Here and There
THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN
What a remarkable and unique achievement we have in The Cat Who Went to Heaven . It is an exquisitely delicate delight, lovingly done and I'm totally enchanted by it. This charming cameo of a musical is based on a 75-year-old children's book of the same name by Elizabeth Coatsworth. As the story is set in Japan, judiciously used Japanese instruments add flavor within this score which is very much a jazz journey. Mostly gentle, it has its joyful and jaunty tunes and is not without humor. A certain simplicity will appeal to children, but this is not by any means some kind of sugary, bouncy, commercial kiddie fare (nor does it resemble any other musical about Cats, despite the plot point about Heaven).
The melodies are instantly attractive, some sinuous and others hypnotic by virtue of their sweetness. The composer-lyricist is Nancy Harrow, whose recorded work as a jazz singer over the years has always appealed to me. The class and modesty in her singing is also seen in her writing. She shines in the role of the cat with her warm and fuzzy voice, especially effective when expressing contentment and shyness.
The adorable The Adventures of Maya the Bee, recorded as a cast album and running as a puppet show for the last six years in Greenwich Village, is Nancy's other musical for families. She has other albums inspired by the work of other writers (Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel Hawthorne) and is reunited with several of the same singers and instrumentalists here. Her son, Anton Krukowski, has an open, clean vocal quality in his two songs; although some may feel he sounds too "youthful" to be an imposing Buddhist priest, I find his sound to be disarming. His "The Perfect One" is a real highlight.
From the Maya recording come two longtime favorites of mine: jazz veteran Grady Tate, who was for decades one of the premier drummers and has also had a side career as a smooth, deep-voiced and very hip vocalist, which is now his sole focus. He sings the role of the painter who gradually comes to care for the cat in the role that has the most vocal variety. He meets the challenge with flying colors. And Daryl Sherman brings emotion and flair, as well as her customary honey tones, to the part of the housekeeper. Daryl is most often found playing the keyboard for herself on Cole Porter's piano at the Waldorf-Astoria and elsewhere, but here the piano work is by the sensational Kenny Barron, a strong presence throughout the CD. Other major jazz names are on hand as well, such as Gerry Neiwood (clarinet and flute), George Mraz (bass) and guest spots by Frank Wess (sax and flute) and the great Clark Terry (not only on flugelhorn but with a very cool scat vocal). In addition to drums (Dennis Mackrel) and the Japanese instruments, there are some strings and horns on some tracks. It's all restrained, focused and economical. Kenny Werner, whom some readers will know as Betty Buckley's musical director, did the piano scores and Michael Mossman is the arranger and conductor for all the songs.
Will Pomerantz's narration, with background music, sets and keeps the tone of the simple but emotional tale. The sound is clear and warm (the album producer is John Snyder, another frequent collaborator with Nancy Harrow). Special features on the CD can be accessed by playing it on a computer. The full lyrics and sheet music (full score) can be seen, as well as stage directions and narration, plus a short video and access to related website information. This is all meant to be an invitation for groups to stage the musical.
BUSH IS BAD
Here's the question about the cast album of Bush Is Bad, a satirical revue satirizing the administration of the United States - it's the same question any comedy CD will present: After you get the jokes the first time around, will you elect to play it again and again? The answer can be yes when the material is something to relish or, if the comedy is in song, when the musical elements are rich enough to enjoy for their own sake. That's a lot to expect from any satire. The subtitle of this show promises that it is "The Musical Cure for the Blue-State Blues." I don't think it's quite that balm, but it's not a bomb either. I find the material uneven, but the three-person cast is certainly game and working hard.
As is the case with the structure of many comedy songs, showcasing an impressive singing voice is not the goal. Of the trio, Kate Baldwin makes the strongest impression as a versatile singer. She has recently returned to the cast, rejoining Neal Mayer who is on the CD along with Michael McCoy, whose role has now been taken over by Tom Treadwell at Manhattan's Triad Theatre where the show was recorded in front of an audience and continues its run. As a satire of current events, some of its material gets updated: various extra choruses for "Good Conservative Values" are printed in the notes, bringing us up to Supreme Court Judge Alito. This album was recorded live in October, 2005, but some of the "news" lampooned already feels like ancient history. That, of course, is the inevitable curse that comes with the well-trod territory and, to be fair, contributes to things sounding less funny in 2006. It's hard to feel nostalgic for the 2004 Presidential debates, but most of the targets are not tied to specific events but rather to attitudes and political agendas that are still represent the order of the day (or the disorder of the day, if you agree with the point of view).
Although the material and the performers seem ready to go in for the kill, the daggers are not always devastatingly sharp. Musically, things are often blithely cheery, and that juxtaposition sometimes makes the contrasting message that much more effective. The tracks that hold up best due to stronger writing and performance are "The 'I' Word," a beseeching for impeaching; Kate's showpiece as "Crazy Ann Coulter"; and the one number that had me laughing out loud, "Culture of Life," a well-realized mockery of short-sightedness.
The highlights for musical theater lovers are two parodies of the styles of icons, showing that the writer knows from past and pastiche. a Noel Coward absorption of "I Went to a Marvelous Party" as "The Inauguration Was Marvelous" for Neal is well done all around. And, although writer Jason Robert Brown and performer Jessica Molaskey brilliantly mined Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny" to great effect a while back (Songs for a New World's "Surabaya Santa"), the same source provides real laughs as Laura Bush's serenade to her husband, "Sure, You Betcha, Georgie."
The musical accompaniment is just a piano, with very little in the playing that adds any extra layers of purely musical interest or extra flair that might enrich repeating listenings. Since the man at the keyboard is the songwriter, Joshua Rosenblum, we can only assume it was his decision to keep things simple. His playing draws no attention to itself, and he certainly keeps the energy going. But he misses opportunities to add more colors, counterpoints and accents and to thus make the piano another character.
Followers of scores will note that Rosenblum was co-writer of the show Fermat's Last Tango with Joanne Lessner, who is credited here as creative consultant.
When you're in the mood for some musical theater listening that won't unsettle you or tax your brain with angst and socio-political challenges, you'll be happily entertained by the catchy melodies and sparkle of this next CD. This is the second CD in the last few months from that lets us take a vacation with the music of British composer Vivian Ellis. The other, from Must Close Saturday Records, focused on two shows, Streamliner and Jill Darling. I prefer this one, whose main feature is a show from the year 1955, The Water Gipsies (yes, it's set on a barge on the Thames River), and and has a whole slew of bonus tracks of other music by the composer. Twenty minutes of this generous-length CD (there's an hour more!) are devoted to the composer reeling off melodies on the piano from various earlier shows. Although his playing was a bit florid or perfunctory at times, nevertheless, his seemingly unending felicity for coming up with strong, hummable music is quite something. That gift is evident throughout the album. Since his melodic lines were often more impressive than the less inventive lyrics of his collaborators, the instrumentals are fun on their own. However, quite a few of the songs heard with lyrics are well worth hearing on this set.
Nowhere near as well-known by younger/American-based theater fans as by British folk, the work of Ellis (1903-1996) may still wait to be (re)discovered by many. It may not travel well or age especially well, but with a sense of perspective for the sensibilities of the theatrical times, there's still a strong entertainment quotient. Of those numbers heard with their lyrics, it's the Water Gipsies selections that I find stronger. A few of the others have less spunk and distinction and not as much pizazz on the part of the singers. (Although I can't help but be taken with one singer's name, the quaintly named Olive Groves and a group called The Four Bright Sparks - they are!)
There's some stiff, formal singing, with rolled Rs that can be distancing. Not surprisingly, the recordings from the 1920s and '30s don't have as crisp and clear a sound as the 1950s material. Sepia does take care to clean up the surface noise from the 78 rpm source recordings as much as possible with a noise reduction system without sacrificing other aspects. The period charm does come through.
(An interesting footnote: the quick-tempo "I Have No Words" may sound distressingly familiar, as it is virtually the same melody as the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz slower ballad "Something to Remember You By." It's credited here to Ellis from his Little Tommy Tucker. Other sources beg to differ, such as Dietz, whose autobiography states that Schwartz wrote the melody first for a British show.
The Water Gipsies has some tunes that are so satisfyingly constructed, I wanted to run to the piano and pick them out. You may prefer to settle for humming and smiling. The often-charming lyrics and dialogue are by A.P. Herbert, based on his earlier film and book of the same title. "Clip-Clop" (its title suggests the rhythm) is irresistible if you like a cute, satisfying tune. I'm also partial to "When I'm Washing Up" which, especially as sunnily performed by Pamela Charles, conjures up Snow White's "Whistle While You Work" optimism making chores worth cheers. Dora Bryan (years later top-billed in the London production of Kander & Ebb's 70, Girls, 70 and on other recordings) has the character part of the nonconformist. Her brash Lily doesn't want to be married ("It Would Cramp My Style") and gets some other boisterous moments.
There are several standout performances, including two duets: "Little Boat" for two women and the music hall-worthy "Why Should Spring Have All the Flowers?", a sure-fire number about how the longer-in-the-tooth folks need romance, too.
The original LP cast album is fleshed out by a few tracks not then included, but that were part of the score. The gem is "I'm Not a Jealous Woman," sung by Joan Sims, the humor in the lyric being that she is jealous big time. This lyric has the most bite and sounds more modern. In between, there's plenty of sentiment to go around. You remember sentimental musical theater. It's so good to have dear little songs like these around. Thanks to Sepia for bringing the back. I'll be reporting on a few similar items from them later this month.
UNDER THE RADAR
This week, we find Life under the radar.
If you want the latest version of "My Funny Valentine" for Valentine's Day, here it is. This is a full-voiced, ardent rendition of the Rodgers and Hart show tune standard. Tyler Stephenson's official release date for his debut recording is Valentine's Day, but it's available now through his website, www.tylerstephenson.com. This is a six-track disc, with two different versions of the Jimmy Webb song, "Only One Life." One is a longer mix designed for play in clubs and radio, and the other more in a cabaret style.
Tyler has a flexible voice and his presentations here are either melodramatic or light and swinging excursions that stay on the safe side of retro lounge lizard. Working with members of The Ramsey Lewis Trio (sans Ramsey, alas!) may help keep him on the hip side. Unfortunately, most of the tracks are fairly short, and the jazzmen don't have a chance to stretch out and solo. Whatever the case, in this short Life, Tyler Stephenson makes an impression as a confident vocalist who can move from breathy to belty within a number.
The other songs are "At Last," "I've Got the World on a String," and "On the Street Where You Live," all showing flair. The release is produced by Ralph Lampkin, Jr., for his Chicago-based label LMGKidsource Music. Chicago area AIDS charities will receive a portion of the sales income through the local charity Season Of Concern. The CD is priced at that of a typical full-length CD despite its abbreviated playing time (20:37). The liner notes indicate that this is his first CD and that he began singing regularly a few years ago after a long hiatus.
Perhaps we'll get a full-length CD from Tyler before too long. For now, I'm a bit intrigued but not totally won over, and left wanting more with this release. Well, that's Life.
And that's the story for now. Next week we'll attend the tale of Sweeney Todd and more.