Sound Advice

1924's Lady, Be Good! and
Good work by two current lady singers

Also see Rob's previous column on three new Sondheim-centered releases and look for our annual review of new holiday music in next week's column to be online December 4.

As we approach December, let's imagine a Broadway just over nine decades ago when the Gershwins' Lady, Be Good! was set for its December 1, 1924 opening. You'll get a taste of that flavor with the score's new cast album true to the period sounds. Two more contemporary ladies—with very different styles and energies—came out with new solo albums on the same day this month, both including Broadway fare from the not quite-that-long-ago past.

Lady, Be GoodLADY, BE GOOD!

Ghostlight Records

A new recorded version of a score by George and Ira Gershwin is always good news, and the sparkling and shiny-as-new version of that oldie but goodie Lady, Be Good! does not disappoint. It comes from this past February's presentation in the Encores! series at City Center and has a terrific cast headed by Danny Gardner and Patti Murin in the sibling roles of Dick and Susie Trevor, written for and first performed by real-life brother and sister Fred and Adele Astaire. This fine mix of wit and fizziness which introduced the tricky-tempoed fun of "Fascinating Rhythm" is well served. While a thorough and deluxe exploration of the score, including cut songs, was a studio-created release back in the 1990s, the score's prior recordings were far from complete. Recordings of a handful of numbers by the Astaires and George Gershwin's hands flying across the keyboard will always serve as valued authentic history; the soundtrack of a film version reminds us that less than half the original numbers were retained. This new version is loyal to the original down to using those 1920s orchestrations when they could be found, with others sleekly created in the spirit and style. But there's enough freshness here, with some different vocal timbres and personalities, that those of us who know/have the other renditions won't feel this is redundant or an also-ran when it comes to our Lady-love.

As Danny Gardner proved so winningly and charismatically in the old-school pastiche-y affectionate parody Dames at Sea, he can quite adeptly inhabit the period-perfect innocence and golly-gee joyfulness of earlier eras without any condescension. And the spunk and assertiveness Patti Murin showed in shows like Lysistrata Jones is well channeled and hits just the right sensibility here. While the silly book and plot involving the rich and the poor, marriage proposals, and the moldy old-school musical comedy version of identity theft may not win many fans today, a few chosen quips are handled with aplomb. Example: The quick retort to an affronted rich woman's rhetorical question, "Did you come here to insult me?!" is a zingy, "No, but the opportunity just came up."

With past associations with Gershwin songs on his long resumé, such as Broadway 's My One and Only, the sense of tradition and authenticity comes from the presence of the one and only Tommy Tune. His star turns on "Fascinating Rhythm" and another Gershwin valentine to a musical style, "Little Jazz Bird," form the icing on this tempting cake. Other performers, like the savvy Douglas Sills who gets the plum assignment of leading the title song, are also aboard to insure smooth and swanky glides through the cheery material. OK, technically there's a one-word difference between the show title and the referenced number ("Oh, Lady, Be Good!"), but ... oh, who cares? We're having too much fun at this party.

To really capture the period and make sure the numbers don't come off as self-conscious or dusty, we need a trusty musical director who knows the era, but also knows the sound has to sound alive and not quaintly embalmed or tinkly. And—no surprise—the well-seeped Rob Fisher is just the man to lead the orchestra. There's panache in the crisp playing and energy percolates. Orchestrations featuring duo pianists enjoyed some popularity in those days and we get that special sound here. The arrangements and orchestrations anchor the energy and are irresistibly spectacular. So, it's that much more of a treat that there are some nifty instrumental stretches recorded that tickle the ear and set the foot tapping. That begin right off when the disc starts to play and those joyous, jumping phrases snap us to grinning attention. The "Entr'Acte" is also included to give us additional shots of musical adrenaline and allow us to focus on the inventive use of justly described "fascinating" rhythms and accessible strains of what used to be called "take-home tunes." Those paired pianists are Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony and they shine on the instrumental known simply as "Piano Specialty" functioning in the show also as a plot-generated cue for a dance number. Toward the end, there's a celebratory "Carnival Time." With George Gershwin's fertile way, nothing instrumental seems capable of ever being thought of as "incidental music." This recording also preserves the sounds of the tap-dancing feet of Gardner and Tune (in separate solos).

The singing ensemble has a fair amount to do. Their numbers are among the least known ones in the score as they are more functional and tied to the creaky plot. But they come across as worthy sections, with some spark of their own. The chorus is apparently well-drilled, so even though lyrics aren't provided, I don't think you'll lose words or meaning. A kind of litmus test for clarity in group numbers is attentiveness to the "t" sound at the ends of words not getting lost and when they sing the title line of "A Wonderful Party," it's precise without sounding labored. That's quite a feat with as many as 20 voices in the ensemble.

In the comical complaint "You Don't Know the Half of It, Dearie Blues," Gardner gets to show another side and chemistry with another partner, Erin Mackey, as the woman he's infatuated with. Likewise, Patti Murin has a number with another male character, played by the affable Colin Donnell, called "So Am I," which they later reprise. This is an offspring of the old operettas, which featured finalettos and finales and finales ultimo in which key songs were more briefly re-used with perhaps new lyrics and dialogue in between. Reprises were very much a part of the M.O. in these early '20s and '30s shows, since sales and song popularity depended a lot on selling sheet music to audiences who'd hopefully leave humming or find nightclub singers and bands adopting a show's main numbers. So, even if you know the most exposed Lady, Be Goodies, some of the words in the reprises may well come as new treats. Naturally, the title tune figures prominently and the subject turns to marriage, that favorite panacea event to end musicals, tying up the knot and the plot as the leads and their "right" partners are reunited—or suddenly meet.

While our central siblings shine in these other prime duets, it's their chemistry and sparks when singing together that rule the day and are overall, the highlight tracks for me. Danny Gardner and Patti Murin nail a teasing tone and complement each other's sound and personality. Facing poverty, Dick and Susie's vow to stick together and bolster each other's spirits is a delight in "Hang on to Me" and there's a cute reaction in "I'd Rather Charleston" when they echo "Charleston!" with various shades of surprise and assertiveness. And the topper is the tongue-twisting fast-paced "Swiss Miss" specialty number where both seem to be truly having a ball navigating the accelerated torrent of words.

Raise a toast to this cast album with—what else?—bubbly champagne and let's lead the cheers. With its lively theatrical sound, it's everything you'd want it to be. And, if all this is new to you, welcome to the club.


Broadway Records

Sunny, fearless, playful and in-your-face struts come with Annaleigh Ashford's high-energy vaulting through her nightclub act. She bubbles over with excitement, a party gal eager to have you join her party. The gravitas suited to—and not really reached in this rendition—of "Lost in the Stars," the Kurt Weill melody and Maxwell Anderson lyric that names the CD/act (and was once the title song for a serious Broadway show) is not representative of this mostly lighthearted, pop affair.

The former Wicked Galinda and Legally Blonde actress, and recent Tony Award winner for You Can't Take It with You, blazes through her act. With the disco-ish "One Night Only" from Dreamgirls and a medley of Donna Summer hits, she and her well-matched musical director/pianist/orchestrator (and accordionist, too!) Will Van Dyke are the latest to play 54 Below and dwell on its legendary past as Studio 54. Extra words in the Summer mashup name-drop its owner and notorious doings by the famous and those who, I guess, wished to be drug-hazed and sex-charged while lost in (a room with) the stars. Ashford, just 30 this year, is not old enough to have lived in the era or venue as it was, but enjoys the play-acting. And her voice with its big, robust sound and coy posturing attitudes sound comfortable in the pop arena of old and contemporary sound.

Her enthusiasm and infectious pleasure-taking in the pop-rock-disco arenas go pretty far into pulling me in and enjoying most of it. She's another high-voltage performer whose cool-down casual patter is like chattering with the audience. Much of that gab suggests the way an overripe teenybopper might gush to friends. She giggles a bit, goes on about her childhood memories rejecting her mother's pushing her into athletics, recalls with glee her early show biz infatuation. The audience is addressed not as revered "ladies and gentlemen," but the chummy "you guys" and requested applause for the band is always worded as the over-used phrase, "Give it up for ..." Patter is tracked separately, and all but the most ardent fans will probably want to skip repeat listening to a long and rambling story about childhood, discussing sparkly costumes, performing aspirations, and yeast infections.

But the crowd is responsive, even game for singing along when requested. It's frustrating that so many nice qualities in her voice, in a pretty and unforced high register, come through on this number but have to share CD listeners' ears and time with the less mellifluously voiced fans. The song, of all things, is an Alanis Morissette hit that otherwise works very well indeed: "Hand in My Pocket." It's not quite clear if she's embracing the piece as a genuine admirer or as a guilty pleasure.

I had to strain to catch all the words in less familiar numbers, such as Van Dyke's own "Another Time" (which is basically very attractive as a composition). There's some stylized singing adopted, with some melisma, and that may contribute to what appears to be muddy diction, though mic technique or live recording balance with electric guitar and drums and crowd noise may be factors.

On first listen, there may be some bait-and-switch response. A long patter section is underscored with the song "Cabaret," but she never sings it, and the iconic motive from Gypsy is a herald to her story about not having a stage mother, but some might be disappointed when she acknowledges the musical references by saying that, no, that isn't a lead-in to something from that well-loved score. In the instrumental interlude in a reimagined, non-belty "Come Rain or Come Shine," there's some "Over the Rainbow" melody and she does interpolate a few lines from it, vocally, toward the end. (This iconic ballad from The Wizard of Oz, like other alluded-to compositions is not credited/listed in the song list. It doesn't quite match emotionally or subject-wise, beyond references to nature and that both melodies are by Harold Arlen.) Stephen Sondheim's "Another Hundred People" sounds deliciously non-frantic and thoughtful slowed down, but we only hear a short part of it before it segues into "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" with its own matters of adjusting to New York City. I like the blend, but felt shortchanged the first time around without a bigger swath of Sondheim. I don't know if the prominent growl reminiscent of the singing style of the other song's composer, Elton John, is intentional as a wink, salute, or is somewhat unintended osmosis bred by familiarity. Still, it's enjoyably pointed.

While her nod to her days in Wicked, "For Good," might be de rigeur, it's nice that she doesn't just retread the character stance as done in the musical. It's more relaxed, more personal and pensive, but some may miss the grand heights and power ballad feel.

With the emphasis on pop, including the Adele monster hit "Someone Like You," taking the lion's share of material, the jury will have to still be out on what genre(s) best suit the whirlwind known as Annaleigh Ashford. New Year's Eve celebrants at the club (now known as Feinstein's/54 Below) where this 2014 act was captured will get a taste and we'll just have to see what other musical roads the lively lady takes.


Harbinger Records

No casually tossed off affair is Barbara Fasano's new recording called Busy Being Free, She wraps herself in a song's emotions—not simply emotions she presents as being felt in the moment as she sings, but often feelings already analyzed, reflected upon, and understood to the extent that things like initial attractions and reactions to being in love can be dissected. Cozy by that fireside with her tasteful, thoughtful phrasing, her musicians add another element in their instrumental breaks, rather than restating or upstaging. She always has a point of view and it's rarely a first-time whim reaction. The musicians, who are prominent but non-competing figures, continue the laser-beam focus and tensions. When she croons Carousel's "If I Loved You" she means she's imagined the scenarios many times, not idly, but visualizing every detail the way a playwright would phrase a line, the way an actor would choose to deliver that memorized words on the page, react to a co-star, or how a director would put together all aspects of the love scene. The underlying emotions—"Longing to tell you, but afraid and shy"—share the stage she's set with the dialogue and ideal lighting.

The voice is creamy and pleasing, but it's not used in a "big" dramatic way. Those wanting belting, diva moments, or melodrama should look elsewhere, and those who want their bigness from emphasis on long-lined, linked, lush melodies unspooled in uninterrupted swirls should swirl around someone else. If Barbara chooses to emphasize a dozen words in a chorus by drinking in the slightest pause, shifting her tone, bending a note, getting breathier, or any of her dozens of ways of coloring words and phrases with pinpoint precision, she'll take those opportunities. But they'll mean something. It may not be every listener's cup of tea, but it's well-steeped and potent.

While Richard Rodgers is on the table, let's consider the other two of his melodies that are on the menu. Another classic Hammerstein collaboration, "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," lets her describe a lighter romantic escapade. Barbara has gotten away from some mannerisms and influence of Lena Horne that used to distract from her otherwise radiant and romantic word paintings on this ultimate buggy ride. It's just right here, more personally hers, with its mix of serene confidence and rhapsodized fantasy. And a Rodgers & Hart gem, "Where or When," keeps its sense of wonder consistent and fresh throughout its playing time. It's serious, without getting heavy, and the omission of the verse that ruminates about reincarnation and déjà vu makes such specifics just possibilities somewhere in the air, rather than starting with likely explanations already handed to us.

While standards such as the burnished "But Beautiful" are warmly and wisely communicated as life lessons, especially welcome are the less traveled and more specific portraits. Memories stirred by a series of "Photographs" in Alec Wilder and Fran Landeman's song lets us put ourselves in the pictures while we peruse the images captured by the eyes of cameras. And the piece whose lyric excerpt gives the CD its title, Joni Mitchell's tale of a woman resisting settling down geographically or relationship-wise, who seems impressive and solid, but is hollow inside like a "Cactus Tree," is impressively etched. Rather than being daunted by a maze of words and a typically leaping, hopscotching Mitchell melody, and the series of described lovers, the singer takes gentle ownership of the multi-part tale.

John di Martino, a frequent simpatico collaborator as pianist/arranger/maestro, is quite understated here, but no less intriguing than he can be at his more abstract or muscular excursions on other projects. There's some effective minimalism that pulls a listener in, rather than draining energy. A taut musical palette succeeds in being interesting and commanding of attention. Warren Vaché brings some exquisite shadings with his cornet, as well as independent side "comments" that stir the simmering brews. Choice moments for that instrument and others feel complementary and wisely assigned. It's as if breaking the well-cast spells is impossible to even imagine. All are on the same page, but it rarely feels predictable and extraneous musical jottings are not in the plan.

Hints of drama, wariness, and sorrow glimmer below the well-manicured surface, adding intrigue. And they can co-exist. Annie Get Your Gun's "I Got Lost in His Arms" is a fine case in point. It's not simply an awed reaction to experience, confirming that falling in love is simply "wonderful." We get equal emphasis on the risks of letting go, connecting, and being incredulous while reveling in the new sensations. It's not an exaggeration to say that this applies liberally to most of the tracks, except the flirty change-of-pace for the lighthearted "Hurry on Down." And hurry on down to Birdland on December 10 to see the low-flame Fasano fireworks in person for her CD release concert.

- Rob Lester

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