P.S. Classics has released a recording of one of Michael John LaChiusa’s earliest works, First Lady Suite, a decade after it premiered at the Public Theatre in New York. While the show won LaChiusa an Obie, it was overshadowed by another of his shows that year, Hello Again (which also won him an Obie that season), and it was not recorded until last year’s production at The Blank Theatre Company in Los Angeles.
As the title indicates, First Lady Suite is a musical about some of the most overlooked figures in American history, the presidential wives. While their impact on fashion, both in the White House and in the country in general, is largely recognized, their behind-the-scenes role in shaping policies and supporting their husbands only gets noticed when it becomes overt, and then it is usually strongly and snidely criticized.
In First Lady Suite, LaChiusa focuses primarily on three first ladies - Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, and Eleanor Roosevelt - in what amounts to three mini one-act musicals. The show’s throughline is their quest for flight, both actual and metaphorical, from the strict prison they inhabit as political figures with no definable role.
Musically, First Lady Suite is pure early LaChiusa and, like all of his works, it is not an easy listen. By turns dissonant and jazzy, it calls to mind, appropriately enough, the style of “Mistress of the President” in Hello Again. It is definitely a score than needs repeated listenings in order to appreciate, and it is doubtful that it will sway anybody who is not a fan of his work, especially Hello Again or The Wild Party, into his camp. However, those who enjoy challenging pieces that contain music and messages that shift like a presidential promise will find a lot to like. The cast, which includes Heather Lee, Paula Newsome, Eydie Alyson and Gregory Jbara, are all equally adept and create a strong, seamless ensemble.
It seems that lately every composer has a piece they can’t let go of and are constantly polishing and ‘perfecting.’ For Andrew Lloyd Webber, that show is Tell Me on a Sunday, a twenty-three year old song cycle detailing a young English woman’s quest for love in New York City. It premiered in 1980 as a one-act musical starring Marti Webb, who returned to the role in 1982 when the show was paired with Webber’s Paganini variations and turned into Song and Dance. In 1985, a highly revised version of Song and Dance, reconceived by Richard Maltby Jr., opened on Broadway and won Bernadette Peters a Tony.
This year, Webber went back to the basics and returned Tell Me on a Sunday to its one act format in a version that retains some of the narrative structure and enhanced character development of the Broadway production, but reverts, unfortunately, to the weaker storyline of the original. While the Broadway version had Emma arriving in New York fresh faced and starry eyed, both this and the original version have her running to New York to get over a broken heart, which diminishes her story arc and emotional growth.
Equally unfortunate, an effort to update the references makes for an even clunkier show than previous models. The lyrics by Don Black were always a hit or miss affair. For every poignant gem like “Tell Me On A Sunday” there is a number that contains cringe-inducing material, like “Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad.” The additional material by Jackie Clune, however, makes Black look like Sondheim in comparison. The euro-dance “Haven in the Sky” is a poor man’s “Take Off With Us” (from the film All That Jazz) and the less said about “Speed Dating” the better.
Its star, Denise Van Outen, is virtually unknown here in the States but is familiar in Great Britain for playing Roxie in Chicago as well as for various racy modeling shots and her stint on the popular morning show, "The Big Breakfast." While she lacks the chops of either Marti Webb or Bernadette Peters (or Sarah Brightman, who played the part on a 1984 TV production, for that matter), Van Outen has a pleasant voice and a warmth that serves her well on the ballads, which make for some of Webber’s most beautiful work (in particular “Unexpected Song” and “Tell Me On a Sunday”).
Mabel Mercer was one of those rare performers most adequately described as a ‘singer’s singer.’ With a sharp intelligence that illuminated every facet of a lyric, Mercer had an uncanny ability to make old songs fresh and to discover incredible songs by then unknown composers. Thus, singers are drawn to her albums and the songs she sang, resulting in many a tribute album dedicated to the patron saint of cabaret.
Jazz/cabaret performer Joyce Breach is the latest to fashion an album around numbers that Mabel Mercer made her own, in the aptly entitled Joyce Breach: Remembering Mabel Mercer. On this incredibly low-key album, Breach simply sings the songs without frills or trills, trusting that her voice, when married to great lyrics and melodies, will be enough to captivate the listener. And what do you know - she’s right. From Bart Howard’s “On The First Warm Day In May” to Jack Strachey/Harry Link and Eric Manschwitz’s “These Foolish Things,” Remembering Mabel Mercer provides a warm, comforting collection of jazz infused numbers, thanks to Breach and her trio: Keith Ingham (piano), James Chirillo (guitar), and Greg Cohen (bass).
Last year, Jessica Molaskey’s debut CD, Pentimento, was one of my favorite CDs (and, indeed, nearly topped my ‘Best of 2002’ vocal list). Her latest album, A Good Day, threatens to repeat that performance. While Pentimento put a fresh spin on depression era tunes, A Good Day attempts to recreate the lazy Saturday feel of Peggy Lee’s 1950s LPs. While the songs aren’t ones necessarily associated with the late, lamented Lee, her tone and playfulness as interpreted by Molaskey are present in full force. Accompanied by her husband, jazz great John Pizzarelli (who provided most of the arrangements) on guitar and nine other incredible musicians (including Ray Kennedy on piano, the legendary Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar and Martin Pizzarelli on bass), Molaskey has created another warm, sensual, ultimately satisfying disc.
A few of the numbers were written by Lee and are all highlights on the disc: “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Everything is Moving Too Fast,” and “It’s a Good Day.” Other highlights include a pulled-back “Small World” from Gypsy, “Adam & Eve,” and “The Girl with His Smile and My Eyes” (the latter two written by Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli). This is the perfect album for a lazy weekend, be it romantic or otherwise.