A very old show in its first English language cast album, a contemporary pop singer with a theater resume, and a singer with a quartet and a good jazz sense. Three very different kinds of recordings make for a mixed bag, and my feelings are mixed on each.
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Happy End had an unhappy beginning in its debut in 1929 Germany where the musical closed quickly. When it came to Broadway decades later with an English adaptation by Michael Feingold (following a run at the Yale Rep), it was deemed eligible for Tony Award consideration as a "new" musical. It was nominated for best musical, score and book, but this edgy and adult show lost in all three categories to a very different kind of show: Annie. Happy End's score has been recorded in German over the years, and some songs translated into English have appeared on albums, but we've never had an English language cast album until now. Although the new album with the cast of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater production has plenty of atmosphere and attitude, the singing performances too often provide a frustrating listening experience.
No doubt this piece is a challenging one, with its sardonic tone and broad characters. The musical material has the potential to be overplayed - pastiche numbers, songs with bitterness and force-fed religious hymns. Do they spotlight the sanctimonious? Are they successfully preaching politics by putting down preaching religion? On disc, it only works to an extent. The production is billed as "a melodrama with songs," and including representative snippets of dialogue between and within musical numbers does help get a sense of the show and the characters' reactions and resistance to each other. Some of the terse spoken comments are especially effective, like a splash of cold water in the face after a song or a character's skeptical set-up that creates a context. Personalities come across better in the spoken material. Most of the singing voices are disappointingly uninteresting. Of course, one doesn't want the voices taking on these stinging or snide numbers to be overly pretty and thus homogenize them, but can't Happy End have a happy medium?
Soprano Charlotte Cohn as the prim and earnest Salvation Army lass gets mired in the one-color fervent characterization, and her long "The Sailors' Tango" with its relentless repetition of lines becomes irritating. A little goes a long way, but alas there is a reprise almost immediately (at least theater audiences could have an intermission between the two versions; a CD listener might try pressing "pause"). Her voice is more attractive in "Surabaya Johnny," but this dark number that functions to present a dysfunctional woman's story needs more dramatic investment. It's one of the score's songs that has been recorded in English, and singers such as Betty Buckley and Bette Midler have already demonstrated its tour de force possibilities more powerfully, as have others in all-Weill albums. Another number that's more familiar, "The Bilbao Song," does not reach its full potential of a lingering but cloudy happy memory; it never really explodes with joy nor does it exploit its potential for emotion.
Lianne Marie Dobbs contributes some attractive singing in a few group numbers. Linda Mugleston is quite entertaining, and her world-weary spoken put-downs and asides to those who are full of themselves work like a pin popping a balloon. When we finally get to hear her sing in the third act, her "Ballad of the Lily of the Hell" seems to sum up what's been hinted at, and it works quite well. The male performers, playing Chicago gangsters and others, have a tough guy or comic persona that comes across, but the singing is thin and only appealing in terms of capturing the sarcasm and the sneer.
The album certainly has value and can't be dismissed out of hand as it has its moments and works as far as the broad strokes go. The band adds great atmosphere throughout, with accordion and brass especially flavorful. Constantine Kitsopoulos is the musical director. Thankfully, the booklet includes all the lyrics because some are hard to catch. Looking at the track list on the back cover might lead one to think there are more sung pieces, as a few of the items among the 22 are brief instrumentals with dialogue. Conversely, the "Prologue" and "Epilogue" might be assumed to be instrumental moments, but are sung - and are actually the same song. This hailing of the rich is a vocal highlight, a group number with its irresistible shifts in tempo from staccato hosannas to a rollicking, catchy section.
This belated English language recording is not the ideal version Weill fans have waited for, with their appetites whetted by having heard isolated songs in English and getting a general sense from recordings of the score in German. I'm getting past my initial letdown and appreciating the humor and the band, but it also sent me back to the existing German versions. This CD will have to suffice until another theater company tries its luck with this piece that some consider a poor cousin of that Brecht and Weill premiered just a year earlier: The Threepenny Opera. Hopefully, we won't have to wait three-quarters of a century to hear another take on it.
I'm warming to Daphne Rubin-Vega's second solo CD, Redemption Songs. My attraction and interest is all about her intriguingly different voice and the persona that comes through. That same special mix of gritty strength and naked vulnerability that pulled me in with her vocal performance as Mimi on the Rent cast recording gets to me with her work here, although it's more low-key. She's an adventurous performer as her varied roles have shown, including The Rocky Horror Show and the recent admirable Bernarda Alba. On Broadway, Daphne is Fantine (for another week and a half) in the reborn Les Miserables but she's less miserable in these mostly optimistic songs exploring relationships. Not all are the usual romantic ones: the opening "Citizens of the World" addresses our connections to each other and there's a ride down the "Bumpy Road" (of life) that mentions God by name. These two the singer wrote on her own; she collaborated on four others on this ten-track CD.
Not all the material here fully engages me, but even my non-favorite tracks have redeeming qualities. The aforementioned originals took a while to grow on me. The fairly simple "Bumpy Road" has the asset of its positive attitude ("celebrate individuality" and "so curious to be still alive and hungry"). In "Citizens of the World," I think the voice and message get overshadowed by wailing electric guitars and drums, with a lyric that mixes the idea of starting a nuclear family with world family. Daphne was pregnant when she began work on the album and some lyrics refer to that, specifically this one and the second song which has the same name as her child, "Luca Ariel." It's a tender piece that appeals to my sentimental side, nicely mixing in some Spanish words. Silvio Rodriguez's "En Estos Dias" is sung entirely in Spanish, with the sparest accompaniment of all selections; Daphne and guitar are a good blend here. Elsewhere, I think her voice gets lost amid synthesizers, rock band, back-up vocals and echo effects.
There is certainly variety here. What a great use of language, and so well executed, in the frazzle of frustration is "Mental Tenant." Its metaphors (the opening "You're renting too much space in my head;/ I can't get an eviction" and "psychic squatter") are well done. Its coiled anger sets it apart from the moods in other numbers. Daphne is also very effective with a piece of philosophy introduced to us by that great green guru, Kermit The Frog: her entrancing and touching interpretation of "The Rainbow Connection" definitely connects. She sounds full of awe and wonderment, making the song's list of questions keeping her very present and active, rather than espousing long-held positions. It suits her warm, crushed-velvet voice. Adding a whispered, "God is everywhere" statement on the fade-out, this ends the album on a cozy note after some shake, rattle and rolling (the title tune is an old Bob Marley number, but she doesn't get overwhelmed by the reggae beat at all).
Arranger David Matos is at the guitar and synthesizers, and certainly those whose first musical language is pop-rock will be more fully satisfied. I would have liked a little more theatricality or a leaner or lusher instrumental accompaniment on most of this. Still, there's a lot to like within the chosen milieu.
UNDER THE RADAR
Finding another competent jazz singer is always a good thing.
The debut CD by vocalist Leonisa Ardizzone and her three musicians, Afraid of the Heights, is an encouraging one. With Charlie Parker's quick, tricky "Anthropology," it gets off to an impressive start that shows all concerned passing the "are they competent jazz players?" test with flying colors. Leonisa's swinging players are Bob Sabin on bass, Justin Hines on drums and percussion, and Chris Jennings, who is guitarist, producer and husband. The band gets some time to stretch out, but these are neat solos, not self-indulgent or wandering ones. Hines wrote the album's instantly likeable title song, which is a humorous look at the misconceptions about the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. Its witty lyrics patiently explain to the misinformed that it may be a bit far but it isn't the boondocks and yes, they have running water and even Starbucks and other signs of civilization. Leonisa sings it cheerfully, showing a real sense of humor about her real-life neighborhood north of, well, everything.
Let's get the disappointing news out of the way: The album is on the short side, its ten tracks clocking in at a total of just over 36 minutes. There's one track where the singer's voice is not at ease with some melodic leaps - it's the album's one stage song, Dietz and Schwartz's "Alone Together." It's an aberration, as she is deft everywhere else and aces any musical twists and turns, and she and the band comfortably bend the melodic line of the standard "You Go to My Head" and others. The additional material she adds to the end of the standard "Autumn Leaves" is billed as "stream of consciousness." This riffing with commonplace words and banal statements about autumn in non-rhyming lines might be more entertaining in the moment in a live situation where we're convinced it's improvised.
At this point, the singer seems more focused on the music than the words, like many jazz singers before her. Her singing and bright sound are enjoyable to be sure, but she breezes through lyrics that have the potential to be serious or sad. She usually chooses not to go down that path, so I wonder if something like "Nature Boy" is a missed opportunity or just not an appropriate choice for someone with her preferences. However, the original tune "I'm Not the Same" does find her getting knee-deep into a bluesy feel with success.
Leonisa has a clear, healthy sound to her voice. There's an ease and comfort level in her handling of most of the material and a relaxed interplay with the musicians. You don't sense them sweating or trying to prove anything - there's a confidence that is appropriate because they are skilled. They sound like they're at home with each other and the songs, so it's easy to feel at home with them.
That's what's in the mix for this week; some interesting things coming up very soon, like new music from Ricky Ian Gordon, and more debut albums from vocalists with albums mixing show tunes and other genres.