For your consideration as summer settles in ... four very different possibilities.
It would be hard to miss all the press and buzz surrounding the Broadway show Tarzan unless you've been living in a cave in the jungle. The usual Disney advertising campaign has been in full swing, like its high-flying characters, and although critical reaction has not been the kindest, the cast album has some good performances. Though still having very much a pop-rock feel, Phil Collins' songs come across with more theatricality (orchestrations are by Doug Besterman) than his work sounds on the soundtracks of the animated Disney films of Tarzan and the later Brother Bear. Like those albums, there's a lot of sound: polished studio production, layers of instrumentation without a lot of drama jumping out at you in the small set of songs. The Tarzan movie score has been expanded from five songs to fourteen, some of which are reprised. The newer numbers allow for some theatricality and outpouring of characters' feelings. Of course, you have to accept the artistic license that gorillas and a young man raised by them are expressing themselves in English not very different from the articulate ways of the educated naturalists studying them.
The five songs functioned differently in the animated film, serving as accompaniment to the adventures in the jungle environment. Happily, the new ones allow more character interaction, and the cast makes the most of those moments of communication and conflict. If only they were trusted a little more to do so! The musical accompaniment is busy and cranked up much of the time, with the orchestra seemingly given equal responsibility for making dramatic comments and providing the endings of numbers. This can upstage the cast and it's overkill. The cast works hard against these obstacles.
In his Broadway debut as the title character, Josh Strickland has an attractive voice that can reveal real sensitivity. Ultimately, though, he gets trapped by the pop power ballad syndrome; that is, he's sometimes more intriguing in the first half of a song than its pumped-up latter section. His Jane, Jenn Gambatese (recently in All Shook Up), finesses her way through having to sing some obvious statements like, "This man is not like other men," and "I can't explain the way I feel" (but then she does). They have a cute non-musical moment together when he echoes her speech pattern between verses of a new solo for Tarzan, "Different."
In the show, the role of Tarzan as a child is played at different performances by two different boys and both are heard on the CD. In the bright and bouncy "Who Better Than Me" young Daniel Manche does well in his brief duet of friendship with the likeable Chester Gregory II. The other boy, Alex Rutherford, is disarming and plaintive with "I Need to Know," making it one of the best tracks on the CD. As the gorillas who raised our hero, Merle Dandridge and Shuler Hensley come across on the recording with great dignity and acting skill. Merle gets "You'll Be in My Heart," the huge commercial hit that came from the film score, but fortunately does not ape the original pop style. She phrases carefully and invests it with a depth of feeling in two different versions, the latter a duet with Josh near the end. The last word goes to composer-lyricist Phil Collins in an enjoyable album-ending bonus track restating one of the new numbers, "Everything That I Am."
There are rewarding and sincere moments amid the dense pop musical sounds, synthesizers and choral layers but, like clearing a path in the jungle, you have to cut through a lot to find them.
(Note: The CD claims "special" visual features, but most of them can be found on websites for Disney and the musical.)
THE TWO SVENGALIS
If you have a taste for the campy and the clever, with a healthy dose of the catty and the cutely cuckoo, The Two Svengalis is just your cup of spiced tea. With a wink and a stab at fictional show biz success sagas, the kind that are so feeble they're funny, this is expert pastiche. The plot? Failed songwriter and singing coach turns a housewife who dabbles in singing into a surprise superstar and he tastes success, too. A mutual taste for revenge (her husband is cheating with the woman the musician was pursuing) creates a bond and soon they're having an affair. All this leads to musical numbers that are brittle, belty and bitchy. Some are the songs the woman performs in her act and evoke old show biz numbers long on razzle dazzle brash but short on intellectual content and depth.
Fred Barton plays the man, and he wrote the music and lyrics and orchestrations. Toni DiBuono is the diva. Together they wrote the book; the few spoken lines included and the detailed plot synopsis make me wish they'd included more dialogue (there would be room, as the CD's playing time is just 40 minutes). Fred and Toni, who worked together in Forbidden Broadway, work well together: he grits his teeth, she's got grit and both have a bitchy ball with their characters. Like Fred's one-man musical Miss Gulch Returns, on the imagined life of the character from the film The Wizard of Oz, this piece has a daffiness mixed with daring but doesn't cross the line into bad taste. The sound quality is very good, crisp and clear; bravo to Original Cast Records for preserving this snazzeroo of a show.
Many of the songs have witty rhymes and a knowingness about old musical styles, but a few really stand head and shoulders above the others. "Suffocated Lady" is a smart musical reference to the standard "Sophisticated Lady" and is peppered with the woman's blithe but bubble-headed blabber (I love how she accidentally refers to Edith Piaf as Edith Pilaf). "I'm the Queen and You're Not" is a smash, a kind of "so there!" number that builds wonderfully. Best of all is "Welcome to the Theatre," a cheery melody married to witty lines with terrific rhymes like, "Find a script, hire a hack, learn your lines, watch your back," "Bob Fosse touched my glossy," and "You trample on the peon for the day you'll be on neon display." If all the songs were on this level, I'd be doing cartwheels about this score. But there's a great deal to enjoy here musically, laughs a-plenty and two performers who are right on the mark.
There's something about George Miserlis' voice that's quite appealing - it's especially clear and strong without sounding forced. He sounds like he's having a darn good time. Most of the song selections emphasize a positive outlook, which suits him.
What comes through on his "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" is not so much the lyric's doubts about the ability to keep a long-term relationship alive, but the hope that it will all work out after all. Even a ballad of regret like Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" avoids an all-out pity party and stays quite sober. George's singing shows enough sensitivity, however, to avoid sounding cavalier.
Harmony singing has been a big part of George's career: you can even find him harmonizing on "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" on Varese Sarabande's CD, Sondheim: A Celebration. George is also a member of the playful a capella group The Blanks; the group sings the Beach Boys hit "God Only Knows" on this CD. It's an entertaining, feel-good track. The Blanks recorded their own CD a couple of years ago, Riding the Wave, and appear on the TV series "Scrubs." One of its members, Paul F. Perry, also provides the English version of "T'Ein Afto Pou To Lene Agape" (the melody is heard twice and finds George in the lovely company of a small group of string players). He has toured in the show about that swell clean-cut fictional group, Forever Plaid.
George's Plaid musical director, Colin R. Freeman, joins him here as producer and the arranger and fine keyboard player for all the tracks except the one with The Blanks. The arrangements are alternately delightful and frustrating. "How Deep is the Ocean" is pretty schizophrenic, a bunch of disparate musical ideas and styles competing for no particular reason. Colin provides sensitive solo accompaniment for a reflective "Bein' Green" that is blessedly understated and quite effective. "Come Back to Me" owes more than quite a bit to Sammy Davis, Jr.'s arrangement in every way: tempo, phrasing, attitude, everything down to the repeated ending line, "bring it on back," that isn't even part of this song from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Likewise, "That's All" is Bobby Darin's specialty arrangement phrase by phrase. They are exciting Vegas-style charts and George sings them with channeled flair, but why borrow so heavily? (It might have worked as a tribute album, as in the proud use of the original Judy Garland charts Freeman plays and conducts in the concert and promised CD, Songs My Mother Taught Me by his wife, Lorna Luft.)
The album title, by the way, is simply a reference to the name of the Los Angeles recording studio where this mostly engaging CD was made. The singer's diction is quite good and he seems at home and in charge in a variety of musical settings. He's surrounded by a band that does tasty work all around, with a real kick in the rhythm section and strings that are never soupy.
UNDER THE RADAR
This singer with a theater, film and TV resume had quietly put out her own CD a while back that didn't come to my attention, and may not have come to yours, until it was recently mentioned in the publicity for a club act she's doing this month.
Marvelous Valarie Pettiford is performing at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood July 8 and at The Metropolitan Room in Manhattan on July 19. First drawing attention as a dancer, the lady who has been in shows like Fosse and Weird Romance, as well as movies, soaps and sitcoms is a dazzling singer. That's clear from her CD Hear My Soul which is a classy and impressive solo debut. Ron Abel is the keyboard player, arranger, orchestrator and producer and gets high pints in each category for his work here. He also composed one of the melodies, matched to a straightforward lyric by Chuck Steffan, "Where Do I Find Love?" and it suits the singer, especially as she's allowed to showcase her range and be a bit gymnastic vocally . But then again, everything seems to suit her here.
Valarie's alto voice has a sultriness and a confidence, but she never sounds like she's parading attitude at all. To the contrary, she's sensitive and so fully engages the listener that you don't notice that the lament "Willow Weep for Me" is over six minutes long and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is completely satisfying even though it's only a minute and forty-five seconds. That number was part of Sophisticated Ladies, one of the Broadway musicals she graced for a while. She was also in the unrecorded Bob Fosse show Big Deal which, like Sophisticated Ladies, used classic songs. She revisits a couple of those upbeat numbers here: "Ain't She Sweet" and "Charley, My Boy." Valarie can swing, best demonstrated with her ace handling of the Burton Lane/ Frank Loesser evergreen, "I Hear Music." On the ballad side, a highlight is a graceful "Someone to Watch Over Me," in which guitarist Grant Geissman accompanies her elegantly for a beautiful journey through the Gershwins' tender territory.
Bending notes here and there, emphasizing her deliciously deep low tones, she brings attention to her voice but thankfully doesn't distract from the song. Best case in point: "The Last Time I Saw Paris," with some subtle liberties but a very involved reading of the lyric. Some may find some of the jazz embellishments a bit mannered or find influences of other singers, but I don't find myself left with that feeling. There's an unlisted a capella bonus track of "God Bless the Child" that is the icing on an already rich cake. This is the kind of album that lends itself to repeat playing, where you find new turns of phrase to appreciate the next time.
And speaking of next time, that's all 'til next time, when we'll discuss more music to add to the summer sounds.