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2 small-cast shows:
Daddy Long Legs' epistolary duo,
Winter Wonderettes' singing quartet

A musical doesn't need a big cast to have a big heart or a big burst of joy. Here are two musicals with two flavors of sweetness. While you might call both somewhat "underpopulated," they are overwhelmingly endearing and both have had some productions. One brings a new score to an old novel, previously adapted over the years. The other is a new story with old songs; it's a sequel, revisiting its characters one Christmas, with a bunch of mostly perky pop holiday ditties.

Daddy Long LegsDADDY LONG LEGS
PREMIERE CAST RECORDING

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of a novel called "Daddy-Long-Legs"; in those years, the story of a teen-aged orphan whose education was sponsored by an anonymous benefactor has been adapted in ways that change more than the hyphens in the title. In one movie version, the girl was younger, to star little Shirley Temple. In another, with songs, the age is adapted in the other direction for the man, to accommodate Fred Astaire. In this stage musical version, the age gap is smaller and the format returns to being mostly the letters between the two. That is to say, mostly her letters—since the agreement is that she write about her academic progress and practice her writing skills, but not expect replies. Thus, most of the songs are just that: the words written in those letters. The two-character show/cast album with its many tracks (23) is burdened by the challenge of trying to find variety in the claustrophobic concept of a series of reports, musings, opinions longing for comment or validation, and frustrations (several about not meeting in person). One starts to feel as if we're all-too-voluminously following them on Twitter. Streams of consciousness can easily overflow or a listener may want to dam it all.

It's impressive that the charming, quaint-but-not-too-sticky, seemingly involved-in-thought performances of Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock can overcome quite a bit of the restrictive and repetitive elements. She captures the excitement and wonder of a student whose mind and world are opening up to things that are new (to her), the actress convincing with her enthused gushing of "Have you ever heard of Michelangelo? He was a famous painter ..." And she's allowed to vent and pout in song, which she does without crossing the line into brat or ingrate, still projecting appropriate doses of the na´ve perspective. He gets to express second thoughts and second-guessing of his actions. Both rise to the occasion most of the time—without florid or woe-is-me styles of singing (his vocals on "Charity," however, are kind of thin where they need to build). Despite the characters' needs to be circumspect and aim for ultimate mutual respect, the long distance relationship is not always emotionally distancing for the listener. We know who he is—not the kindly old man she presumes—and get to know him.

This long-in vitro piece, by composer-lyricist Paul Gordon and bookwriter-director John Caird (who teamed for Broadway's Jane Eyre) has had several incarnations and seen productions. It began as a solo musical with just the girl singing her thoughts and letters. She still has much of the focus, but the man now has plenty of singing. We hear his reactions and letters he writes but doesn't always send. Also to give his character more singing and to supply relief from the her turn/ his turn solos, the presentation relies numerous times on a combination of her voice as she's writing the words and his voice as he sings what he's reading, sometimes overlapping. This change of pace becomes its own overused pattern. Fortunately, there's additional variety within the characterizations as the girl matures and becomes independent and the man becomes more emotionally involved.

Musically, things can feel quite static, the composer-lyricist doesn't often think outside the box of his musical paintbox of close-hued colors, with melodies rarely soaring. It takes some patience wading through the gushing waves of words, but it's worth the wade. The score's long middle is more of a muddle of meandering correspondence while the promising opener and latter numbers have more musical muscle. That fine opening number bristles with impatience and then hope, along with well-executed exposition ("The Oldest Orphan in The John Grier Home") and the plot does finally thicken and allow release and relief. "Graduation Day" may seem a welcome change of style with its drive and throb, but is also, as arranged and orchestrated, rather out of character with a more contemporary musical sound. The score here is played by keyboards, drums and four string players, orchestrated by the songwriter—who also produced the CD—and conducted by keyboard player Laura Bergquist.

Often gentle and sentimental, the good-hearted Daddy Long Legs score lets core human values come to the fore—for selflessness, gratitude, and concern for the other person's feelings are emphasized. Add holding education in high esteem and holding out for tender romance and you have a warm and fuzzy musical with characters (as sung and played so nicely here) that you want to hug—or get to hug each other.

Winter WonderettesWINTER WONDERETTES
STUDIO CAST RECORDING
LML Music
Disc at LMLMusic.com, mp3 at Amazon

Well, merry very belated Christmas—I received the Christmas-cheer-full cast album of Winter Wonderettes after filing the reviews of holiday albums, but perhaps we've all recovered from overdosing on Christmas tunes enough to hear the cheer with a fresh ear. That's in order because, although this is an album of a stage presentation, all the songs are pre-existing, mostly very well-known and high-energy yuletide perky pop pieces. "Sleigh Ride" and "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and a big stack of novelty numbers like "We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo"? Before you cry to give Santa the sack—the foursome bringing some sunny spirits are irresistibly goofy characters previously introduced in a cute-as-a-Christmas angel musical about an all-girl harmony singing group called The Marvelous Wonderettes.

In the original piece, which has its own cast album, they mined nostalgia singing sugar-coated pop hits of the 1950s and '60s. They were seen in that show as high schoolers in act one and reunited as adults in act two, friendships and jealousies and hurts (and some male partners) surviving. They're back and it's Christmas 1968 (never mind that a couple of the songs included weren't actually around then; why be a Christmas party pooper?). The game gals are glad as all get-out to get out and sing for people again, entertaining at a holiday party at the hardware store where one of them has worked since high school. There's trouble in their holiday paradise, but the music goes on. Not much of a plot, but it's described in the liner notes, although including spoken dialogue instead might have made this feel like more than what could pass on a casual listen as just a Christmas album by a very peppy group saddled with arrangements that can be tacky tackling holiday hum-alongs. So, it really helps to know the characters from prior exposure to the show.

Every time the characterizations are emphasized (as when they giggle with glee, ham up doing a deep-voiced Santa "ho-ho-ho" or struggle amusingly awkwardly with the hard consonants singing some foreign-language lyrics), it's something special. A few adapted lyrics pop up in the pop songs, like inserting the name of the hardware store or in "Winter Wonderland," taking advantage of an opportunity to substitute "Wonderettes" for "wonderland" or, after that song's line about Parson Brown and how "he'll say, 'Are you married?'/ We'll say, 'No, man'", they reply, alternately: "Yes"; "No"; "Sorta." I so wish there were a lot more of this kind of thing and a lot more camp and ham.

We're most often reminded that these are a play's characters when we hear from the kewpie-doll cute squeaky-voiced Suzy (Bets Malone), assigned solos on the fluffiest fare (the tale of her namesake, "Suzy Snowflake" and "Marshmallow World")—and she steals the show here, milking many a mini-moment with quick solo lines and little asides. She and others in the cast have played the roles in one or another Wonderettes shows. Each has solos, with the teamwork and period-perfect harmonies a delight. Misty Cotton (Missy) has fun with that bit of Hawaiian holiday happiness, "Mele Kalikimaka." Occasionally, they just play it straight, as in the tender wish for "All Those Christmas Cliches" (Stephen Flaherty/ Lynn Ahrens) sung by Darcie Roberts as Cindy Lou. Julie Dixon Jackson (Betty Jean) does nicely with Frank Loesser's perennial "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" ballad, not turning suddenly into a torch singer but adding her own flair, keeping it in pop territory. And, when hard times at the hardware store mean possible unemployment—the end-of-act one cliffhanger—she builds to a bluesy wail of woe in a calibrated but calculated self-pitying "Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day."

Arranger/ orchestrator Brian William Baker shares vocal arrangement credit with Roger Bean, the show's creator and the recording producer. The bounciness by Bean and Baker are infectious, confectionary fun, as the women add all the Christmas trimmings and endless enthusiasm. If you missed this recent release in the holiday rush (it was rushed out after a November recording session) and/or your New Year's resolution was to get 2011's holiday music purchased early, take note. No need to keep this gift under wraps.


- Rob Lester


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