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Varied choices this week.... 

Grey GardensGREY GARDENS
OFF-BROADWAY CAST

PS Classics

Like the mansion where its based-on-real-life action takes place, the cast album of Grey Gardens feels like a huge yet claustrophobic experience, creating its own fascinating little world.  Playing the mother, Edith, in scenes taking place in 1941 and Edith's daughter in the 1973-set scenes, Christine Ebersole dominates the album, appearing in song and/or dialogue on the vast majority of the CD's 23 tracks.     The score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) gives her an opportunity to sing in different styles and moods: dramatic, audacious, gentle and campy.  With many bits of Doug Wright's dialogue before and within songs, this is a very full theatrical listening experience. 

It's possible to enjoy act one's pastiche parlor entertainment numbers on their own simply as charming diversions, but knowing the tensions around them allows for a deeper appreciation of the whole piece. For those who don't know the story, based on the documentary about Jacqueline Kennedy's aunt and cousin who went from riches to rags and ragging on each other as they lost nearly everything, there's a helpful booklet.  It includes a plot synopsis and a discussion with the writers, explaining what artistic license was taken.   You also get all the words heard on the disc (sung and spoken) and 11 color photos from the show to pull you in.  I think you'll feel the pull.

Bruce Coughlin's skillful orchestrations are a special pleasure and a major asset in making the songs irresistible, especially the affectionate sparkle and detail in the pastiche numbers.  His work, and that of conductor Lawrence Yurman leading the fine nine-piece band, also is notable on the more dramatic numbers.

"Will You," "Around the World" and the exquisite climactic heartbreaker, "Another Winter in a Summer Town," are Christine Ebersole's sparer songs with especially graceful lyrics and melodies.  The elegance and restrained but palpable emotion in the performances invite repeat listenings.  Other numbers with character-appropriate nasality, brass or edge in her voice are more effective in context.   I have a fondness for show tunes where a duo sings about how well matched they are, spouting similes and metaphors, so the super-cute "Peas in a Pod" will go right into my iPod.  I like both versions, whether Christine is singing as daughter to Mary Louise Wilson, who makes a formidable sparring partner as the older version of the mother, or Sara Gettelfinger as the daughter in the first act.  Sara and Matt Cavenaugh are delightful in "Better Fall Out of Love" with its fun theater references, and there's more for the musical sweet tooth when she has a female-bonding moment with "Tomorrow's Woman."  In the latter, she's joined by Sarah Hyland and Audrey Twitchell (both chipper and cheery as the Bouvier 'tweens who'll grow up to be Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Radziwill).

Completing the cast are John McMartin and Michael Potts, both robust, and Bob Stillman as an acerbic piano-playing pal.  Several numbers work better as dramatic devices or diversions, and don't wear quite as well with repeated exposure.  Still, there's much more than "enough" to make this a very worthy addition to a musical theater fan's collection. (Grey Gardens has been released when its most ardent fans are in "withdrawal" during the lag between the Off-Broadway version preserved on the disc and its re-opening on Broadway in October, with some changes in cast and material.)

Blues in the NightANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY
BLUES IN THE NIGHT

Telarc

Don't worry.  When Ann Hampton Callaway sings about the blues, there's plenty to be happy about.  Sure, she can vent and lament with a convincing and powerful sob in her voice.  However, she does it while projecting an underlying sense of perspective, implying that she knows, "this, too, shall pass."  The intelligence and hipness that are part of her persona make "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" a natural fit, with its lyrics that are both literate and coolly sophisticated.  That Tommy Wolf/ Fran Landesman gem was intended for, but cut from, the score of the 1959 musical The Nervous Set, a fate to which Ann can relate: a number she wrote, "Hip to Be Happy," was meant for Swing!, the Broadway show she was in, and it's a joy to have on this CD.  Also once in the plan for Swing! and resurrected here is a medley of two classic Harold Arlen/ Ted Koehler torch songs, "Stormy Weather" and "When The Sun Comes Out."  On this back-and-forth meshing, continuing what's become an anticipated tradition, Ann is joined by sister Liz Callaway.  As always, they're great to hear together, and while some of Liz's phrasing is not as fresh as usual, the duetted big ending packs a big punch.

As you might assume, the album gets its title and inspiration from Ann's experience singing another famous Arlen melody that was in Swing!.  This new version of "Blues in the Night" is one she's been growing into in concerts, a showcase for both her dramatic skills and the power and range of her voice.  It's one of four selections backed by The Diva Jazz Orchestra, an all-female 14-member ensemble.  They also appear on "Lover, Come Back to Me," the 78-year-old standard, and two more originals (she calls them "Ann-dards") that are both cool and very entertaining.  They are "Swingin' Away the Blues" and the comical, self-deprecating "The I'm-Too-White-to-Sing-the-Blues Blues."  On the other cuts, she's accompanied by top jazz men: Ted Rosenthal (piano), Christian McBride (bass), Lewis Nash (drums) and David Gilmore (guitar), with several different arrangers.

With her luscious and strong voice and her musicianly control, she need make no compromises; Ann can and does sing with force and flair.  She has a whale of a wail when she chooses to let go.  That happens more often here than on her earlier CDs.  She has always been particular good at expressing empathy, making a strong and direct heart-to-open-heart connection with a sincere ballad.  Recording something by Stephen Sondheim for the first time, she delivers a moving and finely shaded reading of "No One Is Alone," finding her own nuances.  It's an especially satisfying track.  

Ann will be performing material from this CD at Lincoln Center (Dizzy's Club) September 6th through 10th and at Tower Records on the 13th at 6 p.m. She also has a busy touring schedule (see www.annhamptoncallaway.com).

UNDER THE RADAR

I know about Mark Winkler from his cool jazz singing. It makes him an informed choice to write the lyrics for a musical about jazz, one I'm just catching with now that an album has been released following a run in Los Angeles.

Play It CoolPLAY IT COOL
ORIGINAL CAST

Cafe Pacific Records

In the opening song, a character contemplates the fading lights at a rundown bar with its "neon coloring the raindrops," and soon we're caught up with the colorful characters from the bar's past. Play It Cool swings back to the more repressive 1950s where the gay and lesbian characters who hang out at Mary's Hideaway must play it cool since dancing together or displays of affection would attract a police raid. They also play it cool musically, being singers of/ lovers of jazz, which is the style of music for the score.

Mark Winkler wrote all the lyrics, but the melodies are by ten different composers (most are represented by just one number, but talented Phillip Swann composed five and collaborated on another). The multi-melodist concept pays off, as it did in another recent musical that's also gay-themed, Songs for an Unmade Bed, with another lyricist named Mark (Campbell).

Play It Cool hangs together and its score is seductive with its purposeful film noir ambience and jazz tunes that are sinuous and smoky, plus others that swing in a more upbeat way. "Future Street" is a lively, optimistic number (music by Marilyn Harris) sung winningly by Andrew Pandeleon as the new arrival in Hollywood. "Rainbows" (music by David Benoit) allows a character to let down his guard and stop playing it oh so cool (most numbers hew close to the mantra of the show's title). Michael Craig Shapiro makes the most of the opportunity in a sensitive reading.

The two women show particular range: Jessica Sheridan as the club owner Mary displays a tough shell as well as a warmer side. Playing her lover, Katie Campbell gets to be both steamy and dreamy. Steven Janji doesn't get as much time in the vocal spotlight, but makes a strong impression with a vocal quality and attitude that is spot on for the style. I would have liked more from him.

Many of Mark Winkler's lyrics are smart and sassy; he's especially strong with those that are love letters to jazz. A couple of numbers, like "Everybody Cha Cha" with Robert Kraft's music, predate the show, having appeared on Winkler's solo albums. He, composer Swann and director Sharon Rosen produced the album and the sound and mood are just right. The accompaniment is, as you might guess, a basic jazz trio: piano, bass and drums. My only disappointment is that I'd want to hear the trio mixed to be a little more prominent.

This hip trip to Mary's Hideaway is recommended and is very satisfying. (Sound clips are available at CDBaby.com.)

But for now it's closing time.


- Rob Lester


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