Less is More?
Sweeney & Others
Can Sweeney Todd be subtle and understated? Not exactly, but consider - as a purely listening experience - this new version with a major reduction in the original's cast and orchestra (and having them be the same ten people!). Watching the performers play instruments and play characters at the same time is considered by some to be fascinating and illuminating and by others to be gimmicky or distracting from the drama.
The sparer accompaniment makes for the aural equivalent of a close-up in emotional moments and brings out the bleakness of the characters' fates. It's intriguing. Further, with the exception of top-billed Patti Lupone who has recorded the role of Mrs. Lovett before, the singing voices and characterizations are quite different than what we've heard previously. I can't say I prefer this version, but I'm happy to have an alternative with new colors.
At the top of my list of minuses is simply that the playing time is shorter than in other versions. I have always had great admiration for the entire score as heard on the original cast album, and still miss the incidental "Parlor Songs" and the "Wigmaker Sequence" which has also been cut. Too long for a single CD's playing time, this ends up as a 2-CD set clocking in at just about 89 minutes. As Mrs. Lovett says, "Seems a downright shame. Seems an awful waste..."
Michael Cerveris is a more cerebral, inwardly focused Sweeney whose emotions simmer ominously rather than boil over. This makes him perhaps more sympathetic and mysterious. His singing performance, while commanding, has less of the roller coaster approach, and "Epiphany" is not the chilling cathartic climax it can be. Still, I respect his focus and his slow-burning fuse. There's great attention to detail: I love how he spits out the word "pious," mocking one who claims to be that, and hear how full of awe he sounds when presented with his shining barber's tools.
Rather than settle for daffy or evil, resourceful Patti Lupone finds an entertaining weariness in her character, bringing new line readings to relish. Those who have criticized her in the past for stridency, "hammy" excesses or diction problems will not find much to complain about in those departments. As the young lovers and playing celli, Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina are appealing, with the humor in their furtive, clandestine encounters coming through without sacrificing believability. I do feel that the characters of Judge Turpin and The Beadle need to be more blatantly despicable and, on disc at least, Mark Jacoby and Alexander Gemignani don't come off with the sufficient villain quotient (I've much preferred their work elsewhere).
Manoel Felciano's Tobias is an asset, and his appearances are high points. The reassigned opening solo for him on "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is effective, and his "Not While I'm Around" is well done on all counts: vocal quality, tenderness and also the presence and intensity in the spoken lines. The needed comic relief segment of the the shaving contest presents Donna Lynn Champlin, cast against gender, as Pirelli. The scene is shortened here, regrettably, but the performer provides some fun and is notably present on accordion, flute and piano throughout.
Fortunately, Tommy Krasker, who has so expertly and attentively produced the recent Sondheim albums on his own PS Classics label, is in charge, "moonlighting" for Nonesuch Records. The sound is appropriately moody, not antiseptic. The packaging contains some photos, the lyrics, background information on this version by director John Doyle and others, and a plot synopsis for the uninitiated.
The cast is impressive for the most part as instrumentalists, but don't expect Miss Lupone to put out a tuba solo album. If anyone needed proof that Stephen Sondheim's score does not need window dressing, embellishment or distractions, this is it. It's not a complete triumph, but a bold try. And well worth hearing.
Simplicity is the strength and sometimes the drawback of the next item. British composer Harry Parr Davies (1914-1955) did not live very long, but he got an early start, writing melodies for 18 shows and doing a bit of film work. In this album recorded last year, it's a matter of sticking to basics. The arrangements by Rex Walford are simple: it's just his piano and a double bass, played by Sam Copley. Soprano Gabrielle Bell is unmannered. For the most part, this is wise and appropriate because Parr Davies wrote melodies whose charm is their directness. A cynic would find them too predictable, but a lover of sentimental but strong melodies hears them as satisfying. Once they begin, they please the ear going where you "want" them to go. Ingratiating, sweet and catchy, most are delightful in a very old-fashioned way.
The composer worked with numerous lyricists. Most of the lyrics here are what can be called workmanlike and/or sentimental. You won't find an abundance of wit or sophistication. In many cases they are cute and seem appropriate to the bright but light tunes they dress. Several, however, are predictable. Follow-up lines to the main ideas seem to come not from the heart but from the rhyming dictionary. There are many truly adorable lyrics, too, and some that remind me to look at them from the perspective of their times. I'm focusing more on the material than the singer, for two reasons. First of all, she is unassuming, not overly distinctive in style, and her agenda seems to be putting the emphasis on the material. Secondly, the work of Harry Parr Davies is not well known by most Americans. In fact, eight of the album's songs have not been recorded until now.
Gabrielle Bell has a pretty sound, well-matched to the material. It would not be difficult to convince someone that this recording was made when the songs were new. Although most of the tracks are quite well done, not all of the high notes sound like they are in her comfort zone. As far as making the most of some inspiration-challenged lyrics, she's much more successful with some than with others. A couple of the very simplest songs are the most effective: "Blue for a Boy" and "Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye." Understandably, she struggles more (sometimes valiantly) when the lyrics get a little sticky, formal or pedestrian. Two comedy songs are a welcome surprise, both with lyrics by Barbara Gordon and Basil Thomas. One is "Wind Round My Heart," a mock of a purple prosed melodrama lyric that could be taken as a real one, until the end. It was once sung by the great Bea Lillie. The other is a broad old vaudeville style number with a great vamp between choruses called, "You Only Want It Cos You Haven't Got It." She takes off the white gloves on this one.
There are six songs from the score of a big hit, The Lisbon Story, which has words by Harold Purcell. Otherwise, the album plucks a song or two from the composer's shows. There's much optimism - case in point: "Bluebird of Happiness." (The composer collaborated on the lyric for this more familiar one with Edward Heyman and has a co-composer, Sandor Harmati.) Included are some he wrote in the 1930s for a major star of the day, Gracie Fields. The first chapter of his career was as her pianist and conductor. It would be wrong to put most of these songs in the museum as quaint curiosities. The majority have splendid and strong melodies, embraced by singer and pianist. I especially love that they include the introductory verses, written in the classic form. There's more here to appreciate than may be first apparent.
Tributes to singers are tricky. This one keeps things simple in that "less is more" credo with the performer just getting the gist of her subject's style, not attempting an out-and-out imitation. The spoken biographical information is tightly scripted, too. The accompaniment is nothing elaborate either, just piano and bass.
Next year will be Jane Froman's centennial and that may mean more attention to the singer who worked in concerts, radio, had her own TV program and was in a few films and stage shows, including an edition of The Ziegfeld Follies. Meanwhile, we've had a head start, thanks to Valerie Lemon's dedication to the star who passed away a quarter of a century ago. She's been performing her affectionate tribute for the last couple of years and released a CD, now expanded with some new tracks. One is a second version of "With a Song in My Heart" which also provided the title for the 1952 movie biography of the singer.
To me, Froman's recordings projected a strong sense of reserve and formality, and things could get lugubrious. Despite this, the voice had an appealing richness. Though she did her share of light tunes, humor was not her strong suit. Her stoicism despite physical problems resulting from a plane crash informed some of her work ("I Believe") and how she was viewed. Froman's voice is deeper, Valerie's is higher and her general demeanor is sunny. Therefore, she may come off as more Jane Powell than Jane Froman. That's bad news for Fromaniacs who may want a clone, but Valerie states that was not her goal. Both take a formal approach to many songs, much more presentational than interpretive. The exception is "I'll Walk Alone." It is extremely emotional and feels far more "lived in" than anything else. It's a grand theatrical moment wherein she seems to be fighting tears. That's a far more interesting choice than just soldiering on nobly as others have chosen to do with this World War II song. This is a live recording, and the number that follows, "Cling to Me" (Ira Brant-Hal David), benefits from residual drama and is particularly well sung.
Otherwise, there's some pretty soprano singing, and on the higher head tones Valerie's voice has a much more intriguing and impressive quality. The majority of the songs chosen from the Froman repertoire are by those who wrote for shows and movies, mostly well-known like the five in the Gershwin medley and the title song from Harold Rome's musical Wish You Were Here. It's interesting to see a couple of less-known items: the Bob Merrill ditty "I Wantcha Around" and a George Forrest-Robert Wright cutie pie, "Millionaires Don't Whistle," which is one of the bonus tracks.
Pianist on the live tracks is Don Rebic, who is fine but because of the nature of this tribute, isn't shown to his fullest advantage. Likewise, Christopher Denny, who did all but one of the arrangements and is pianist for the bonus tracks, has done more creative work elsewhere. However, I do love his sprightly work on the aforementioned "Millionaires" and it perfectly captures its shining silver lining philosophy.
This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but the reason I am a little disappointed in some aspects here is that I had none of the aforementioned quibbles with Valerie's very different first album, The Way of the Heart. It has plenty of individuality, humor, and a contemporary feminist spin, with refreshing song choices. On the other hand, she shows more vocal power here. Now, if we can only get the best of both worlds on her third album, I'll be a truly satisfied customer. Nevertheless, this CD has its assets and also motivated me to dig out and look up some old Jane Froman recordings. And I think that's part of the plan, right?
UNDER THE RADAR
A look at a cast album you may not have heard about:
In this cast album of Pretty Faces, writer Robert W. Cabell seems to reject the idea that "less is more" and opts for "more is more." I'm not referring to the size of the cast (8) or the size of the cast, meaning the dimensions of the plus-size women who are the focus of this show. It's that there are 27 tracks and that's a lot! Among them, there are many good moments, but overall, I find the quality to be uneven. Cabell wrote book, music and lyrics. He's also the album producer. I think his strong suit is comedy, innocent, bawdy and snide. There's cleverness here. It's the straight, sincere songs that disappoint. It's frustrating, because the good stuff is quite good.
The musical is set at a beauty pageant for overweight women, and the constestants are madly rehearsing for the high-pressure event. Among the character song highlights are the Southern gal practicing with her baton that she is "Twirling for Jesus," and "Too Plump for Prom Night" for a character named Pleasure.
The cast works well in the ensemble numbers, and their songs about getting ready for a show have fun, frantic energy that people used to putting on any kind of show will appreciate. The two male characters are the amusingly bossy stage manager and the singing host of the pageant. His pastiche of a theme song is fun and could be expanded. The musical accompaniment is bare bones, sounding like a synthesizer, which does not serve the songs well. It makes the non-comedy songs sound cheesy.
The composer-lyricist is familiar to me because of his album for Z: The Masked Musical which was also a quirky but daring mix with a cast of name performers. The company here is from the production in 2004 at The New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) which showcases promising musicals. The ACE theater in Eugene, Oregon (the writer's hometown) premiered both Cabell shows.
Despite the subject of scale-tipping ladies, this is a lightweight show that is most entertaining when it stays entertainingly so. Like its main characters, it has potential to be a winner.
And that is the end of the "less is more" thoughts, more or less ... except to thank you for reading and to promise that there's more in the to-be-listened-to pile for next week.