Sound Advice Reviews
Cast album of Betty Blue Eyes and
Our ears and eyes are on a recently closed new British musical comedy concerned with food rationing, making ends meet, and the coveted meat which could be provided by a plump prized pig named Betty, who has blue eyes. It's set in 1947, when the career of Frank Sinatra was in the first full decade of its decades to comeit was already in full swing, but before the more "swinging" years that are often sampled on three more of a seemingly unending number of tribute CDs.
BETTY BLUE EYES
What a treat! A deliciously bouncy, bountiful new old-school British musical comedy that also has some bite and heart comes to us via disc. Though not taken to heart enough to run more than about half a year at the Novello Theatre in the West End (where it closed last month after being recorded in live performances for this CD), Betty Blue Eyes is a prize as I hear it. Like most musicals, it was gestating for several years before its debut, landing on the boards when its subject matter seemed timely, at a time of current economic woes and with the play's focal point of the 1947 British royal wedding plopped on stage when the marriage of Prince William was on British minds and filling the papers. The present Occupy protests might even come to mind when hearing the first song, with the populace marching for "Fair Shares for All." The musical has its fair share of jabs at class struggle and same-focused satire, but as the CD's tracks go on, we get song-and-dance showstoppers, touching songs and longing nostalgia, and then wild mayhem. This wide variety is rewarding and somehow hangs together as a piece. Cameron Mackintosh's production had the attention-grabbing visual device of an animatronic pig, but on disc we just get a few grunts and one sung line at the end. The well-constructed, often catchy songs the able cast dives into are more than ample compensation. We have the "haves" and the more-heard-from "have-nots" clearly defined in "Another Little Victory" and "A Private Function," the latter also the name of the movie on which it's based.
Composer George Stiles and his lyricist partner Anthony Drewe (who have the adorable Honk!, Just So and the new Mary Poppins songs among their achievements) have come up with much to admire and engender tender feelings and big laughs here, as well as a splash of splashy razzle-dazzle. In that last-mentioned category, the "take home tune" of the strutting, nose-thumbing "Nobody" is a terrific showstopper of self-empowerment cum music hall/vaudeville. Dominating that number, which is reprisedand anchoring the show itself as the fussy, fuming, feisty and fiercely determined Joyceis Sarah Lancashire in the role played on film by Maggie Smith. Though the character can be brittle and brusque, she's smartly softened with vulnerability in her understandable longing and frustrations, and particularly by her recollection of a long-ago night at a dance when youthful romantic hopes fluttered to meet the princely "Lionheart" of her dreams. While all the while maintaining that British stiff upper lip and self-appointed grandness amid despair and small means, the Lancashire performance finds many colors and crisp, well-timed reactions. As Gilbert, her chiropodist humbler husband, Reece Shearsmith brings out a quiet dignity in "The Kind of Man I Am." He's endearing, cheering up when he imagines an office of his own, with paeans to himself as the savior to those with "fear of fallen arches/ easily allayed ... Think of the good I could achieve ... I'm saving soles" in "A Place on the Parade." This couple and live-in dotty mother of Ruth (played with loveable loopiness and playful panic by octogenarian actress Ann Emery) provide gleeful nuttiness in the grand farce tour de force "Pig No Pig." In this high-energy highlight, they practiceand then put into practice (with varying levels of success)their firm denials that the stolen porker intended for a dignitaries' banquet is indeed under their roof.
Underneath some of the swift-flying action and oddities, there's not just desperation but a tinge of sorrow creating another layer. This is especially true in "Magic Fingers," wherein Gilbert's lady patients, whose husbands are injured or missing because of World War II, betray their loneliness and frustration. Although it doesn't quite land on disc, the truly odd-to-creepy and menacing (sadistic?) meat inspector played by Adrian Scarborough, fair to say, is intriguing. In a moment revealing that his youthful creative/career goal was squashed by a strict religious father, even this potential cartoon villain party-pooper becomes worthy of our pity or understanding. But the title song, reprised for the finale along with other numbers, is pure goofy joy, resplendent with oodles of glib rhymes for "blue eyes" and a simple melody with enormous cheer that you'll likely find yourself humming during the first hearing and long after. Yes, yes, it's all in praise of a pig, but a zippy musical comedy song it undeniably is. Jack Edwards gives it his all as the fellow entranced by the animal others see as just a meal-to-be in meat-rationed times.
The cast album performances are more about well-executed character singing than gorgeous voices or powerhouse ones. This suits the piece. So do William David Brohn's orchestrations for a ten-person orchestra, led by keyboard player Richard Beadle, with six of its members playing more than one instrument. Included are cello, accordion and clarinet. Although what's on the buoyant and boisterous surface will surfeit the appetite for musical comedy action and satisfaction, Betty Blue Eyes has more than meets the eye.
Even with the many songs he took on more than once, Frank Sinatra recorded a mammoth number of titles, from classic standards to novelty numbers to passing fads and all those songs he introduced. So, it may seem puzzling that the second volume of Michael Feinstein's The Sinatra Project would include some numbers he didn't record. Although the press release explains the raisons d'être for reviewers, and some folks may guess, there are no liner notes for the public about this album expanding the net to also cover numbers associated with Ol' Blue Eyes' contemporaries. Rat Pack pals sang a couple: Sammy Davis, Jr. favored the Newley/Bricusse "Once in a Lifetime," and Dean Martin was known to sway to "Sway." Of course, past Feinstein albums have covered some of the many standards Sinatra sang, though we'd hardly be scraping the bottom of the barrel if he wanted another fully-Frank festival. In many ways, title aside, this CD plays as much like just another fine Feinstein outing, a mix of ballads and the big band blasts he's grown into in recent years. Michael is too smart and creative to just follow in overly familiar Frank footsteps and paint-by-numbers charts, but evokes Sinatra sensibilities when he chooses to. This is done mostly through the energy of some vocals and, notably, some arrangements by Bill Elliott (pianist on eight of the dozen tracks and leading a big, brass-and-strings-prominent orchestra on most) who channels Sinatra arrangers like Nelson Riddle more so in the previous volume of The Sinatra Project.
A couple of numbers that had the Sinatra stamp in an up-tempo way go the ballad route here. No complaint there. Though Sinatra's peppy, snappy version of the standard "The Way You Look Tonight" was best known from a 1960s recording that years later was adopted for a long-running commercial, Michael sings it slow and pretty and tenderly. And the title song (or should I say "subtitle song") "The Good Life" sheds its bravado base to allow the lyric to breathe and for the wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee message to really come through ("You won't really fall in love/ 'Cause you can't take the chance/ So, be honest with yourself/ Don't try to fake romance"). It's chilling for its dare to someone convincing himself that he's contentedly flying solo in the fast lane to see its down side hidden by denial.
Sinatra/Riddle punch-and-kickin' sensibilities lurk in some brassy, bold orchestrations and arrangements, such as "The Lady Is a Tramp," and when the parties here choose to indulge in the most intentionally strong echoes, they go for it. Such is the case with "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls (though Sinatra was in the film, he didn't sing the song there but made it part of his repertoire for years). If other numbers need an Excel spreadsheet to find the six degrees of separation (or fewer) from the Chairman of the Board, they are still good to hear. Placed ostensibly in a medley with the aforementioned "Luck Be a Lady" is Gypsy's "All I Need Is the Girl." Sinatra got to it in his one album with Duke Ellington, though the treatment here has no similarity to that recording. But maybe that leads us to the unexpected inclusion of another selection, "C'est Comme Ça," which was not in the Sinatra songbook, but was written by Ellington and Marshall Barer for their score to Pousse Café. Michael takes the keyboard to accompany himself on this number, "Sway," "The Good Life," and a vulnerable version of Alec Wilder's "I'll Be Around." An added intrinsic intimacy, unsurprisingly, comes with these songs where he is his own pianistas he was in the beginning of his career and continues to be for some numbers in latter-day live sets and CDs.
Arguably, when all is said and swung, such directness in pared-down ballad settings is still his strongest skill, since he continues to do it so very well. Love and the love of thoughtful lyrics and felicitous melodies come through loud and clearor soft and clear. But in the pow and wow department that can make one's jaw drop a little, listen to those impressive powerfully long-sustained final notes on some tracks! There's muscle and might here.
One footnote: though Michael, unlike Sinatra, respects original lyrics as gospel, he does take on one update of an original lyric as adopted by Ella Fitzgerald and others who sang "The Lady Is a Tramp." Though the original 1937 Lorenz Hart words describe one of the "lady"'s exuberant habits, about celebrity fanship, "For Robert Taylor, I whistle and stamp," Michael keeps Ella's update, substituting the name "Frank Sinatra."
The album is called Davi Sings Sinatra, and he sure does; some might think of it as Davi Wants to BE Sinatra, so similar is the persona and approach, especially with these often slavishly soundalike arrangements. The vocal timbre is not as bright, and this actor, who once trained as an opera singer, doesn't quite seem to be emulating the soundmore the attitude and approach. At first, the listening experience is close-but-no-cigar enough to cloning that it took repeat listening for me to appreciate the skills of Davi, a new voice to me. Though his website bio calls Davi an "icon" and "one of the most recognizable entertainers in the world," this is apparently his belated debut album as he turns back to singing after many years as an actor (his resume includes appearing in a late-career Frank Sinatra TV movie, Contract on Cherry Street).
Those who grew up with the classic Sinatra records and continue to enjoy them (that is, basically have them almost memorized) may initially view this as so much déjà vu. So many of the details in orchestrations and punctuation, not to mention phrasing and Sinatra's trademark lyric embellishments are there. A part of me wishes I didn't know all the original versions so very well; I might be quite impressed with Daviand I almost wish I could delegate this review to a music lover who grew up in a cave with no Frank Sinatra records or radio. Still, one doesn't want to sneeze at or just dismiss so much effort and energy, especially when the legendary Phil Ramone is the producer. Credit for conducting and arrangements (such as they are) goes to Nick tenBroek. The more I listen, the more I find some nuances.
Some of the bigger hits are here among the dozen tracks: "Nice 'n' Easy," "All the Way," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," "Witchcraft" and "Summer Wind." Though originality is in short supply, and wouldn't appear to be the agenda, one must admire the competency and professionalism. I've heard other male singers draw from the same well, some sounding far more lame and lackluster and others finding fresher waters. Judged as a conservative "tribute" album, it may have merit but still feels ghostlike without being eerily reminiscent in an intriguing way for Ol' Blue Eyes "connoisseurs." Nevertheless, I'd be interested in hearing this man approach other material outside the shadow of the great singer whose influence is tough to escape.
In the long line of ultra-ardent Frank Sinatra fans who think the guy who sang "My Way" carved out the best way to approach songs comes one more fellow worshiping at the altar. Steve Lipman makes no pretensions about being an original or creative, professional singer. Living in Connecticut, he's a dentist by trade. He loves to sing and loves Sinatra and calls himself "The Singin' Dentist." Although I like his enthusiasm and the eager love and plenty of heart that's all over evident in There's a Song in My Heart, there are other things to consider.
Though he sings with gusto and unbridled ebullience that has a certain appeal, he too often has pitch problems that mar the recording. And there are times he's shaky and other times he may just be unaware. He goes further than many in emulating the Sinatra approach, taking on many of the lyric changes the icon cavalierly made a matter of course. The phrasing and arrangements here bring us near to the kingdom of karaoke. The vast majority of the numbers are brash and upbeat numbers, with a couple of ballads for respite: "I've Got a Crush on You" and "All My Tomorrows" where sincerity sweetly shines through. In fact, there's as much sweetness as swagger in the swingers because this guy is just so darn likeable in his liking of the legend and is clearly as happy as Betty Blues Eyes the pig in a field of mud. There's a certain charm to this endeavor, but I can't responsibly say I would urge its purchase to Sinatra fans over such worthy recorded salutes by the likes of Michael Feinstein, Tony Bennett, Keely Smith, Steve Lawrence, Barry Manilow, Carol Sloane, Sammy Davis, Jr., or Frank Sinatra, Jr. to name just some. And, assuming you like the originator, hardly anyone (still) has more albums in print. Still, I get a kick out of this. It's not campy, it's just joyful.
Songs include such Sinatra standbys as "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Come Fly with Me," each and every one very much in the mold of the original records or concert arrangements. If you leave the disc on after the last title named on the song list, the perhaps inevitable "My Way," you'll hear a bonus track. It's the Sinatrafied reinvention of "On the Road to Mandalay," with all its glee and freewheeling abandonand the energy that infuses this fan's hero worship. The vocalist is accompanied by a seven-member band that sounds quite swell.
I suspect that the 11 songs here are not the only Sinatra tracks Dr. Lipman knows by heart and has sunk his teeth into. This dentist surely knows the drill. Open wide-and sing your heart out. There is a song in his heart, as the title says.