Sound Advice Reviews
Studio Cast Albums &
Here are two studio cast albums of enjoyable musicals which saw limited-run New York productions: Next Thing You Know and Sympathy Jones. And a new issue of the original (1971) Follies Broadway cast, remixed and retooled in the studio from the original tapes and sounding simply wondrous.
NEXT THING YOU KNOW
In a telling morning-after moment in the well-crafted four-character musical Next Thing You Know, the groggy and foggy folks waking up realize they are "Hungover" not just from the booze, but from the cumulative decade of life experiences of their 20s. Throughout the story, these young people finding and losing their ways in current-day New York City are stumbling, stalling, grumbling, rising and falling, setting goals and then procrastinating, making personal connections and commitmentsor not. Time starts to tick more loudly as they face decisions, such as staying in town or moving on to the next geographical chapter, accepting a full-time job that isn't the dream job, what to do about a longish-term relationship (take a step back, take a step towards marriage, break up and give up?).
The growing pains of post-"adult" growing-up are part of a long process explored with humor, insight, and pathos in this musical's songs which I've gotten to do know over the last few years in concert, cabaret samplings, and a full production I saw and reviewed. Now, finally, there's a studio cast album of the score, thanks to the new company of Yellow Sound Label which has brought us a flurry of interesting releases. And co-founder/co-owner Michael Croiter, who produced and mixed the CD, also sits in the drummer's seat as he did for years in the Broadway pits of Avenue Q and A Dancer's Life (that dancer being Chita Rivera whose CD was one of the first we saw from Yellow Sound). He's joined by string players on cello, violin, bass and guitar, and piano played by musical director Kurt Crowley.
Lauren Blackman is the sole member of the quartet to recreate her role of Lisa for the recording. Lisa is employed as a singer at the "Little Bar on Sullivan Street" in Greenwich Village (yes, it's a real street, where The Fantasticks played for decades in its original run) where much of the action (or non-action when characters are in their "filling time" mode) takes place. She is the one not so sure she should stay in the city and has that nagging feeling it's time to move on to the other coast. This is crystallized in a strong and strongly-delivered song about the view while crossing "Manhattan Bridge" losing its allure. The other female character is Waverly, is a good friend and a bartender with the job offer which is not in her declared career goal area which she hasn't been actively pursuing latelyacting.
As the story opens, Waverly seems stuck and scared. The role is played by Patti Murin, revealing a wider range of emotions and vocal nuances and strengths not seen in her more limiting lead role in this season's Lysistrata Jones. She's an appealing presence here, in serious, searching, and sweet moments, nicely expressing confusion and catharsis as she's alternately attracted and ambivalent and perpetually on the fence when it comes to deciding among the three job paths and two men.
The men go from being co-workers thrown together (one is a temp) but keeping their distance, to a bout of male bonding and competitive bravado (the carousing anthem "We're Gonna Go Out" and the rather blatantly sexist "The Way to Get a Girl"), to competitors when they belatedly realize it's Waverly they both want. Jay Armstrong Johnson's performance as the far more confident, swaggering Luke manages to find the humor and heart lurking in the cocky fellow to make the guy more palatable and sympathetic. A comic highlight is his number about struggling and failing to break the nicotine habit, "And I Breathe." But sympathies more readily go to the gentler soul and more puppy-dog-like Darren, played by Colin Hanlon with grace and goodwill, who wants to be a writer and a loving boyfriend, but slips up. His solo, "If She Were Coming Home," is the standout number due to its wistfulness and heartbreak quality, a lament about little things he'd do (like the dishes) if only his former live-in girlfriend were still that. But it's just one of many on-target and smart numbers (including a title song that manages to be both edgy and buoyant) by the very skilled team of composer Joshua Salzman and lyricist-bookwriter Ryan Cunningham, whose standout musical I Love You Because also featured Hanlon as a 20-something guy licking his wounds from a break-up and finding his way (sort of) in New York's dating/mating jungle.
The album well represents this decidedly contemporary show that musicalizes the jangled nerves, confusions and self-delusions of people trying to make sense of their rocky roads, with breaks to avoid it all with a beer or two or a fling. Admirably, it doesn't let the characters appear deeper or wittier than they would be for the sake of showier songwriting. They are true to character and entertaining and spot on in that way, with words that feel like their thoughts in different ranges of truthfulness as they become more self-aware. And the melodies are appropriately yearning or tense or jaunty. A bonus track, "Home Calls" is a bittersweet gem about the pull and longing that come with relocating and wondering.
The Salzman/Cunningham team is in the top tier of musical theatre writers who, thankfully, don't overwrite as so many others do, but they find their characters' just-right voices and know the value of clear, economic writing that can be situation-specific with a more universal emotional pang that resonates. These graduates of N.Y.U.'s musical theatre program have only scratched the surface of what they can and will bring us in the future.
As Rodgers & Hart once musically inquired, "Have You Met Miss Jones?" In this case, her first name is Sympathy, but this Miss Jones was new to me and I'm very pleased to make her acquaintance. Although the show's website tells us that what we're hearing on the 11 tracks is only about "two-thirds" of the score of Sympathy Jones (thus the CD's title "Selections from ..."), what we do hear is delightful, satisfying, and certainly made me hungry for more. I missed it when it played the packed festival of new musicals in Manhattan, NYMF, five years ago. Now here is a studio cast album with one cast member, Kate Shindle (Wonderland, Legally Blonde), who played the title role of a secretary who yearns to become a secret agentand does. This performer is in her element here, belting and strutting and delivering the wham-o jabs and jibes and feminist "you go, girl" attitude. (Is that an oxymoron? Make that "You go, woman!") The point is, she turns in a juicy performance that does not flag.
A spoof of spy stuff and the 1960s sounds parading in pastiche, this broad musical is a hoot and the cast assembled plays it to the hilt withoutas I hear itoverdoing it. Goofy and energetic, cartoony with subtle winks and asides, it's grand fun. Silly, campy, but sharp, high-energy hijinks.
Colin Hanlon affablyand cutely in the needed bumbling mannersings and acts the role of Henry, a not-quite-ready spy guy who is thrown into the mayhem that centers on stealing time-stopping technology that can be used for evil or good. We first hear about it with the invention of a wristwatch whose wearer can possess eternal youth. It's described in "Time Will Tell"the opening number of the album that recalls the searing and hyper-dramatic stylings of a number written for a siren to slither to and sing in a James Bond movie title song. Jen Percival seethes and simmers with just the right sounds and sass, a right-out-of-the-box highlight of the score by Masi Asare, once a secretary at N.Y.U. herself, who wanted more, like the Miss Jones of this daffy delight of a musical.
Brooke Pierce is the bookwriter; the fold-out packaging has a plot summary, showing how the songs (just those included here) fit in. This is also on the website, which additionally has the lyrics, but again, just the ones on the album. (The script and score are published and the show is licensed for production.)
Although not every number is equally a knockout out of context, it's all rather consistently charming and spiffy. Some numbers with more back-and-forth conversation serve to drive the plot and evil plotting. There's sensational chemistry on "If I Didn't Have You," which is the splashy highlight in the old school sense of a musical comedy "take-home tune" as it merrily joins the ranks of buddy appreciation songs, but does a snarky twist on them for the evil ones with references to skunks and other negative images instead of the usual metaphors as compliments. This is a showstopper for performers Sue Mathys and Jim Bray, who (along with the ensemble) also ply their tirade of a trade advertising why one should be wary of a warring ex-wife scorned in the fiercely funny warning "Don't Cross Kitty."
Bombs, blackmail, a break-in, and a blazing fire all figure into the story, but never fear: Sympathy Jones rises to the occasion and to the high level of hilarity and bombastic singing and sleuthing. Amid the worry and hurry (encapsulated in appropriate songs like "Think Fast" and "Before It's Too Late"), the shenanigans abound and the musical theatre fan up for a spin through the spy-and-suspense clichés freshened by a female-centric heroine twist will find many a madcap moment of froth.
For those of us who thought we knew the 1971 original, listening to Kritzerland's new issue of Follies, Stephen Sondheim's magnificent score, lovingly and startling brought into sharp focusremixed and remastered by Bruce Kimmelis a revelation worthy of gaping gratitude and celebration. With the wonders of modern technology and an appreciation for the power and importance of orchestrations and orchestra-playing and their nuances, the new balance and details and clarity are welcomed and wonderful. And the CD has been welcomed by many: the first edition of 1500 copies sold out quickly; a second edition of 1000 is currently being sold at Kritzerland.
Back in the days when my record shelf was indeed one small shelf (with not so many choices), the Follies original cast album was a constant companion, and one that I have often returned to. Now it's like an old friend seen in a new lightnot with a hasty fake face lift or a makeover, but just shining an auditory spotlight and magnifying glass on what was lurking all along, in sharper relief and brighter, richer colorsvocals and instrumentals.
Listening carefully or casually, it's a bounty of blessings. Now a fully out-front co-star sharing the stage is the glorious orchestra, with Jonathan Tunick's detailed orchestrations that supply context, subtext, underpinnings, foreboding and a kind of "commentary" emphasizing and expanding an emotion or a lyric just sung or adding that little punch of punctuation or pang of underlying feeling. What was (perhaps not always obviously) muddy is now clear and crisp; what was once thought to be pretty much an overwhelmingly solo instrument sound has companions of different timbres and support network. The cast's voices, where personality, age, and emotions choked on or hidden, and the people's age are so crucialwell, it all is heard in fuller scope, character "warts" and all, heartbreakingly human and real. And, significantly, in passages with counterpoint singing or layers of music lapped on vocal lines, words once somewhat buried now jump out instead of competing and struggling. Dense company numbers like "Who's That Woman?" are now enjoyed while hearing the prime vocal and the chorus singing their differing lyric lines and the pastiche numbers are discovered to have even more little touches of their musical forefathers in the mix. And when there is cacophony or tension, we hear the different competing elements collide and set off sparks that burn and bristle all the more.
No, no new material or longer versions were unearthed. They apparently never existed, with the famously lamented truncated score designed to fit on a single record had its trims and cuts decided before recording began, as opposed to editing or discarding. This and the fact that unused takes were taped over, is the sad reality explained in Bruce Kimmel's new liner notes which also talk about the history of the show, the original rushed-to-mix/ rushed-to-market recording, and this new painstaking endeavor with thanks to Pro Tools and real human pros. He's never shy about his opinions, but doesn't ignore the value of other, more complete versions by other casts. There are also several color shots of the original production and a full cast list and credits. It's a pleasure to report the good news about this artistic success. Open your ears and celebrate.