All females singing this week, including a show where all eight characters are women, including the puppet. Then, three vocalists with mostly love songs, mainly jazzy and quite mellow, unlike the mostly high-octane, rather raucous performances on the cast album first in our gallery of gals.
Rowdy rather than dowdy, proud and loud (very), the "women of a certain age" portrayed in Hats! are certainly not refined, soft-spoken, slowed-down little ladies who lunch. "Does anyone still wear ... a hat?" goes the line in Company, and two of that musical's 1970 original cast members are in this cast: Teri Ralston and Pamela Myers. Their contributions are among the more appealing in this very mixed bag; don't look for pretty or musically attentive and solid singing as a rule. Recorded live at one Colorado performance in November of last year, the cast favors raw energy and boisterousness rather than more care with musical values. I'm a big fan of belting and character singing, when it sounds healthy and powerful and non-sloppy without raggy vibrato. Unfortunately, some of the singing from the seven-member cast sounds like they're pushing or plodding or just yelling. When they sing in a group, as they often do, the blend (or lack thereof) can be cacophonous. The musical accompaniment is two keyboards, bass and drums.
Many different writers contributed songs, and demo versions of three numbers featuring the writers are included as bonus tracks. In each case, I prefer the demo version because it's less assaulting and doesn't overplay its hand as some cast members do in the show. Albeit they may be somewhat less theatrical, but they serve the material better. Melissa Manchester (who played the central role of Mary Anne in the Chicago production) and Sharon Vaughn wrote one of the best songs, "Invisible," which has more pathos in their version, where Debbie Vaughn joins them and Melissa is also on piano. Pam Tillis sings solo and plays one of the guitars on her demo of "The Older the Fiddle, the Sweeter the Tune," making it a more easygoing cheery sentiment. This number, co-written with Pat Bunch, is more in showstopper mode in the production. The third item heard in both demo and cast versions is "I Don't Want" where the rage of age comes through with some comedy. It's a litany of complaints and wishes about the realities of getting older. As Mary Anne, the character turning 50, Cheryl Stern gets her turn while the demo is sung in a similar vein by Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the lyrics (melody and piano accompaniment by David Friedman).
"My Empty Nest," written by Carol Hall and sung by Pamela Myers, does not milk its sadness and, while a gentler touch would be nice, I admire the interesting choice of emphasizing the frustration and mixing it with some bravado rather than just playing the loneliness. Teri Ralston is effective in her moments, which include some dialogue from the script by Anthony and Marcia Milgrom Dodge (they're siblings, thus the name of the record company/ production company). The two also wrote "My Oven's Still Hot" with Beth Falcone, a double entendre fest of sass and sexual confidence led by Miche Braden who has the knowhow and chops to pull it off. The cast is rounded out by Joy Franz, Leslie Alexander and Nora Mae Lyng.
The festivities begin and end with numbers by Dreamgirls' composer Henry Krieger collaborating with lyricist Susan Birkenhead, celebrating the milestones of turning "Fifty" and joining the real-life Red Hat Society of women in that age bracket and beyond with "Put Your Red Hat On."
This show has also played in New Orleans and comes to Las Vegas in January. It perhaps is better appreciated seen, not just heard. One might be a bit swept along with its goodwill and good fun and be more forgiving of some auditory woes that are glaring as a CD-listening experience. Though too many moments have obviousness and overplaying hitting us over the head, some others touch the funnybone and even the heart.
Coming in with her second album a year behind her debut effort, Barbara Lusch shows growth. The newer CD surpasses her eponymous first, which is well sung and shows off her very appealing and cozy voice, but leans too heavily one style and attitude. Surprisingly Good for You still clings to those ways in part, especially with the eye-battingly playful and sly "Daddy" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." However, more versatility is shown with "I Won't Dance" and a bittersweet "For All We Know."
Despite vocal sounds that are always pretty to hear, favoring the low-key style doesn't always pay off. Pleading, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good/ Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood" in a soft, relaxed way drains "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" of any sense of urgency. Also oddly Valiumized rather than assertive is the Evita song that gives the CD its title. It takes some getting used to, but there's an argument to be made for the soft sell persuasion of it.
Songs associated with and recorded by Peggy Lee are notably present, though the singer does not ape her style in any way. These include "Why Don't You Do Right" and two the star wrote: "Please Don't Rush Me," which could be her mantra on this mainly lazy-tempo CD, and "Baby, Come Home" co-written with Dave Barbour.
Beginning and ending her 13-song set with sensitive, sweetly-sung standards, "Sentimental Journey" and "Stardust," Barbara presents an easy-to-take, easy-to-repeat album. Not at all taxing, and certainly relaxing, it's in the main a snuggly, very musical sound. The two CDs also feature almost exactly the same very fine musicians, with pianist Don Gaynor supplying arrangements as does percussionist Bobby Torres.
Barbara's singing is like velvet on the ears and thus is a joy to hear, quite de-Lusch-ious.
Experiencing Your Eyes with my ears, I must say Pamela Luss's CD has been growing on me. I've had it for a while, and it's one of those that didn't do much for me right away. Maybe her warm and fuzzy, somewhat unusual voice takes some getting used to. Listening to her first CD, There's Something About You I Don't Know, has helped me "get" her style, too. The two issues are only a year apart and I actually have a preference for the first one. I like its song choices more, it flows better and there are more musicians (only bassist Richie Goods is on both).
The cover of Your Eyes gives prominent billing to the great veteran jazz sax player Houston Person. He is only on four tracks, but he certainly adds significant and tasty touches. Piano duties find either Jon Cowherd on the keys (four selections, including a generous solo on a "Send in the Clowns") or puts Pamela in the capably jazzy hands of John di Martino who also does half the arrangements, including the very non-limpid "Over the Rainbow." It moves.
Interacting well with the musicians, Pamela seems to immerse herself in the sinuousness of melodies at times, but meanders somewhat on some tracks that lack drive or a strong musical shape. As I hear it, she gets more into a general mood rather than the lyrics line by line. It's the forest, not the trees. There's one Cole Porter tune and it's one of the best on the CD: "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." I also like "In Passing Years," by Rick Jensen wherein Pamela shows some wistfulness and sensitivity. But the strongest performance here is the title song by Myron Walden, who also arranged it. It digs the deepest and there seems to be more connection and more at stake dramatically.
Despite real variety in material, tempi and musical accompaniment, there's still a kind of sameness about Pamela's sound and her approaches to the songs. Also, a kind of nasal quality is present and a laidback style that makes things a little draggy on the longer cuts. On the bright side, Pamela Luss has a kind of easy moodiness that seems to come naturally and there's a feel of slow-burning embers rather than fiery passion. That can sometimes be rather pleasing on Your Eyes.
Keep your eyes on this singer's website for her New York appearances scheduled in coming weeks.
UNDER THE RADAR
Moving on from Your Eyes to Soul Eyes, here's the weekly eye on a debut CD ...
A solo CD recorded all on one day (Ground Hog Day, to be specific) is Maria Guida's first. She's not new to singing; she worked as an actress and did some musical theater, including two Broadway credits going back over 25 years: Pirates of Penzance and King of Hearts. Her album includes only one song from a Broadway musical, however, but it's a beaut - the 1929 Rodgers & Hart classic, "Spring is Here."
Maria is accompanied by a quartet. She's deep into jazz here, but, although her admiration and passion for it shows, she doesn't seem 100% at ease. There's often a studied and tentative quality to the approach. You can sense her efforts and some noticeably careful work trying to follow in the big footsteps of jazz stars who have recorded some of the tunes selected. For example, her "Let's Get Lost" does get lost in trying to bend notes. She's not loose enough on the very challenging workout of "Four," the old Miles Davis melody with Jon Hendricks' lyrics. Maria embellishes the Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields movie memory "The Way You Look Tonight" with her own additional music and lyrics that are kind of fun and impressive.
Her acting skills come through in her especially attentive phrasing and shading of words, especially on "The Night We Called It a Day" and "(How Little It Matters) How Little We Know." She really is a storyteller on these, putting an actor's spin on images and moods of regret, wonderment and anticipation.
The more easygoing, lightly swinging tracks on this CD work better than the heavier moments or the more complex jazz charts. Those present challenges not always aced. So how do you solve a problem like Maria? Probably by more live performing experience in the jazz world, which she's had since the CD was issued. She's surrounded herself with master teacher-performers, such as singer Sheila Jordan, pianist Fred Hersch and the aforementioned Jay Clayton (who did the musical directing and as the CD credits "many arrangements"). I suspect she's on the right track, and if she's still feeling her way, she already gets a lot of feeling into her performances.