Passing across our review desk recently: a Tony winner with heaps of heart and soulPassing Strange's cast albumand cast in a different light, a couple of more traditional heartfelt material soulfully sung, all CDs with "Heart" in their titles.
Though little here recalls traditional musical theatre song forms, Passing Strange is not uniquely strange or inaccessible to anyone whose musical ears have absorbed well-established styles. The variety is as much part of its success as its intensity. There's rock, soul, influences of everything from pop to hip-hop to psychedelic flavors, definitely gospeleven in its anti-church stancefolky elements, a flash of punk and more. This is strong stuff, performed with gutsy, go-for-it, unapologetic grittiness and some open-hearted and haunting balladry ("Mom Song"). Recorded live, there's undeniable electricity (and I don't just mean the prominent electric guitars); there's a connection going on. However, the audience response is not intrusive, with applause discretely edited and often edited out entirely. The quieter, reflective moments feel like they are in your ear and the rants and rages and firestorms feel in your face.
Billed as "the Stew musical," the dynamic one-named, star-billed performer indeed anchors the show. It's his story and his eyes we see things through, as the narrator-leading figure, writer of book and lyrics and the co-composer (with Heidi Rodewald, with whom he also shares credit for musical direction and orchestrations). The talented actor playing him as a "Youth," Daniel Breaker, makes for a refreshing alternatewith a different sound and perspectivewhile Stew's paraded memories and reflections alternate between fresh-as-a-new-wound rawness and tempered, mellowed hindsight. In the closing catharsis, they seem to make peace with their need to co-exist. Along the way, three expected staples of a modern youthful journey come into play, casually and freely addressed: sex, drugs and rock and roll (the oh-so matter-of-fact "We Just Had Sex"; the controlled substance haze/euphoria of "Stoned" and "Must Have Been High"; plenty of rocking moments). Racial politics and experience are strongly reflected in various sections, with "The Black One" a sharp satirical arrow performed with aplomb.
The committed performances of these songs, some of which turn on a dime to switch emotional gears and tempi, are vigorous. Harsh at times, but vibrant, with some musical sections or lines that become hammeringly repetitive, the rock musical won't be every theatre fan's cup of tea. It's strong tea in any case, but not all bitter. The tale's rejections of societal mores and expectations permit an iconoclastic attitude but a life-embracing, truly sympathetic tone prevails. It shines through.
The booklet contains all the lyrics and identifies what character is singing which section, a major help in following things. Examining the lyrics on their own reveals some ordinary language, peppered with four-letter words and some false rhymes, with some smart turns of phrase here and there. It's the music and energy that the words turn into a cyclone of confrontation and effective calms in the eye of the storms. A few photos are also included. Liner notes trace the long development of the show, giving it hyperbolically quite the hero's welcome while casually dissing and dismissing some of Broadway's more commercial past. Embrace it or be pushed away by some Passing Strange elements; whether you're overpowered or underwhelmed, it's definitely a case of the whole being more than the sum of the parts and a cumulative effect. On a first hearing, some things may get lost in the shuffle, but many rewards come from more plays, often in the smaller "moments."
Back in the 1980s, in the first chapter of Craig Pomranz's cabaret career, there was no album, but his very high, pretty voice made a strong impression on record with his one track on Ben Bagley's Jerome Kern Revisited, Volume III, "And Love Was Born." Very promising. Flash forward a couple of decades and he's still singing about love being born (and dying, and re-born) on his first album.
The voice is still striking and high and pretty ... and pretty impressive. After some time away from the spotlight, he's back behind a mic, in cabarets and in the recording studio. My Heart Don't Skip a Beat was actually recorded back in 2002, but has been pretty much quietly sitting on a shelf and has only been distributed and promoted in a significant way this year. Looking for him on recordings in the intervening years, his name shows up an ensemble member on three studio cast albums. In between, he was doing voiceovers and commercial work.
The stratosphere positioning of the high tenor voice is the major first impression. Its timbre and the approach to material paint a lot of the material with an aching and disarming earnestness that demands attention and surrender. If there were flamboyant embellishments and affections, it would become precious and fluttery, but a direct and unencumbered approach to singing music and lyrics steers us clear of most dangers. "Falling in Love Again" is done twiceEnglish and German, ballad and brightly. In fact, his determined sincerity and awe on the matter of falling in love (or jumping head first willingly) makes for convincing performances, so that "I've Never Been in Love Before" is believable and Nine's "Unusual Way" ring true. Also solidly done is the dramatic "When Do the Words Come True?," sung from the point of view of a performer, whose stock in trade is bravura performances of songs about being in love, wondering why life can't imitate art. (Words and music are by John Meyer some time after his relationship with Judy Garland, it's been incorporated into his play about that experience.)
Even in jaunty mode, Craig comes across as an uber-sincere balladeer with his heart very much on his sleeve and the other sleeve perhaps at the ready to wipe away copious tears. But they don't come in buckets all the time. His lament ending with "When I saw you crying, I cried too" (Laura Nyro's "I Never Meant to Hurt You") with just the guitar accompaniment of James Chirillo is a nakedly emotional and artifice-free, a major highlight for its hold-your-breath, arresting quality. The spurned lover's protestation that "I don't shed a tear/ This is just the rain in my eyes" on "Funny (Not Much)" is a mix of tenderness and torch that hits the mark and mark Craig as an expert in the ways of visceral vulnerability. These are the kind of tracks that that plucks emotional strings just right and puts two words in the mind of a CD listener"repeat play." Fortunately, he doesn't overload his arsenal with sob stories, and a couple even downplay the tear duct potential, like a light, up-tempo breeze-through of the old story of being dumped with the consolation prize of the ex who says, "Can't We Be Friends?" Other tracks are more truly carefree, like "Give Me the Simple Life," or "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" The masterful musical director/pianist Barry Levitt adds jazzy touches and keeps things classy and relatively spare and swinging on the up-tempo choices.
The singer has had a couple of engagements in New York at The Metropolitan Room. His enjoyable acta salute to summer songs, including musical theatre choiceswhich continues for the next several Wednesdays, shows even more sides to his voice and reveals him as an down to earth, chatty host.
With a warm tone and easygoing, no-frills manner, Sylvia Bennett is easy on the ears. She doesn't bite into lyrics in a dramatic way, but rather floats along with the melody in a pretty, creamy way. It would be an overstatement to say she sounds uninvolved or aloofthere's a generalized mood and color, but a reserve and discretion keeping heavy emotion at arm's length. She doesn't seem to break a sweat or have a lot of heartache at stake on the rare song choice with a lyric going into sad territory. The dreaded love-is-gone "cold, rainy day" in "Here's That Rainy Day" seems not like a dreary punishing rain but a harmless spring shower. Notably, "When Sunny Gets Blue" is a weeper that's told in the third person. Sylvia's songs that might be exuberant are likewise a bit muted, such as "You Make Me Feel So Young," which offers serene contentment rather than bursts of joy.
The approach has something to do with the concept of the album, giving equal prominence to the three tenor sax players featured: Kirk Whalum, Ed Calle and the late Boots Randolph. Each track features one of the three mellow fellows on sax, except for "Since I Fell for You" where all three are on hand. This, naturally, is a highlight and gets things cooking nicely, generating more heat. The CD can be refreshing as a change of pace if you've overdosed on histrionics and want something more relaxing and smoothly sliding into chill territory. The sax players' sultry and satiny playing can set the pace and tone, clearly equal co-stars with mid-song solos and prominence throughout the arrangements. Jazzy in a rather straightforward, conservative way, it's cozy doings with a dozen songs. All numbers are old stand-by standards except one, the bluesy and breathy "I Still Love You" which she co-wrote with the album's band's guitarist and producer, Hal S. Batt (the two collaborated in the past on a Lionel Hampton project).
Four of the songs are by the Gershwins. "Someone to Watch Over Me" is the best of those, with a particularly shimmering feel, accented by the playing of pianist Brian Murphy. It's puzzling why she changes one lyric to eliminate the internal rhyme of "the man some/ girls think of as handsome," replacing the word "man" with "kind," but she does a graceful job of setting a mood.
By and large, Songs from the Heart is a more delicate pitter-patter heartbeat of heartfelt romances. A singer with fine control and apparently no desire to show off, it's a tasteful and tender time with evergreens, one that has its subtle rewards brought out with repeat well-wearing revisits.
UNDER THE RADAR
There's plenty of heart (and soul!) in Best of Your Heart. It's the first ever solo CD by BJ Crosby, whose theatre résumé includes Smokey Joe's Café and, in the last several years, the revival of One Mo' Time, the York Theatre's production of The Grass Harp and Chicago as Mama Morton.
Released independently, the CD is not on a label, and if you wanted to attach a label to the music genres sung here, you'd have to list several words, with jazz and blues at the top of the list. But there are funky, rhythmic moments (the title song) and pop. She does some cool scat singing, and the quality of her wailing, brassy voice resembles the two horn players who join her (Stanton Davis and Steve Bleifuss). She can be sassy and playful, as on the old song "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home," or take things very seriously, as with "No More Wars," ending the CD on a powerful note, as she sings (with back-up singers) the lyrics she wrote on September 11, 2001. It's one of three songs she collaborated on (there are 10 tracks in all). "Cajun Moon" has her lyric and music by John Gentry Tennyson, who is her multi-taskingly talented keyboard player, arranger, producer and engineer. This one is a feisty honor to the ambience of New Orleans, the city where she was born and raised, and where she recently returned to live.
Singing the first chorus a capella, emotions are also naked in her searing cry of pain as she laments in the 1980s pop song about living "All By Myself." The band comes in gently and they segue into "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)," the powerhouse number from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. The right-on-the-surface desperate loneliness is chilling and theatrically riveting. Other tracks give BJ far less opportunity to display her dramatic skills but are musically satisfying, especially if you're up for some rhythm and blues and strutting, sometimes with some hard edge.
BJ Crosby is recovering from a stroke she suffered last month and we wish her all the best, The Best of Your Heart serving as a reminder of her valued talent. This knockout of an album is available online at www.louisianamusicfactory.com. The CD or its individual tracks can be downloaded at another site: http://www.digstation.com