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Play It Cool, Rocky Horror, Everything's Fine

In 1993 Lea DeLaria surprised TV land and made television history by yelling to the world "I'm a big dyke!" on the Arsenio show. In 1997 she surprised the theatre community by blasting the roof off the joint as Hildy in On The Town with her high wattage (and high decibel) rendition of "I Can Cook Too." Well, now Lea is proving that she can cook in a jazz sense as well with a swinging solo CD, Play It Cool, consisting solely of jazzed-up showtunes. That Lea could swing and possesses a remarkably subtle and tuneful instrument was not surprising to me, as I saw her in concert last year. That she was a huge showqueen with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and an appreciation to match, however, was a bit of a shock (for proof, read the interview).

Play It CoolLike the title implies, Play It Cool is a low down and laid back collection of eleven songs from Broadway shows. A few of them, like "With Every Breath I Take" from City of Angels are done pretty, pardon the expression, straight. The majority, however, are rethought and reinterpreted to great effect. The hoary chestnut "Losing My Mind" is given new life with a sensual arrangement consisting solely of accordion, guitar and bass. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is turned into a freewheeling, humorous jazz trio number that really swings without sacrificing the lyrics. Indeed, that is one of the strongest points of the CD. While Lea has fun with all the numbers and takes liberties all over the place in pure jazz fashion, she remains, if not reverent, at least mindful of the lyrics and what made the songs great to begin with. Purists may feel that she takes too many liberties with "All That Jazz" and "Cool," but it is refreshing to hear a new spin on some overly familiar numbers. The highlights on the disc for me are two numbers from Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party; "Lowdown Down," which is given a slow, sensual big-band approach, and "Welcome To My Party," which is turned into a driving jazz tour de force.

Lea's voice is strong and supple. She has a great feel for jazz and an understanding of the lyrics often lacking with jazz performers who often treat the words as an afterthought. The album contains a wonderful mix of familiar tunes and refreshing discoveries which makes Play it Cool my favorite CD of the year to date, as it has not left my CD player since I got it. It's a great party CD and I promise you that heads will turn in disbelief, quickly turning into expressions of sheer delight, when they realize what they are listening to.

The Rocky Horror ShowLea, of course, is currently appearing on Broadway in the revival of The Rocky Horror Show at Circle in the Square, where she plays the dual roles of Eddie and Dr. Scott. Originally produced in 1973 with the classic Roxy cast, most of whom appeared in the 1975 film adaptation (which, of course, has become a cult staple and has been constantly playing somewhere in the world since being revived in 1976 as a midnight interactive event), the show has been rethought, retooled and reorchestrated with its revival, now released on disc.

The production appears to be making every effort to play against expectations and memories of the indelible film version. As previously mentioned, Lea DeLaria plays Eddie ("Hot Patootie") and Dr. Scott ("Eddie's Teddy"). Columbia, played on film by squeaky voiced tap dancing Nell Campbell, has been transformed into a rough voiced semi-punk rocker (originally played by Joan Jett in the revival, but recorded by Kristen Lee Kelly due to contractual arguments). Tony nominee Tom Hewitt has a blast as the sweet transvestite, Frank 'N' Furter, and while he doesn't completely shatter memories of Tim Curry, he makes the part his own and wears the pumps with great aplomb. Vocally he is extraordinarily strong and mixes rough rock edginess, ("Sweet Transvestite"), with wistful ballads ("I'm Going Home").

While vocally Columbia (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Riff Raff (Raul Esparza) are cut from similar cloth (or leather as the case may be) as their previous counterparts, the virginal strangers in a stranger land, Janet (Alice Ripley) and Brad Majors (Jarrod Emick) are much stronger than any previous portrayer. Indeed, this is a bit disconcerting in the song "Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me," sung by a very forceful Alice Ripley, as I was too used to the wispy, virginal tones of Susan Sarandon. It wasn't until I saw Alice perform the part on stage that I got into her 'Martha Stewart meets Gloria Upson' interpretation of the part.

The new orchestrations by Doug Katsaros, quite frankly, rock, without ever overwhelming the songs and are filled with clever touches. From the ragtime piano arrangement of "I Can Make You A Man" to the counterpoint pairing of said song with Brad's "Once In A While," the show is full of nice departures from the original, breathing fresh life into a show that had become incredibly predictable. To a person, the cast is fantastic and appears to be having a great time. I found the album to be so much fun that I purchased tickets to see Rocky Horror while I was in New York a few weeks ago and was not disappointed. Fans of the show will appreciate a high voltage well-produced alternate take on the material. Those who don't get the appeal of earlier versions probably won't be converted by this disk, but hot patootie, bless my soul, does it make for a fun summertime CD.

Alice RipleyAnother cast member of that Rocky revival has recorded a solo CD: Alice Ripley, whose album Everything's Fine was recently released on the Sh-K-Boom label. The album is unconventional for a Broadway performer's first solo effort, as there is not a single show tune or even one solitary standard on it. Instead, all the songs were written by the performer herself (a few with collaborator Bruce Brody). The songs are largely in the pop/country/folk fusion vein and call to mind writer/performers ranging from Susan Werner ("Suburbia"), Kate Bush ("Photograph" and "Drive"), to even The Bangles ("New Kid"). A number of songs sound as if they were tailor made to be picked up by Dawson's Creek, such as "Drive" and "Silence You," with their atmospheric melodies and introspective lyrics.

The songs on the album, while largely maintaining the same tempo and beat structure throughout, have a variety of musical flavors, from the light bluegrass tinged "Everything's Fine" and the country guitared "So Much Of Me" to the slight drive of "Calling All Angels" and "Suburbia." Alice has an incredible voice and eschews the 'Broadway' style we are used to hearing come from her in favor of a more laid-back pop groove. Actually, that does present a problem with the CD: she seems so intent on achieving a specific style, namely the aforementioned pop/country/folk fusion, that she sacrifices emotional connection and lyrical clarity. Far too often I had no idea what she was singing about until I looked at the lyric sheets provided in the press kit. Which is a shame, because on page at least there is a strong sense of poetry and language in her lyrics. She has a keen gift of observation and wry whimsy, such as in "Suburbia," where she dissects the 'normalcy' of the suburbs with lyrics like:

"the stepford family lives right next door
they don't allow black-soled shoes on their hardwood floor
I've never seen them bleed, that's why I'm so sure
they're bionic to the core..."

After a repeat listening to Rocky Horror I was struck by how much I wished she funneled more of the diction and energy that made her into a major Broadway force onto her album. While Everything's Fine is enjoyable, it largely becomes hypnotic background music since the words and meaning fail to reach the listener.


-- Jonathan Frank


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