Sound Advice Reviews
There's nice work on all three of this week's musical entries. We begin with Nice Work If You Can Get It, the cast album that's a glut of Gershwin & Gershwin from the golden age. A starkly modern musical theatre entertainment provides contrast as we snap back to reality from the sunshine, in 35mm. Another "MM" is singer Marissa Mulder, a NYC contest winner, who does very nice work indeed in her debut album.
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT
"Do It Again" and "Do, Do, Do" aren't just songs used in the current Broadway attraction Nice Work If You Can Get It. They could be thought of as the words in a memo serving as a directive in concocting yet another "new" (OK, newish) musical from the Gershwin catalogue, rather than reviving a specific show with its score basically intact. They've done, done, done it again, using the rich oeuvre as a salad bar ready for the pickings. In recent decades on Broadway, 1983's My One and Only had its main roots in 1927's Funny Face and the show known as Crazy for You in 1992 had its genesis in 1930's Girl Crazy, but used songs from other sources. In 1999 came the short-lived The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm. Songs used in one or more of those late-20th-century concoctions reappear in this piece; in fact, the title song was in all three. "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is a latter-day song by the sibling songwriters George and Ira Gershwin, first heard in a film that debuted the same year George died, some seventy-five years ago (and it still sounds spiffy and bright here). The earliest relic is the aforementioned "Do It Again," from 1922, which actually has lyrics by Buddy G. DeSylva.
Very splashy and spunky, this is by and large a swell souvenir of an especially breezy, busy show that hangs together pretty well. As a CD, it's a very full, bubbly, sometimes rowdy and boisterous 28 tracks, including a few appealing (if mostly brief) instrumentals. It's not a time for "subtle" or "emotionally deep." What keeps it quite well unified is the wonderfully-captured period flavor in the arrangements (musical supervisor/keyboard player David Chase) and delightful, savvy orchestrations (Bill Elliott, for an 18-piece orchestra). With the snap, sparkle and fizz of the lighthearted, joyful 1920s/1930s musical comedies, these two musicians paint with bright colors and bright ideas for bright sound. They share producing credit for the lively, crisp-sounding album with reliable veteran CD producer Robert Sher. There's a sense of joshing jubilation and great Gershwin-affection (but not hesitating to forego worship for some hammy winking) in the approach to the musical settings and much of the vocalizing.
The cast brings plucky characterizations to life, so in the vocals that's more a priority than generic lush or soaring singing. There is, though, some tenderness, mainly thanks to ballads treated gracefully by leading lady Kelli O'Hara. Those who are more familiar with many of the oft-heard numbers as individual songs, on recordings by the great singers over the decadesbut have not seen this showit's crucial to keep the specific contexts/story in mind. So much of the way they are done takes cues from characterization. There are goofy, glib, and sarcastic folks in the screwball comic story created by Joe DiPietro (with nods to his libretto forefathers).
Some of these broad characters take on double identities (because, as is often said in plot descriptions, mayhem ensues). Knowing that makes it work, if you're game. If you're just looking for another pretty but pretty run-of-the-mill collection of Gershwin songs to listen to, this mix won't match your desire.
Some snippets of dialogue help, such as "I believe you're drunk" to set up the off-the-wall, loopy, occasionally purposely wobbly vocal by the otherwise uptight lady played by Judy Kaye, ever the pro, who plays the moment to the hilt ("Looking for a Boy"). Jennifer Laura Thompson and Robyn Hurder, though they have their amusing moments, are saddled with playing screechy-voiced, cartoony flappers that are more entertaining on stage than on disc. The usually shyly sweet and sincere standard "I've Got a Crush on You" gets a rambunctious reupholstering sung as "You've got a crush on me" by Thompson and various members of the company in a wedding scene. Those with a soft spot for this classic might find it disappointingly, disrespectfully ill-advised. Michael McGrath and Chris Sullivan as sometimes bewildered, sometimes bedeviled, reluctant beaux neatly nail some clownish reactive moments. Smoother-voiced Stanley Wayne Mathis (who was also in a revival of the Gershwins' Oh, Kay!, which is one of the sources of this new piece, that opened on Broadway on this date 22 years ago) is a welcome presence for the ears.
Prominent in 11 of the major vocal numbers (that's half of them), Matthew Broderick is likeable in his puppy dog or peppy ways, but doesn't come up with a very wide range of hues and attitudes beyond oh-so-casually carefree and game. Again, it must be remembered that he's playing someone rather clueless (and quite tipsy himself when first introduced), meandering through life, kind of going along for the ride and letting things happen to him. With more charm than chops (vocally) and not finding all that much special personalization/ownership when it comes to words that vocal artists before him have made their own, he had some pretty big shoes to fill.
If "zing" is your thing, Nice Work ... nicely fills the bill and your cup will runneth over. In that sense, it's just ducky.
As far as description, it's difficult to put into words how 35mm, based on dramatic photographs, is captured on an audio recording. (Matthew Murphy's photos are shown in the booklet which also contains all the lyrics to Ryan Scott Oliver's adventurous songs here.) I'm impressed. I'm also occasionally turned off and feel "run over" by it all, but more often I am intrigued. Eclectic, and very much a soundscape, it can be elusive and puzzling or visceral and as directly in-your-face as a slap. It has moments that are poignant and haunting, others that feel abrasively alienating or magnetic (either the way a compelling work of song and vocal beauty can be, or how a highway-side metal-crunched car crash can be). Some of the vocals come off, at least initially or overwhelmingly, as cathartic rants of unsophisticated verbiage accompanied by equally forceful, wailing guitar-heavy, percussion-pounding accompaniment. But there's often a human cry that is visceral and thus ups the stakesand the interest level. Other sequencesor moments within themare artful and breathtaking. It's a kaleidoscope of experience. Powerful singer-actors we know from recent musical theatre works combine forces: two women (Lindsay Mendez and Betsy Wolfe) and three men (Alex Brightman, Ben Crawford and Jay Armstrong Johnsonthe last-named providing some of the most arrestingly appealing vocals among the soaring-voiced company).
Subject matter includes everything from the wonders and ways of photography itself ("Stop Time," a group number that's the first of the 22 tracks) to babysitting (Johnson's solo singing of experiences looking after little "Caralee" who's compared to Satan). Numerous addictive adult relationships come to the fore. Angst is rampant in varying degrees. Moods and atmosphere vary from the mystical/mythological to the kind of spewed, rude conversations you might unhappily overhear on a too-loud cell phone conversation nearby. Language can be rawmeaning direct and unsentimental as well as the sprinkling of words preventing radio play without an FCC fine. But much of it fascinates and is spun in musically surprising, unconventional ways that grab the ear. The vocal harmonies that weave and sail through the air are one of the major, major pluses here. Little nooks and crannies of the melodies and arrangements and accent provide mini-bits of added interest. In the midst of what has been mainly a hard-driving rock accompaniment, the violin, viola or cello will appear and then vanish again. Storm is followed by calm and then melodrama comes crashing in.
Amid the many snippets, sliver-sized slices of life, or conversation in music, two ambitious and more complex story-songs stand out. The high-school saga "The Ballad of Sara Berry" is quite the production, involving all the singers. And the fierce "Leave, Luanne" about an abused wife in a dysfunctional relationship is grand-scale melodrama that is the fasten-your-seatbelt track that sustains interest and kept me on the edge of my seatand shaking. "Crazytown," a whirlwind of nightmare visual recollections, interestingly references The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia and more. Pain and loneliness are often palpable (one character is simply named Lonely, in "Hemming and Hawing"). The singers give committed, relentless, on-the-edge performances of the material inspired by the photos. If "the camera never blinks," these actors in habiting their roles rarely do.
An album that was recorded as a prize for the singer in question turns out to be a prize for listeners. Gaining experience and many points from voting audiences and judges, Marissa Mulder won the the 2011 MetroStar Challenge, a New York City singing competition. Held at the Metropolitan Room, she was awarded a produced, all-expenses-paid nightclub engagement there. This is its live recording. I was there every step of the way: as one of the judges in both the 2010 and 2011 contests she was in, as well as all three of her solo cabaret acts over three years. Although her down-to-earth patter with thoughtful reflections have not been included, the endearing, warm quality and joie de vivre come through in her unaffected, honest singing. She's loaded with personality and bright spirits. A natural girlish enthusiasm and sparkle make her themed show's explorations of youthful illusions (of fantasy and romance, and wearing rose-colored glasses in life) and how they break and are dealt with a perfect match of singer and well-chosen, well-honed material.
This is a splendid showcase, and Marissa brings a listener inside the song because she is so fully embracing it. She believes. She's fun and having funor a good cry. Where others might be coy and "precious," Marissa is sincere and her bubbliness is no put-on act. When she opens with a medley celebrating the wide-eyed voyages to the world of "Pure Imagination" and "Never Never Land," it's an invitation to be welcomed back to believing again in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Peter Pan's home "where dreams are born and time is never planned." Near the end when she portrays a more adult perspective, while facing down denial of the fairy tale perfection of "Disneyland" her child self saw as an escape from problems, it's heartbreaking. This number, from Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman's Broadway score to Smile brings her full circle. In between, there's a bounty of pleasures, such as the witty and cute list sing "Better" by Edward Kleban, the late Mr. Hamlisch's A Chorus Line lyricist. The Gershwin brothers' saga of the sailors' temptress "Lorelei" allows for some playful strutting.
There is so much that works so well in this smartly conceived show, directed by singer Karen Oberlin. There's the tenderly rendered "Lullaby for Nathan Charles," the melody by Mickey Leonard written as a gift for Karen's son with a marvelously delicate lyric about dreams added later by author/teacher David Hajdu, the proud and talented papa. While many selections snuggle up to a sweetness and optimism or gaze gauzily through a child's or hopeful romantic's vision, there's a contrasting track that presents the very grown-up hard lessons of lost hope for a romantic relationship. It's Kander & Ebb's "Money Tree" (from The Act) and is sensationally strong and exciting, building in power and passion. Here she wakes up and smells the bitter coffee of truth. It's potent.
Marissa is joined by a trio: Pete Anderson adds many felicitous flavors and moods playing sax, clarinet and flute, and John Loehrke's bass work is sterling. Musical director/pianist Bill Zeffiro, a great asset/friend to those in the cabaret world, provides creative, interesting and pensive arrangements that respect and refresh the material. His own comic piece, "My Kind of Guy," which he wrote for this singer, is a witty, winking shrug of acceptance of being a "loser magnet" for lowbrow guys in flip-flops who are flops in relationships. It's hilarious and adorable. Produced and initially engineered by Metropolitan Room's award-winning tech director, J-P Perreaux, the 16-track album shows not just the MetroStar winner's show, but a rising star with a real winner of a debut album.