Sound Advice Reviews
The Encores! CD of Pipe Dream ...
One of the lesser-known musicals of one of the best-known musical theatre writing teams gets its only recording since the original and the two female stars of the new production have their own albums on the market.
After having written four of Broadway's beloved blockbusters together, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/bookwriter Oscar Hammerstein II came in with Pipe Dream, a show that didn't quite come together and didn't quite come off. This new recording's liner notes (which are accompanied by numerous color photos of this very limited-run concert endeavor and a synopsis) bring it up again, but also praise what we need to focus on when just looking at recordings of scores as is our business here: how the score sounds. It sounds great. I've always been a staunch defender/admirer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon as the gold standard and reference point for other scoresthe sturdy, rock-solid, robust and rich Rodgers architectures, so natural with their broad strokes and sweep, and the Hammerstein lyrics that shine in the sense of being the polished work of a dedicated, talented master craftsman and being intrinsically bright-spirited. Hammerstein's lyrics unabashedly celebrate the good and noble sides of the human condition, the beauty of nature, championing hope and allergic to true despair and jadedness.
While drama, tension and power are largely absent in this genial story of simple people mostly seeking simple contentment and life in the slow lane, the songs yield many satisfactions and are handled by a skillful cast in this live recording made in Manhattan's newly renovated large City Center theatre with its upgraded sound system. Sound balance and mix is very good, and the splendid on-stage orchestra conducted by Rob Berman and marvelous orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett ((with the assistance of a few others in the field) that enrich and reinforce the mostly brisk and bustling melodies are at least equal co-stars to the vocals. Hooray for that. My enthusiasm for the score is rekindled with this fuller version, so nicely handled, so affably accessible in its relaxed and folksy manner and so very, very vibrant. I don't want to oversell it to newcomers or claim it is deep or deeply moving; it's just a very enjoyable little gem with spunk and heart. One must be forgiving about the period sexist references to women as tomatoes and the like, and the likening of courting to being "trapped."
Will Chase is an appealing leading man as science-focused Doc, acing his material about nature and the nature of human beings and quite striking in the songs about love. And with "The Man I Used to Be," a mix of regret and wondering, with its irresistibly jaunty melody, everything gels. Steven Wallem is a special treat, nailing some laughs and lovable goofiness as the dim-witted and kindly Hazel. His line readings and singing personality are spot on. Tom Wopat is casually comfortable castingcoasting on a breezy attitude as a happy-go-lucky guy named Mac leading the male bonding at the flophouse. On the female side, instead of an opera-trained soprano as Fauna, we get the likeably vivacious veteran Leslie Uggams who brings some appropriate earth mother feel and an ebullient personality. Her singing is spirited and energizing, soothing and encouraging when it needs to be. She and Laura Osnes, quite attractive with a just-right plaintive quality as the lost soul Suzy, make a fine contrasting vocal pair in their "Suzy Is a Good Thing." And, in two versions, these women and Chase all grace the score's real romantic beauty, "All at Once You Love Her." Despite any harping on softenings of John Steinbeck's original characters or the shortcomings naysayers find in Pipe Dream, it's with a lush song so sincerely rendered it makes the chat (some dialogue is heard) and lighter musical fare served up earlier seem like a prelude for the understanding of a love match and the satisfying and cozy conclusion. And cut to the Chase and Osnes, characters hand in hand, going from squabbling romance-resisters to lovebirds, not unlike the character arcs of Curly and Laurie in Oklahoma!.
Although nothing's included from her Rodgers & Hammerstein role in Pipe Dream, Laura Osnes's solo recording has some Rodgers and some dreaminess which goes beyond the number suggested by the titlethe oldie "Dream a Little Dream of Me." In her rendition, she suggests a lovestruck lady who seems to have no doubt that the request will be granted and the love is returned. Confidence reigns. There's patter about the excitement and nerves of starting off in cabaret without a character to hide behindand in one of the poshest (and priciest) places aroundthe Café Carlyle. This sets up a purported chance to get through nerves by singing about them in a reworked situation-specific lyric to "I Have Confidence" which has its "adorable" factor, sold hard as she praises her band members, etc. Though the song was written by Richard Rodgers alone for the film version of The Sound of Music, it was included in the concert version of the score she sang the lead in at Carnegie Hall.
The CD was recorded over various nights in late June of this year. It does not include everything from all of her sets (so her stint in the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific is not represented as it was in the show), but it does include a "bonus" of a song from her upcoming Rodgers & Hammerstein role in Cinderella"In My Own Little Corner," performed on the closing night of her cabaret run, in which she effusively plays down the wistfulness and loneliness and plays up the fantasizing's joy and coy alarm in the part where she dreams she is on safari without a gun.
The multi-night recording plan also allows us to hear three guest male vocalists from different nights. One is her own husband, pleasant-voiced Nathan Johnson, and they relive the time they met as understudies for the leads in Aladdin, nostalgically indulging in their wide-eyed wonder of "A Whole New World," hewing very close to the original architecture as a fervent flashback. It's as if time stood still and they gush gleefully. Laura's Pipe Dream castmate, Tom Wopat, is in his laidback mode, and their duet that June night is the out-of-season "Baby, It's Cold Outside," allowing for the typical teasing of interplayful seductiveness/caginess this number invites. A number Wopat did many nights on Broadway in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun, "Anything You Can Do," is picked for her romp with Jeremy Jordan and it's the most delightful of the three duo turns. The two, who played the title roles in the short-lived Bonnie and Clyde on Broadway, have sparking chemistry and find many original line readings and a nice casualness mixed with conviction. They really seem to be having fun challenging each other, adding quips and attitude, in this classic one-upmanship contest. Her big sustained note is impressive and he's entertainingly feisty, charming and cocky throughout, not predictable or easily acquiescing.
One of the best numbers in Bonnie and Clyde, "How 'Bout a Dance?" is sung in character. Since it's actually the album's opening track, before any talk as her real-life self, its nicely calibrated sultriness sets the bar high if you were hoping for a series of deeply etched character pieces. If you're wondering why the name Laura Osnes keeps popping up when a plum classic ingénue role is being cast in high-profile theatre productions, have a listen. What seems to be a natural upbeat sweetness along with a soprano sans stuffy formality pours out like honey, and the sunshine radiates almost aggressively. Girlish giggles, bubbly enthusiasm, perky personait's all there in buckets, epitomized by renditions that are more often glossy-pretty or even cute, and calling her musicians and guest singers "awesome" or "amazing." It's almost as if songs are filtered so that anything that could be too dark or deep or too personally revealing is kept out or smoothed out. If your musical cup of tea is preferred with a few heaping spoonfuls of soprano sugar, you'll drink it in as refreshing. Otherwise, it may leave you wanting something more involving and layered. But there is grace and there are uncomplicated, lovely vocal sounds with unobtrusive accompaniment that keeps the singer front and center and some more fully realized interpretations that veer from the pep and the pert.
And this is, after all, first and foremost a cabaret show with autobiographical elements, so there's some standing outside the songs, gingerly and politely "trying on" the theatrical garments rather than wearing them. Things get jollier and more generic, with little nuance or investment in the lyrics of The Music Man's big ballad "Till There Was You," for Marian the librarian, which she says is her dream role to play one day. "All the Things You Are" is likewise disappointingly all one color: admittedly golden of voice, but with little variation or build in interpretation. More troubling is Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" which needs either sorrow or foreboding, preferably both, but the lament gets little of either. The same writer's bittersweet "When She Loved Me" is hugely more successful, believable, and quite affecting, a lyric she gets inside as she spins it with true tenderness, dedicating it to her late mother.
When she digs in, as herself or fully enveloped in a character, Laura Osnes shows how focused and captivating she can be. There's a pretty good chance there's more than "pretty" to hearbut pretty it is.
We haven't had much from Leslie Uggams on disc in recent years. So, it's welcome news that not only was the Encores! production of Pipe Dream recorded, but earlier this year she released a two-disc solo set. It has many standards and show tunes that also serves to affectionately look back at her career and the show biz legends she crossed paths with early on, their numbers embraced with mostly Luther Henderson's orchestrations. The very accomplished star is in fine, solid voice and this is some of her best work on record ever, the tracks meant as more than nods to other singers showing conviction and depth. From her long-ago album of religious and the brisker, schmaltzier collections tied to the cheery TV show she appeared on, "Sing Along with Mitch" to later collections of pop and R&B covers and, of course, standards and cast albums, I've had my joys, my guilty pleasures, my frustrations with material or corny and/or commercial arrangements, but this mature sum-up recital best answers the question that was the title of one of those old records: What's an Uggams?. She was then and is now an eager-to-please, old-school entertainer who can turn on a dime from a deep, rich, thoughtful performance to a belt or croon with a vibrato that can be velvety or thrillingly powerful.
Uptown Downtown is New York-specific, "up" being her home in northern Manhattan and Harlem (with a big nod to her days at that neighborhood's famed venue, the Apollo, where she and others she salutes trod the boards). Relatively speaking, downtown is many blocks souththe musical theatre world on Broadway.
The collection is based on her live show looking back on her professional journey, and that's important to keep in mind when listeningit helps to have reference points and perspective to know the musical originators. Having seen the show at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I can fill in the blanks to make this a cohesive listening experience that might at times puzzle others. While some spoken narrative is included, it's not enough for newcomers to easily identify everything and know why it's sung in a certain style, but I think it can still be appreciated on its own. (Examples: Ella Fitzgerald's very early hit embellishing an actual nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," in her pouting, girlish style, others that go back to vaudeville and variety traditions, and a brief imitation of Louis Armstrong.)
The first disc has twelve tracks, which includes a few medleys, but the second disc has only nine numbers, though many are "big" showstopper types, so it feels pretty rich and full. Along the way, there are three selections from Porgy and Bess and George and Ira Gershwin's classic "The Man I Love." On "Born in a Trunk" by Leonard Gershe (mistakenly credited to the same Ira and composer Harold Arlen, who wrote the main original score material for the movie where Judy Garland sang it, A Star Is Born), Leslie adapts the lyric in a few places to make it about her home and to emphasize that she started as a kid performer. And Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" happily accepts her life on the road and is sung with a fervent passion and determination.
The liner notes by concert director Michael Bush mention his work directing Leslie in the stage piece playing Lena Horne, Stormy Weather. This explains why her version of the Horne trademark song of the same name (Arlen again, with Ted Koehler's hauntingly despairing lyric) borrows liberally and deliberately from the phrasing and lyric embellishments of Lena's later-career versions of it, specifically the memorable, dramatic way she handled it in the second, more searing and harrowing version on the recording of her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. It's an all-stops-out performance that honors the predecessor and impresses. "Love" also takes its cue from Lena's take on it, biting into the lyric and growling, making it like a fast-moving tornado. But, perhaps historically ironically (in a sweetly satisfying way), it's a key song from a Broadway show that Lena Horne turned down and won Leslie Uggams and the show Tony Award gold ("My Own Morning" from Hallelujah, Baby!). It is most riveting for me, perhaps because it's spine-tinglingly that much deeper and so fully owned, working on new levels of recollection and powerfully palpable, earned achievement. It's just one of numerous sterling arrangements/orchestrations by the pianist/conductor here, the masterful and seriously elegant Don Rebic.
Some of the lively numbers are strutting romps, some ebullient numbers go for occasional shouts of jubilation rather than pure musical tones, and there's some brash, brassy belting. But there is hushed intimacy as well, and some rare treats of accompaniment by solo instrumentalistsand that makes for some of the most rewarding repeat listening. Steve Bargonetti's guitar accompaniment on the pop classic "Up on the Roof" is warm and evocative, and a deep-voiced caress of Paul McCartney's longing for the lover lost just "Yesterday" melded with the Kern/Harbach's longer view for the youth of "Yesterdays" is great stuff. The usually legato and heart-tugging "Hello, Young Lovers," startlingly fast-clipped, clear-eyed, but still surprisingly emotionally pungent, and just percussion-accompanied (!) by drummer Buddy Williams, takes on a new P.O.V.. This brings us back to Rodgers and Hammerstein, of course, writers of Pipe Dream, where Leslie Uggams also shines, as does this document to her legacy and love of music.