Somehow, spring sliding into summer surely seems to be supplying sunnier, sweeter
sounds: stage songs from Brian Stokes Mitchell, swing and sentiment from Annie Ross,
serendipity and simplicity by Bill Solly, and our sunny starter: the show that just took the
Tony for the season for its super-silly and splashy score.
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE
As we stumble along into the post-Tony Awards week, we welcome the cast album representing the score that was honored as the best of the Broadway season. Rushed into release earlier than announced, The Drowsy Chaperone CD found its way into record stores the week preceding the Awards. No doubt stickers saying "Winner Of 5 Tony Awards!" are now ready for the sticking. Its grandly goofy songs have been captured in a well-produced, crisp, high energy company performance on a cast album that provides its own guided tour. That narrated tour of the pastiche 1920s, in case you're out of this show's loopy loop, is courtesy of the character known as Man In Chair, collector of show biz lore and Broadway records ("Yes, records," he says pointedly). His fond and fussy introductions of the ditties and stars of the fictional musical The Drowsy Chaperone are endearing. His sweet, shy persona is an effective contrast to the broad, boisterous singing. The role is played by Bob Martin, who co-wrote the book with Don McKellar.
With over-the-top performances by the exuberant company, these bubbly musical numbers by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison exude nutty energy. Since it's all meant to be an extreme version of simple-minded early musical comedies, the cumulative effect of so much froth can become somewhat exhausting. It's like a banquet with nothing but cotton candy, frosting and high-caffeine drinks. It will be unsatisfying to anyone looking for some meat, and you have to be in the mood to give in to the pleasures of parody and camp. My advice is to surrender and smile.
Everyone has opportunities to shine and ham it up with expertise. I especially enjoy the duets: the temporarily relaxed Sutton Foster and smooth Troy Britton Johnson's charm number/"list" song "Accident Waiting to Happen," and Troy and Eddie Korbich in a high-octane dance explosion, "Cold Feets" (no relation to a recently opened Broadway show with pedal extremities of a warmer temperature). There are two quirky but refreshingly smaller in scale bits with Georgia Engel as the matron with oatmeal for brains, supported by a supercilious Edward Hibbert: "Love Is Always Lovely in the End" and "I Remember Love," a cut tune included as a bonus track. Quite a dose of hilarity is Danny Burstein as the Latin lover (mostly in love with himself) with "I Am Adolpho." As the title character, Beth Leavel - not at all drowsy - pulls out all the stops in an unstoppable roof-raiser, "As We Stumble Along," as if she were granted the pluck and force of Ethel Merman, Ann Miller and Liza Minnelli combined.
A distinct pleasure of this recording is hearing the clarity of the clever and comical orchestrations by Larry Blank that are as spot on in their affectionate appropriation of musical comedy trademarks as any other aspect of the project. Don't underestimate the dressings: the zing and ping, clarinets and brass, punctuations and accents, all smartly directed by Phil Reno. Producers Joel Moss and Kurt Deutsch have caught it all. Since the show within a show has as its center the pre-CD format LP record album of a musical, they've promised to also issue a version on turntable-friendly vinyl record. It will be commentary-free, to fabricate that fictional relic.
Extending the fantasy that The Drowsy Chaperone was a real 1928 Broadway musical, the booklet contains its saga, complete with "historic" art work and pull quotes from the imagined rave reviews. One's reaction to the album and its pre-nuptial disagreements and monkey business will depend on your willingness to come along for the ride. If you are susceptible to the disease of musical comedy addiction with its side effects of toes that tap uncontrollably and a constant buzzing in the ears resembling maniacally catchy tunes, you'll find your fix here.
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL
"Life Is Sweet" sings Brian Stokes Mitchell on a kicky and catchy uptempo track on his first solo album, and the optimistic streak permeates the proceedings, even within numbers that ordinarily have more struggle and drama. For example, in his Stephen Sondheim selections, he does not have the driving pulse and tension usually heard in them. "Losing My Mind" is reflective rather than anguished. Two Company picks are more relaxed, too: "Being Alive" indicates a confidence of making a human connection over the desperation, and "Another Hundred People" is blended with the Duke Ellington Orchestra's theme "Take the 'A' Train," with revised lyrics, in a celebratory kiss to New York City. From Sweeney Todd (he played the title role in the Sondheim birthday festival production), "Pretty Women" is indeed pretty. It's not that Stokes is doing a Prozac version of Sondheim, but there's a calmer ride where once there was a roller coaster. Many of the musical arrangements are his own ("Pretty Women" is a collaboration with John Bucchino whose song "Grateful," ends the album admirably with The Broadway Inspirational Voices in an arrangement by Rob Mathes that, refreshingly, differs from previous versions). Stokes pours more passion into "Grateful," interestingly enough, than he does with many of the songs from musical theater. It may come as surprise that this man whose highest profile has been with strong, intense theater singing does not present a solo album especially reminiscent of his past glories.
The album is the first to appear on the Playbill Records label, and it's produced by the singer himself. I'm especially gratified to find Adam Guettel's gem, "How Glory Goes," from his musical Floyd Collins on the album. Another chart by Mathes, it's quite involving and well done on all counts.
The truth of the matter is that the CD reflects the fact that the guy loves jazz (he even named his son Ellington!) and is cool. He has a nightclub act. He can croon. He can swing with a a small or big band. In interviews, he's said he didn't want to do a series big, deep-voiced numbers, concerned about overkill that his brother calls "baritone poisoning." If you were hoping for a lot of tracks that will remind you of his heroic powerhouse numbers that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up as on cast albums from Ragtime, Man of LaMancha or the new concert cast of South Pacific, you may be disappointed. However, he may just win you over with other talents. He's sensitive and can get things sizzling, too. He shows many colors in his voice, by turns breathy, sweet-voiced, brassy and unleashes power judiciously. Yes, there are some strong, sustained notes and some arrangements build to big endings. There is excitement and there is romance, and certainly variety.
Recorded in bits and pieces between the year 2000 and the beginning of this year, tracks feature various instrumental combinations with strong contributions from star pianists Mike Renzi and Lee Musiker, a string section, and veteran conductor-arranger Don Sebesky, among many others.
The relaxation technique is most satisfying on "Lazy Afternoon," and Stokes spins out the lines and images like a slow, careful spider spins a web thread by delicate thread. He's a pro all around, however he chooses to use his voice. That part comes as no surprise.
In a long career that has included performing in musicals in England (including The Threepenny Opera), having a featured role in a Judy Garland movie (Presenting Lily Mars), her famous years as part of the jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and many solo gigs up to the present day's extended engagement in New York at Danny's Skylight Room, Annie Ross' legend swings on. A children's album (sort of) recorded a few years ago is only now in general release. Annie is joined joyfully by Doug White on sax and some vocals; she's the godmother of his son, the inspiration for a kid-friendly CD (and its cover model). Don't stop reading if children's albums are anathema to you - this is a delightful CD that simply has crossover appeal for young 'uns ... if they are unusually hip (or long to be).
The most tot-connected choice is the opener, a jazzy and jivey update of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" revamped as "Cool MacDonald (Had a Pad)," and it's fast, frolicsome fun. Two truly lovely lullaby-worthy items, "Can You Sew Cushions?" and "Dreams to Sell," are touching and sentimental. Both are traditional Scottish tunes. (Annie's roots are in Scotland, and she was raised by her aunt, Ella Logan, the original star of the classic musical Finian's Rainbow.) Enjoyable, sugar-free renditions of perky tunes like like "Jeepers Creepers" are among the nine vocal tracks, and there's the long saga of "One Meat Ball," an odd oldie whose charms have always escaped me. My favorite is the number Annie wrote herself, the tender "Straight On 'Til Morning," inspired by the Peter Pan story, although it was written for a horror film in which she appeared.
Throughout the album, Annie is captivating and charming, and free of any goo or corn that plague many a children's album. She lives on Swing Street. It helps that she is surrounded by very capable musicians: in addition to White, we have pianist Mike Kanan, guitarist Chris Bergson, drummer Joe Strasser and bass player Neil Miner (who also contributed strongly to an album discussed last week, Nancy Kelly's Born To Swing). These players fill out the album with 15 minutes of capable instrumentals following the half hour of vocals. In addition to leader Doug White's originals, there's a seven-minute version of the old tune, "Moon Song."
This is a feel-good CD and I have found myself playing it every day in the week I've had it. If every kid had a cool godmother (or grandmother) like Annie Ross, the world would be a happier, finger-snappier place.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's a man with a theater resume who has been quietly putting out collections of his songs on his own label. It's a familiar name to me, but I'm just beginning to catch on and catch up with these new versions.
Volume 4? OK, so I missed the boat three times already, but one has to start somewhere, and I'm glad I did. I've known the work of composer-lyricist Bill Solly mostly from cast albums I've had for a long time: The Great American Backstage Musical and the gay (in both senses of the word, as Drowsy Chaperone's Man In Chair might hasten to clarify) musical, Boy Meets Boy. Four from the former are here, and they are among the best tracks, so let's focus on them first. Tovah Feldshuh is slyly funny as she nails the number that gives the collection its title. It's a sprightly and clever song of a woman's musings on her could-have-been beaus, each from a different country - nine in all. Carl Anthony Tramon, suitably extra dewy-eyed and dreamy, scores with the score's "The Star of the Show." Terry Richmond has the warm-and-fuzzy "I'll Wait for Joe," while Solly himself takes the deliciously old-fashioned show bizzy "On the Avenue." His enthusiasm and salty voice makes him in many ways the best interpreter of his own material. Though not a wide-ranging, polished vocalist, there's a quirky, zesty, off-center quality in his singing that matches those same elements in the songwriting.
I find the more serious-minded or sad songs far less satisfying than the zippy and comical turns, both in the writing and the performances. There are a few less inspired songs and interpretations that are a bit anemic. But there is much entertainment value here, especially if you have a taste for oddball humor and small pleasures. Perhaps we'd all get through life somehow without hearing tunes about the inadvisability of doing the tango while holding an umbrella or the adventures of a runaway bean-plant, but both made me grin. The latter is from one of the often silly Solly's children's musicals, and he sings it with Barbara Anselmi. She, a talented songwriter in her own right, provides most of the piano accompaniment and arrangements. She solos on "Louisa May Not" which lasts all of 18 seconds and has exactly as many words as this sentence.
Cabaret veteran John Wallowitch brings his stylish sophistication to two vocals, with his own piano accompaniment: the irreverent "Death" and the album's closer, the touching and understated "The Next Time We're Together." He's a real asset here. Besides piano, there are tracks with sax as well as bass and drums and an effective use of harmonica on "Be a Pal," sung with pathos by Alex Wipf. The album is modest-sounding in its production values, but in a way that suits it. There are more hits than misses on Bill Solly's Greatest Hits, Volume 4, certainly enough to encourage investigation of the other releases.
Like the other albums reviewed this week, this one has an abundance of sunshine. In fact, its quaint, old-fashioned, bouncy tunes harken back to the smile-inducing effervescence of The Drowsy Chaperone.
And that's where we came in, making me notice again that this week's listening homework was mostly a vacation from anything teary or troubling. And I'm left with a smile on my face.