "Abbie's" in the "Manhattan" lyric). Mostly what remains of the accent situation is that charm that comes with it, which makes his sound stand out from the pack. And his double-pack of songs of love (lost and found) has found a nice sound and style.