Today, a look at the newest CD by Wesla Whitfield, as well as a CD of songs written for women characters from musical theater (ranging from the first woman, Eve, to a still-running, still-flying on Broadway green gal), all sung by Leslie Henstock. But first, the musical Bernarda Alba whose 10-person cast is all female (likewise the conductor and director/choreographer).
For a musical that concerns itself with death (more than one), sexism, senility, stoning, betrayal and emotional torture, a great deal of Bernarda Alba is quite startlingly beautiful and lands graciously on the ears. Virtually all of it is compelling, musically and/or dramatically, even on repeated listenings. And, for the record, it's quite accessible the first time around. Michael John LaChiusa's varied and dynamic score is very alive and well served on disc. These actresses have distinctly different voices, imbued with specific and consistent characterizations.
Orchestrations by Michael Starobin are fascinating and precise. The music and the orchestrations both seem almost sculpted rather than written, as they seem to have basically no wasted energy or flourishes. It's not about decoration or distraction. Deborah Abramson serves as musical director and conductor, and the synthesizer is her responsibility, too, as she leads the eight other instrumentalists.
Joel Moss and Kurt Deutsch, record producers with an increasingly enviable record for excellence in productions that capture specific mood and ambience, have done it again with this especially dramatic piece. This time, we're in Spain in the 1930s, and because of the story, a feeling of literal claustrophobia in the oppressive home of a family must be present. To slip into current lingo, they don't get out much. Much of the acting and orchestral work reinforces that, but some of the melodies and yearning are transportive and by force of will seem to suggest freedom - or the dream of it.
If you're looking for fluff and carefree spirits, you've come to the wrong place. Yet, there's room in the gloom and doom for light and hope to shimmer through, all the more striking in contrast when it does, as in the folk song-like "On the Day That I Marry." It's an ingratiating fragment floating through the despair after the early funeral scene. In a more significant way, "Love, Let Me Sing You" is a sturdy river of romance that pushes through. It is interrupted by dialogue that, along with a plot synopsis, will give anyone unfamiliar with the musical or its source play, The House of Bernarda Alba, a clear sense of the goings-on. This Lincoln Center production was directed by Graciela Daniele (who also choreographed).
Some of the solo songs are titled simply by the name of the character singing. I especially admire "Adela," a song of wanting freedom and experience, so well performed by Nikki M. James as Adela, the youngest of five daughters. The other daughters are performed effectively by a sterling and markedly diverse group in vocal timbres: Judith Blazer, Sally Murphy, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Saundra Santiago. With her unusual and dramatic vocal tone, Yolande Bavan's songs (leading "Let Me Go to the Sea" and a solo "Lullaby") as the senile grandmother are heartbreaking in context but out of context very attractive just as songs. As the title character of the matriarch, Phylicia Rashad is almost relentlessly intense (appropriately) throughout, most interesting musically on "The Smallest Stream." But there's no weak link in this ensemble cast of ten women, with fine vocal and acting work also turned in by Candy Buckley, Laura Shoop and Nancy Ticotin as the non-family members.
There's some mighty powerful subject matter here, and no one shies away from confronting it. So the music and lyrics are direct, the performances are likewise uncompromising and the impact is like a kick in the stomach. The story is a tragedy, but as a work of art (in construction and performance) it is a victory.
Eight tracks on Livin' on Love have eight musicians - half of them playing French horn. It's a unique sound, a gorgeous sound, emotional and striking, slightly mysterious and melancholy, and Wesla Whitfield doesn't need it. She can do it all with her voice and acting skills. Still, the French horns add mood. Wesla finds fresh phrasing even in the most recorded material. She may highlight one of the less obviously "important" words, elongate a note, pause unexpectedly, or change vocal color. It never feels gimmicky. She is able to delivering a line if thinking out loud, eager to communicate the thought to a companion. The best examples are the 1934 ballad "For All We Know" and "Alfie."
Offering several tunes with quick, jazzy tempi and making sure that slower ones are luxurious rather than dull, the singer and her octet or quartet keep a listener's interest. The instrumental breaks occasionally feel less like a continuation of the dramatic thread laid out in the vocal section - and more like intermission from the story - but it's all enjoyable and well played. Mike Greensill is splendid as pianist, co-producer (with Orrin Keepnews) and arranger (and, presumably, as husband). Bassist John Wiitala and drummer Vince Lateano are super solid, and Gary Foster on sax, flute and clarinet adds additional flavor.
Among the CD's smart surprises are the fuller show lyrics from The Boys From Syracuse's "This Can't Be Love" and a bit of John Lennon's "Imagine" inserted deftly but firmly between the sections of the much more idyllic "Pure Imagination." The juxtaposition brings an adult bittersweet sensibility to the childhood fantasy, making it more potent rather than just escapist. Rather than ignore perfectly designed set-ups, Wesla and Mike have some of their best moments with the introductory verses for the songs, often discarded by others. It's great to hear them done with such care and thought.
I am moved by the treatment of "I've Heard That Song Before," which most treat as a puff or perky piece of nostalgia. Wesla and Mike slow it down and emphasize the longing in lines like, "Forevermore's a memory." Few singers could carry off the little wry chuckle before the line, "It's funny how how a theme recalls a favorite dream." Wesla does, and makes you re-examine the "simple" big band number. Maybe you haven't quite heard that song before. Well, maybe you have in part, if you're a follower like I am, as the three songs mentioned thus have prior recordings by the pair. But there's much more: a fervent take on "Alfie," a haunting "Whistling Away the Dark," for example.
In person, Wesla displays a mischievous sense of humor that's never been fully exploited on disc. Here, she has some fun with the title song from the Richard Rodgers/ Stephen Sondheim musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, treating it offhandedly. To add to her having a good time in three-quarter time, several melodies in waltz signature are worked into the arrangement. They include the jazz favorite, Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby" and even "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," as well as another Richard Rodgers waltz, "Wait Til You See Him." The effect is cute, although I can't help but think it's also a missed opportunity. Hearing her take up the ebullient, swelling melody with exhilaration and full voice would be grand.
A new album from Wesla and her musicians is always welcome, whether it be one in their series of songwriter salutes or a grab bag like this or the last one, In My Life (the title tune courtesy of The Beatles, not last season's much-discussed Broadway musical). Speaking of musical theater, Wesla spends July 24-30 performing in the stage version of Irving Berlin's White Christmas at the Muny in St. Louis where she was Bloody Mary in South Pacific not long ago. Wesla, thanks for a bright release at the start of a hot summer. And merry Christmas.
UNDER THE RADAR
This self-produced debut CD has been sold at the many theaters where she sang her heart out as Cosette in the national tour of Les Miserables. This week it became more available, starting at www.CDbaby.com. Read on.
The voice is especially sweet and youthful, the renditions earnest, the repertoire mostly musical theater. I liked her sunny sound right away. Normally I'm quite underwhelmed when a singer follows the blueprint of the original versions of show songs extra closely. Leslie Henstock does exactly that, but she generally keeps my interest. Originality may not be her middle name but she sounds thoroughly involved and her album doesn't register self-consciousness or a feeling of automatic pilot. In her liner notes, she frankly states, "Arrangements inspired by those of the original composers and artists." With the vibrancy she projects, her know-how and a voice that's generally quite easy on the ears, she could be a smash if someone guided her into more creative interpretations, but the album is entertaining, pretty and energetic.
Although Leslie has been laboring for some time in Les Mis, there's nothing from that recent past-soon-to-be-future Broadway attraction here, nor from the many classic musicals she has been part of in her many stints with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. She has just landed a job as part of the upcoming tour of The Light in the Piazza, in the ensemble and understudy for Clara.
Leslie does quite well with some theater songs from recent times. One of the strongest tracks is a bright and brimming with life "Not for the Life of Me," from Thoroughly Modern Millie. It's spunky, optimistic and fully engaging. "I Can Do Better Than That" from Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is another self-confident, carve-your-own-destiny bravura piece that suits her. It's more thoroughly modern in its look at what life has in store, and she plays it appropriately less naively. And of course the album's title song is from Wicked, which Leslie does here done with less showstopping melodramatic intensity than one would hear in a production (and I bet vocally she'd be cast as that other witch). There's something refreshing about her rendition. As a prequel to this Oz prequel, the track is preceded by a sincere "Over the Rainbow," likewise not over the top.
Listening the first time through, as it became clearer and clearer that there wasn't going to be any ground breaking in treatments, I had to wonder how "Soon" from A Little Night Music would be handled. In the show, it blends into another character's soliloquy, is repeated as part of a contrapuntal trio and the "Soon" section doesn't resolve. Would she just stop abruptly? She just stopped abruptly. And no instrumental ending follows later, now or soon.
Although her voice could use a bit more strength on some high notes and more grit here and there, there's a lot to enjoy here. "It Would Have Been Wonderful," the gem in the score of Annie Warbucks (that sequel to Annie) is strongly sung and moving, the best dramatic turn. Certainly the tricky, quick "Feelings" (The Apple Tree) shows she can pass the diction requirements with flying colors; in fact, her enunciation throughout is sharp, never labored. Beyond show tunes, there are hints of wider versatility if you hear the two pop inclusions, "I Can't Make You Love Me" and "Time After Time" (the Cyndi Lauper hit), the latter with guitar accompaniment. There's talent here.
More information is available at www.LeslieHenstock.com.