Summer is a great time for traveling, and musical theater songs travel pretty well. This week we have two CDs from Canada, contributions from a talented lyric writer from England (his name is William Shakespeare) and an English actress who has crossed over to these shores. Our Under-The-Radar feature brings a wealth of songs based on stories from Italy, Germany, France, Baghdad and Oz, with famous characters who are all singing and dancing in a very small theater in, of all places, Florida (where it's always summer). Off we go...
We begin with a British actress who has crossed the waters and made quite a splash with her debut album. She now lives in New York and is expected in a musical here next year. This CD is an especially varied collection of show tunes, but only one is from a British musical (By Jeeves). Trés Hanley-Millman has a wide-ranging voice that is ready, willing and able to take on all kinds of musical challenges. I like an English accent, but she tries to lose it in some numbers, with varying results. It sounds a bit jarring at times, especially in "Don't Rain on My Parade" where she goes back and forth between a hard, nasal New Yawkese sound and her elegant British pronunciation. Sometimes this happens within the same phrase, even within the same word ("parade"). A similar schizophrenia occurs between her belt voice and head voice in this and other numbers. An effective theatrical moment is going along fine and then the high notes come calling and she sounds like an opera singer doing the note instead of the feeling. The good news is she's got the notes! Trés has a warm sound, a rich, versatile voice with range and power.
Three cheers for the selection of songs, a good mix of Broadway decades and styles without being the usual suspects. Trés' operatic sound is well served by "And This Is My Beloved" (Kismet) and "Summertime" from Porgy And Bess, the oldest show sampled. Her high note at the very end of "In His Eyes" (Jekyll And Hyde) is really something. But the real musical comedy stuff is best of all. She captures a lot of joy and character in a medley from the TV musical Cinderella. There's the sound of a cow mooing as Trés refers to Cinderella's fantasy of being a milkmaid, but she also nicely milks the humor in Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics and relishes the solid architecture of Richard Rodgers' music. Mary Rodgers' melody for "Shy" from Once Upon A Mattress gets an enthusiastic ride, too, and Trés similarly bites into Marshall Barer's delicious character lyric. Wicked fans will sit up and take notice that "For Good" concludes this enjoyable CD, with the singer joined vocally by the single-named Burch, who is keyboardist, arranger, conductor and producer. "For Good" sounds good for sure and we need more singers to record songs from the newer shows.
From Bye Bye Birdie comes "How Lovely To Be A Woman," and it's a sweet choice. Though written for a 15-year-old character, Trés has a field day doing it in a more knowing, grown-up way. She has performed the lead in My Fair Lady so it's not surprising that she sounds most comfortable with "Show Me" and it's the most detailed, fully realized characterization here. I like her bursts of rage and mocking her suitor. These moments allow her to use different tricks in her vocal bag for maximum effect. And what is a Broadway collection without a bit of Stephen Sondheim? Trés chooses "Children Will Listen," which might be a little too close for comfort to Barbra Streisand's version, but it's not the first or last time that influence will show up on a debut album. This one is an impressive first-time-at-bat solo album with some home runs. Trés has two more albums scheduled for release this year, including one which apparently will be purely classical.
"Children Will Listen" also shows up on Bruce Dow's first solo effort. Bruce played the Baker during a theatrical foray Into The Woods and blends "Children Will Listen" with his character's solo "No More," a smart choice. A little more tension would help - when he sings the word "please" he sounds more like he's simply being polite rather than pleading out of anguish. Ensconced in The Stratford Festival in Canada, Bruce has also been in Guys And Dolls as Nicely Nicely Johnson; he reprises his showstopper, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat," with a cute insert of "Fugue For Tinhorns" from the score. He also zips through that show's title song with spunky style. These are presented with some theatrical flair but I can't say they are all stops out and no holds barred. Not all stops are out and holds are barred.
Bruce has a pretty, high tenor voice and "gentle" seems to be where he lives. This can be effective in pensive ballads such as Maury Yeston's "New Words" and "Her Face," a song from Carnival by Bob Merrill. "New Words" is a tender song of a parent's unconditional love for a child, so no problem there. However, "Her Face" has other emotional layers which remain underexplored. When "gentle" crosses over to "genteel," some of these theater songs are not as well served as they could be. "Something Cool" is a dramatic song about a lonely person in a bar, talking to a stranger and trying to mask sadness and desperation with bravado. It can be a heartbreaking crying-in-your-beer song but Bruce is sipping on a Diet Coke. Likewise, Bruce's interpretation of the Lorenz Hart lyric misses its sting. Hart gave us a reality check and claimed that "falling in love with love is falling for make-believe" and is "playing the fool." This one is admittedly a tricky challenge as it is set to Richard Rodgers' ingratiating waltz. The band takes one of its rare adventures on a well-done instrumental jazzy break near the end of the cut, but it has a totally different agenda.
The most successful track for me is "Dancing" from Hello, Dolly!. Bruce is appearing in that show this summer up north and he sounds charming and charmed with the song. Innocent and idealistic, and with a more creative and thoughtful arrangement than we hear elsewhere on the CD, it works. However, most of the arrangements are not very imaginative and don't compensate for Bruce's tendency to gloss over the subtext. Keyboards overwhelm and the other instruments (guitar, drums, acoustic and fretless bass) seem lost in the mix and aren't featured much. Everyone seems especially lost at sea in "I'm A Stranger Here Myself." The silver-voiced tenor sounds enraptured in "My Heart Is So Full Of You" from The Most Happy Fella and wants to be most happy again in the On The Town number that provides the album with its title. I'm used to hearing both of these done bursting with ebullience, but awestruck is an important element, too, and the man has that down pat. He can sound vulnerable, which some men are not willing to do, so I give him points for that.
I'd love to hear a specialty showpiece for Bruce's high tenor voice (he was the highest voice in the barbershop quartet in The Music Man and has played the showy barber Pirelli who challenges Sweeney Todd to a shave-off). I tend to think he's more effective in person on a stage with a strong director than he is on a CD singing out of character, at least at this point. He can also be heard on a couple of cast albums, Napoleon and a version of Cyrano. You may have also seen him on Broadway as the butler in Jane Eyre as he sometimes leaves Canada for New York, and also does cabaret in both places.
AS YOU LIKE IT
Canada's Stratford Festival also brings us Shakespeare, of course. Here we have an album of music for a production of the Bard's As You Like It, a play that has often enticed composers to set its verses. The line "If music be the food of love, play on" is a tough one to ignore! This time around, we have the pop group The Barenaked Ladies providing music for the food of love for this production that is set in the 1960s. The quintet's Steven Page is solely credited with composing those melodies used for the Shakespeare words. The group as a whole is listed as having come up with the melodic content of five of the instrumental tracks. But hold on to your plumed hats because this is by no means a full score. The whole album is under 27 minutes long and much of that is instrumental music.
Shakespeare's words float nicely along the agreeable folky sounds, with tunes and singing style that would not be out of place alongside folk songs from the 1950s and 1960s. They are laid back and don't try to upstage the texts (forsooth, 'twould be folly!). Although the music doesn't underline particular words for effect, it does serve to lay out the general mood for each musical appearance. Sort of like a picnic blanket spread out to lay the words upon, it lets those words be the feast. I've heard other settings of these lines, in a few different musical styles. These do a surprisingly decent job of getting a little Elizabethan flavor despite the electric guitars, judging from my admittedly modest exposure to genuine music of the period. At the same time, the melodies and singing are not slavish copycat pastiche. They have a fresh and modern flair of their own without being startlingly remarkable.
Since all the songs are performed by the band, we don't have the colorful folks from the plot singing them in character. The feel is more of strolling minstrels commenting on the action. The instrumental music consists of mostly brief (under 60 seconds) connective tissue, some good company and some feeling ... well, like filler. Group member Jim Creegan provided string arrangements for two of these.
Most successful all around is "It Was A Lover And His Lass" which opens and closes things (not counting a quick prologue and curtain call music). "Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind" is too languid for my taste and doesn't serve the words ("most jolly"? I think not). "Come Sweet Audrey," on the other hand, is a quick and energetic little pick-me-up in hootenanny mood. If you're not in a hootenanny mood, fear ye not: it's only 48 seconds.
The music is copyrighted 2005 for this year's As You Like It in Stratford. Pairing these tracks with music from another production (there'd probably be room for three) would be nice for consumers, but I'm guessing this CD might have a bigger attraction for fans of The Barenaked Ladies or for those exiting the theater after the show. Although lovers of traditional Broadway scores sung by theater voices won't have this at the top of their list, those of us who can't resist Shakespeare and like comparing how the same texts can be musicalized, will find some pleasures. And followers of The Barenaked Ladies will have cause to celebrate and perhaps be surprised.
Side note to my fellow New York City residents (and summer visitors): this is not the music used in Central Park's production of As You Like It. In yet another Shakespeare shake-up, there's different music written by both William Finn and Vadim Feichtner who are, respectively, composer and musical director of one of Broadway's new hits, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
UNDER THE RADAR
This week, we end our summer trip in Winter Park. It's a town in Florida, and that's this week's spot for our regular look at things that might otherwise escape your attention: a double dose of musical theater with some characters who were probably among your oldest friends. They originated in Europe and what is now Iran and they're back to entertain you. But there are strings attached.
GREATEST HITS, VOLUMES 1 AND 2
Many people (including this reviewer) became addicts of musical theater in childhood via fairy tales musicalized for stage, screen and recording. Many, many musical versions of these stories that never grow old continue to be written and to delight us if we also refuse to grow old. These two volumes (sold separately) come from productions written for and performed at Pinocchio's Marionette Theater. Each CD includes three mini-musicals. I will not claim that these have as much adult crossover appeal as some of the Disney musicals or others that keep a winking eye on the grown-ups in the audience. They are simpler and really aim at a young child's attention span with shorter, less ambitious musical numbers. This is modest stuff with a big heart, short and sweet takes on each tale. All six scores are from the puppet theater's repertoire. Quite a bit of this definitely sounds like "old fashioned" children's music and wouldn't be mistaken for something more sophisticated. It doesn't try to be anything else, but a lot of it has tremendous charm and razzle dazzle, plus sunny energy (not because it's Floridian) .
The first volume opens, appropriately, with the most famous marionette, Pinocchio, from the Italian tale giving the theater its name. Most of the songs are especially brief and simple ("We're home at last, we're home at last and all that I can say is we're home, we're home, we're home at last.") but it gets more interesting. Volume 1 includes some songs which didn't quite make it into the shows, but they are among the highlights, with especially well-crafted, mischievous lyrics and show biz pastiche that will make musical comedy fans smile in appreciation.
Although the scores feature all new music, Hansel And Gretel uses the melodic themes from the German opera by Humperdinck. The lyrics are mostly new, though some owe a debt to earlier versions. A couple of songs at the end, for the witch (her recipe for cooking the children) and a vaudeville-style broom are extra added attractions - wild character pieces with schtick in large doses as a change-up from the classic sounds. Volume One ends with Aladdin which is the most ambitious, including some clever lyrics with word play and wise guy characters, plus a love ballad. This tale seems aimed at a broader age range and shows more range in the writing.
Besides the Humperdinck melodies, the music in Volume One is the work of Kent Smith and David Eaton. Smith returns to do the orchestrations in Volume Two, but Eaton wrote all of the music in Volume Two (with the exception of borrowing the melody of "Alright With Our Love" by Jimmy Van Heusen), as well as providing all the lyrics on both CDs. Multi-talented Eaton is the founder of the theater and also write the dialogue and provides many of the voices.
Singers are listed only alphabetically on the first issue, but on the second they are listed song by song. Thus, I can tell you that David Eaton makes a fine singing mop and bucket in Cinderella, a giant of no little talent in Jack And The Beanstalk, and in Oz, a wickedly funny witch and square dance-caller celebrating the same evil one's demise. He's a real broad comedian, a kid-friendly entertainer. Children will listen. Other standouts are Nita Laca with a dotty take as the fairy godmother, and totally different as Dorothy in Oz. There's also a genuine child, Michael Paulauski, adding energy and reality as Jack in appealing tunes from Beanstalk, the strongest of the second set.
The Wizard Of Oz has had the bar set very high by the classic movie score and doesn't seem to try very hard, with minor songs that pale in comparison, often in the same spots. Throughout the recordings, there is lively, bright instrumental music, including medleys which reprise the main numbers. They bring attention to the jaunty and affecting melodies, divorced from the lyrics. Though these don't have the emotional impact and high polish of other "classic" versions still available, they have a charm of their own. They'd be especially good introductions to stories told in song for the very youngest listener, because many of the songs last for about one minute or so. Parents whose kids have played their old favorites a thousand times (this week) will welcome the variety, and they'll live happily ever after.
Meanwhile, we'll continue to live happily each week with more and more new music to hear ...we'll be listening for you.