"And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome ..." The special electricity of a live concert - that exchange of energy between performer and audience, communication, reaction - is not always easy to capture on disc. How do producers and performers get past the "guess you had to be there" feeling? All it takes is "A Little Brains, A Little Talent," to name one song on two of the CDs here:
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1955
As usual, another in the Broadway by the Year concert series shows loving and skilled attention to a choice group of musical theatre songs, famous and not. Exactly half a century after their Broadway debut, 19 songs from 1955 came back for such a caring airing in a concert, finally on CD. (This is the first of the valued albums now on the Original Cast Records label, which has taken over the Bayview label.) What's pretty predictable about these concerts and albums is that there are so many highlights and delights that one's Broadway cup runneth over and spilleth. Part of that is the great songs, some underappreciated in their day or since; the other lucky break for listeners is having recorded performances by solid singers, most of whom who don't have solo albums but have made their mark in shows and on cast albums.
1955's home run on Broadway was Damn Yankees, and from its score there are four selections. Dee Hoty nimbly struts her way through "A Little Brains, A Little Talent," and Rachelle Rak gets equal time with the sizzle of "Whatever Lola Wants." Bryan Batt's broad vaudevillian fun with "Those Were the Good Old Days" is carried off in the character-appropriate "Devil may care" attitude that's good wicked fun. And the show ends with the company happily singing "Heart."
Rodgers & Hammerstein collections often overlook Pipe Dream, so it's wonderful to have new versions of two of its strong ballads: Sal Viviano does a lovely job with "All At Once You Love Her" and Raymond Jaramillo McLeod's "Everybody's Got a Home But Me" is passionate and yearning. The latter is one of the "unplugged" performances, sung on Town Hall's stage without amplification. In a "you are there" moment caught here, you can sense the audience listening to and appreciating the power of "the natural human voice" and the technique used by the singer. It happens again when the show's director, Emily Skinner, makes a welcome and winning late appearance with Plain and Fancy's "This Is All Very New to Me."
There are three songs from The Vamp (James Mundy/ John Latouche), recorded for the first time. Of these, I especially like Liz Larsen's proclamation, "I've Always Loved You" to the man who ... well, no need to spoil the punch line of an unfamiliar song! Also effective is Alexander Gemignani's bout with frustration with "Why Does It Have to Be You." (He'll be returning to The Town Hall for the next edition of Broadway by the Year, a look at 1947, on March 3rd).
Two more shows are represented. One is Ankles Aweigh - there are several reasons to remember its charms, including Justin Bohon's winking plug for a pre-marital "Honeymoon" and Nothing Can Replace a Man," cheerily and snappily put over by the zingy Connie Pachl. That one, as the rather irreplaceable host/creator Scott Siegel points out, has a lyric that supplies a list of "replacements" that were quite new in '55: saccharine, Samsonite, etc. Lastly, there's Cole Porter's Silk Stockings providing a couple of ballads and the super-lively company number, "Stereophonic Sound." (I guess that's my perfect segue to mention that the sound on this album is very, very good; it really feels live and kinetic.)
There are no duds or missteps here. There's variety, with more light, bright old school musical comedy "numbers" than usual and nothing much on the very heavy, thought-provoking side. As expected, the musical accompaniment is lively and fitting, with some especially effective work on violin this time by James Tsao. Don Falzone is on bass, Eric Halvorson on drums and Chuck Wilson on woodwinds, with pianist/arranger Ross Patterson back leading this version of his "Little Big Band" with sparkle on the snazzy pieces and glorious but understated work for the ballads.(The Broadway by the Year series, with interviews and album cuts, is the subject of a two-hour radio program on WBAI this Sunday at 9:00 pm.)
BABY JANE DEXTER
Leading a trio, the skill of Broadway by the Year's regular musical director/pianist Ross Patterson is a crucial part of the entertainment value on Baby Jane Dexter's second live album. His versatility shows with arrangements for this singer of longstanding whose repertoire includes blues, rock and standards. He also gives her the space she needs to be loose and free in this often high-voltage performance with its many raw, raucous and boisterous moments. Demure she ain't. One needs a taste for tough, gruff, rough riding and brash bellowing for some of the assertive, take-no-prisoners numbers. Perhaps some musical polish usually attended to in a recording studio is traded for unbridled in-the-moment choices, a bit of comic barking out of a lyric here and there, or self-indulgence going for the gusto - and the gutsy.
But subtlety is not absent in this set. My preference is for the numbers that show some restraint rather than the musical rants and tornado approach that the singer's fans cheer and expect. Two Broadway numbers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, both of which originated as grand and formal pieces, interestingly, are done quietly and with some sensitivity: South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening" and Show Boat's "Make Believe." An attempt at a casual approach to "Dancing on the Ceiling" (in a medley with "All I Have To Do Is Dream") makes it an ineffective throwaway but serves to set up an amusing monologue about dreams, and provides a segue to the next piece. Perhaps best of all are the numbers where some of the sandpaper sound and assertive stance are nuanced but meet up with a touch of anguish, as in "Precious Pain" by Melissa Etheridge or even the old standard "Fools Rush In." One thing this performer does well with this kind of material is to create and sustain a line of tension.
Baby Jane (as she prefers to be called) goes to town barreling her way through the bluesy and showy pieces, and the trio (completed by superb Steve Doyle on bass and drummer David Silliman) gives solid support for these forays and all the rest. The album's light title song is an old Burt Bacharach/ Bob Hilliard tune that she combines with spoken comments about a food obsession.
This album was recorded in performance at The Metropolitan Room by one of the club's MAC Award-winning technical directors, Jean-Pierre Perreaux, who produced it as a CD, with good balance and capturing the ambience and energy. Baby Jane returns to Manhattan's popular venue on March 8 for a series of Saturday nights.
I'd been waiting to write about Mary Wilson's live CD, which I've had since her exciting performance at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in New York last year. I was guessing it would be available someplace other than from her website, but it's still not showing up at online sites, so here goes anyway...
Planning this overview of live albums, I was happy to remember and pull this one from the pile and listen again (and again). There's a real comfort with the musicians and audience at The Plush Room in San Francisco, with casual and gracious chatting and asides and a ready, easy laugh. Live performing is an old story for this lady, whose first live recording was from the Copacabana back in 1964 in the early days of her work as a member of the hit-making girl group, The Supremes. Her solo recordings have been few and far between. These days, she's singing mostly old standards like "Smile" and pop hits like Norah Jones' hit "Don't Know Why." One of the highlights is a thoughtful rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," that does not appear on the track list.
The singer sounds great, applying her bluesy soulful voice to the material, truly at home with it, not like a pop singer dipping her toe in the waters. Those with supreme memories know that even way back, The Supremes sang some show tunes, and they made a full LP of Rodgers & Hart songs. Here, Mary takes on another by that team, the classic "Spring Is Here," and her phrasing of the lyric shows her reflective side. She includes "The Girl from Ipanema," the Brazilian smash the group once got to, as part of a medley. But her one nod to The Supreme's Motown hit singles is a rewarding revisiting of "My World Is Empty Without You." Particularly interesting is her talk about finding out about and seeing Dreamgirls and its parallels to her early fame, as she takes on the score's "I Am Changing," delivering a powerhouse performance.
The "up close and personal" theme of her show lets the singer open up about her past and share her perspective on ups and downs, whether raising the opening toast, "Here's to Life" or dealing with the tragic loss of her son ("Tears in Heaven"). The maturity and hard life lessons are there, and inform the entire proceedings. When she cuts loose on a more joyful number, it feels like a well-earned and appreciated break from the serious musings. It's a life-affirming show that engages the audience.
Mary Wilson opens an engagement tonight with this "Up Close" show at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's a guy who won't be under the radar for long. He's been performing in New York cabarets, has recorded his repertoire and just debuted a mostly new act that shows continued promise.JONATHAN WHITTON
LIVE AT THE LAURIE BEECHMAN THEATRE
Jonathan Whitton, a new name in New York cabarets, is already gathering attention and positive reviews with his strong presentation. I'd caught him a couple of times over the last few months and was impressed with his talent and potential, but had some reservations. These largely disappeared - a good sign indicating growth and work - with his new act this month. On disc, many of the strengths of that first show come through and some non-vocal distracting habits aren't an issue.
Jonathan is very much a musical theatre performer, and the bulk of his songs on Live at the Laurie Beechman Theatre come from that world, mostly of recent vintage. With the CD's pulse-racing opening of "Watching the Show" (smart choice commendably delivered, from The Times), the bar is raised high from the start and one wants it to stay at that level. He gets back to it, but has some "just OK" moments. There's firecracker work on A New Brain's "And They're Off" and powerful work on "Streets of Dublin" from A Man of No Importance and two contrasting character pieces from the gay song cycle Songs from an Unmade Bed. Turning the American musical theatre songbook back quite a few more pages, he digs out and digs into Damn Yankees' "A Little Brains, A Little Talent" with real relish and shamelessness.
Jonathan can generate excitement and often has unusually good focus when he's in the zone. Over the course of the longer songs, he could use more vocal shadings. The pretty part of his voice is so attractive that it's a shame he doesn't often enough find a way to spotlight that. Instead, his characterizations can tend to emphasize an attitude or stance which leads him to "act" more than sing, and his voice can take on a keening quality at the expense of purer sounds. Certainly he's reaching his audience and they're with him; you can hear it on this live album through appreciative chuckles, loud applause or hushed attention in quiet, hypnotic moments. He has a lot going for him: charm, confidence, timing, and when the material and mood suit him, he can project the real vulnerability of a man letting down his guard. You can almost hear his heart break in Scott Alan's fragile "Now," reeling from the shock of an unexpected ending of a relationship.
Accompanied just by Tamra Stevenson on piano, the musical dressings stay generally close to or in the spirit of the original/ well-known versions of songs. (And is this the seventh time someone has combined "Good Thing Going" and "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along? These Sondheim sometimes Siamese twins could use a new look, but Jonathan finds some nice ideas in phrasing here and there.)
There's some patter here, a bit rambling and more self-deprecating than self-revelatory, missing any Whitton wit that is apparent in his comic timing on songs. There's plenty to appreciate and glimmers of what's to come - in the sense that soon-to-be shining stars already glimmer quite a bit. Jonathan Whitton could easily be one of those.