Curmudgeon Alert! This week we are looking at some material that has its heart, and for the most part its art, in the right place. Sincerity is the keyword, so if you're jaded and in the mood to sneer rather than cheer, you may want to run for cover, but you'll be missing some new and potent music. To start off, we've got some new-to-disc scores based on novels, sincere efforts to continue in the musical theatre tradition, whether musically looking forward or emulating the past. Then, two vocal albums laden with emotion and real sentiment.
TIME AFTER TIME and DODSWORTH
This is a review of a preview of sorts. It comes from a concert in 2004. There's a healthy sampling from two musicals (eight songs from each) by lyricist Stephen Cole (After The Fair, Night Of The Hunter) and composer Jeffrey Saver, best known as a musical director for Broadway shows.
Dodsworth actually had its world premiere a decade ago, but has been considerably revised over the years. A story of a very troubled marriage and potentially disastrous second chances for happiness, it's based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis and the play by Sidney Howard. The characters are experiencing regrets and disillusion, but it's not all doom and gloom in the songs heard here. Higher spirits and real romantic feeling are in evidence in a few numbers such as "Easy," and a party song (lyrics rewritten for the concert). For the most part, the score is rather straightforward and sincere, like sung conversations with mostly everyday speech patterns. This makes the characters believable, although not very specific, at least judging from the numbers presented. The strongest is the persuasive "Who Will You Love You Now?" nicely done by Liz Callaway singing the role of the new woman in the life of the husband, played by Walter Charles, whose best moment is his solo, the lovely and idealistic "Seventeen." Judy Blazer as the wife having a middle-age crisis has the bulk of the angst, and her pleading "One More Summer" could stand one more chorus that provided variety as it seems a little repetitious. She gets more to sink her teeth into with a couple of songs that let her be sardonic and brittle. I'd hoped that there would be a big, fat, gorgeous ballad for her, too, for she has a glorious and soaring voice which I've heard in other recordings.
I much prefer the material and performances from Time After Time, based on a novel by Karl Alexander, which concerns time travel courtesy of H. G. Wells and his famous Time Machine. Landing in New York City in our time would present enough challenges, but he also has to cope with a traveling companion who is less than ideal: perhaps the name Jack The Ripper rings a bell. Christian Borle, of Spamalot glory is Wells and he sounds dynamic and forceful in the title song and lively and spirited elsewhere. Though not as careful or solid in some vocal moments as one would ideally want (the risk of a live recording), he is involved and involving. His character's fish-out-of-water befuddled reactions to what he sees in the 21st century are entertaining, as in an ode to an "A.T.M." sung at a bank where he falls in love with a more flesh-and-blood teller, played by Liz. Thankfully, Liz has a couple of long, strong, can't-go-wrong songs with all the character specifics I'd missed in the other score. Judy has little to do but is a major asset in an attractive trio. As Jack The Ripper, Walter Charles rips into one number.
Time after time, we hear about new musicals that are coming soon and many stay in limbo for years or quietly die. But Time After Time is promised for next year and has some compelling and well-crafted songs to recommend it. Liz Callaway has a way of capturing a song's heart and brings out its best qualities. She knows how to make a song really tell a story and can bring a listener's attention to a specific word or phrase by isolating it with the briefest pause or change of vocal color, purity of tone being a specialty. This is old news to her followers, but is truer than ever here.
The CD also has four examples of the special material the team has written. The men get "Without The Words," a fun lyric hailing lyricists. The women have a passionate number originally written as a farewell to a dancer who passed away. It's a beauty. Judy's "Confession" is that she's crushed about a crush she has on someone who can't return her affections because he happens to be a marionette. Finally, there's an optimistic, life-affirming tune written for Saver's high school reunion. The composer as pianist provides the sole accompaniment, often driving but at times more gently. The net proceeds from the CD benefit UNICEF, as did the concert itself. That's a noble effort, as is the material itself.
If you remember that Topsy is the name of one of the main characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin, then you may have guessed that this is a musical based on that story from the 1800s. And you'd be right. The liner notes describe it as "a play within a play" and a plea for racial understanding. From the brief synopsis and snippets of dialogue, it's easier to take as the play within the play rather than the plea within the play. This recording has just been released commercially for the first time, but was made years ago and has been in development by its writer, Quint Benedetti, for decades. He worked on it as a member of the Lehman Engel BMI Musical Comedy Workshop in California. The writer is also the record producer and did the arrangements and orchestrations with Bob Freedman. The studio cast is perky and plucky, but vary in skill level. Appropriately, it has an old-fashioned Broadway style and has the flavor of a minstrel show.
There are some very bouncy melodies which are drilled into the listener's head through repetition. The title song is ingratiating in a way that might emulate Jerry Herman's catchy melodies. "I'm Tappin' My Way Into The Hearts Of Millions" is fun in a cute, hard-sell vaudeville kind of way. I enjoyed that one. One sweet number is reminiscent of very early, sweetly innocent Irving Berlin songs and another referring to body parts is intentionally crass. Some are meant to be rousers but become tedious. You never know when you might suddenly be in the mood for some calliope music, and there's a good stretch of it here. A more evenly polished cast might bring out more of the potential here. The tone is not always clear - and I mean that in the musical sense and the "attitude" sense.
Plantation songs, dance numbers, gospel, a death ballet ... it's all here. It's not the most professional-sounding cast album you'll hear and it has its share of odd moments. If you're especially interested in adaptations of classic novels, and are in the mood for a throwback to these old days, you may wish to investigate. Bring an open mind an a banjo.
PURPOSE OF LOVE
Some of us sincerely like sincere songs. I relish a well-written bitter and sarcastic tune just as much as the next guy, as well as those with sparkling wit that tickle the brain rather than tugging at the heartstrings. But I need to be refreshed from time to time with songs and songwriters who aren't afraid to wear their hopeful or broken hearts on their sleeves. Many of the selections in this set fit into that tender, vulnerable genre. Composer-lyricist Tim Di Pasqua opens the program singing himself with "What Do I Know?" What he knows is how to write from an emotional place and sing from the same address. Please note that the lyrics aren't necessarily naive; in fact, many reflect grown-up lessons learned but mostly with a refusal to give in or give up.
With a different vocalist on each number, and diverse styles, not every track may appeal to your ear or sensibilities. Such is the case with "Various Artists" collections. However, there is a lot to admire and respect in this second such volume of the songwriter's work. Two selections are from his musical Synchronicity, available as its own CD (he's recorded a solo CD in the past, too).
Not everything is dewy-eyed and innocent - "Irene" by sultry Lina Koutrakos tells the apparently true story of a fast-living married bisexual couple. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who knows a thing or 100 about writing a heartfelt number, is on hand for the attractively simple "The Best That I Can Do" and KT Sullivan contributes "If You Would Sing With Me," one of the most elegant of Tim's hymns. I always admire the work of Phillip Officer, who has a Master's degree in sincerity and his "As Famous As The Moon," is a highlight. Heather McRae is at her storytelling best in a sad, lonely "When He Walks Through The Door." Some of the singers may be new discoveries to you.
The sound is quite good, clean and clear. Di Pasqua is on keyboards and he plays expertly with truly interesting accompaniment figures that structure songs nicely. Tim the accompanist doesn't distract from or overembellish Tim the songwriter. It surprises me that most of the songs were written in the 1990s or before; I'd thought this second volume would reveal a burst of recent compositions. Although his work doesn't necessarily grab you like those of songsmiths like John Bucchino or David Friedman who write to the heart and get right to the heart in masterful ways, they seem to be in that genre.
UNDER THE RADAR
Our weekly nod to a not-very-well-known CD that was released without much fanfare, but will find some fans.
I don't even know how to pronounce his first name, but the first four letters of it will give you an idea of how this man's CD sounds. While we're in sincere mode, I'd like to tell you about the debut recording of a singer named Niceto Festin. He reeks of sincerity in an unpretentious way. Without trying for tricks or fussy phrasing, he presents his material and serves the songs rather than showing off. He sounds comfortable with the material. Talkin' Broadway, there are well-known standards like "They Say It's Wonderful" from Annie Get Your Gun, two songs from Show Boat and "Bewitched" Pal Joey. Festin sounds as sincere in his approach to these famous tunes as anyone discussed above. He has a breathy quality with strength when he chooses to belt, and some nice low notes. No, he's not stunning in that goosebump kind of way. He's just good company for you if you're in a loving frame of mind.
The songs were written for and introduced by women and concern being in love with a man. The singer happens to be openly gay and chose to sing the lyrics to these ballads without changing the pronouns. It comes across almost matter-of-factly and though it's a clear choice from the album title and brief liner notes, it's not a gimmick overwhelming the listening experience. In the Show Boat numbers, "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" it is more pervasive because the lyrics repeatedly refer to the man in question, but it doesn't sound at all self-conscious or coy. Thus, it's not the focus. The concept will attract some customers who want to be able to listen to a man croon about loving another man, but I find that his honesty in such an approach is consistent with the unpretentious way he sings. Period.
The arrangements and keyboard accompaniment are by W. Brent Sawyer and, here again, there's a love for the songs and understated sophistication. On a few tracks, he gets to spread his wings a little more, and even get gently jazzy. His presence is graceful and adds greatly to the romantic feel. Bass and percussion are present and pleasant, but this is mostly about piano. The CD is shamefully short in length, clocking in at 33 minutes with just 8 songs, but hopefully he has more to pour his ready heart into next time around.
We'll be looking for and at some more proudly gay artists who have albums "out" to acknowledge Gay Pride Week at the end of the month, but since June is bustin' out all over as of this week, here's a recommended heads-up and a head start.
And so ends our column of sincere singing. It's been a sincere pleasure to tell you about these recordings and to seek out more for next week, because there is life after the Tony Awards. There's always interesting theatrical music and we'll be listening for you.