This week: Loving Repeating, a new show about a literary figure from the past; London cast albums from two companies repeating each other but with different bonus pop or show tracks; and a new singer named Julian Yeo who loves repeating how his favorite era sounded.
Loving Repeating is not just the title of this musical about legendary writer Gertrude Stein. It's also the prerequisite mindset you need to love Loving Repeating. Having an appreciation for language and taking pleasure in multiple variations of specific words and phrases will take you a long way, but the recording has much more to recommend it - musical variety and flair, a mix of the quirky and the tender, and theatrical presence with crisp, energetic performances. It's an unusual listening experience to be sure, but an intriguing one.
A typical example of the workings of words that sometimes feel like tongue twisters or linguistic exercises: "Each one of the three of them/ Was such a one./ One they were then./ Each one of them/ Of the three of them/ Meant something/ By being such a one." The entire lyric of one song is nothing more the stringing together of the statements "My wife is my life" and "My life is my wife." Or try this: "And she was regular,/ Regular in being gay,/ Regular in not being gay,/ Regular in being a gay one/ Who was one not being gay."
If you get befuddled, all the words, sung and spoken, are in a booklet. Perhaps the secret instruction to "getting it" is right there in one of the spoken sections, with Stein's retort when asked why she doesn't write the way she talks: "Why don't you read the way I write?" By extension, if you listen to this piece to enjoy rather than resist the word play presented, you'll have a headstart. Adapter/director Frank Galati, who has had a very long theatrical love affair with Stein's work, reunites with Stephen Flaherty (Galati directed Ragtime, for which Flaherty was composer) who sets the original Stein words to a cascade of bright music in several styles, including a kind of calypso, some vaudeville and parlor songs. The cast seems to cheer the challenge of the verbiage, for they sing it attentively, not tentatively, with obvious delight in its details and diction. The way the words sit (or rather, glide) on the music is also celebrated with these performances and the orchestrations for five-person band led by pianist Tom Murray. They play 11 instruments in all, and Dominic Trumfio's work is especially characterful: he plays flute, piccolo, clarinet and sax.
The company is anchored by Cindy Gold as the acerbic older Gertrude. She handles many spoken comments and monologues, some of them effectively underscored, adding texture and listener-friendliness. The younger Gertrude, Christine Mild, does far more singing, and turns in an admirable, focused, well-sung performance. As her longtime love, Alice B. Toklas, Jenny Powers (who made such a strong impression in Little Women and elsewhere) doesn't get as many opportunities but shines on several tracks. Her voice can sound rich, but she she also adds some much-needed tenderness, as a great deal of the piece is about Stein's writing or presentations of it rather than a personal story. The well-utilized ensemble is strong, too: two women (Cristen Paige and Harriet Nzinga Plumpp) and three men (Zach Ford, Travis Turner and Bernie Yvon). There's an especially zippy number called "As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story" that the men deliver with razzmatazzy relish.
It will not be to every musical theater audience's taste, but Loving Repeating is lovingly produced for disc by its talented composer and JAY Records' scrupulous John Yap and it's a happy occasion when something so different can succeed to such a degree.
What follows are reissues of some London shows from the 1950s. Because of public domain laws, they can now be issued by different companies with fewer financial obligations. Sepia Records and Must Close Saturday Records repeat some show titles, with different offerings to fill out the playing time length for CD reissue. All come with modest-sized booklets with mostly brief but all interesting histories of the shows and performers. I find the sound quality on the Sepia releases to be better, with more clarity and warmth.
Before the jukebox musical craze, before the darkened, modernized "revisals," there was another concept for musicals: the borrowed classical melodies to form a score with newly added lyrics. Musicals were made from the classical themes of Schubert, Grieg, Offenbach, Rachmaninoff and Borodin. Summer Song looked to Anton Dvorak, especially his New World Symphony (whose creation is part of the plot), with the composer (played by Laurence Naismith) himself as a non-singing character. He's traveling incognito in Illinois, taking a job as a pianist in a bar where he gets involved in the lives of the "regulars." One spoken section, in the form of a letter, makes his presence felt on the disc of this British show which played in Manchester and then transferred to London where it ran for 148 performances. It didn't come to Broadway, but has seen some regional performances stateside over the years. The lyrics came from Eric Maschwitz, with the Dvorak music arranged by Bernard Grun.
The varied and strongly melodic material survived the transformation very well indeed. The stately, elegant and folk-flavored tunes made for a satisfying score with smartly tailored words, and the recording has some very satisfying singing. Taking place at the tail end of the 19th century, in a small lumberjack town with simple folk who are of Irish or Czech background (like the composer himself), it's on the quaint, dainty side, with small town values and a gentle sensibility.
Sally Ann Howes is the ingenue, a familiar name from roles on both sides of the Atlantic. She's quite affecting here, with a gentle, lighter sound with some vibrato, her voice not as rich and and assured as it would become. She is heard in several numbers, including the sweet title song and a standout ballad of young love, "One Boy Sends You a Rose," with an earthier character played by Bonita Primrose providing contrast. Bonita is the very entertaining raucous comic relief element, the gal who speaks her mind, complaining about her limited contact with her traveling salesman beau in the saucy and sassy "Once a Year Is Not Enough." The ensemble singing is pretty ordinary and sometimes muddy; it can be tough to catch all the lyrics. (Lyric booklets are not included in any of these packages.)
The Sepia issue of Summer Song boasts bonus tracks that will attract those who became fond of the material and its two lead male singers. In the cast album tracks, David Hughes is a young man in love, with songs of courting and confidence. He has a sincere and full-bodied sound that is a major asset to this disc, so having him on the three final bonus tracks, commercial recordings, could be a selling point. Unfortunately, the material is on the overwrought, flowery side. But the most interesting and emotionally charged voice in the Summer Song is bass-baritone Edric Connor, a Trinidad-born performer cast as the town's noble hard-working laborer who seems to have the philosophical role in the piece. His show numbers "Deep Blue Evening" and "Cotton Tail" remind me a little of the Show Boat character's "Ol' Man River" wisdom and observations of human nature. This singer has a rich, majestic sound and a kind of gravitas that make his bonus tracks, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" and "If I Can Help Somebody," quite moving and authentic. The other extra is a medley of Summer Song's songs, generous at just over seven and a half minutes, played by the Melachrino Orchestra. It makes for a satisfying instrumental revisit, especially since the show's overture is so brief.
Must Close Saturday's Summer Song disc has all the same cast album tracks, but it is paired with the London cast album of the Broadway musical Plain and Fancy by Albert Hague and Arnold B. Horwitt (consistently misspelled in the packaging). This show is a smart choice as partner, not just because both musicals played London in 1956, but because they have a similar plot: they are about people stumbling into a closed, tight-knit American community. Where Summer Song is set in a small town of immigrant workers, Plain and Fancy finds two New Yorkers stuck in a Pennsylvania Amish town. Opening 51 years on today's date, the original London cast isn't precisely recreated on the recording; two members of the New York cast were imported (playing the New Yorkers), but by contract weren't allowed to re-record their material heard on the Broadway album. Cast member Virginia Somers moved up to the role of the city woman and romps amicably through "City Mouse, Country Mouse" and the sarcastic " A Helluva Way to Run a Love Affair."
The orchestra is conducted by Cyril Ornadel, but there's no overture. In fact, only nine numbers were on the once-vinyl album, which is what we have here, leaving out a few that can be heard on the Broadway cast recording. "Young and Foolish," the standard that came from this score is given short shrift at 1 minute and 29 seconds in its ain version, but is reprised by the company as the finale. There is some appealing, very in-character singing throughout. Joan Hovis, Grace O'Connor, Malcolm Keen and Jack Drummond are the other featured singers. All perform well, generally avoiding sentimentality and keeping things simple, which is what Plain and Fancy is basically all about--- therefore, point made, point taken, and points scored for staying in flavor.
CRANKS (PLUS BONUS TRACKS BY ANNIE ROSS)
Cranks was a revue with offbeat comic material. Some of it holds up, some of it may induce a shrug. Apparently, it loses some of its impact on disc, as the liner notes tell us that a love ballad was performed by one singer while the other cast members wrapped the singer like a mummy from head to toe, a slow song ended with the singer falling asleep, etc. You had to be there, I guess. The words are by a man then known as a dancer-choreographer, John Cranko (inspiring the title), and the music is by John Addison. There's something quirky and even slightly subversive about the goings-on. Poking fun at relationships, styles of music and human foibles, the performances are often sharp and knowing, with a few on the bland or obscure side.
The show was performed at four British theaters, and was a popular and well-received attraction. It came to Broadway at the end of 1956 but only lasted 40 performances. The album features harp and harpsichord in its small ensemble, adding unusual texture. The recording was not made with the first cast, but with two of the original players, Anthony Newley and Gilbert Vernon, and two replacement players, Annie Ross and Hugh Bryant. These four were comprised the New York cast. Vernon has no solos, but adds to the daffy doings in five group numbers, including the opening and closing bits where they all simply sing their own names. It sounds silly and it is, but the goofy audacity of it somehow makes it very entertaining. This was before Anthony Newley's vocal mannerisms and voice qualities became exaggerated and keening, so he's simply entertaining and enthusiastic. On the slower numbers, his voice has a truly pretty quality not found in his later work. He has a great number called "I'm the Boy You Should Say 'Yes' To" in which he ebulliently boasts of his swell qualities while his beloved unsuccessfully tries to get in a word edgewise (to say 'no' rather than 'yes'). Deep-voiced Hugh Bryant provides a nice vocal contrast and is interesting to listen to even when his material is less so.
But it's Annie Ross who is the most consistently amusing and on-target here. She sounds like she's having the most fun, especially in the mock blues song, "New Blue." Sepia's CD is a picnic for Annie Ross fans, with ten of her early solo recordings added as bonus tracks. These were made in the period period before Cranks and before she was part of the legendary jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They include some songs she wrote or co-wrote, including her big success, the jazzy tour de force "Twisted." Others include pop tunes like "Only You (And You Alone)" and the standard "Cry Me a River." They're mostly terrific, especially the originals, and she's in great voice, showing her versatility. [Half a century later, Annie continues to sing for her fans, holding forth on Tuesday nights at The Metropolitan Room in Manhattan.]
Meanwhile, Must Close Saturday Records couples Cranks with another show from five decades ago, Wild Grows the Heather. Coincidentally, it was choreographed by Cranks performer Gilbert Vernon, but had an opposite London reception, announcing its closing within a week of opening, lasting 28 performances. There are entertaining, irreverent "what were they thinking?" notes about this flop written by theater historian Adrian Wright, who confesses an odd affection for its excesses. The musical was based on J.M. Barrie's The Little Minister. Despite its failure, nine tracks were recorded by the cast, including an overture that leads into the first vocal.
The Wild Grows the Heather songs are a mixed bag. "Walking to the Kirk" is the standout, a spirited splash of energy and optimism by Peter Sinclair and chorus (a chorus is included on six of the tracks). The title song seems rather bland. There are some stirring stouthearted men-type numbers and a couple of sentimental ballads sung by Bill O'Connor and Valerie Miller. "I Once Had a Wonderful Day" is an exuberant, unintentionally campy gush of a song by Madeline Christie, who sounds a bit like Hermione Gingold. For some reason, the powers that be tossed the old spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" into the finale. The sound quality is disappointing, even for a 50-year-old recording. The music came from the unused melodies of Joseph Tunbridge, who had died; it was expanded by his former partner Jack Waller, with mostly uninspired lyrics by Ralph Reader. It is a mildly interesting curiosity with some catchy melodies that might appeal most to operetta fans.
Salad Days' original London cast album was also reissued by both labels last year. The bouncy, feel-good score with several irresistible songs is an audience pleaser. Corny and frothy but not always quite trite, it's an old fashioned sweetheart of a show. "Oh, Look at Me" (referring to the pleasure one takes in dancing) makes you want to dance. "We Said We Wouldn't Look Back" is oh-so-lightly bittersweet. Best of all is the perky and spunky "We're Looking for a Piano" (the piano is magic, you see). The original cast album tracks are heard in slightly different versions on the two releases, and some dialogue/narrative intros are included on some tracks.
The score was written by Dorothy Reynolds, who appeared in the show but chose not to record her numbers for the cast album out of insecurity (according to an interview with her collaborator Julian Slade, included in the Must Close Saturday Records' booklet); likewise, Slade didn't play piano for the recording as he had been doing in the pit, also due to "nervousness." But on the Must Close Saturday issue, there is a bonus section, parts of a live recording of the show's 625th performance, which includes Slade's playing and Reynolds' otherwise unavailable performances of "Sand in My Eyes" and her duet with Yvonne Coulette, "We Don't Understand Our Children" (otherwise not part of the original album). This lengthy section includes repeats of a few other songs, lots of dialogue and an appreciative audience laughing heartily, occasionally obscuring some lines.
The Sepia album has plenty of bonuses, too. There are four medleys of Salad Days tunes: two by Slade on piano and two long ones, totalling well over 13 minutes by capable singers Patricia Clark and Charles Granville. Following this, there are seven more selections from shows associated with Salad Days personnel. A few are from the earlier The Duenna, with songs in a more formal style (as you'd guess from titles like "Never May'st Thou Happy Be"). They make a nice contrast to the almost relentlessly plucky main feature. The last two tracks on Sepia are from other shows, and we are back on chipper territory, with the cozy and springy "Let's Take a Walk Through London" and the jolly-at-all-costs but with sarcasm "We Smile" sung by Slade and Eleanor Drew, a likeable alumna of Salad Days who is on a few of of these last tracks.
Both of these nicely tossed Salads are very full albums, suitable for those who like a good, old-style, chipper and slightly brain-dead merry musicals. Enjoy the peppy pip of a happy stroll down the British version of Memory Lane.UNDER THE RADAR
Moving on from the casts from the past, meet a guy who'd like to time travel even further back in the past if you'll come along for the ride.
What Julian Yeo obviously is loving repeating is the sound of a bygone era in pop music. Using a highly stylized sound and attitude, he echoes early male pop singers like Rudy Vallee and Arthur Tracy. Picture him with a megaphone and a small dance combo, with the sound coming through an old gramophone. Julian recaptures a bit of the the thinner, tinnier sound of the very oldest Bing Crosby records and reminds me of a similarly retro coup by a singer named Taco who once had success making some records of old standards channeling the style. Pour a martini and raise the glass and an eyebrow. It's all done very successfully and with craft.
The album is consistent in that Julian stays in the style of these out-of-style stylings. He clearly has musical knowhow, and the singing hints at more versatility and emotion lurking beneath the arch, reserved posings. Therefore, it's a bit frustrating to have him not break out of the very limited musical range and character. I know that happens in his live shows and hopefully will be a goal for a second CD. But on Old New Borrowed Blue, which he produced himself, he chooses not to think outside the tight box and it makes for a captivating listen.
Songs from the 1920s and 1930s like "Blue Skies," and "You Took Advantage of Me," originated in Broadway shows but have a long history as fodder for pop crooners, and Julian Yeo might have been one of them in the old days, judging from the way he seems to effortlessly step back in time. When he steps out a bit further, as in the 1948 "Steppin' Out with My Baby" (joining "Blue Skies" in his Irving Berlin catalogue) he doesn't miss a step. But, even with a later song like "Fever" that might heat things up, he carries the coy and reserve and his other recreated early 20th century trappings with him. Interestingly, too, he has found the perfect musical soul mate in pianist-arranger Jesse Gelber who is on the same page but adds a more modern jazzy touch, creating a neatly defined distance and contrast. Together, they put a layer of hipness on the vintage sound because they are referring to it and doing it at the same time. This is not to say they are winking at it, but they are looking over their shoulders while role-playing. A real litmus test is for their skill is that Jesse wrote two cool original songs that fit right in, as if they were long-lost companion pieces.
Drummer Kevin Dorn and bass player Jon Flaugher complete the trio, and their playing throughout, especially on some tasty instrumental breaks, is hip and highly listenable. If a jazz trio can be described as adorable, they are that as they don the same musical era clothing that Julian has set as a fashion statement.
A certain melancholy is hinted at in a couple of numbers, particularly in "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," one of his three Cole Porter choices, joining the dry-eyed faretheewell "Just One of Those Things" and the panurgy-filled but restrained mischievousness of "Let's Misbehave." Adding to the charm factor, you can detect Julian's Australian accent, which lingers as he's only been in America for a couple of years, working by day as a professor at Columbia University - not in music, but in accounting. Well, there's no accounting for where you'll find talent.
With Julian Yeo's party-play-ready, intoxicating throwback of an album sung with panache and pastiche, he's someone to watch for the future (he debuted at The Duplex and has booked a couple of gigs in April in New York). His website gives a little more information and sound clips are available, too. Deceptively simple? Maybe. But also simply delightful.
Until the next preliminary hearings...