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Stage and Screen
Reviews by Rob Lester

Big Broadway numbers get a shot of adrenaline from stage actor-singer Michael Longoria with his brand new solo CD. And Hollywood doings in the 1930s are done to a faretheewell for laughs in a satirical musical from Michael Colby (book and lyrics and CD executive producer) with a third Michael—Michael Lavine—conducting and co-keyboarding the merry melodies of Paul Katz. The show is Tales of Tinseltown.

MICHAEL LONGORIA
BROADWAY BRICK BY BRICK

Broadway Records

In his chatty autobiographical liner notes, Michael Longoria talks about his family's Mexican roots and uprooting himself from the west to east coast of the United States to study musical theatre on scholarship at NYU—and the geographically short but otherwise big leap from singing waiter at Ellen's Stardust Diner to performer in two smash Broadway hits. Yes, such dreams come true, as they more recently did for Ellen's alumnus Zak Resnik who moved next door to be featured in Mamma Mia and then starred in Piece of My Heart or Marla Mindelle as a stepsister of Cinderella. Michael's own fairy tale saw him playing several roles in his Broadway debut in Hairspray and in Jersey Boys, where he moved up to the lead role of Frankie Valli.

Jersey Boys is represented here by "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," with a splashy rendition that navigates each vocal high hill and Valli of the showpiece with prominent echoes of the hit treatment with plenty of panache. The other sample of this pop-music-recycled-as-score style of show is the aforementioned Mamma Mia! with a truly jubilant "Thank You for the Music" with its simple message of ebullient gratitude sounding like it's coming from his heart, not just his impressive lungs. Yes, the guy has one very, very big and strong, striking steel-belted voice. If "money note" climaxes were literally measured in gold, he'd be in a league with Midas and Trump.

The rest of the material consists of landmark songs created specifically for original musical scores. Longoria struts his musical stuff and glories in the stuff that dreams are made of with brio and zest. Many follow the same pattern of build, build, build some more and lead to a climactic, long-held power note—the kind that makes audiences' jaws drop and cause applause then and there before the number comes to its actual conclusion. This isn't a live album, but it has that feel of excitement and dazzle. Arguably, it's often almost all about performing. Putting vocal chops front and center and displaying, too, a fondness for embellishments—showy ornamental riffs and melisma—give this a true "wow" factor. While these can distract from the story of a song and make it instead all about the —at least on the most gymnastic and embroidered sections—emotion certainly comes through. While there may not be too much that can be subtle about dynamite, the fireworks here are well handled by a very competent singer with a sound that is dynamic and appealingly Broadway bright, rather than brittle or strident or exhausting.

The pulse-racing powerhouse arrangements and orchestrations, exuberantly played with pizzazz, are on the same level of "more is more/ go for broke and enjoy!" thinking. Longoria and his bands biggish and smallish, both with large sound and scope, drum up so much knock-'em-dead life and liveliness that one tends to give in and grin in reaction to the glee and glibness. Sure, nuance and mature reflection are not the chosen recipe, and such shadings may well be missed with "The Impossible Dream"'s usual gravitas in limited supply or "Being Alive" is shorter on desperation and searing need. But youthful, buoyant Longoria makes you feel that you don't need the long view from piled-up experience and cumulative disappointment to be determined or frustrated.

Still, songs written for younger characters in musicals, like Pippin's "Corner of the Sky" with its restlessness and wondering about fitting in is easily a better fit and rings true. Likewise, there's a lovely lovestruck note that is non-laboriously struck in West Side Story's ode to the just-met girl called "Maria" and her name itself. Another character named Maria from another classic late-1950s musical is represented by the title song from The Sound of Music. Unlike several tracks whose treatments owe their basic architecture and stance very much to their origins imprinted on our memories from original cast albums, this one refreshingly gets a new lease on life, more unconventional than heard first from the throat of a convent-residing nun in the original context. There is none of that Nature-generated humbled awe. Michael Longoria's first musical world was populated by mariachi bands and that's the music he sang and heard as a kid. That Mexican flavor and rhythm take the warhorse for a new ride-not once, but twice. After the English version with a teaspoon of Spanish and a lighter mariachi imprint, the bonus track reprise is all in Spanish and the musical accent more pronounced and fully unleashed.

Not counting the bonus track "encore," the recorded recital is bookended by numbers of yearning to leave or return to home from the two best-known musicalizations of Dorothy's first trip to The Land of Oz. So we get, from The Wiz, a tender treatment (with some increased fever pitch) of "Home," officially credited to the late Charlie Smalls, but in recent years revealed to have been ghostwritten by the talented and still active Larry Kerchner. And, of course, the indestructible "Over the Rainbow." Although its wistful introductory verse is included, this is no simple sweet sigh of innocent longing. Michael Longoria and the musicians have another dozen crescendo moments up their sleeves. The all-stops-out latter sections recall a landmark attention-grabbing, swooping and wailing rendition by Sam Harris years ago on the TV show that was the granddaddy of "American Idol" and its ilk, "Star Search."

Thunder and lightning are the key elements in the musical weather report throughout Broadway Brick by Brick and it's an invigorating storm to be out in. Thrills and chills are in abundant supply in the capable and busy show-bizzy arrangements and orchestrations, mainly the work of John McDaniel and Jesse Vargas (who also play keyboards and conduct). While the repertoire is populated by sturdy standards that are grand, and grandstanding turns created for major characters in defining statements or catharsis, note that a few were created for female characters and hearing a man tackle them is interesting and welcome.

Besides those noted, there's Cassie's raison d'etre from A Chorus Line, "The Music and the Mirror," Sunset Boulevard's cinema diva's "As If We Never Said Goodbye," and probably the most low-key item, the title song of Tell Me on a Sunday, which became the first half of the stage piece Song and Dance. Each is handled quite well, with its originally assigned gender a non-issue. Opportunity has knocked for Michael Longoria and he's opened the door wide and grabbed it.

TALES OF TINSELTOWN
A MOVIELAND MUSICAL

THE CONCEPT ALBUM
JAY Records

Hollywood is a hoot in the winking, wonderfully wacky musical-comedy treat titled Tales of Tinseltown. Peppy pastiche and smartly silly satire make the score an uber-entertaining romp. The show has been kicking around and kicking up its heels for many years—since the 1980s. It's been produced, and through structural changes and retooling, but this is its first official recording. The milieu is the movie business in the 1930s, with broadly drawn character types played for this studio cast album presentation by top comedic performers in over-the-top, gleeful presentation. Skewering the clichés of star-is-born scenarios, corny formula movie musical zing and romantic mush, egotistically myopic actors and producers, etc. spins high-energy and loopy fun.

Michael Colby's sung and spoken words are a whirlpool of wit, sarcasm, and lots of goofy exaggeration. When one on-the-film-set scene begins with the line, "Lights! Camera! Coconuts!" you know you're in for slapstick and a certain lack of subtlety. It's all for the good. Paul Katz's music is a zingy burst of delight that enlivens and enriches the nuttiness so tunes are catchy, often evoking the period and its simplistic, derivative second-rate songs. Film musicals that spin their plots with telegraphic speed and spunk, and people fall in love or fall apart or things fall into place as easily as a film reel unspools come in for cheery, affectionate mocking. The orchestrations by Larry Hochman, sharing piano duties with musical director Michael Lavine, sparkle and fizz, with just a few other musicians joining the small but mighty congregation.

The acerbic, snippy portrayal of a gossip columnist, devilishly dishing the scoops on private lives and public disasters anchors the show and its narrative. Relishing every snide aside with an air of superiority is the ideally cast Harriet Harris. Christina Bianco is consistently delightful and on target as a farm girl with stars in her wide eyes and a knack for doing impressions of animals and other sound effects. Perky and plucky, she's off on the road to stardom, with all its bumps and re-routings. Leading a frantically cheerful dance number ("Keep in Step") or landing a leading man on or off screen, her character is a cheerleader for grabbing the brass ring and tap-tap-tapping into a panacea for problems—smiling and swirling. Klea Blackhurst is a keg of belting dynamite with a dash of ego and impatience as a leather-lunged diva. Alison Fraser, a veteran of an earlier production, is all spice and vinegar as an established movie queen.

The men are played with easy flair by Jake Epstein, Tony Yazbeck, and Nat Chandler (also from an earlier stage cast), with Richard Kind especially effective as a studio big shot with a knack for encapsulating things. (He describes the gossip scribe as someone whose tongue is so sharp it could be used to carve a Thanksgiving turkey.) A four-person indefatigable chorus rounds things out.

While there isn't much respite in a rather relentlessly paced and dizzying spin, the truly melodic and appealing swaths of Katz melodies make things smoother and non-exhausting. The music doesn't take a backseat as merely being serviceable to hang the quips and parodies on. It's ear-grabbing stuff that makes you smile and hum to its honey-soaked lines. Colby's rhyming is clever and evidences polished craftsmanship. Both know whereof they tease and emulate, the songs just enough degrees more ridiculous than the authentic counterparts of the day, but often more engaging and vital. The cast has a knack of knowing when to jump in and treat the exaggerations as sincere and when to be playfully commenting and pointing up the pointed barbs. Christina Bianco and Klea Blackhurst have a swell way of underlining a word or attitude, such as Bianco coloring the word "kick" when grousing about what's missing in her mundane life in the spot on "I Belong in Hollywood."

Indeed, the excesses and narcissism of the film business and its participants are always ripe for teasing and embracing. As the studio system of the days of old are now much further in the fabled past than when Tales was new, nostalgia is now maybe even sweeter, and the screwball antics and bubbly performances burst forth with ageless appeal. From the ridiculously clueless "Jungle Fever" (a sampling of a musical film aping the Tarzan movies, but with overheated production numbers) to the catty comments on the courting and cavorting involving actors modeled after icons, the score, and the game and spot-on performances, the CD is a loveable parade of parody.


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