Three women take center stage: a musical about the real-life first lady Mary Todd Lincoln written by two women; romantic songs by Annette Sanders; and under the radar, Nancy Stearns with two albums, one of songs with lyrics exclusively by women.
Ambitious, operatic, highly dramatic, ponderous, perplexing, cumbersome, intermittently satisfying ... Asylum, about a woman supposedly coming apart, sometimes comes together with rewarding moments. This story about Abraham Lincoln's widow, fighting for her freedom after being declared insane and institutionalized by her only surviving son, is a strongly sung cast album but often a frustrating and somewhat exhausting listen. There are, however, some lovely and powerful sections.
Carmel Owen's lyrics are at times like a blizzard of words coming fast and furious and unfocused, but her melodies are far more consistently accomplished. The album contains some dialogue by her collaborator June Bingham (a woman in her 80s who is the widow of a United States Congressman from New York). However, one sentence per song gives the context in the CD insert (no photos, no lyrics).
The show was presented last year for a short run at the York Theatre, where it had been nurtured. This album represents that cast with the exception of attractive-voiced Ken Krugman, veteran of an earlier workshop cast, who does a nice job in the roles of the doctor at the asylum and Lincoln in two major flashback numbers. They are both duets with Carolann Page who does admirable work throughout in the complex role of Mary. "Oregon" is the show's atypical lively number wherein the Lincolns have differing opinions about what political path he should take. "Lincoln Waltz" is the other, a rather charming one with Abe being taught to dance, reminiscent of a number in the 1961 musical Young Abe Lincoln.
Some of the numbers, in the earnest performances by the six-member cast, begin at a fever pitch and don't let up; a few end quite abruptly. The two solos by Joy Lynn Matthews, as the ex-slave who is Mary's nurse, have more nuance and make strong impact musically and emotionally. Edwin Cahill as son Robert Lincoln has some necessarily forceful sections as he assertively pushes for his mother's confinement with questionable motives, but his more plaintive singing early on is more of a plus. Daniel Spiotta and Bertilla Baker complete the cast.
A major attraction throughout is the musical accompaniment. The orchestrations and the playing are remarkable and interesting and add depth when the songs seem to be single-minded. Bravo to Tara Chambers on cello, Joe Brent on violin and Danny Percefull on piano, listed as associate musical director with no main musical director credited. (Bob Goldstone, who played the piano for the actual production along with the two string players on the album, was credited in the show for arrangements and orchestrations, with Matt Castle listed as musical supervisor, but neither name is on the CD credits.) The songwriter produced the CD with Original Cast Records' Bruce Yeko as executive producer.
Certainly an intense work, the recording has committed performances and honorable aspirations.
I've been a fan of Annette Sanders for a long time. She hasn't recorded all that much for someone who's been around for years, but she has had a few albums over the last decade. Annette has spent much time as a studio singer (jingles, etc.), and it wouldn't surprise you to learn that after a few seconds of listening to her latest CD. This lady, whose experience includes time with the Benny Goodman Band, has a super-smooth musicianship in her uncluttered singing and clear intonation, with excellent diction. She's in full command here in a classy album with pianist Bob Florence as musical partner, who has worked so well with other singers like Vikki Carr and Sue Raney over the years.
Annette's voice is in remarkable shape; she sounds youthful, with a tone that is creamy and dreamy. It's the kind of floating sound that could become too smooth and feel bland, I suppose, but there's so much care and intelligence behind the phrasing that such a fate is never a danger. And Bob Florence adds some tension and subtext to his accompaniment and introspective solos, so all is well. We're in the hands of two experienced pros who truly complement each other.
Playing devil's advocate, you can argue that the relaxed contentment that Annette projects results in less of the usually mined dramatic potential and immediacy in some songs. They aren't wimpy, but Irving Berlin's classic "How Deep is the Ocean" often throbs with passion and "You Are There" (Johnny Mandel/ Dave Frishberg) can bring as much pain as reassurance in others' renditions. These are beautifully and sensitively done, but without those peaks and valleys of emotion. But it works for them on the power of their sheer beauty of sound, flavored more sparingly with tears or intense feelings paraded.
They feature three songs with words by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, each with different a composer, gliding nicely through "You Must Believe in Spring" (music by Michel Legrand) with ease, though it seems to me they seem to be rushing at one point near the end - a very out-of-character moment for this very laidback, legato, leisurely album. "The Island" (a collaboration with Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins) is a seductive cloud of intimacy in a long medley with a slowed-down "Come Fly with Me" making for an irresistible mental vacation travel plan. The last Bergman lyric is the album's closer, "I'll Never Say Goodbye," the love theme from the David Shire-scored film The Promise led into with Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." In the Porter ballad, Annette sings with a bit of heartache before she settles into the other farewell song, which is really a non-farewell song, a pledge of eternal love and commitment.
A few lighter numbers keep things from staying on the same plane, but they aren't so bouncy as to be jarring or out of place with what is essentially a romantic and rosy journey. These breezier selections include "Nobody Else But Me," from the 1946 version of Show Boat. But it's the evocative title song of You Will Be My Music, by Joe Raposo and introduced by Frank Sinatra, that weaves through the album and keeps it all of a piece, as the melody is reprised a few times on piano to link songs together and get back into the mood it created as the opening (vocal) track. And the mood is one to luxuriate in as Miss Sanders meanders through melodies but knows every step of her musical way with her mood-creating partner. Sublime and serene.
UNDER THE RADAR
There's nothing fancy about this Nancy: she keeps it simple and sincere.
Sometimes it doesn't take the biggest voice to make a big impact. Nancy Stearns, though quite musical, is rather a minimalist as a singer. Crisp and clear, she sings the notes lightly but doesn't sustain them; however, she sustains interest with her thoughtful renditions. Focusing on the words, she serves them by having a presentation that is direct and persuasive. Fine diction is one of her strong suits. Nancy's two albums, recorded and released close together, provide ample evidence of the success of her approach. Each has 17 selections, and each has three tracks that come in at under two minutes and two going beyond four minutes in length - but each has a different thematic concept.
The Words of Women, as the title suggests, celebrates female lyricists. There are three tastes of Peggy Lee's work and another trio of samples from that pioneer for women writers on Broadway, Dorothy Fields, who career there spanned the 1920s to the 1970s. There are playful moments in this set, such "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" with the Duke Ellington melody and the Fields/ Cy Coleman "My Personal Property" heard in the movie version of Sweet Charity. But it's the meatier material where Nancy shines, with two related back-to-back pieces about defining home. "Home Is Where the Heart Is" (Sally Fingerett), the song about same-sex couples, has a dignity and builds well. "Finding Home," introduced by Jessica Molaskey in Dream True by Tina Landau and Ricky Ian Gordon, is also treated with tender loving care, if somewhat understated.
There are times when the singer stays squarely on the same (relaxed) energy level for (too) much of a number. The accompaniment often picks up the slack and always keeps things quite interesting. "I Don't Say Anything" by Adryan Russ and Doug Haverty is a comical delight, about a person who has a lifelong habit of being overly agreeable, and then resenting it. And it's fun to hear the Lynn Ahrens/ Stephen Flaherty cutie, "How Lucky You Are," with its mix of chipper cheer and sarcasm (" ... if worse comes to worse as we all know it will/ Thank your lucky star you've gotten this far").
The album I prefer because of its stronger impact, Sing Me a Song with Social Significance ... Or Not, reflects Nancy's dedication to the world view and social issues she worked on for years in her main career as an attorney. Thought-provoking performances with integrity proudly shining through dominate the CD, with a few charming comic relief selections.
The number inspiring the album title and "Doing the Reactionary" are both politically aware pieces from Harold Rome's score to Pins and Needles and the latter gets one lyric update by inserting the names Bush and Cheney into one line. But the serious songs never come across as soap opera or soap box preaching. In fact, there is a sense of comfort that comes through, as well as a confident intelligence to sum it up, "wisdom" might be the key word.
That very socially conscious lyricist, Yip Harburg, is represented by two songs, each with a more recent theatre song on the same topic tracked next to it. Nancy presents the dignity and sorrow of the down-on-their-luck first person tales, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (Harburg with Jay Gorney) and "Stop and See Me" from Weird Romance (Alan Menken/ David Spencer). Likewise, the world's fragile environment is appreciated in sensitive and cautionary readings of "Look Around" (Will Rogers' Follies) follows "Silent Spring," the Harburg piece written with Harold Arlen that borrows the title of the Rachel Carson book.
A lighter, brighter look at spring in full bloom comes via "Spring, Spring, Spring" with its fun Johnny Mercer rhymes relished. It's a charming vocal duet with Gregory Toroian, the prodigiously talented pianist and arranger for both albums. His creative and tasteful work is a huge reason for the success of these CDs. A skilled jazz player, he never overplays or upstages Nancy's low-key approach. He works subtly to add musical layers and his own mini-ruminations in some numbers, supporting and fleshing out the emotional moods established. Notably, they are joined by the top flight bass player David Finck on both recordings. Neither takes the spotlight for many extended solos, which is a shame.
Nancy will be performing with the same two sterling musicians this Sunday at the Manhattan nightclub Don't Tell Mama. (Coincidentally, just as we were going to press, Nancy's new CD based on this show, With Rhyme, But For No Particular Reason. became available for sale at CDBaby.com.) Their work in person is especially engaging, and Nancy Stearns is a gracious presence, her style well suited to an intimate setting. The show is a benefit for The Center for Constitutional Rights, a cause close to her heart and related to her other career. She's a pleasure. I rest my case.