Interesting music this week. Take Take Flight, about those who took to the air. Then, in the air is the music of Broadway veteran Betty Buckley and Broadway sent up: the latest Forbidden Broadway. Finally, a flight of fancy with Bon Chic Bon Genre.
Mostly, the focus of Take Flight stays narrow: it really is on the desire and passion the historical characters (Amelia Earhart, the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh) have for flying airplanes. They keep their eyes on the prize: the skies. But to say it's just about that and therefore those of us who don't have the daredevil or history-maker gene can't find some connection is almost like saying A Chorus Line is just about dancers and no one else could relate. Take Flight doesn't have that same universality and depth of humanity, but it sometimes touches that common desire to succeed and achieve and be noticed. Though there is occasional comic relief when the bumbling Wright Brothers can't get things right, this is mostly a serious-minded musical. Its pleasures are mostly subtle, its emotions often underplayed and employing discretion, with appeal coming from thoughtful and thought-provoking moments. Some of those are laced with anguish. Don't look for grander melodies with splashy, carefree explosions of musical comedy zip.
This new score by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire doesn't resemble a lot of their previous work except to say that it's intelligent, very well crafted, and has heart. There is much detail: cameo-like musical fragments and close-together rhymes, short phrases ... but they have a strong cumulative effect. There's musical variety, with some numbers like elegies, a couple with period pastiche and flair, and quiet moments balanced by a couple of grander ones.
The multi-part opening number is also the title song of Take Flight, and it ends in an exhilarating mood, celebrating the excitement and wonders of flying and the blunders of trying. It's all very well performed by the skilled singer-actors who humanize the names from the history books. This cast from the 2007 London production at the Menier Chocolate Factory is admirable: Michael Jibson is a shy and tense Lindbergh; Elliot Levey and Sam Kenyon as Orville and Wilbur (respectively) have much charm as a tight duo. Sally Ann Triplett has the highest and most intense energy and drive as Earhart, seizing the richer material she's given to flesh out her character. Ian Bartholemew as Putnam, her professional and personal partner is another strong player here, among the company members. (There's a cast of 13 playing characters and five additional singers filling out group numbers.) Dialogue by John Weidman is woven through the album, making the listening experience fuller theatrically, with some moments of grit and frustration standing out. Due to the length of the piece, one song, "Pffft!" didn't fit on the CD, but is expected to be available as a digital download soon (at PSClassics.com).
Composer Shire did his own orchestrations and, just as an airplane has to be built ever so carefully with the right tools and many parts working together, there are a lot of elements and fine-tuned shadings and nuances at work here. Eight musicians play 15 instruments, with musical director Caroline Humphries playing one of the two keyboards. This recording has integrity in all areas and is the kind of cast album that reveals new, interesting details on repeat listenings — both in the songwriting and performances.
There is involving drama aplenty in the new Betty Buckley CD, but it's not about belting or grandstanding bravura performances. In her remarkable and attention-demanding album Quintessence, nothing is tossed off and theatricality is present in finely focused form. Betty fairly bursts with restlessness and resolve on Susan Werner's "The Man I Used to Love," arranged by Clifford Carter. All other arrangements are by longtime musical partner Kenny Werner who is on piano and to whom much credit is due for the impact of these tracks. His arrangements and playing are complex and fascinating, setting moods and developing them, sustaining tension beautifully and – to put it in theatre terms - the band plays the subtext. This is teamwork in the best sense; the team of MVPs is Todd Reynolds on violin, Billy Drewes on reeds, Tony Marino on bass, and the drummer is Dan Weiss. "Trite" and "pat" and "expected" are not in their vocabulary in these treatments. Liberties are taken (purist alert!) that reshape songs.
Four of the numbers have been recorded by the singer on past albums: "Cry Me a River" and three Sondheim sojourns - "No One Is Alone," "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Something's Coming." Among the show tunes, that West Side Story classic is the least radicalized from its original tempo and feel (except in the band's solos in the middle), with that familiar, insistent instrumental phrase which starts things and stays on very much present. A theme of questioning and/or longing is apparent on most selections. When there is calm or realization, it only comes after examination of emotions. Throughout the recording, the phrasing of the lyrics suggests not only deep feeling but feelings being experienced very much in the exact present moment. The artist is expert at performing what sound like sudden realizations as if thinking out loud - "eureka" moments or simply drinking in an experience, the bitter with the sweet. This is especially impressive with lyrics that are so familiar and have been so often recorded over the decades, like "Stardust."
Four Brazilian numbers that found popularity in the 1960s come up for attention; two Jobim songs with English lyrics are in a medley and for me, they are the highlights of the CD. The long piano introduction itself is a marvel of melodic set-up and the vocal does not disappoint when Betty begins "Dindi." Sounding awed and at her most vulnerable, the arresting feeling continues phrase by phrase. When it blends into "How Insensitive," a song I thought I was very tired of, rueful regret takes over and the two songs inform each other.
Per the press release, four select bonus tracks will be available exclusively through Rhapsody. Betty Buckley is currently performing this repertoire and songs from her long-lost but recently issued 1967 album at Feinstein's at Loews Regency.
Chalk up another point in the "win" column for Forbidden Broadway for the latest in its series of skewerings of Broadway shows and trends. Gerard Alessandrini's parody lyrics are super sharp here, with particularly clever and delightfully dazzling rhymes that come at the ear fast and furious. This high degree of polish and the sheer number of strong phrases let repeat listenings remain enjoyable. There's plenty of craft in the details - in addition to the basic choices of what point to make via which song so the twist on the original song title becomes part of the joke. (Examples: "Slow People" for "Show People" from Curtains and The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" is used to lament that Broadway now seems "Part Disney World.") In addition to lampooning specific shows and performers, plenty of venom is reserved for audience tastes and reactions and wide commercial appeal (or the lack thereof).
Casting chameleons is the key to the performances working, and the cast members here are versatile and strong voiced. The current edition's present/recent cast sounds great. Janet Dickinson clones the Christine Ebersole Little Edie voice (spoken and sung) for Grey Gardens and Valerie Fagan is successfully brash in a wide variety of roles, from angst-ridden Spring Awakening teen to one of The Jersey Boys. Jared Bradshaw is another talented gear-shifter deftly piercing David Hyde-Pierce's persona for one. James Donegan is especially attentive to detail in little moments and coloring his lines, with a golden moment in the "Being Alive" spoof that follows the hoot of clunky cacophony of honks and squeaks of a Company cast playing their own instruments. (Otherwise, the accompaniment is just piano, with David Caldwell doing yeoman's work and full of energy.)
Bonus tracks bring us some numbers that hadn't been recorded before, mocking shows that have come and gone. The one exception is a Chicago bit that's still around, since the show it winks at is also still around, partly because of the bigger name casting coups discussed in song: "Give 'Em the Old Star Replacement." Also heard on these bonus tracks are cast members who have been part of various editions of Forbidden Broadway. Three feature Megan Lewis. At the very end, there's an unlisted piece (hidden track) where Alessandrini makes a cameo, thinking through and throwing together a quick addition to his library of Patti LuPone attacks, this time a jibe at her Gypsy sung by Gina Kreiezmar. For Forbidden Broadway, everything's still coming up roses (with thorns, of course).
UNDER THE RADAR
French-born singer Valerie Ahneman provides the vocals for the band Bon Chic Bon Genre, based in New York City. They have released a seven-track album called Ambiance and it provides a change-of-pace ambiance from the usual cabaret sound evoking French flavors. Clearly contemporary in style with a kicking drum beat and an electric sound, the effect lies somewhere between the hip and the quirky. The band consists of keyboard player Bartosz Hadala, bass player Dave Anderson, drummer Yutaka Uchida and guitarist Laurent Medelgi, who is musical director and creates these oddly affecting arrangements. I especially like the guitarist's work; it creates the sizzle when things threaten to get at all mushy - and he's full of little surprises.
Yes, the singer has a way to go before it can be said she sounds truly at ease and comfortably nails all the high and sustained notes, but she has a different and insistent quality. Edith Piaf trademarks are here. With a rock beat that some will find anathema to tradition, "Non, je ne regrette rien" is adamant in an oddly casual way rather than melodramatically insistent. "La vie en rose" is relaxed and easy to take. There's an instrumental track of another song that began in France: "Autumn Leaves," happily minus any flowery treatment, kind of a quietly funky groove that creates its own ambiance.
It's not all French flights of fancy ... things get sultry and Valerie switches to English with the Patsy Cline hit "Crazy" and gets a bit feisty with Tina Turner's chart-topper, "What's Love Got to Do with It?" Part lounge, part modernizers, part throwback, Bon Chic bon Genre mixes genres - this is hybrid time.