This week, some colorful music we had to wait for ... the new songs for the hit Grey Gardens ... a show from seven years ago is finally recorded (The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin) ... Ronny Whyte, for decades equally adept as singer and pianist finally goes just-piano. Along with the Grey, The Bubbly Black and Mr. Whyte are the bright and pastel colors of romance from Ted Howe in our final item.
Welcome back to Grey Gardens where the recorded performances of Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson remain dominant, domineering and dazzling. With its move to Broadway and continued success, a new cast album has been issued. Well, it's certainly not completely new, and it doesn't need to be since most of the songs and most of the cast came along for the ride on Broadway. Many of the tracks are the same as those on the Off-Broadway version, which boasted strong performances and made our Top Ten list of cast albums last year.
Erin Davie has taken over the role of the younger "Little" Edie in the first act and vocally is a good fit. The pronounced accent she uses and her general vocal qualities are a closer match to Christine Ebersole's older "Little" Edie than those of Off-Broadway's Sara Gettelfinger. Erin's singing and acting are skilled, and there's tension with a lot at stake in the relationship with Edie's fiancé (Matt Cavenaugh) in her rendition of "Daddy's Girl" and their new duet ("Goin' Places," replacing an expert pastiche period number that was more generic and cute rather than so specific). Ten-year-old Kelsey Fowler, replacing Audrey Twitchell, joins the company as little Lee Bouvier. This cheery new addition sings well, too. A note at the end of the booklet acknowledges the voices of these two former cast members still being on five numbers where their roles were less prominent, crediting them as "additional background vocals."
The song changes are entertaining; more notable than that, they may prove fascinating as case studies for a lesson in how replacement songs can deepen a moment's impact and lay the groundwork for an audience's focus and a show's cumulative dramatic effect. Second guessing the writers and a detailed comparative discussion of what has been cut versus what was added is not my mission; I'll just say that the new songs and performances are pleasurable on all counts and in character. For example, the new "Marry Well" delights and makes its points, indoctrinating older generation priorities in choosing a mate. Led by John McMartin, it is sung exuberantly by the same five characters (including the two new cast members) who were part of the song it replaces, "Being Bouvier." The nostalgic, but ironic-in-context "The Girl Who Has Everything" now bookends the show, introduced as an old record made by the mother in happier times.
The new booklet still has full lyrics, several more color photos and the necessarily revised plot synopsis incorporating the changes. Gone is an interview with the talented creative team, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright, about their work on the show and background on the real-life characters. Credited as producer of the new material is Steven Epstein and the changes in orchestra members are indicated, too. Conductor Lawrence Yurman and many instrumentalists return. As far as sound quality, the ambience and presence feel a bit different to me. The earlier version had a sharper, more intense, dynamic presence whereas things feel a bit muted and moody here, maybe appropriate for a memory piece. Thanks for the memory.
The Grey Gardens Off-Broadway cast recording, made just a year ago this month, will become a collector's item. Remaining copies are now being sold at a very low rate at www.PSClassics.com, and it includes several numbers that shouldn't be lost to time, if only as delightful stand-alone numbers. The new Broadway version is available at PSClassics.com and will be available at all retailers plus iTunes soon.
THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL
It's taken all the years of the current century to get the musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin recorded on disc. Reuniting almost all of the Playwrights Horizons cast from 2000, it sounds fresh and especially vibrant. Dominated by the lead performance of LaChanze, who later went on to Dessa Rose, The Color Purple and other shows, it's an exciting belated listen. The top drawer supporting cast includes Jerry Dixon, Felicia Finley and Cheryl Alexander (as a knockout blissfully belting Granny) in impressive moments and ensemble work. Heard on numerous tracks, Darius de Haas brings his open-hearted persona and dazzling vocals on a terrific solo, "Beautiful Bright Blue Sky," which stands out and has a sensational final note. The ensemble is well used, with lots of close harmony singing and rhythmically pulsating sounds.
Following the story of a girl who grows up facing racial prejudice but remains plucky while following her dreams to be a performer, The Bubbly Black Girl has performances that crackle with energy and sass, with humor and some touching moments. The bursts of ultra-spunkiness, especially in the beginning, hit the ground running at top speed, making it almost grating if taken out of context. It's important to know that she's starting in childhood with big dreams and wide-eyed enthusiasm mixed with the sublimating worry via forced hyperactivity. Moving into adolescence, a song at a dance borrows some 1950s musical sounds.
With autobiographical elements of the life of Kirsten Childs, who wrote music, lyrics and book, Bubbly bubbles over with zing and a bit of sting. Confronting prejudice and harsh realities, numbers like "Sticks and Stones" about insulting words that have lasting hurt balance the songs about wishes and goals. Aspiring performers who, like the writer, have worked their way through dance training and/or survival jobs will get a special kick out of the songs that talk about dance role models. A major nod to Bob Fosse as guru-mentor-idol is a delight, with its cool drool hero worship and the trademark rhythm of attitude-drenched finger snaps.
Joel Moss and the score's valuable orchestrator, Curtis Moore, produced the CD, with Ghostlight/Sh-k-boom's Kurt Deutsch the executive producer, preserving yet another musical that might have never had a chance at a wider audience. The booklet has all the lyrics, a synopsis, a few photos and some background notes. A seven-person band is led by Fred Carl, whose work on flute is noted with pleasure. The music sounds contemporary, but still has a musical theater sensibility and brings its title character from beginning (innocence) to middle (struggle) to end (determined self-awareness). As that character, LaChanze is a nonstop bundle of dynamite who is on target and on fire.
It's no surprise that the love and respect for quality songs that has always comes through in Ronny Whyte's singing is reflected in his piano playing. Accompanying himself through the years, his piano work has seemed inseparable from his vocal approach. He loves the music and the words. However, this is his first solo piano CD. The aptly titled By Myself features good taste in material, and in the case of Ronny Whyte, taste in all matters in the key word. There's never overemotionalism, schmaltz or self-indulgence.
A man of jazz, Ronny never sacrifices a song's essence for experimentation or radical rethinking. Melodies are respected and played as first conceived before any embellishments or explorations and variations take over. Ronny's singing often has a kind of modesty and discretion, and those qualities are evident in his instrumental work. The freedom of being on his own gives him some license to linger on phrases here and there, yet at times he seems to be rhythmically almost overcompensating by being a one-man band with a strong bottom sound and drive. Occasionally, I wish he'd taken his time more and given himself more room and liberty to relax and dip deeper into the emotional well.
Musical theater fans will be pleased to hear some classics very well handled. In the years since it was introduced in a short-lived 1939 musical, "All The Things You Are" is most often a formal or ardent statement, especially for vocalists. Ronny lets it move and loosens it from its strictures. "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" always seems to bring out the best in instrumentalists with its irresistibly strong melody emulating a buggy ride. Some like it at a fast clip, accentuating its clip-clop jauntiness, others like its dreamy romantic qualities. Ronny finds a more playful middle ground, with a happy bounce and sense of real joy. In "Till the Clouds Roll By," the sweet Jerome Kern melody has a nostalgic and sunny feeling that make it the CD's highlight. An innocent optimism shines through beautifully. "Just Imagine" is more adult, calmly ruminative, but no less winning on the purely pretty level. The same holds true for "Emily."
Three tunes composed by the musician himself are evocative and intriguing, all quite accessible on a first or second hearing, and very different from one another in feel. The CD, ending with a non-weepy version of the title song (by Schwartz and Dietz), is one that invites repeat playing. But don't be tempted to think of it as just a piano album for background music because there's too much inventiveness and thoughtfulness to be relegated to that category. This is not a lazy listen; it will engage you.
UNDER THE RADAR
TED HOWE (PIANO) AND GUESTS
Four of the ten love songs on Love Song were composed by its pianist, Ted Howe, also the arranger and producer. He has some kick and focused, sturdy melodic playing on the standards he chooses, but his own melodies are more on the languid or lightly swinging side. The lyrics on the originals are by Rebekah Miller, also the album's executive producer. Her lyrics seem more like love letters and streams of flowing memories or natural stream of consciousness, with phrases casually conversational or flowery that don't prioritize using a lot of true rhymes. Lainie Kazan is guest vocalist on two of the originals, the title tune and the confessional, regretful "If I Had Known." Those who relish the way she sizzled on her early recordings should be advised that these tracks are warm, slow-burning embers instead of red-hot mama sizzlers. She brings a thoughtful, tender and bittersweet sensitivity to these two reflective pieces.
Giacomo Gates, a jazz baritone with a deep sound emulating an instrumentalist at times, appears on four tracks, but his billed duets with the pianist's own vocals only come very late on two long tracks: "Come Rain or Come Shine" and Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)." The latter is not to be confused with the Harold Arlen melody "Let's Fall in Love," also on this CD, also instrumental, and the most sweetly straightforwardly romantic track of all. The piano touch is a tender touch there, slow but not outlasting its welcome despite running over seven and a half minutes. (Though there are only ten selections, the listener doesn't get shortchanged in playing time as all are on the long side, with eight clocking in at five minutes or more, and the other two not far shy of that. "All the Way" plays all the way out to over nine minutes.)
There are various other musicians guesting on other tracks, with drummer Matt Slocum the constant. Half the tracks have strings. Whether laced with rhythm or heavy sentiment, the relaxed feel is dominant on this CD with a clean, clear production and a big, beating heart.
Until the next time...