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"A" for Anne from literature musicalized, to Zaz, a cool vocal group as our last item.  In between, two more musicals: one gay and one with gloom and doom.

ANNE & GILBERT
ORIGINAL (CANADIAN) CAST

Since the cover of Anne & Gilbert's cast album says "selected songs," we know the 15 songs on this 43-minute recording don't comprise the full score (one published review reports that the show has 28 songs). That explains why the CD feels a bit unsatisfying with some loose threads. However, the songs are rewarding and give ample evidence of a musical to cheer.

Based on the second and third in L.M. Montgomery's series of novels, which began with Anne of Green Gables (previously musicalized), the story follows the character into adulthood. With no plot synopsis included, listeners unfamiliar with Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island may not be able to follow all the action and interaction. But it's a tribute to the writers' skills at storytelling and showing character through song that so much does come through.

There are attractive voices for the (eventually) romantic pair who give the show its title: Marla McLean and Peter Deiwick, who led the strong Prince Edward Island company last summer following a few years of development and workshops.  They only have one duet here, "Carried Away by Love," sung before they are a couple. It's the only song on the CD written by all three credited songwriters: Jeff Hochhauser (also the bookwriter), Bob Johnston (also vocal arranger and co-orchestrator) and Nancy White. The others are almost evenly divided: six written solely by White and seven composed by Johnston with lyrics by him and Hochhauser. One of Johnston and Hochhauser's, the opener, goes on too long for me in its almost aggressively gleeful rendition. Otherwise, the songs are kept short: brisk and/or tightly written, they make the desired point without becoming redundant or anticlimactic.  

Nancy White's work is impressive; she's more successful with the heartfelt material, especially with two real gems. Sung warmly by Marla McLean with well-shaded intelligence, "Someone Promised Me the Moon" is a ballad which could live outside the show. The other is "When He Was My Beau," a tale of an older woman's regret for chances missed in youth. Laura Smith sings the memory piece and presents its lesson with regality mixed with vulnerability that is far more heartbreaking than maudlin. Two other pieces show White's flair for comedy.

The other writers excel at character songs, spilling out wonderfully wordy  stretches of thoughts and gushing conversations. The highlight among their work is a seven-minute number, "The Days Ahead," involving the two leads and five other cast members, encompassing different points of view and the passage of time. It has shifts in tone and tempi, plus various musical sections - including a reprise of the especially delightful "Saturday Morning" for the character of the very busy Gilbert.  As a singer and actor, the leading man displays versatility, portraying contrasting moods and energies: frustration, reflection, nervousness, wistfulness and spunk.

The sound on the album is vibrant - high marks to the music department.  Instrumentation is strings: cello, violin, guitar and mandolin in addition to keyboards played by musical director Lisa St. Clair. Tom Leighton shares orchestration credit with Johnston.  Anne & Gilbert is a welcome addition on the shelf of any show tune fan who wants a well-recorded, well-performed new show in the old tradition of mixing romance with gentle humor.  

BreatheBREATHE
2004 PHILADELPHIA CAST

Composer Dan Martin and longtime partner lyricist Michael Biello can dazzle you with a complex, contemporary witty patter song and then turn around and devastate you with naked emotion.  There's not all that much in between. 

Breathe is a musical - actually seven mini-musicals - touching basic universal truths about how we get through life.  It travels through a lot of territory - rarely will you find so many epiphanies in one musical score.  Keen observers of modern life and human interaction, Martin and Biello resist the temptation to go for smug satire.   When their characters stumble or show selfishness, they're portrayed as sympathetically fallible rather than failures.  The cast has the same agenda, embuing their multiple roles with personality and open-hearted singing.  They all have the confidence to work without a net, seemingly willing to open their hearts - and maybe a vein.

Long active in the gay community, the writers have chosen to focus on gay and lesbian characters in these musical vignettes.  But I'm outing them as having illuminated universal truths within their homo-centric stories.  One, Boxed, unleashes a litany of growing-up-gay images machine gun style.  It's presented by the ultimate "performance artist" in a theater festival (I suspect the parties here have seen more than their share of such cutting-edge, over-the-edge art.) In another story, a lesbian couple's goal is Having a Baby and they seek a donor father.  With clever tongue-twisting songs, they consider their options among the men they know.  "Jane's Genes" is a cute romp and the performers embrace the comic possibilities as much as they do their heavy dramatic challenges elsewhere.  Next is a powerful, highly dramatic section, literally a matter of life and death.  In the Park puts the focus on the appreciation of the beauty of nature and some hindsight about human nature.  Quite an achievement, the cathartic and  life-affirming Next and In the Park confront fears and provide emotional release. The album ends with hope mixed with a strong reality check of life's priorities.  What could be pompously preachy is gently persuasive with elegant restraint.  A recurring theme-and-variations, called a ritual, provides links and respite between sections.

The music is varied, sometimes presented mosaically in bits that spurt and repeat or come at you in fragments with time for react.   The listener is allowed to breathe, too.  Other melodies have a legato elegance and satisfying completeness.  Nothing is pat, but while the melodies are challenging and daring, they are not esoteric or inaccessible.  Quite the opposite. 

The album does not identify who sings what, but the five-person Philadelphia cast is effective all around: Christine Barbush, J.J. Criss, Jillian Louis, Robin Marcotte and Seth Peterson.  The accompaniment is piano, but I'm reluctant to say "just piano" because Jeff McDonnell does sensitive work, anchoring the project and adding a full layer of emotion and drama, almost as another character. Additional piano arrangements are by Christopher McGovern (a composer-lyricist in his own right, who recently made strong contributions as musical director for Susan Egan and others). 

I have a much earlier (1990) recording of the writers' work, Homo Love Song, sung by the composer with his own piano accompaniment.  It's bleaker and less polished, but one can see the potential so richly realized with this piece. Breathe began its development a decade ago and had its official public premiere at The Bailiwick Repertory in Chicago in 1999 where a new piece they've contributed to opens on Tuesday.  Laid bare in a more literal way, it's called Barenaked Lads in the Great Outdoors. More information on the writers at their website, www.biellomartin.com.

Behind the Iron MaskBEHIND THE IRON MASK
Songs From the West End Musical
PREMIERE 2005 LONDON RECORDING

GBM Productions

Greeted with some of the harshest, ranting reviews I've come across, last year's London musical Behind the Iron Mask is quite the curiosity. Much of that criticism had to do with visual aspects and other points that are not part of the experience of listening to the score on CD. This is not by any means a great work, but it is not a washout. Hard-core collectors and those with a passion for melodrama in musicals are the most likely buyers of this import.

Not to be confused with a similarly-titled musical (The Man in the Iron Mask) now being workshopped in the U.S., Behind the Iron Mask is based on the same famed plot of the man with a claim on his country's throne being held prisoner and forced to wear a heavy mask. One can see how the costuming would get in the way of performing in a visually compelling manner. The would-be king is played by Robert Fardell and his jailer is Mark McKerracher. Both were in the production. The female member of this three-character show is a gypsy, sung on the album by Emma Kershaw, who was not in the cast. All sing powerfully with much brio. Subtle is not the operative word; there is some effective work on their part, but things are wildly uneven in the writing. Not as bombastic or overblown as some gothic/melodramatic musicals, there are a few sections that work well enough in the beginning. Unfortunately, it becomes tiresome and histrionic.

John Robinson is the composer and lyricist. Though some of his melodic ideas have interest, the lyrics can be mundane, tedious or disastrous. Those looking for a hoot and seeking something so bad that it's "entertainingly awful" will find some lines to mock.  Some just sound silly set to music with their statements of the obvious or repetitiveness.  I don't want to be snickering at a train wreck, so I won't belabor this.

There's a six-person band that adds many perfectly fine touches and brings out some strength in the melodies which are far better than the lyrics. A few lyrics are not Robinson's. He has set two poems (Byron and Tennyson) to music as well as anonymous text in "Shadowland of Life." The Lord Byron poem, "There Is Sweet Music," works very well indeed. There are scattered moments with glimmers of good work, but not enough to recommend buying this for the casual show tune fan. If you do, you will find some pleasant surprises among the heavy going.

UNDER THE RADAR

For the first time, our weekly happy discovery deserving of attention looks at a quartet.

In Other WordsZAZ
IN OTHER WORDS

 

In Other Words is an album you can put on and enjoy in the background as you go about your business. But you'd be making a terrible mistake, as giving it your full attention will reveal many treasures in all the musical details and skillfully done special touches. Vocal groups respecting and emulating the Big Band Era singing traditions without sounding like tired copies don't come along every day. If you don't know Zaz, today is that rare day. Zaz is two women and two men and a lot of terrific musicianship.

Vocal arranger Elise Bretton's specialty treatments, originally for her group The Hi Tones, supplied the unusual tricks. Embellishing the well-known songs with extra words and musical phrases add surprises, some are clever and others supremely silly. It's all in good fun and for effect, though it will drive purists positively mad. For example, "So he's not Clark Gable" in "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," or "our own sweet U.F.O." in "Fly Me to the Moon." Repeated words extend some lines as part of the arrangements. Also, an occasional interpolation pops up, like the pop hit "Rockin' Robin" within "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along" (also listen for a quick "be-bop" within the bobbin'). Their innate hipness keeps the lightheartedness from veering into corny territory.

Standards done in this not very standard way include two songs from movie musicals with lyrics by Johnny Mercer: a revival of the revivalist tune "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" takes advantage of its staccato Harold Arlen melody, and Henry Mancini's stately "Whistling Away the Dark" relaxes. Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" is the least successful.  It's a simple, sincere, pop song. Jazzed up as it is here, it comes off as more of a lounge number.  

The group members are Maryanne Murray, Lynne Wilson, Mark Wolff and David Arthur Bachrach. Added to the vocal layers of contrasting voices, there is a lively band (guitar, piano, accordion, bass, sax and drums) quite up to the task of keeping up. The mix occasionally has a slightly jarring moment as a solo phrase from an instrument seems too forcefully prominent. The voices, however, are generally well balanced and blend well without getting muddy, and they remain rewardingly distinctive. A missed opportunity is not having an a capella number. It would be great to just hear those voices on their own, or maybe with just a bass. (That's my request for their next album, along with some not-so-well-known tunes.) Each singer gets a turn to solo, allowing the listener to become acquainted with his or her own unique qualities and then appreciate and identify their work in the harmony. And, oh, what harmony! All in all, the album is a party.


....Until next time.


-- Rob Lester


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