We begin July in the key of "B," with Broadway of 1945, Beauty and the Beast karaoke-style, and the bright-voiced Brandon Cutrell.
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1945
Turn back your calendar 62 years and stay awhile. For the newest recording in the Broadway by the Year concert series, genial host Scott Siegel's flashback to a slice of musical theatre history brings back songs heard on the Great White Way way back in 1945. There was one giant that year, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. It's well represented with five selections among the 19 tracks from the concert recorded at the 2005 event at New York's Town Hall (a couple more from the concert didn't make it to the CD). There's a group vocal for "You'll Never Walk Alone" (most effective during an a capella section in the middle), and the other four are solos. Marc Kudisch takes on the two big two numbers, "Soliloquy" (complete) and "The Highest Judge of All," and gives them committed, forceful and actorly readings. I'd wish for a bit more anguish and/or swagger, but they are strongly and admirably sung. Kerry Butler's rendition of "What's the Use of Wond'rin'" finds moments of resignation, uncertainty and wistfulness. Its drama is enhanced by a bit of dialog from the script with Marc. Karen Mason brings along her rewardingly detailed "Mister Snow" via the thoughtful Brian Lasser arrangement reprised from her first CD.
Though no 1945 show came close to the success or lasting impact of Carousel, the CD is filled with strong performances of worthy, most rarely recorded, songs; it's not the case of "here's the one big, famous standard that came out of a flop show." In retrospect, it's surprising that the tender "You Haven't Changed at All" from Lerner and Loewe's The Day Before Spring never got rescued as it seems it would have been ripe for standard status. A strong case is made for that in the rich, romantic but reserved duet by Karen and Eddie Korbich. Karen's brassy belt and humor are well employed in three other numbers. Elsewhere, Eddie turns on his considerable charm, plus a considerable slice of ham, for the comic "A Rhyme for Angela," a tour de forced rhymes by Ira Gershwin set to Kurt Weill's music (from the major flop The Firebrand of Florence referenced this season in LoveMusik).
One ballad that is close to a standard is "Close as Pages in a Book"; Christiane Noll's soprano lends an elegant, formal touch to this Sigmund Romberg/ Dorothy Fields piece from Up in Central Park. Her other solo has never been recorded until now, but it benefits from the same qualities she lavishes upon it: the engaging and sweetly simple "Turn on the Charm" is from Marinka (Emmerich Kalman/ George Marion, Jr.), an operetta that originally had Joan Roberts in the title role, two years after her glory as Laurie in Oklahoma!.
The appealing and big tenor voice of Scott Ailing, a versatile Nightlife Award-winning singer based until recently in New York, is thrilling when it soars, which - happily - it is often given the opportunity to do. His classical sound and inherent sincerity are a potent combination in "Wait for Tomorrow" from Polonaise, a musical that borrowed music from Chopin. Scott shows he can also tone things down and glide through a light charm song: he appears on the album's two other previously unrecorded numbers, "Slightly Perfect" (a duet with Kerry from Are You With It that plays the coy card) and "From Morning Till Night" (originating in a quick flop, The Girl from Nantucket).
There is less of Scott Siegel's humorous narration and odd bits of historical trivia this time around, but the other traditions known by fans of the series (this is the 18th released on disc) are in evidence: informative introductions putting things in perspective; Broadway stars (there are four of them); songs done off-mic (there are four of them); and respectful and spirited accompaniment by the band members (there are four of them, led as usual by pianist Ross Patterson).
Brandon Cutrell's New York credits include an appearance in the Broadway by the Year series (for the songs of 1956, yet to be released on CD), and he is a frequent performer in the city's cabarets. Currently the singing host of weekly open-mic concerts both on Fire Island and at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on Theatre Row, Brandon is as known for his brash, irreverent humor as he is for his singing. His debut album, released a few weeks ago upon his return visit to Feinstein's at Loews Regency, mostly showcases his sensitive, thoughtful side and also captures his vibrant energy.
He borrows the verse to Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?" to set up a song that appeared decades later and expresses the same feeling of powerless confusion about moving on after a break-up: "Where Do You Start?" (Johnny Mandel/ Marilyn & Alan Bergman). It's his own effective arrangement, whereas the other tracks are arranged by the talented Ray Fellman, who is on piano and musically sculpts the story songs moment by moment with musical punctuation, pulse, propulsion or pause as desired. Ray orchestrates all the numbers except "Not Another Step" where its composer, Sean Michael Flowers, does the honors for what becomes a real acting piece for Brandon, a catharsis and confrontation and break-up all rolled into one scene with lyrics by Patrick Vaughn. "We Laugh," Todd Almond's excellent detailed story-song about a phone conversation between two brothers rings true, too, and Brandon does not get lost in the rushing flood of lyrics. Phrasing with an actor's detailed approach, he can color key words and utilizes the power of a judicious pause so it seems the lyrics are occurring to him in the moment.
Not all the tracks find him digging so deep. For example, though a sense of stiff upper lip determination comes through on Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls," he doesn't doesn't find the layers of meaning that Jessica Molaskey so successfully unearthed in her recent recording. Another chance to rock out and strut some attitude, the invigorating "Halley's Comet" by Chuck Coleman brings all his skills together and the band sounds great here, especially top drawer guitarist Louis Tucci and the kick of Bruce Doctor's drums.
The songs are a refreshing mix of styles. Brandon lets the pure beauty of his head tones float through the beauty of the classic Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein "All the Things You Are," which he strips of the formality that often clings to it. He thankfully does not over-sing it. On the contemporary side, two songs by New York-based songwriter Michael Holland ("Everything in the Whole Wide World" and "Firefly IX") are well done. The performances smartly evoke a certain sense of uneasiness as thoughts and feelings collide, with the singer sounding very present.
The song that fits Brandon like a glove, on disc and in person, is Tim DiPasqua's gem, "You." He handles its self-analysis beautifully, navigating through its series of questions about what an individual might achieve in the future, answered alternately with a "No" or "Maybe Not" while expressing the worth of the real priority: a loving relationship. (I don't see the value of having two versions of the song - one is live, but not substantially different - in lieu of another number for the 13th track.)
All in all, this is an impressive recording debut from a singer whose voice can sound pretty dynamic or simply pretty. This is a talented guy who comes through very well on a disc that stands up well with repeat listenings. Closer examination and familiarity only serve to deepen appreciation.
(Note: At the moment, the CD is only available through the singer's website, www.BrandonCutrell.com)
UNDER THE RADAR
If you're a fan expecting to go into withdrawal when the long-running Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast closes this month, here's a new recording of the score, ostensibly marketed for karaoke/ learning the songs/ having pre-recording accompaniment. But the "guide vocals" go well above and beyond the call of duty and function, and the cast includes theatre and cabaret singers.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
For community and school groups or aspiring performers seeking accompaniment/karaoke tracks for Beauty and the Beast, or just Disney-addicted kids tired of singing a capella or belting along with the singers on the soundtrack or cast albums, the accompaniment tracks here will do the trick. Alan Menken's bouncy and swelling melodies are clearly played without being annoyingly simplified. The lyrics by Howard Ashman (film) and Tim Rice (new songs for the Broadway version), unfortunately, are not included in a booklet or a graphics-compatible format that would appear on a computer or TV screen.
The vocals are all one one disc with the instrumental-only tracks on a separate disc, making going back and forth if you lose your place cumbersome unless you're using two CD players. (Unlike some karaoke programs, eliminating sound from one speaker or the other does not eliminate or greatly reduce the volume of the vocal track). The acting in the spoken lines of dialog within the numbers is especially well done and fully in character by all concerned.
Christina Bianco as our Beauty is sensational: clearly in the mold of other voices we've heard in the part, with a voice as clear as any Belle, she sounds fully in command and delightfully in character. A real pro, her energy is just right, too. Billy Ernst makes a sensitive Beast; though he doesn't always sound comfortable with the "bigness" of the singing required, he has some nice moments (the "Transformation" segment is the only number not included besides a few reprises and instrumental music heard on the Broadway cast album.)
The musical director is Stage Stars' frequent maestro, Jason Wynn, who is also a New York cabaret performer. This time he also sings the role Monsieur D'Arque; the trio, "Maison des Lunes," with the sparkling Kristopher Monroe as Lefou and robust Rob Langeder as Gaston, is a highlight. All three are individually strong and working well together with entertainingly broad characterizations. Rob, winner of this year's MAC Award for Outstanding Male Cabaret Debut, makes a grand Gaston, singing with appropriate bluster and brio, sounding great.
Other cabaret/theater notables in the company are Miles Phillips as Lumiere and Booth Daniels as Cogsworth, among the group bringing gusto and theatrical flair to the joyful celebrations "Be Our Guest" and "Human Again."
As Mrs. Potts, Marilyn O'Connell is more winning in group numbers than she is in her solo of the title song. As her little son son, Chip, young Michael D'Addario (seen at Lincoln Center in the second part of Coast of Utopia) sounds just right making his charming presence felt in his brief appearances. Paul J. Malamphy makes a likeable Maurice (Belle's father) on "No Matter What".
No matter what you use this CD set for - learning, accompaniment, or just listening enjoyment - it should serve its purpose quite well.
And now, time to sign-off ... until July 12, until we return with more recent releases.