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Two New Scores: Preachy, But Packing a Punch

Let's leap into the new year with looks at two new cast recordings, both courtesy of the invaluable Ghostlight Records label. Leap of Faith has a choir and a duplicitous preacher-man spokesman. Their duplicitous act has its message to deliver—and so does the show, in a more genuine way. And in the smaller scale Now. Here. This., would we consider there to be too much "preaching to the choir" if its most likely target audience would "get" and readily agree with its life-affirming/ seize-the-day message? Maybe, but it's on-target in many ways.

Leap of FaithLEAP OF FAITH
2012 BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records

Despite the creative talents and track records of the creative artists involved, the plot's success in previous media and/or stage incarnations, I guess putting any musical on Broadway is a "leap of faith." With its religion/healing subject matter, Leap of Faith, the musical based on a film of the same name, boasts a double meaning of this common expression about trust and hoping for the best. OK, so this musical's Broadway incarnation didn't have much of a run for its money, opening one month and closing the next, but this CD reveals much entertainment and craft, so maybe we can also believe in an afterlife for it.

As we've noted many times, and may as well repeat it in the first column of the New Year, an audio experience of a cast album can be a quite different experience than seeing a production with all of its many elements. In this case, there are brief but numerous bits of dialogue sprinkled in—between sections of songs or setting them up—to help with establishment of story, context, and character interaction.

Aspects of the piece about chicanery and charm, taking advantage of the eager-to-"believe" citizenry of a small town for profit, might recall similar scenarios of other musicals featuring fast-talking charismatic preacher-esque figures, some of whom are distracted/reformed in the slick-trick tracks by love—think 110 in the Shade or The Music Man. And the blatant, premeditated deceit has a cousin in last season's Catch Me If You Can. The skillful songwriters here, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, also prominently used a gospel choir and its traditional and modern sounds and trademarks in their musicalization of another film, Sister Act.

The high-energy songs often swoop one up and away the way the "don't-give-'em-a-moment-to-think" fast-paced revivalist and celebrational religious tent or TV shows can. One can be caught up in the fervor. Knowing from the start that it's purposely deceitful manipulation lets us see the duping and the crowd being duped. This makes some of the holier-than-thou fakery more than just a pastiche of gospel and testifyin'. Exuberant and pseudo-soulful though it is, perhaps the use of the choir showering empowering reinforcement is overdone, resulting in diminishing returns that feel redundant and increasingly "noisy" on disc without book scenes in between. But it's certainly a thrill ride for a while. And in talented, blazing Raul Esparza as Jonas Nightingale, self-styled preacher, we have a slinky, electric trickster who meets his match/downfall/comeuppance with the local lady sheriff/skeptic played appealingly and un-fussily by Jessica Phillips. Their well-sung duets crackle as they spark, defenses-up, trying to call each other's bluff with "I Can Read You" in a game of chicken, and "Fox in the Henhouse" is feisty fun. As Jonas's sister/partner-in-crime, without as many detours from her single-minded mastermind mission to bilk, Kendra Kassebaum's determined character and songs get less variety and less nuance, but she has a large share of the singing.

For me, the standout track most worthy of a hallelujah is one that does not shout its wares. The gentle, moving "Walking Like Daddy" is a little (as in brief) gem of a track with high-voiced gentle vocal beauty, aced by Leslie Odom, Jr. as Isaiah. Talon Ackerman as the sheriff's young son scores nimbly to show (and steal) heart without the overdone cuteness that comes with the territory of some child performers.

Though they are often overshadowed by the wailing of the choir, there's plenty of sound from the 25-person orchestra, supervised by frequent Menken colleague Michael Kosarin (they also co-produced the album). There is no overture and indeed no instrumental tracks at all among the 20. The booklet with all of the lyrics is more necessary than is usually the case, as I found it difficult to catch some parts of the lyrics otherwise, what with fast-paced lines, regional accents, and the oft-employed multi-voiced choir, with blasts of brass and tambourines and synthesizers all going.

Leap of Faith has a lot going for it and this tale of revival meetings might meet with many regional revivals of its own. Can I get a witness?

Now. Here. This.NOW. HERE. THIS.
ORIGINAL CAST

Ghostlight Records

Yes, they're back—the creative team/cast quartet from the spunky little musical about a musical's development, [title of show]. The message of living in "the Now" and embracing each moment is strongly thrown at us (like a few bricks) by the demanding-attention title about the present being what matters most: Now. Here. This. Admirable and needed as that plea is, and as easily said as overdone, it can make the show seem didactic in its motto and message.

Again, the fearlessly fearful foursome are quirky and likeable and somewhat self-absorbed. Hope springs eternal and it's easy to be knocked off-kilter when careening through life's adventures and goals, and life's many forked roads and roadblocks. Jeff Bowen's eclectic, contemporary (with a 1960s feel) score finds himself and his castmates in more mature, thoughtful territory. Their endearingness and effective vocal harmonies often win out over the quicksand dangers of the spouting of philosophies most sensible and/or creative people would agree on—carpe diem and damn the torpedoes of life and full steam ahead—but watch out for being pulled in by the past and its exploration/dissection; don't let the seeming self-pity and pitfalls of the clinging claustrophobia be all you see. Much focuses on very specific, detailed stories of childhood and adolescence and the defenses and walls they create for survival. A case can be made for such experiences, thought through and reflected upon, as being what informs the present (just ask Freud or anyone writing/reading a self-help book or memoir). Individual tales of family strife, being in the with cool kids, struggling with being gay, denial, fantasy, taking and blowing chances, trying again, may be awash with lots of details, but at its best, that can work. It's kind of like the anecdotal doting that make up the recollections sung in A Chorus Line: the specifics may not ring a bell or wring a tear, but something becomes recognizable in the feelings.

All four players come off well and have strong moments, particularly Heidi Blickenstaff with her most dynamic and versatile, strong voice and acting chops. Hunter Bell is chipper and shows the sweetness of soul underneath, especially in his imaginings about a longed-for lover in "Archer." Susan Blackwell is effective as she careens from being alternately prickly and plucky. And songwriter/performer Bowen shines as the most sincere and sympathetic, he as the most vulnerable among the vulnerable.

It all sounds good to me, and I enjoy it more and more with further listening past the glib and gloss and gloss. Let me end with a few admirable quotes from the lyrics:

"Make my way to the shower spray so I can splash away the disarray with some Jean Naté" (from "I rarely Schedule Nothing," a crisp bombardment of a high school girl's rush of activity, smartly conveyed by a rapid-fire vocal by Susan; note the multiple close rhyming of the "ay" sound to convey a day of play-by-play action-packed activities. It includes a self-aware recollection of embarrassment, with a section of the book, credited to this performer and Hunter.)

In the title song, the four are watching birds, noting admiringly how "They reach out their wings and open their eyes/ Though they don't know where they are bound or what will arise ..."

In "This Time," an impassioned, determined Heidi nails the hope to see things positively when the opposite possibility could be assumed, that when "the sunlight is soft and warm/ Is this a gentle paradise or only the eye of the storm?"

Another view of paradise some fellow "theatre nerds" might identify with is when Jeff droolingly describes a retreat in the country with like-minded fans: "I know this is what paradise is:/ A weekend filled with board games/ And singing along to the songs of Les Mis ..." (from "Kick Me").


In the next two columns, we'll look back on releases from the just-ended year.


- Rob Lester


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