The MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) awards show will take place on Tuesday, May 1, at B.B. King's in Times Square, with many performances. Here are some recently released CDs that happen to include performers who are on this year's list of MAC nominees.
KURT WEILL IN AMERICA
This month appropriately brings an album that begins cheerily enough with Jeff Harnar and Andrea Marcovicci praising the days when "sure enough the bluebells tinkled April in the glen." It's spring in song, "Green-Up Time," to name that tune - a less frequently heard number from 1948's Love Life with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, one of Kurt Weill's many writing partners. As you might guess, Kurt Weill in America looks at the shows written for the American stage. The material here eschews the heavier German and puts the spotlight on lighter, later songs of the composer whose music is much in the air now. Happy End opens tomorrow (at Theater Ten Ten starring another MAC nominee, Lorinda Lisitza) and his life is explored in the Broadway musical now in previews, LoveMusik.
This is a studio recording made in April and May of 2006 based on November 2005 concerts that were part of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA's Lyrics and Lyricists series. The generous 48-page booklet includes many photos from that event, plus bios of the songwriters and performers and background information on the Weill songs and all of their lyrics.
The CD is a mixed bag, partly because some of the voices don't naturally mix very well or the studio sessions didn't find all singers on their best days. There are some "ouch" moments with awkward shifts in tone or vocal color, and from one section of a song to another. The female-bonding quartet of "That's Him" is a muddy muddle of a missed opportunity, despite some spot-on work on solo lines (like Maude Maggart describing the relief of finding a man who is "not arty, not actor-y"). Andrea Marcovicci is uneven vocally, but her phrasing, sense of drama and way of relishing key words are generally superb. She wore many hats here, having conceived of and directed the concert, as well as co-producing the concert and the CD, researching, writing concert narration and album liner notes and being artistic director. (She has presented a solo act of the same title at The Algonquin and as a concert at Lincoln Center.)
With 27 songs, there's more good news than bad. Especially notable and valuable is the presence of some rarely heard songs, such as two samples from Weill's unfinished Huckleberry Finn, with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, his partner on Lost in the Stars (two of that score's dramatic numbers are handled nobly by Chuck Cooper who acquits himself very well throughout).
There are some tasty samples of Maude Maggart at her best in big and small doses, with her elegant solo of "My Ship" a standout. She adds some of the insouciance and passion heard in her MAC-nominated show Good Girl, Bad Girl to the ways of Weill. Jeff Harnar's MAC-nominated show is a tribute to a very different style composer, Cy Coleman, and his work here underlines his versatility, as he ably takes on songs that ask him to be philosophical ("Johnny Song" from Johnny Johnson) or regretful and longing ("Westwind" from One Touch of Venus).
Soprano Anna Bergman brings a cool formality and somber quality to her numbers, balancing the more uninhibited and effusive work by others. Mark Coffin is consistently engaged and engaging, even finding fresh and intelligent turns of phrase in the old warhorse "September Song," and he honors "Lonely House" with an aching emotional reading that shows and knows just enough restraint. Also entertaining are his spry and sly moments in the solo "Oh! The Rio Grande (The Cowboy Song)" and a duet with Jeff, "Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway?"
Barbara Brussell isn't always well served here, but shows swell sassy stamina leading the company in "There's Nowhere to Go But Up." (Barbara's fans may be frustrated that one of just two solos, "Here I'll Stay," is a version of a number also on her two solo albums. Likewise, Maude Maggart sang the attractive rarity, "The River Is So Blue" on her most recent CD.)
A four-man band is led by longtime Andrea Marcovicci musical partner Shelly Markham, pianist, musical director, arranger and album co-producer.
Sampling collaborations with eight different lyricists on eleven different projects, Kurt Weill in America is a reminder of the variety of work done by the composer in the relatively brief span of 13 years, from 1936 to his death in 1950 at the age of just 50.
People who need people who impersonate Barbra Streisand know that the spot-on vocal wizardry of Steven Brinberg (MAC nominated for Impersonation) is remarkably in the clone zone. In person, in wig, gown and trademark long nails, he nails the look and mannerisms, as witnessed in his monthly appearances at The Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. Without those visual attractions/distractions, a listening experience increases appreciation for the attention to vocal qualities and nuances. On this CD, Steven presents a long-delayed project imagining dynamic duets, dividing diva duties with guests from the worlds of Broadway and cabaret.
Unlike his other Simply Barbra CD from 1999, there are few songs actually recorded by the real superstar and no patter, just the occasional quick aside. Those who intimately know Streisand's recordings will note the attention to breath-by-breath detail in sound and phrasing on the same songs here. But it's on the other material, laced with Streisandisms and her excesses where you can really see his mastery and the synthesis. Granted, some moments are more precise than others, with belting requiring different skills than slow, quiet ballad passages.
The CD is produced by Paul Rolnick, and most tracks have valued cabaret collaborator, arranger-pianist Christopher Denny adding his usual top-drawer dressings (both are also MAC nominees this year: Rolnick's "Since I Lost You," written with Gerry Dieffenbach, is nominated for Song; and Christopher Denny is nominated for Musical Director). The general sound quality is disconcertingly uneven, sometimes sounding hollow and other times very satisfying.
Those looking for a pure camp fest will be be disappointed. There's some powerful singing here when the parties play it straight. Alix Korey aces the drama in A Chorus Line's "At the Ballet," decorated with Steven humming bits of "The Way We Were" in addition to taking a turn at Barbra-fying the angst. Mimi Hines is a marvel, with a dignified yet torchy "Why Can't I Walk Away?" from the Broadway musical Maggie Flynn. The track is simply exciting, and full of real star power (it's interesting to remember that Mimi was Streisand's replacement on Broadway in Funny Girl). The only Funny Girl reference point is the title song for the film version combined with something from the movie musical A Star Is Born - not from the score for the Streisand remake, but rather "Someone at Last" from the Judy Garland vehicle. That song pairing pairs Steven with Claiborne Cary who, like Mimi Hines, makes a welcome and rare return to the recording studio here with an effective sweet-and-sour treatment. Another such homecoming medal goes to Kaye Ballard whose duet is strictly for fun, the playful Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh number Streisand recorded on her People album, "When In Rome (I Do As The Romans Do)."
Only the lighthearted duet with Heather MacRae on Rodgers and Hart's bouncy but sarcastic "I Wish I Were in Love Again" seems not to capture a familiar or likely Barbra style. Entertainment lawyer to many a singer, Mark Sendroff charms with a gentle "Only With You" from Nine, allowing for a more down-to-earth duet than Steven's double-diva dramas with terrific KT Sullivan (Chicago's "My Own Best Friend") and Betsy Joslyn (with a real rarity, "If I Ever Loved Him" from the musical Angel making for a long-lost power ballad). Also showing panache are Debbie Gravitte and Hugh Panaro. An interesting choice is "The Other Woman," a duet written for the Goldie Hawn and Liza Minnelli long-ago TV special by Larry Grossman and Fred Ebb. The other woman here is Karen Mason, who gets a special MAC Award this year herself.
This is a fantasy party with a great guest list, and Steven Brinberg knows whereof he sings.
Nominated for MAC Awards both for piano bar performance and as musical director for other singers, singer-keyboardist Tracy Stark recently released her second solo CD, Feast for the Heart. Her slinky, soulful style of singing and songwriting incorporates touches of jazz and folk, making Tracy hard to categorize. She's much more of a pop princess than a traditional cabaret queen, certainly. Vocally, she sometimes seems to almost purr or coo, with little idiosyncratic swoops of sound. Her melodies are not structured in ways that glob them onto your memory right away, and her lyrics are sometimes dense.
This recording is more sophisticated and musically more textured than her Canvas of Dreams. Richard Barone is her producer and he brings not only his established expertise but a careful layering of sounds and rhythms. He also participates in some of the backing vocals, as does another singer-songwriter whose CD he produced, Johnny Rodgers. The three have fun with the appropriately percolating ode to "Coffee" that is amusing, and there's a neat bit of theatricality with an atmospheric character piece, the tale of the longtime "Singer in a Bar."
Instrumentation varies from track to track, with world class guitarist Gene Bertoncini appearing on three cuts, most gratifyingly and prominently on the contentedly laidback "Morning Light."
One of the most accessible and satisfying numbers is "Closer to Home," a stirring and sturdy life-affirming anthem reinforcing the theory that "what didn't kill us only made us stronger." Tracy is joined by a chorus on that one, and its members include some New York cabaret favorites like Lennie Watts. An extra added attraction is Phoebe Snow adding her wonderfully distinctive voice to one of the simplest pieces, "You Gave That to Me."
The one non-original is a slow, languid cover version of Carole King's "It's Too Late," and it works well, with Tracy finding original emphases in how she phrases the well-known lyric. An elusive quality and what appears to be stream of conscious writing of some of Tracy's songs on first or second hearing (OK, maybe third, too) eventually becomes like an old friend. The singing doesn't have as much variety as I'd like, and there's some posturing, but the sincerity wins out and there's a seductive quality to the proceedings as masterfully shaped by Richard Barone.
JOHN DE MARCO
This is Act Two for John De Marco (Male Jazz Vocalist nominee). After working in the 1960s everywhere from intimate New York nightclubs to the Folies Bergère in Paris, he took a long intermission. His new album shows him to be a very competent singer whose lovely legato vocal tones float gracefully through ballads. But he's not just a guy producing a pretty sound. There is thoughtfulness that comes through in his phrasing and a mature comfort level with emotion that lets him be expressive without sobs and gobs of gushing. He's more about mellow than melodrama, but there is a bittersweet tang rather than aloofness in the sense of restraint. All of this works for him and makes for a good, grown-up, thought-provoking listen.
Barry Levitt, who is MAC-nominated three times (two for Musical Director, one for Jazz Duo/Group), is pianist, arranger, orchestrator and producer. His charts, including strings, are graceful but avoid mushiness, a good match for John's subtle but warm approach. One of the highlights is "Born to be Blue" written by Robert Wells and Mel Torme, a singer whose approach and stylings John very much evokes on wistful romantic numbers and on some livelier tunes among the 15 selections. His flair with jazzy up tunes provides a nice enough change of pace but, at least as evidenced by the few here, isn't as effective as his blissing-out on ballads.
A gratifying choice handled with aplomb is "The Next Best Thing to Love" by Ed Kleban, the eyes-wide-open-but-not-quite-dry-eyed love song heard in A Class Act. And "a class act" describes this CD in a nutshell. Pure and Simple is available online at johndemarcoentertainment.com and CabaretScenes.com.
UNDER THE RADAR
Also nominated for Male Jazz Vocalist is a man I've been hearing about for a while, but have missed seeing and hearing until now.
A companion piece to his debut CD Got a Date with Fate is Scot Albertson's Fate Just Won't Wait with a similar mix of standards, but this time more Broadway and more emotional involvement. Though nominated in MAC's Jazz Vocalist category and working with jazz musicians on this album which bills him as "Scot Albertson, Jazz Vocalist" in large type on the back cover, much of the singing is pretty straightforward. You won't get a lot of bent notes, melody improvisations aping instrumentalists' sounds in the singing - no scat with Scot. Soaring through a briskly invigorating version of Rodgers and Hart's "You Took Advantage of Me" (one of the album's best tracks), he seems at heart to be a balladeer. But the jazz cloak is starting to fit him pretty well as he's led by experienced jazz guides.
Of the six-man band, only trumpeter Scott Wendholt is a carryover from the group playing with him on his first CD. Daryl Kojak (another nominee in the Musical Director category) is on piano and did the synthesized string arrangements, but with nine of the dozen arrangements are credited to Robert Felstein and Scot. On the fervent side, there's "Kiss Her Now" (the Jerry Herman carpe diem plea from Dear World). But for a more casual wink at romance, there's the swinging "Love Isn't Born (It's Made)." He dedicates it to this year's MAC Lifetime Achievement Award winner Jan Wallman, the grand lady who has run various clubs over the decades. She has taken an interest in his work and recommended this Arthur Schwartz/ Frank Loesser movie song as being "a good fit." (She was right. He sings this one in a way that shows more comfort and confidence. At other times, Scot seems to be a bit tentative, less "at one" with the song, or backing off from a note.)
Three of the tracks show a fondness many cabaret singers share for the love of the medley and finding two songs that seem fated to be partnered. The marriage between "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "From This Moment On" seems natural and Scot is convincingly assertive on this upbeat and driving cut. A refreshing choice is "Summer Was," written by another MAC nominee, John Wallowitch. It is combined with "The Summer Knows," the Michel Legrand theme from the film Summer of '42, which evokes memories of summertime with its Marilyn and Alan Bergman lyrics. Legrand-Bergmans ballads are apparently favorites, another of theirs appearing here ("On My Way to You") and still another ("What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life") on his earlier CD.
This is a still-developing singer on his way to finding a more distinctive voice.
Coming soon: reviews of new cast albums, including the about-to-be-released recording of the MAC-nominated show When the Lights Go On Again. For now, it's cabaret lights out, and CD players on pause.