A new musical called Virgins presents us with three one-act musicals about women with varied experience and goals. Two focus on sex, or a lack thereof. And we have recordings from two women specializing in sexy songs and novelty numbers. Both released this week, each includes "C'est Si Bon" and "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" and each has a song by Cole Porter and one by Irving Berlin.
The five female cast members of Virgins are triple cast, playing roles in each of its three very different stories. Guitarist Andrew Kroenert from the five-person band is the sole male voice, singing just the introductory "Tracy and the Virgins," which is reprised at the end of that tale. This show hails from Australia, written by the team that wrote Prodigal which had a run in Manhattan at The York Theatre. Virgins was seen in last month's New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Composer Mathew Frank is also musical supervisor and Dean Bryant wrote book and lyrics as well as directing the show. The musical style is definitely pop.
We begin with a group of American teenaged cheerleaders who are rah-rah for virginity, singing the virtues of virtue. The actresses adopt voices to suggest hyper-chipper and squabbling high schoolers, resulting in some screechy, shrill voices that are a bit hard on the ears at times, but effective. They get the bitchiness and the eagerness, too, with the hard-sell enthusiasm insisting that it can be a challenge for girls to set boundaries, but they can make it "fun." Some of the humor here comes from the juxtaposition of serious issues, like sexually transmitted diseases being sung about with bright, bouncy cheerleader spunk. The second tale is about a reporter (well sung by Amanda Levy) investigating women working on Internet porn sites. A great deal of dialogue is included in this recording, some woven into the music. This middle show also has narration and the fewest musical numbers: not counting a cut song tagged on at the disc's end, it has three plus a reprise. (The show is big on reprises.) A reality TV show featuring competitors singing pop music in order to win Australian citizenship is the final piece. This allows for thick-accented characters from other countries and power ballads. Some of the vocals and songs are intense and strident, eschewing the notion that "less is more." I confess to having trouble staying tuned in here, despite repeated listenings. The basic melodies have their pull and punch, and emotions are conveyed and poured on.
The standout number is "Connect" (from the middle piece), an especially moving song that hits the target and brings out the best in the performers. Whereas other selections have some clever lines and catchy or driving melodies, this one has consistent passion and focus. And, despite the inclusion of spoken sections, the interaction is a bit confusing. The booklet gives a thumbnail sketch of the goings-on, but devotes most of its space to photos and press quotes. It was difficult to catch some lyrics, sometimes due to the Australian accents or less than careful diction in the denser pop-rock accompaniment. There's a relentlessness about the album that I find rather overwhelming. But I admire its strengths in satire and suspect there's a lot more than meets the ear.
Still purring and preening like the cat-inspired characters she has played, Eartha Kitt's career has had, you might say, nine lives, as she turns 80 - still oozing sexuality. She's known for her work in nightclubs, on records, and in film, TV and theater roles, from New Faces of 1952 to the current Mimi Le Duck, with The Wild Party and a stint as the green, mean witch in The Wizard of Oz in recent years, too.
Vamping and winking through her trademark songs and more, her engagement at New York's Cafe Carlyle this past June has been captured on disc before an appreciative audience. Songs from her theater roles are not featured, but there are a few tunes from other shows and films, along with reprises of songs she has put her stamp on over the years. Those familiar with these staples from her recordings (studio and live) will recognize the usual suspects on the set list. There's a lighter, more self-mocking feel to the simmering seductress persona, and the relaxation is a plus.
Musical direction, arrangements and piano duties are covered by longtime associate Daryl Waters leading the smart five-piece band. The band adds energy, not that Eartha is in short supply of that commodity. Anyone with even the slightest exposure to the Kitt catalogue knows that sultry is where she lives, so it's more about the tension of the slow burn than a musical explosion.
Some patter and asides are included, showing plenty of personality and rapport with the audience. She tells a story about working with Nat King Cole between sections of "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup"; during "C'est Si Bon," she's apparently working her way through the crowd, addressing individuals in an extended sequence that obviously is better appreciated seen than just heard. "Well, I may be 80, but I'm still burning," she quips during a romp through "I've Got My Love to Keep My Warm." She also digs deliciously into her Cole Porter choice, contemplating that musical puzzler, "What Is This Thing Called Love?" (My only complaint about the album really is that the songwriters are not credited; these two numbers are well known, but for example, those who may not be familiar with the clever "Hate/ Love New York" may want to know that it is the work of the late Portia Nelson.)
Eartha's bursts of laughter underscore her own enjoyment and the fact that she's not taking herself as seriously in the flirty and rowdy numbers, but she can put the growl and exotica on hold to pause for reflection in credible dramatic performances. "All My Life" is low-key and - yes, vulnerable, a welcome respite. "September Song" and "It Was a Very Good Year" are done straight, reflections on the passing of the years. However, they are not tear-jerkers milked for drama. In fact, much of "It Was a Very Good Year" is in a quick tempo, done with more rhythm and percussion than you'd imagine. Eartha is not looking back with regrets or painful memories. At the end, she celebrates life well lived and hope for the future (hers and ours) with the toast "Here's To Life."
Here's to Eartha: three cheers - one for originality, one for longevity, one for pure entertainment.
UNDER THE RADAR
She's a big star in France, mostly for movies and being half of a high profile celebrity couple, but Arielle Dombasle's singing is a newer venture. An earlier album found the performer, who was born in the USA but grew up in Mexico, singing Spanish songs. The material on C'est Si Bon has a heavy French accent, as does her voice. Arielle presents herself as a breathy, wispy-voiced sex kitten. Unlike Eartha Kitt who has fun with such a role and mocks it while playing it, Arielle comes off as more vamp than camp.
Some of the presentations are kind of cute, but the powder puff fluff routine becomes repetitive. Things get off to a promising enough start with Cole Porter's "C'est Magnifique," which like "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" and "C'est Si Bon" boasts a French title but uses the language as subject matter, and most of the lyric is in English. Similarly, "Relax-ay-voo" by Arthur Schwartz and Sammy Cahn, heard in a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie called You're Never Too Young, is fun in a fractured French fashion. (It's mildly amusing to have someone so long fluent in the language play at struggling with it.) The real problem here is that our chanteuse is limited in her abilities. Despite the bravura sex symbol posturing, she sounds vocally unsure, tentative or even nervous at times. Certainly her sense of pitch and vocal placement are not solid. Her voice quavers and some leaps and sustained notes in melodies find the lady on uncertain ground. Arielle has the attitude and pout down pat, and those seeking a throwback to the fantasies of the docile, demure doll-like divas hinting at lust on demand may be satisfied. Her Irving Berlin choice, "Cheek to Cheek," has a touch of perfumed romance and shows she can pull off some innocence.
The musicians and arrangements are just fine. Musical treatments create some pleasing moods and attitudes, with a variety of instrumentation. No skimping here. If cotton candy is your taste and you can't resist a French accent, then this may be of interest.
... End of disc-ussion for this week.