Annie adopts the expanded approach; the ambience is jazz and ballads from singer Anne Phillips; and Andrew Heller has "in good faith" released a CD single.
It's Annie redux and Annie deluxe! Celebrating the musical versions of the perennially plucky little orphan's life and time, Time Life Records' 2-CD set is a lovingly prepared bonanza. The original 1976 score and its offspring spring to joyful life here, as bright as the rays of the promised sun sung about in the classic anthem of optimism and hope, "Tomorrow."
The first disc is the original Annie score with the recent touring cast. It features reprises (most are very shorta minute or lessbut swell) and an entr'acte not heard on the first cast album, plus some dialogue (I love Warbucks, the bossy billionaire barking on the phone to J. Edgar Hoover: "I want Elliott Ness ... Well, just take him off the Capone case!!") Longer versions of songs reveal bits of music and lyrics not heard on record that first time around. (The expanded CD version of the original Broadway album has some unique material of its own, with cut songs as bonus tracks.)
The second disc is the curiosity-lover and sequel-seeker's paradise. It boasts more material by the same writers: several songs from the troubled continuation that didn't continue, Annie 2; a couple of numbers added for other Annie productions; and one from a TV specialall employing the talents of performers with Annie on their resumes.
Dedicated, creative album producer Robert Sher goes for the approach of the big banquet with trimmings and side dishes worth relishing, providing new treats and previously unrecorded treasures as he notably did with the Paper Mill Follies album and has done with the upcoming Gypsy featuring Patti LuPone.
The 24-track disc of the original Annie score opens with a newly orchestrated overture; it brings that mix of anticipatory excitement and rush of memories that an overture to a familiar score should bring. There's some real plaintiveness mixed in with plenty of show tune razzamatazz. The same holds true for the entr'acte. (The large orchestra used for this project is made up mostly of a group recorded separately in good old downtown Bratislava in Slovakia.) Though not staid and symphonic sounding, there are moments I wish it has more punch and pizzazz or took fuller advantage of its "lush" potential. But it's a different sound, a different feel, just like the cast performances are not slavish to the interpretations of performers from the Broadway original or film versions. That's what makes this new take a keeper for its own sake: it's not a pale imitation and, thankfully, not at all a disrespectful total "re-thinking."
Our young heroine is played with sensitivity and intelligence, with welcome restraint. Dismiss any worries about having to put up with an Annie who is shrill, shrieky or dripping with artificial sweetener. Marissa O'Donnell is an Annie who has learned how to communicate longing, determination and delightand she can phrase a lyric thoughtfully. With other characters' numbers emphasizing the broadness of the comedy or the pep of Charles Strouse's melodies, Marissa brings a more realistically scaled emotion to this recording and is its heart. Her energy is fresh, with some appealing vocal qualities and more of a theatrical belt voice than is evidenced on the nice solo CD she already has under her belt.
Conrad John Schuck, veteran of years of playing Daddy Warbucks, offers his delightful mix of one part gruff irascibility, three parts teddy-bear-kindly. He sings with characterful energy, vulnerability and emotional struggle on his solos about having Annie in his life: the realization that "Something Was Missing" and a denial of his interest, the protesting "Why Should I Change a Thing? (a bonus track on disc two, written for the 2004 Australian production).
Elizabeth Broadhurst brings a breezy efficiency and warmth to the role of Warbucks' secretary, Grace. Alene Robertson plays the evil orphanage matron with more direct growl, grouch, grand grossness and grit, with less comical eccentric quirkiness than we've become used to. The tendency to sneer and snicker with a little more poison and a little less vaudevillian show biz fizz extends to her "Easy Street" partners, Scott Willis and Shelly Burch (who shows her versatility when she graduates to the larger role of Grace on the second disc, and radiates charm and cheer). Still funny, the numbers bring out a different color, and feel like worthy variations on a theme, rather than definitive. Chorus numbers are exuberant and zippy, whether it's the adults or the peppy girls playing the orphans living "The Hard-Knock Life."
Most of the second disc focuses on Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge, which closed after its 1990 Washington run instead of coming to Broadway. We do not get the whole score, since those putting together this project weren't given permission to use Annie 2 material reshaped, re-used and recycled for the recorded 1993 off-Broadway production called Annie Warbucks with a different plot (and no Miss Hannigan). The mostly very plot-specific numbers here don't have the same kind of coziness and seeming ease or polish we found in Annie. Certainly they're well worth hearing and the cast gives them plenty of committed oomph. As Warbucks in three group numbers, we get the very able Harve Presnell, who's played the character in all of the Annie musicals.
At well over nine minutes in length, dwarfing everything else is a giant and happy production number celebration, "Coney Island," complete with dance music (yes, you'll hear the dancing feet, too). The somewhat frantic big ending is a company number, "Tomorrow Is Now," whose lyrics works in titles from numerous original Annie songs.
Carol Burnett narrates us through the plot in between songseight spoken segments in all. She does so in full character as Hanniganthe role she played in the first musical movie version of Annie. She is hilarious as she gloats, mutters, mocks and spits out phrases like "little brat" and says "Warbucks" with such distaste. We even get a few lines of her singing "Tomorrow," messing up the song in character when she's trying to win a contest to be Warbucks' wife (the plot thickens). The big hammy included number for Miss Hannigan, "How Could I Ever Say No?," is sung with relish by Sally Struthers, who played the role in Annie in 1997. She's joined with equal rambunctiousness by Gary Beach, who was a replacement in the original Broadway production, as was Shelly Burch. She's on several tracks, including a solo, the change-of-pace cathartic lament, "He Doesn't Know I'm Alive," and "The Lady of the House" with her real-life husband, our lyricist and director, Martin Charnin, talk-singing as the proper butler.
Charnin also has a spoken welcome and an explanation of why tracks 16, 17 and 18 all have the same melody (they are three totally different lyrics for the same scene). These tried and discarded lyrics were sung as poor Annie is kidnapped and is stuffed in a trunk. First at bat, with the survivalist anthem "All I've Got Is Me" is a younger-sounding, brasher Annie, Amanda Balon (who inherited the title role recently and is heard > as the character on four other tracks). Next, with a wistfully hopeful-but-nervous lyric, "I Guess Things Happen for the Best" goes to Marissa O'Donnell. Last is "My Daddy" with the return of the first musical Annie of them all: Andrea McArdle. In a moving performance that builds wonderfully and suggests barely keeping tears at bay, you might think it couldn't possibly play believably, all these years later. But it does and it's quite dramatic and vocally a knockout.
All these Annies, plus Kathryn Zaremba who played the character in Annie Warbucks, take turns singing "It's Christmas" from a TV special. It's a parade of Annies and a parade of all the aforementioned Hannigans, plus Kathie Lee Gifford who played the role at Madison Square Garden, grousing Scrooge-ishly how they hate the holiday. Gifford adds to Hannigan shenanigans in "Coney Island" and a tough, rowdy solo showcase, "Don't Mess with Mother," written for the 1997 Broadway revival.
This packed treasure chest also includes quite a booklet. In addition to the long list of credits (such as Michael Starobin and Larry Wilcox for disc two's orchestrations and the late Peter Howard's vocal and dance arrangements), there is a detailed, illustrated, kid-friendly 16-page synopsis of Annie's plot, by the musical's bookwriter Thomas Meehan. The large illustrations are patterned after the original Little Orphan Annie comic strip style of Harold Gray by Philo Barnhart. (Remove the disc from the tray card and see his additional drawings in the same style but these look specifically like the stars who play the roles.) There's a one-page essay by Charles Strouse and a frank telling of the miscalculations of the Annie 2 misfire by Martin Charnin. Costume designer William Ivey Long gets two pages to draw and salute the Tony Award-winning Annie costumes of Theoni V. Aldredge.
Priced modestly for a 2-CD set with this extra packaging, and rare and newly recorded material, "bet your bottom dollar" that you'll get a lot for your dollar. A lot of joy and a lot of talent for a lot of "Tomorrow"s to come.
Back in 1959, singer Anne Phillips put out her first record album. She took her time before making her next, Gonna Lay My Heart on the Linewaiting until the next century turned. Fortunately, she decided not to wait another four decades for another solo outing after that impressive and classy CD of songs she wrote, for now it's Ballet Time. Over the years, Anne did some arranging and conducting, sang with groups on The Perry Como TV series and other programs, sang back-up on others' records, and has been involved in jazz choirs for children's music education (Kindred Spirits) with her husband saxophonist Bob Kindred, worked on the jazz Nativity project Bending Toward the Light, and has written, sung and produced commercials.
The current CD showcases her well. Five songs for which she wrote music and/or lyrics demonstrate versatility, and the others show a mastery of jazz and very credible balladeering. Her warm and fuzzy voice and approach is in some ways a sea of contradictions that shouldn't co-exist. But contrasting qualities enhance each other in the best-of-both-worlds kind of way: her sound and style are elegant yet unpretentious, simple yet rich, projecting someone who is strong yet sensitive. Never forcing a tempo, or beholden to one for no particular reason, she seems to exist in her own time zone, moving as the story and lyric implore her in her more dramatic readings. When she wants to move or swing or keep a steady beat, she can move at a clip or clip-clop.
There are two selections from the Gershwins' songbook: a sublime "Embraceable You" enhanced by Kindred's sax and the singer's own piano accompaniment, and a charmingly sly "I Was Doing All Right," a duet with singer-pianist Matt Perri. One cool song from her 2000 album is revisited here, "New York Night Time Blues" with her own music and lyrics.
What makes this album extra special is the presence of guest instrumentalists, particularly those sitting in as accompanists on songs they (co-)wrote. The composer of "Here's to Life," Artie Butler is on electric piano for a moving rendition that avoids melancholia and mush and takes a simple and sincere path. Dave Brubeck is the pianist on his composition "In Your Own Sweet Way" with his wife Iola's lyric. With other stellar songwriters taking the piano bench, there is arresting and palpable emotion in Anne's vulnerable, thoughtful readings of two songs whose lyrics graze the metaphysical. We have the words of Marilyn and Alan Bergman handled with halting awe and care in "I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before" (music by Roger Kellaway with his fine piano work). Dave Frishberg's serious lyric to "You Are There" is graced and the lyricist honors composer Johnny Mandel's melody as he guests. And Marian McPartland is another very welcome presence, playing her own melody to "In the Days of Our Love" (a Peggy Lee lyric Anne handles with respect). Bob Dorough plays and duets vocally on his own old jazz favorite, "I've Got Just About Everything," taken at a fun, fast pace and with a kind of casual camaraderie.
A couple of the more adventurous, non-traditional jazz excursions may take a couple of listens to get into, and the oldie "The Late, Late Show" seems like it hasn't found its perfect groove (it might work better looser or livelier). Overall, the CD is intelligently done and rewarding to hear again and again. With 10 of the 15 tracks clocking in at four minutes or longer, it's generous in length as well as in spirit. And certainly a class act.
UNDER THE RADAR
CD singles of standard songs by standard singers aren't very common these days, so it's easy for one to fly under the radar, especially if it's not available on the usual websites and remaining record stores. The singer, however, is on our radar: we've reviewed his work and he has recorded several full-length CDs.
The sincerity of Andrew Heller comes through again as he proclaims "I Believe," the classic and inspiring affirmation of faith written in 1953 (Jimmy Shirl-Ervin Drake-Irvin Graham-Al Stillman). The deep-voiced singer sings it straight and with a no-frills directness. This is the kind of song that has a potentially dangerous path that can lead to mawkishness and melodrama if overdone even a bit or approached with an agenda.
The vocalist gets off to a slightly shaky start, but is quickly on sure footing and things build nicely without getting too high and mighty and grand. Background singers are used judiciously. The single is produced by Eric Paul, but musician/arranger credits were not given on the review copy. It is being sold only through www.hellerrecords.com/. The price is $5 which seems rather pricey for a single CD with just the one version of one song at a play length of 3:34 (his full-length albums at the same point of purchase are $15). Nevertheless, I like his cut to the chase of the spiritual statement.
... Until the firecrackers and flag waving subside and the "play" button is pressed to attack the next stack ...