Daffy Ducks and Monkey Business
Honk!, Yazbek, The Bobs
Don't let the words "demo album" cause you to fret and fuss and get your feathers frazzled. This first-to-be-recorded, third-to-be-released album of the songs from Honk!, the story of Hans Christian Andersen's "Ugly Duckling," fits the bill of a typical cast album. It's not some quick quack-through or one of those homemade tapes of a vocally challenged but enthusiastic songwriter singing all the numbers with rough accompaniment. It's cast with performers in full character with plenty of attitude, punch and attention to detail. The fun-filled, pun-filled highly polished lyrics are well served. The pathos comes through, too, with neither overdone as I hear it. With this kind of piece, that could be a danger if the wink is too broad. Likewise, there isn't a self-conscious, heavy-handed effort felt to make more universal and adult-relevant this children's story about acceptance and (not) judging others by appearances.
Those familiar with the show and other recordings of this award-winning musical will note some additional sections in songs and some changes. Changes in two major numbers are explained in the notes in the booklet. It also contains helpful stage directions/explanations of key moments within the provided text of all the clever lyrics and dialogue heard.
The group of six is stellar as they play all the parts in this recording made in 1997. Clive Rowe is sympathetic as the newly hatched misfit, capturing the bewilderment and growing determination of this not always lucky, but often plucky ducky with a caring, well-sung, understated portrayal. Everything works so well here, with the cast filling in the chorus parts on the big numbers as he hatches, is encouraged, is lost, sought, caught and found. Joanna Riding as his mother finds the dignity in her serious songs and spreads her wings leading the bursting-with-pride and very catchy number "The Joy of Motherhood." She's joined there by Jenna Russell (currently starring on Broadway in Sunday in the Park with George), who is a treat in her roles, whether playing a buddy or a busybody. Jenna is especially hilarious spreading cheer or gossip or bad news. Claire Moore is a hoot as old cat Queenie singing in a wobbly vibrato as a feline soprano who's over the hill but not over the thrill of finding love (one of her four roles).
The writer of the spoken and sung words, Anthony Drewe, is also a delightful and skilled performer. He sings four roles wonderfully: the Ugly Duckling's dad (Drake); the Greylag who heads "The Wild Goose Chase"; the Bullfrog who assures the burdened "homely" honking hero that someone will love him "Warts and All"; and a turkey who mocks him with just one "Look at Him." Composer George Stiles provides the piano accompaniment (additional piano by David Shrubsole; no other instruments are on this CD, contrasting with the other cast albums). He also almost steals his own show with a grand performance as the conniving cat with a taste for both poultry and mating.
Skipping ahead a decade from the initial recording, Mark Anderson (playing the duckling in the 2007 Watermill Theatre production) wades in with the CD's one bonus track. It's a key song from the score (lyrics unchanged, also done nicely by the demo duck, Rowe): the lovestruck ballad, "Now I've Seen You." And it's delivered sweetly. Throughout this rendition of the score, the sweet elements come through with the tenderness that is at the piece's heart, and plenty of the tart, smart, smart-alecky wisecracks delivered with such zip.
There's such great teamwork in the interaction among the players, very much including the two who are a great team as writers, recently represented on disc with the cast album of Just So and the strong new material for a current Broadway resident, Mary Poppins. This Honk! happening is being released to celebrate the quarter century mark of their writing partnership. I can't wait to see what they hatch next.
The songs suggesting the album title are "Monkey Baby Hanging on Chicken Wire" and "Eight Evil Men." The former is about the science experiments proving that monkeys seek warmth and comfort even if it comes from designed inanimate objects. The latter is one of the haunted ones, describing torture and killing and the absence of salvation. Filled with such unusual and specific subject matter (plus drugs, disaster, guilt, worthlessness), Evil Monkey Man is not about the good times.
Musical theatre fans of the songwriter known for his scores to the popular Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty should not expect a Broadway sound at all from writer David Yazbek's other recorded work. Singing and playing keyboards, he's presenting and living in a very different world - edgy sarcasm is a common factor. Style-wise, they draw on rock, pop, folk and blues. But there's not much razzmatazz in the Yaz. He's gone on record about this record to say that his writing and performing involved catharsis and working through personal sadness, frustration and rage. Demons may be around; while the songs are gutsy and sometimes ranting, the energy channeled results in driving or almost rollicking melodies and some real empathy and warmth ("Steps of Another Man's House").
Harrowing at times, quite often depressing, there's something compellingly gritty on a lot of this. Fools are not suffered gladly and the going gets rough and tough in tone and attitude. Some is puzzling and oblique (what is "a cardboard submarine?"), some all the more powerful by being blunt and direct: "Wasted" begins, "Once it occurs to you you've wasted most of your life, no one can lie to you/ The boat has left the shore, but you're not on it." Oddly affecting, it's sung in the gentlest part of the artist's voice and the melody is oxymoronically pretty, too. Other numbers are searing and raw.
The CD has one familiar old song, "That Lucky Old Sun," written before David Yazbek was born. It's a highlight, and done with integrity and longing as opposed to the melodrama and too thick a layer of self-pity that it can attract in other hands. Its lyric of toil and sweat and longing for release (written by Haven Gillespie, the same man who wrote the words to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town") is very effective in this new version. The other writing is not all by Yazbek alone. For example, three instrumental tracks called "The Traveler" (#1, #2, #3) are co-credited to bandmates Mike DuClos (bass), Erik Della Penna (guitars and background vocals, composer of the powerful "You'll Never Get Out of This") and Dean Sharenow (percussion and background vocals; he also co-produced the CD with Yazbek). Tony Orbach is featured on saxophones to complete the band.
Not by any means "easy listening" or light fare, Evil Monkey Man is bracing and jolting and unsettling ... hmmm, in its own way, maybe it's kind of theatrical after all. Order a double whiskey and pull up a chair.
Having discovered The Bobs bobbing around the music scene some years ago, I've always been attracted to their very quirky, smirky, off-center or right-on-target humor. I have a pile of their recordings and, though I can't say they've topped themselves here and have come up with their best work ever or morphed and grown into some new maturity (that might be a fatal error for this fiercely playful group), they are fun, inventive and full of sass and spice.
Song subjects include the literal command of the album title (imagine yourself walking your dog when an inattentive other pet owner out for a stroll with a pet monkey doesn't notice the little feller's hop, skip and jump). Other topics in their slices of life examination of minutiae and petty annoyances and mini-pleasures: persistent phone calls meant for someone else ("Howard Peterson") and new twists on cell phones, casual dating, music styles, etc.
Though the group's members have changed over the years, their sensibilities of having a ball as goofballs doesn't. The other key part of their appeal is their musicianship, particularly their ability to work a capella and supply their own kind of accompaniment just with their voices creating rhythmic/percussive sounds in addition to the sung lyrics. Sometimes the syllabilizing gymnastics aping instruments and jivey jumping counterpoints overshadow and overwhelm the lyrics and what the lead singer is doing. Things would be more in danger of focus interruptus or the supporting cast shining more than the star, as it were, if their songs were bland or well known. They are originals and the wacky and wild lyrics command attention. Since funny lyrics can necessarily have their impact diminished with familiarity, The Bobs have the extra bonus of a kind of carried insurance policy to maintain listener appeal: there's that vocal accompaniment inventiveness and interacting of voices that becomes another focus on repeat listenings.
The current members are Richard Greene (who also produced and engineered the CD and plays the allowed instruments of cowbell and shaker and, yes, frying pan), Dan Schumacher (the vocal percussion chameleon), Matthew Stull, and the one current female member (they were for some time an all-boys' club), the brash and bubbly Amy Engelhardt whose songwriting contributions include one full of celebrity name-dropping ("I Dreamt That David Mamet"). Two former Bobs make guest vocal appearances: Lori Rivera, bringing a warning about getting involved with solipsistic artists with "Never Date a Musician" by Greene, and Gunnar Madsen for the wild "Funk Shui Massacre" he co-wrote with Greene.
The material may be splendidly silly, but The Bobs are serious about entertaining and trying to find your ticklish spot. One might not always be tickled pink, but smiles and winks are good, too.
UNDER THE RADAR