This week we bring you news of four new CDs that are "all over the map." We'll begin with an album of a musical about the only Jewish family in a small town in Texas in the first half of the 20th century. From the South, we come up North to my stomping grounds, New York City, for singer-songwriter Julie Gold, who is based here. Then a turn East (Boulevard East, the vocal group) for standards of the "golden era." Finally, returning to Jewish roots, a veteran of the Yiddish stage makes his CD a family affair.
Have you ever seen a painting and been more attracted to the frame? Did you ever enjoy the sauce more than the meat? That's kind of how I felt, especially at first, listening to the premiere cast recording of The Immigrant. It's a chamber musical and the four musicians do marvelous things, playing a motif here and an accent there, adding so much drama. If it is possible to "perform" the subtext, they do it. And they do it with elegance, precision and skill. The composer does not get billing for orchestrations or arrangements, but the liner notes and carefully excerpted quotes from reviews say the orchestrations are his. Pianist Kimberly Grigsby is also listed as Musical Director and Conductor, so I know she deserves more credit than just the praise I'll heap on her for sensitive work at the keyboard. She and her talented collaborators Entcho Todorov on violin, bassist Brian Cassier and Paul Garment on reeds are magnificent, and I don't think I'd want to hear this score played by a bigger group. What they are playing seems to voice the inner thoughts of the characters as well as emphasize what they are saying. I am not by any means trying to state that the players and what they play upstages the songs or performers, nor that music, lyrics and vocal talent are always so thin that one's mind wanders to what I've commended. They complement everything, thus the compliment.
This Immigrant was produced in 2002, based on an earlier (1985) non-musical play of the same name. Its writer, Mark Harelik (currently appearing in The Light in the Piazza), also did the musical's book. The story is based on the lives of his Jewish grandparents. Bits of the dialogue are heard on the recording. The tale at hand takes place in Texas where a man and wife rent a room in their now-empty nest to Haskell, a younger man who's fled pogroms in Russia (his wife arrives later). Haskell is struggling with English and American customs. His being a Jew is a cause for unease for the tolerance-challenged Texans. The wife claims to be a good Christian. Her often-irritable husband has fallen away from religion, as Haskell later does, a source of friction between husbands and wives.
The four are the entire cast. Their songs have been provided by writers who also happen to be a married couple: composer Steven M. Alper and lyricist Sarah Knapp. They are saddled with the unenviable task of writing songs for characters who are not sophisticated, especially well educated or eloquent. The fact that these people don't always say what's on their mind doesn't make the task any easier. There are a few arguments set to music which provide more than the usual quota of any drama's needed conflict quotient, but don't do much more than that. Other musical sections are basically conversation set to music, necessary to the plot but not mesmerizing as songs. The language and rhymes are pretty ordinary ("You're in my thoughts both day and night. I promise our future's bright" or "Take me away somewhere, anywhere. Take me away, maybe New York, I don't care."), with occasionally a more interesting or characterful turn of phrase. There's a long song between the two men, before Haskell has enough English to communicate. It recalls a similar situation number, "Happy To Make Your Acquaintance" in The Most Happy Fella without that song's charm to sustain it. The melody, however, is lively. The women have a similar moment wherein they compare notes on their superstitions and thereby bond. This is a show where the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. The characters grow - and grow on you. As the characters begin to understand and appreciate each other, it becomes a bit more appealing and richer. The culture clash has some amusing moments, and when the four get closer, the show gets closer to being the moving tale it wants to be. It has some warm moments, but I've had trouble warming to it.
The most satisfying song of the score, fortunately, is a theme song which does not wear out its welcome, despite being used four times (with some different lyrics). It's called "The Stars" and allows the simple characters to be more articulate for a change as they express their faith. The melody is emotional and comforting, as are the words. Walter Charles is the only cast member who does not get a crack at this beauty, but he finds variety within his character as the irascible banker, given a more gradual change of heart here than in his role as Scrooge in the Menken-Ahrens A Christmas Carol. As his wife, writer-actress Cass Morgan (Pump Boys And Dinettes, Violet) has more varied musical opportunities to do the same. Jacqueline Antaramian as the Jewish wife clinging to tradition and memories has her best showcase in a genuinely passionate but admirably controlled rendition of "Candlesticks." These three were in both New York productions, in 2002 at CAP21 and the one that ran for a few weeks last year at Dodger Stages. In the latter, the central character of Haskell was played by Adam Heller, who appears as the same on this recording. Heller sings in 11 of the 19 numbers and has dialogue in two others. He works perhaps a little harder than necessary to be sympathetic and charming as a gefilte fish out of water. The accents are pretty thick for his character and his wife's; the Texan accents sound more natural.
This piece has a heart and a soul, but I didn't find it as interesting as I'd hoped. I will say that anyone whose family experience mirrors the plot's struggles of being uprooted or assimilation will probably feel the emotional pull much more. I do admire its integrity and lack of pat solutions to real-life problems. You certainly can't fault the care taken in the recording, as once again executive producer Kurt Deutsch's Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom company has made sure production and sound quality are top of the line. (The recording's producer is Jan Folkson, along with the songwriters and co-executive producers Noah Cornman and Steve Norman.)
Julie Gold struck gold once upon a song, writing the hit "From A Distance" (recorded by Nanci Griffith and then Bette Midler), which won the Grammy Award as Song Of The Year and changed her life. She writes both music and lyrics. Now she's released her third album singing her own material and, like the others, it's a likeably unpretentious and smart affair. This time around, she has the vocal company of Emily Bindinger and Margaret Dorn (of the vocal group The Accidentals) on most of the album. Julie has a plaintive, straightforward quality to her singing that brings out the heart in her songs (not too hard, maybe, her songs are full of heart). She sounds like she could be a country singer if she wanted to (especially on "Number Two"), but she's a Pennsylvanian who's lived in New York City for quite a while. A favorite in town, she has won seven MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) Awards, including Song of the Year ("Goodnight, New York"). If she were strumming a guitar instead of playing piano for herself, some of her numbers would sound more like folk songs, as they often have a storytelling confessional agenda. She's vulnerable and open to life, but not naive. She also has a strong sense of humor, especially about herself.
There's a bit of everything on this album. Some tunes are light and easygoing, some having yearning or heartbreak, and God and aging are among the topics. The songs are new and old, and the ones from the last few years show growth in lyric-writing sophistication and emotional openness, I think, as I check the copyright dates. Here are two excerpts from my favorite lyrics: in "Grey," about getting older, Gold says, "I navigate my way through middle age/ Unfamiliar landmarks, twists and turns/ Longing to express how my soul yearns/ But I'm too old for a broken heart." In "When He Leaves," a duet with veteran singer-songwriter Lesley Gore (!), an impossible but missed relationship is summed up with this metaphor: "The house was good but not the land that it was set on/ The kind of land you just don't use ..."
Julie can be bare bones simple ("I know that I walk taller when He walks with me"), eloquently poetic ("The new me/ Changing right before your eyes/ Like a leaf on a tree/ Letting go before she flies") or funny as in "The Heartbreak Diet." In this number, she tells of trying every fad diet and failing to lose weight. Then her lover walks out and she has no desire to eat: "Nothing kills the appetite like downright despair/It's the Heartbreak Diet./ Why, it's a fact./ No one ever gained weight while their heart was being whacked. / Yes, I have been crying. It's a tiny price I pay for having my whole wardrobe fit me so nice." We need songs like these.
Besides her own piano, on various tracks there are such instruments as guitar, cello, trumpet, recorder and finger cymbals. The lady has a modest, unadorned voice but it works and this is more about the material than vocal power. She sounds like a friend, and her songs are life-affirming without being heavyhanded. If you're in New York, you can see for yourself: the first Friday of each month for the rest of 2005, she's at The Duplex in Greenwich Village. So why just admire her "from a distance"?
The times, they aren't a-changin'. Here's a vocal group that began ten years ago and feels the time has come to put their versions of timeless tunes on a compact disc. The singers on Timeless were known first as Eastern Standard Time, and standards are the repertoire. They aren't doing much to try to sound contemporary in singing style or arrangements, so you could put this on and convince someone the recording was done in any of the past several decades. Two women, original member Dana Merritt and newer member Beth Covell, sing with Christopher Howatt, who is also the pianist/musical director. All songs are done with his piano accompaniment, with the exception of most of "Over The Rainbow," which is done a capella. I would have enjoyed hearing more of that because it's a nice change of pace. Although it's one of the songs we've all heard a lot, especially in this centennial year of its composer, Harold Arlen, the trio is sweet and simple on the track.
Sweet and simple seems to be this group's forte. When they stray from that, it sometimes means taking a wrong turn on this boulevard of old standbys. For example, there are a few high notes that are treacherous and sound awkward. In a Cole Porter medley, "Let's Misbehave" sounds bouncy but without the sexy, saucy flirtation that makes the song one that percolates instead of being just perky. Rather than connect one song to the next in interesting ways, it's just a constantly changing montage of mood and meter. There's also a Gershwin medley at the end. The Porter medley is five songs in five and a half minutes and the Gershwin is eight songs in eight and a half minutes. Wait - there's more and it's even longer: a Rodgers and Hart marathon is particularly schizophrenic with Lorenz Hart's romantic, heartfelt moments constantly interrupted by his wonderfully sarcastic ones. All great songs, of course, and there's some perfectly enjoyable singing throughout, but it sounds like a rushed hodgepodge. I'm usually a medley fan, but I prefer when one song goes surprisingly into the next or one illuminates out something in another by their juxtaposition. The intent here seems to be, "Gosh, can you believe all these famous songs were written by the same composer/lyricist? Wow!" There's a pretty version of "Skylark" at the end of a three-song Hoagy Carmichael medley (they like medleys). Taking their time and enjoying the tenderness of the melody line, singing very legato, it's nice to hear. Though it misses the loneliness and longing the song has as part of its potential, they let us concentrate on its grace instead.
When the trio are doing carefully executed, gentle harmonies, they shine. In two lively tunes, "Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia" and "Let Yourself Go," there's some nifty, nimble harmony singing which shows they can be splendid when the tempo is quicker. In fact, in "Let Yourself Go," they give the Irving Berlin oldie an unexpected twist, changing tempo on "you'll forget your woe" to put some thought into what could be just an invitation to cut loose and dance. The architecture of the vocal harmonies on this number are especially well written (the arrangement is credited to Peter Candela). The two women do a duet on another Berlin specialty, "Sisters," which could stand a little more playfulness. There is also solo singing throughout the album, but their strength is as a trio. It does lend variety, of course.
Far and away, the best ballad moment is "When I Fall In Love." Sincere, romantic, idealistic - high grades all around. If only the whole album could shimmer like this. They come close numerous times in moments here and there. This track finds them on the right track.
There's no information about the group in the packaging, so without access to their website (www. boulevardeastproductions.com), you wouldn't know which woman is which on the solo turns (Beth is the soprano). There are also no arranger credits for the songs other than the aforementioned Candela chart and the medleys, which are Christopher's arrangements. He can't dare take credit for the counterpoint combo of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again," which is a case of grand larceny. It's the specialty duet from Barbra Streisand's appearance on Judy Garland TV series, with the two women aping nearly every possible phrasing moment without, of course, the once-in-a-lifetime magic.
Timeless was recorded in 2002, but has been delayed until now. In the meanwhile, the group has also turned their attention to more recent songs and are performing live. Christopher's piano playing is enjoyable and shows real affection and respect for the melodies, whether in shorter visits in the medley or full-length treatments.
UNDER THE RADAR
And now for something completely different. Here's a singer with pizazz and chutzpah. He's Fyvush Finkel, and this fall he turns 82! He's been an actor and song-and-dance man since he was a young boy, starting on the Yiddish stage in Pittsburgh and now here he has made his own CD titled, oh so appropriately, It's Never Too Late. It's very entertaining, whether you find it nostalgic or over-the-top-hat show bizzy. After thirty years in Jewish theatre, he joined the touring cast of Fiddler On The Roof in a small role and after several years eventually graduated to playing the lead. On the album, he sings a medley of that show's songs, complete with, yes, his own fiddler. Included is the little-known "Chavala" as well as the big numbers. It's a tour de force and he's a force of nature! Unstoppable energy. Fyvush was also in the original Little Shop Of Horrors for five years, but doesn't include anything from that musical on the CD. He got wide exposure in two TV series, Picket Fences in the 1990s, winning an Emmy as Best Supporting Actor, and more recently, Boston Public. In between, he has acted on stage and in movies, everything from Nixon to The Brave Little Toaster Goes To Mars. So why not go back to his roots and belt out some sure-fire tunes?
He's a vaudevillian, hammy and eager to please. Imagine a mix of Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Jimmy Durante, and Fanny Brice. He has a lot more voice than you might assume. Although he sings Gigi's "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore", I don't think he knows he's not young anymore. He's got more energy than many performers who are a quarter of his age. There is joy in his performing which is irresistible and impressive. Corny? You bet. I don't know if he's kosher, but he couldn't be more hammy, and ya gotta love the guy for it.
Finkel's son Eliot composed the music for the title song with Philip Namanworth's encouraging lyrics. His son Ian wrote both music and words for a smashing new show business anthem, "A Show's Not a Show Without a Star," which completely won me over for its love affair with the business that there's no business like. The lyrics are great fun and it's a hoot, like much of this album. Ian and Fyvush collaborate on another number , "Finkel Salsa"! The sons also did most of the arrangements, and they're corny and bright and schmaltzy - just what they need to be. They also play in the 12-man band, and there are a couple of back-up singers. Trumpeter Byron Stripling does a raucous vocal on one cut and even a ballad with the female singer, attempting a serious moment which isn't needed, but it gives him a chance to sing with his daughter-in-law. The other tunes from Broadway are "'S Wonderful" by the Gershwin brothers and Frank Loesser's sing-along vaudeville style, "Once In Love With Amy." And, as you've guessed, a couple of Yiddish specialties and lots of comedy. Subtle it's not. This album comes as a total surprise to me and a total delight. Call me cornball.
Time to put the CD player on pause until next time around. But we'll be looking for new music all summer long, so don't go on vacation too long without us because we'll be listening for you.