Sound Advice
Two Musicals: one fluffy, one frisky


Operetta Archives

Going Up isn't going down in history as the most memorable musical in history. You probably weren't at the Broadway opening of Going Up—besides debuting on Christmas Day, when many people have other plans, it was in 1917. It was a success in its day, with 351 performances in New York, then stacking up 574 performances in a London run. Now we have a full album of the sprightly, sparkly sunny score, thanks to The Operetta Guild (Culver City, California) and producer Michael D. Miller. The composer of the cheerily tuneful melodies was Louis Hirsch. Lyrics were by operetta giant Otto Harbach, who collaborated on the book with James Montgomery, writer of the play on which it's based: 1910's The Aviator, which also inspired three—count 'em, three—movie versions by 1930.

The plot involves airplanes (thus the title!) and a contest between two guys flying them. One is a genuine French flying ace and the other has authored and successfully published his memoirs as an aviator. The problem is that, once challenged, the latter fellow is a fraud who, in fact, has never flown. Fearlessly/foolishly, the liner notes' plot synopsis tells us, he takes a—pardon the expression—"crash course." Of course, the boasting gents are also competing for the affections of the same fair miss. Competition for a lady's hand may be an old plot anchor, but the airplane was still a fairly new-fangled invention.

Being a musical, both planes and romantic attraction inspire some flights of fancy, high spirits and high notes from high sopranos. Frivolity ensues. Happy marches, blissful ballads, coy and innocent flirtations that suggest eyelid-batting. Redolent of its time, some will find the farce as fluffy as the clouds the characters happily sing about flying through in the giddy title song: "You start to sway/ And then you shut your eyes/ You're on the way ...Higher! Higher!" Buoyed by bouncy twin piano accompaniment, it's got a feel-good/forget-your-troubles feel. The ever-energized pianists are Adam Aceto (musical director) and Patrick Johnson, not just crisply accompanying the vocals, but selling the melodies throughout. For me, they are the stars here, staying tight and tripping the light-hearted fantastic, even when the cast is less engagingly sharp, falling into some stodgy or generic singing that can be on the precious or pedantic side. While generally capable as singers, the characterizations (stock though they may be) don't jump out with specifics. There seems to be some untapped potential for more personality and comedy. The singers sound period-right, but with more emphasis on lilt and spiffiness than anything that might dare wink too much. It's up to the listener to pick up on the humor of the control freak masquerading as a typical docile damsel as proclaiming straightly "I Want a Boy (Who's Determined to Do What I Say)."

Now-quaint language reveals the lyrics to be characteristic of their time : "...quite the rage!"; "'T would please be so"; "Now is our golden hour...This flower never will bloom again"; and singing of a suitor "who will coo when she tell him to coo" and pristinely polite couples addressing each other as "Dear." But there's plenty of pep. And, like many early musicals, there's an ultra-cutesy number celebrating/promoting a dance craze: "Everybody Ought to Know How to Do the Tickle Toe." "...Tickle Toe" will tickle your ear, and may get stuck in your brain, as will others, in no small measure because of reinforcing reprises characteristic of the three-act operetta genre with a "Finale" for each act. There's also a generous overture of over five minutes in length.

Of particular interest are two bonus tracks penned by Irving Berlin, both associated with the show as interpolations, though it appears that one's insertion is uncertain. "Come Along to Toy Town" is a captivating sweetheart of a song, inviting one to "become a kiddie once more" because "we never grow too old" for it. Although the song list indicates it as a solo by the show's leading lady, Elyse Merchant, a full chorus accompanies her for much of it. "When the Curtain Falls" features her and Ryan Reithmeier duetting about an imagined romantic play with a happy ending. (Boy meets/loses/gets girl—sound familiar?) These two tracks are longer (4:30; 5:47) than the Hirsch/Harbach songs which tend to be on the short side. But there's no shortage of sunshine and zip on this disc with a playing time just short of an hour. While a cynic may find Going Up too similar to other sugar-encrusted, feathery frolics, it's nostalgia the way it used to be, if you know what I mean.


Stage Door Records

Although the back cover says it's been digitally remastered, the sound quality and clarity of the musical Andy Capp leave a lot to be desired. This cast album of this British show, based on the long-running comic strip about the ultimate couch potato, now comes to CD for the first time. Lyrics sung with heavy British accents, especially in brisk tempi, can be tough to catch the first time around. (Lyrics are not printed in the booklet.) Some melodies are blithely bouncy or slightly wistful, but what plot there is doesn't thicken much within songs. And, while the boisterous and decidedly unsophisticated tone of the characters is captured, I find a ho-hum lack of charm and humor. A kind of dopey glibness suggests the cast has a comfort level and affection for the nattering neighbors and their mundane ways of speech—there's plenty of appropriate brashness and grousing amidst the sparring and spunk. No interesting, impressive singing/character voices or melodies soar to rise above the fracas and freewheeling force-fed "fun" to feel dazzling.

Stage pieces that attempt to bring comic strips/comic books to musical life have a mixed record of success, of course. We've had L'il Abner, Doonesbury, ...Superman, and, of course, Spider-Man, as well as Annie and two sweet musicals based on the Peanuts gang. With its focus on nagging wives and harried, haranguing husbands, Andy Capp bears more relation to sit-coms like "The Honeymooners," the wives stuck with all the household chore-based boredom, while Capp and cronies comfortably drown their dissatisfactions in beer, suitable bar mates for Homer Simpson or Archie Bunker. The long-running cartoon's world is locked in a time warp where male chauvinistic pigs cavort, here singing lines about wives like the male-bonding mantra, "A woman doesn't have a lot to do...You give her everything/ She still complains." In the company number "Points of View," it makes its "point" over and over, with little relief in view, making the follow-up lyric "la-la-la-la-la-la" almost a relief.

In the title role is Tom Courtenay, who has a certain glee with his unashamed "I Ought to Be Ashamed of Myself," reveling in his responsibility-challenged lifestyle, echoed by the chorus. Despite its energy, it's an unambitious paean to the lack of ambition, a poor cockney cousin to the gloating of the similarly minded "With a Little Bit of Luck" from My Fair Lady. As Capp, Courtenay cavorts and cavils, gets inebriated and enraged (in two tedious and tasteless argument songs). But the trouble with "The Trouble with People," shared with another fellow, has them reduced to this exchange: "Shut your mouth" to which the retort is "Are you gonna shut it for me?" rhyming with "Man, you really bore me." And they don't refrain from repeating that a few times—to a scrap of dull melody—because it is the refrain. The other fellow playing the squabblemate couldn't complain offstage to the writer because he was singer-actor Alan Price who wrote the melodies and shares lyric-writing credit with the writer of the script (and brief liner notes included), Trevor Peacock.

Capp's one duet argument with the long-suffering Mrs. doesn't fare much better or sweeter: "Don't Tell Me That Again" (spoiler alert: they do). But as Flo Capp, Val McLane briefly puts a cap on the flow of vitriol with nicely calibrated backwards-glance lament, "When You've Lived in Love with Someone." It makes a surprising and refreshing case for the idea that genuine affection preceded the bickering and bellowing, and there might be some remnants. It's the one moment when we pause to consider that there might be something three-dimensional attempted, beyond what seems thin and flimsy as the newsprint the comic strip was printed on for years. Other characters/performers provide some moments of fluff made of brighter stuff, though the stereotyped woman who sees spending her husband's money as a competitive sport is the lame name of the game: "Spend, Spend, Spend," and vivacious Vivienne Ross having a field day planning an expensive wedding and honeymoon for her daughter, "Goin' to Barcelona." And that lovestruck daughter and her fiancÚ provide some relief from the acrimony, though their dreams of happily-ever-after ("I Have a Dream" and "I Could Not Have Dreamed Him") are more limp than luscious.

The strongest element of the cast album is the energy exerted by most cast members and some undeniably lively and likeable melodies. A 15-member band has some moments of sass and sweetness, with instruments ranging from clarinet to clavinet; clavinet player David Firman is the musical director/orchestrator. There are some nice accents and figures that suggest some music hall zip and perkiness—a euphonium, a piccolo, a slide whistle effect, mandolin, some vigorously playful brass moments, but much feels muddled or competitive. The aforementioned Price is right there on piano, with additional vocals.

There's a certain humorous appeal to the original cartoon strip, which I've enjoyed in newspapers over the years, which isn't captured in the cast album. With a one-month break between theatres, Andy Capp was performed for a total of about six months. It was recorded shortly after its autumn 1982 London transfer. The comic strip lives on.

- Rob Lester

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