Sound Advice Reviews
Here's a wide variety of show tunes, in all their glory and various genres, new and old. Leading the list is a leading lady's solo debut with mostly show tunes from the '40s to the '90s the choices for Glory Crampton. A faded wisp of glory came to Glory Days, a show closing right after what was hoped to be a glorious Broadway opening night in 2008, but it got a cast album nevertheless. Then, songwriter Mr. Davis (Sam) and songstress Miss Davis (Jenny) with some often glorious music-making of their own.
Don't look for any double meanings in this CD's title. Unusual Way just refers to the included song by that title, from the Maury Yeston score to Ninenot an indication that any song here is presented in a very unusual way. Quite the contrary. Fervid traditionalists, having lovingly etched into memory those original cast albums' orchestrations and treatments, will be in their glory for several key tracks on Glory Crampton's solo debut. You'll find some of those familiar, instantly recognizable backings, punctuations and underpinnings on famous songs. There's that evocative, romance-drenched harp with Julian Stein's orchestrations for The Fantasticks with "Soon It's Gonna Rain." There's the instantly familiar intro and all that flows and follows in Philip J. Lang and Robert Russell Bennett's pulsating, pizzicato and plush moments, percussion, sweeps and swirls on songs from My Fair Lady with "I Could Have Danced All Night"big, full high final note includedand the firestorm of frustration unleashed, that show's "Show Me." (As she mentions in her liner notes, the actress was playing Eliza Doolittle, the titular Fair Lady at the time she recorded, so this Long Island, New York-raised gal kept the English accent she'd been employing.)
It's all very grand and nostalgic, and the singer is hard to fault vocally. With a paint-by-numbers approach to singing such assignments, loyalty seemingly prized over fresh interpretation, do the tight arrangements cramp Miss Crampton's style? Somewhat, especially on first hearing, where undeniable hummability might make for ho-hum been there/ heard that, but "just you wait," as Eliza once said to Professor Higgins: it's not all automatic pilot. There are little shadings, nuances and subtle opportunities briefly grabbed despite being rather boxed in as she sings with The National Symphony Orchestra.
A couple of other selections have a one-step-removed connection to her impressive performance résumé: For example, though she played in Nine recently, her character of the wife does not sing "Unusual Way" (her rendition an example of those nuances being consideredshe seems especially thoughtful and present with Maury Yeston's lyric and graces his melody). It is Yeston's musical version of Phantom she played and recorded the leading role of Christine, but it's the mammoth still-playing-on-Broadway Phantom of the Opera score on display here where she sings Christine's duet with the character of Raoul, "All I Ask of You." Her partner on the number (Lloyd Webber/ Hart/ Stilgoe) is Bjorn Olsson, an actor who has sung the role in different languages, and he switches back and forth from English here, bizarrely and distractingly, as they blend their voices and passions in David Cullen's original orchestration with all its climbs and climaxes. Other guest are here, too: another Lloyd Webber melody, his setting of "Pie Jesu" for his Requiem has an unidentified male chorus and James Rainbird who gained notoriety as a treble boy sopranothe song was recorded by him and a chorus with another female singer for another JAY album, but I don't know if there is any recycling here. Lauren Kennedy, a vibrant theatre singer, is Glory's partner for Side Show's very fervent "Who Will Love Me As I Am?"but their "blend" (if that's what was intended) is less of blend than a collision of two vocal sounds I don't hear as especially compatible or on the same wave length.
The choice of "Kissing You," a panting pop song from the soundtrack of the 1996 movie treatment of Romeo and Juliet, is seemingly from left field among the traditional tunestack, and the one where I had some difficulty understanding the words clearly (though the orchestra often feels like the co-staror morein the mixing on many cuts, she is rarely overwhelmed by it). Using five different conductors, the very up-front and big orchestral sounds, with strings and beautiful emphasis on strong, gorgeous melodic lines provides much compensation and pure aural pleasure. Glory's delicate head tones and legit soprano sound are put aside for some belting now and then. Though not terribly penetrating or vulnerable, her "My Man" is another surprise, with some belt and a more open sound, with the orchestration by classy and creative cabaret veteran Christopher Denny. And certainly some other tracks offer less predictability, without venturing too far afield. As the album goes on, vocal versatility becomes more evident. Tackling songs introduced by iconic stars with distinctive, larger-than-life personalities who were not at all in the ingenue or soprano clubs, she has fun withbut owes nothing tothe splashier Ethel Merman (with "The Hostess with the Mostes' on the Ball" she has a ball without being so brash and blaring) or the uniquely-voiced, broad humored Carol Channing (her "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is surprisingly loose, playful without overkill on the vamping and commenting).
One doesn't get much sense of who Glory Crampton might be in this constant changing of tone and sensibility. That's not the agenda. It's more of a concert showcase, a scrapbook of songs where she steps into the shoes of various characters, sometimes gingerly, sometimes walking around and digging her heels in more, as in the happily high-stepping "If My Friends Could See Me Now." This singer, perhaps most familiar to some CD collectors for guest appearances on Bruce Kimmel-produced albums of rare, unusual theatre songs, makes her Unusual Waydespite this time around singing some of the more "usual suspects" of better-known materialsomeone to welcome in this fuller hearing, too.
The coming-of-age musical called Glory Days came and went in the blink of a cold eye in 2008, and a cast album was released late last year. Although one can see and hear some of the problems causing the rise and demise, let's not be too hasty in thinking this is a useless autopsy. There is promise, though a first listen might promise to be frustrating, especially if you're coming in cold, because the packaging is skimpy, providing neither a synopsis nor even a list of which character is singing what. Though there are only four characters, they are all young men of not vastly different personality and vocal types, so, as they say in baseball, you can't tell the players without a score card. But the score has its pluses, and the plot and whatnot are easy enough to dig up, thanks to the Internet.
The quartet of a cast gives a spirited performance; they are the same four members of Virginia's Signature Theatre production, directed in both cases by Eric Schaeffer and reunited on Broadway. The show is about the reunion of four guys who were high school best friends. With their coming back together just a year after graduation, and with two of them having just been college roomies, one wonders if there is room for that much nostalgia factor if the idea of a the limited "long view" insights after just a year might have been shortsighted. But, unlike a rose, it's not quite true that a year is a year is a year: for many people, that year between the end of high school cocoon, still living at home and and the first year of college, finding yourselfand finding yourself maybe far from home and familyis a year that might feel very long and have long-term changes and effects. Still, like much in this problematic and fuzzy but frenetic piece, the specifics aren't clearat least what we can judge from Nick Blaemire's rock-style music and lyrics without the James Gardiner book. The lyrics don't bring a wealth of details of personality and those alluded-to past shared experiences beyond snippets. To exacerbate the matter, as might be logically expected of guys this agedespite their long familiaritythe characters are presented as guarded and often inarticulate. We need to care about them to get into this on stage or in the limited substitute of a cast recording of the songs.
There are some early roadblocks, with the opening song introducing the boys too sketchily, and, at that, some words get garbled. (No lyric booklet either!) Subsequent listens become somewhat more clarifying and satisfying, but one is nevertheless hit right away by some likeable male-bonding energy and numerous moments of appealing vocal harmonies, sometimes at unexpected or briefbut always welcomeinstances. Some group numbers, however, also have their moments of cacophony, obliterating bits of lyrics not clearly delivered in this rock style amid the ire. The songwriter and music director/keyboardist Jesse Vargas did the vocal arrangements and are also the CD's co-producers. The four actors and the vigorous Vargas are also joined by four more men on piano, bass, guitar and drums.
With the angst of the age, old and new wounds, plus some forced and failed forging of peace among the rankled ranks, too often songs feel like drawn-out brittle attacks and confrontations. When laced with immaturity, solipsism, and a sense of repetitive, non-specific verbiage peppered with profanities (age-appropriate/ rage-appropriate or not), some numbers come dangerously close to turning into bouts of whining and self-righteous frustration and accusation-hurling. At the end of the day, do we feel they've made progress or that we've made progress in knowing them? Not enough. Still, there is some affecting work here, despite some things too generic and full of hysterics that grate. Undeniably, songs and performances touch a nerve, but here and there it is touching, too. Sweetly painted is the tale of times on the "Open Road," the gay character's coming-out revelation, but the coming-out to his chums comes with a price. So, rather quickly, lines are drawn and the reactionary character played by Andrew Call, already established as the most dolt-like, becomes even less appealing without evident redeeming features or evidence of why we might be patient with his prejudice. Jesse JP Johnson's dedicated characterization and open-hearted singing of "Open Road" help counter that, but the fires burn. Steven Booth as the the peacemaker and the one who hopes they can all rekindle and recreate their supposed happy "Good Old Glory Type Days" has an aching sweetness in his vocals that tempers the more venomous elements. Adam Halpin gets less chance to stand out, but gets a rather effective invective, self-incriminating and self-analyzing himself and his peers with "Generation Apathy," one of the songs that gets down to some well-written specifics, references and points. Points scored.
The reunion and characters are based somewhat on Blaemire's own cronies and he's given his actors some meaty moments; he himself is a working actor (much was made at the time of his hopscotching between this show's readying and appearing in the company of another youth-oriented show then on Broadway, Cry-Baby). Still in his early 20s, he and Gardiner (whose twin brother Matthew was assistant director) began writing the piece when they themselves were 18, so much both rings true and has the earmarks of unpolished youthful enthusiasm needing some tweaks and toning.
The score ends with a look to the future, moving on beyond arrested development: "My Next Story." Don't be surprised those involved move on, successfully. The creators are at work on their next story, and there's enough promise here to make us all want to keep an ear to the ground.
"I was bound for glory ..." recalls the narrator, with bittersweet 20/20 hindsight, in the chapter-by-chapter, memory-by-memory story-song "Goodbye to Boston," recalling details and shifting, maturing mindsets: " ... We were still in love, just needing different things ... ." David Hyde-Pierce sings with the perspective of the distance of years, looking back at a love that began in high school and had a major impact, culminating in reunions and loss. "Goodbye to Boston," with a diary-like lyric by Sean Hartley, is just one of the deeply satisfying and very moving songs of Love on a Summer Afternoon. All have music by the giftedand clearly versatileyoung composer Sam Davis, already "bound for glory" himself. Hyde-Pierce is one of three alumni here from the recent Broadway cast of Curtains where Davis was Associate Musical Director. The others are Edward Hibbert, in another lyric by Hartley, smartly offering comic relief with "Love and Real Estate." He delivers ribaldry with rapier, dry witsuggestively, but suggesting an arch Noël Coward attitude. And there's Jason Danieley, his full-bodied vocals and valiant sound well-matched to an assertively burning melody wed to Mark Waldrop's metaphor of a lifetime as being one all-too-"Brief Candle."
Lyrics for the 14 selections, some from musical scores, are by four collaborators, plus one setting of a Langston Hughes poemthat is "I Dream a World," an anthem of hope for an idyllic time of peace, freedom and harmony among all races. It is sung with great dignity and a kind of determined awe by Michael McElroy and Tituss Burgess, two more musical theatre performers populating this all-male feast of thoughtful, thought-provoking material treated with tremendous care. There is also a gay sensibility and subject matter that is present, but some presentations are not gender-specific. Note the cover photo of a man kissing a woman on a park benchwhile holding hands with the man on her other side. There's a hint.
The album is rich with rewards of arresting music (with originality and satisfying surprises in snatches and long lines, in accompaniment from a dream-come-true orchestra with a large string section and sensitivity in large measure). The melodic adventurousness is never let down or overwhelmed by the words. They are particularly grown-up but the songs don't, as sometimes happens with newer material, need to grow on a listener because they have immediacy and clarity, especially as delivered so expertly here. This is apparent from the first track's memory pictures in "The Boy He Wanted Me to Be"going from childhood stings and tensions through self-realization which triumphs over parental judgment and self-doubt. It's wave after wave of music with Waldrop's words delineating the turning points and attached (or detached) feelings, and voiced expertly, and with seeming naturalness, by Michael Arden, singing with beauty and the skill of an accomplished actor, but you won't "catch" him acting. It's kind of the unexpected reality show sequel to Carousel's expectant father's "Soliloquy" fantasies of what he presumes and imagines his tough son will be, a chip off the old block.
The composer orchestrated five of the 14 tracks, is one of the pianists, and makes a deliciously sly, spicy singing appearance briefly as the title character in the group number "The Cookie Boy," with tart Hartley words providing a more adult version of the children's story of the boy-shaped gingerbread dessert. This original spin is a real delight, and like the best of cautionary tales, has a message without being too sweetened or heavy. Along with these occasional respites for revelry, there are larger doses of reveries. Some of those are tempered with sadder-but-wiser perspectives that may be rhapsodic or tempered with ruefulness and regret in these snapshots of falling rather easily in loveand not so easily out of it, but longing to linger or remember. That is celebrated in "Love Is a Chance You Take" with a Mark Waldrop lyric that is brightin both senses of the wordwith optimism about leaping into love, albeit measured optimism worth the risk factor. Malcolm Gets lets that cup seen as half-full runneth over with anticipated joy. Georgia Stitt contributes one lyric to a Davis-composed/orchestrated number, "Invested in You," which Bobby Steggert invests his considerable charm and sweetness. This seemingly vintage little valentine gets its ideal Cupid of an interpreter, on target as he points up its pastiche of playfulness that could easily pass as a long-lost 1930s bouncy bit of wit and whimsy.
I've had my ear on talented Mr. Davis for a while, largely due to other releases from PS Classics where his skills were evident, with his piano work and orchestral shaping, from the contribution of the music, with Randy Buck's lyric about a lyrical NYC weekend for lovers, as the title song of Rebecca Luker's CD Greenwich Time (toured warmly by Gavin Creel this time) to the always engaging solo CD work by Philip Chaffin. And it is Philip who sings the title number, with another Buck lyric, for this album. He imbues it with his reliably resplendent vocals and cozy phrasing.
There's reflected glory all around, with another Tommy Krasker production of merit for a writer who has a blooming future much anticipated.
"Morning Glory" is one of the appealing, if atypical, tracks on the latest CD by the understated, ear-pleasing singer Jenny Davis. Writer Rodgers Grant is telling the story of emotional attachment between a "lady of the evening" and one of her men. There's nothing smarmy or blatantly sexual about it; in fact, it's rather poetic and vulnerable. The singer gets "inside" a song at times, but subtly so. The first cut, "When Your Lover Has Gone," at first strikes one used to its renditions as a lonely, lovelorn, love-worn lament sung weepily by Sinatra and others may be taken aback. Why so dispassionate and matter-of-fact? Is she to be lumped in with so many jazz-oriented vocalists who eschew the demonstrative and the digging deeply inside the lyrics, just digging the groove of the music and glorying in that? That's the temptation of the first impression if you haven't encountered her before. She could be "one of those." But wait a minute. The lyric really is about feeling rather apathetic and energy-sapped more than crying in anguish ("When you're alone/ Who cares for starlit skies? ... Like faded flowers, life can't mean anything..."). Maybe it's a calculated choice. Maybe not. The other songs don't get her especially riled up and there is a "cool" distance from some other lyrics that might call out for more intensity. Her light, jazzy voice sounds comfortably in her own comfort zone of understated vocalizing with some touches of improvisation.
So, who is this Miss Davis? This pleasing, easy-on-the-ears singer based in the state of Washington had not previously in my state of awareness. I'm glad to belatedly find her on this latest self-produced CD. Her website tells me that this is her first album in five years, and the brief liner notes say that the main accompanist here, guitarist Chuck Easton (who doubles on flute, briefly), has been a musical colleague for 15 years. He's excellent as a player and true partner. Rodgers & Hart's perennial "My Romance" gives his instrument a nod in the lyric, of course, as the things not needed for romance and romantic mood are ticked off ("No month of May, no twinkling stars, no hideaway, no soft guitars"). It's a cozy rendition of a song that never seems to get old and tired, despite having debuted on Broadway 75 years ago this week. They sing and play this with real affection and no affectation. The other show tune is the even-older operetta warhorse that ends the album, "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" (Sigmund Romberg/ Oscar Hammerstein II); the old school expectation of something stiff and stoic, floridly and poetically parading the aspects of love is loose and limber in these hands. Though they are hardly the first to take this route, it still impresses, if the operetta context is your reference point. Easy does it and it's a pleasure to ease into their relaxed manner that makes the lyric seem more conversationally contemporaryto an extent.
Along the way, there are other jazz touchstones: something from Charlie Parker (a well-tackled trip through the tricky "Confirmation" that confirms Jenny's ease with big league jazz challenges; a breezy stroll "On Green Dolphin Street"; skimming across Jobim's infectious "No More Blues"). The title song is the one example of the singer's own songwriting and it's a nimble number, too, low-key but well-crafted. Rounding out this jazzy flight is "Blackbird," Paul McCartney's piece which might seem a bit too casual if you know its context of commenting on a racial incident that inspired it, but admittedly often gets a relaxed rundown by others and suits guitar and vocal combo well.
Bassist Ted Enderle is mostly in the background but does get one very prominent time in the spotlight and Louis Aissen, a tenor sax player, comes in for a guest appearance on one track, an old, old pop ditty, "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall," that is saved from Hallmark Homily Hell or self-pity (had its "too much is falling in mine" whine taken to the max); instead, it's treated genially and with a good-natured shrug. The sun'll come out tomorrow, we might think. Sunny spirits are present throughout, but it doesn't take much looking between the sunbeams to see inside the workingsthere's some very competent musicianship quietly on display with a "no fuss" attitude that some might miss on a casual hearing.
This is the kind of album that probably won't make your jaw drop with astonished admiration for tours de force work or showy, dazzling dynamics, but it's the kind that wears well, left on repeat play, and can get its appealing flavor inside you.