From a huge theatrical undertaking, not a musical, comes some big music in small doses: The Coast of Utopia. A small musical about big hopes for having little babies is next with Infertility. Lastly, a very small item: a 3-track EP from singer Marilyn Zavidow with big emotions.
Music from nine hours of theatre arrives as 38 mostly quite short bits and pieces. Mark Bennett's instrumental score for this year's epic and Tony Award-winning trilogy The Coast of Utopia comes to CD with evocative and intense moments. Some selections are sweepingly dramatic and others are subtle and rewardingly cameo-like, while others are are so incidental they go by and barely register. Because of their brevity and the fact that they were not written with the primary goal of being stand-alone pieces, there is certainly a sense of frustration sometimes in listening, especially where the musical idea seems too ephemeral or one wants it to come to fuller development or just to conclude less abruptly. Not surprisingly, the openings and conclusions for each section feel the most rewarding and complete.
Nevertheless, the 10-person orchestra sounds dynamic and dramatic as conducted by the composer and Dan Lipton, the pianist. The composer co-produced the CD with Curtis Moore, a songwriter himself. It's good to hear Kevin Kuhn (whose guitar work has been a plus on numerous CDs, including some cast albums, and in work with Jason Robert Brown), who plays mandolin and balalaika here; Jake Schwartz handles the guitar. The string work is especially admirable and evocative and there's a stateliness in general that makes this recording rich. The whole CD has a running time of just 35:33. Many selections are under 30 seconds and some end suddenly, leaving you hanging perhaps, rather than create artificial endings or creating a newly connected "suite." Thus, some feel like set-ups or appetizers rather than main events. It prevents the album's tracks from feeling exhausting. Likewise, it lets one appreciate small moments and the economy of making a clear, bold-stroked musical statement without relying on redundancy and restatement.
The expectation might be that the CD would play more like a movie soundtrack, and it is not all that different from some. But it has an innate theatricality, a precision and crispness to the sound and playing that seem like mood-setting for drama rather than the aural wallpaper effect often found in film scoring.
There is singing on four tracks, using pre-existing music, all from the Shipwreck play. David Pittu (soon also to be heard on the cast album of LoveMusik, being recorded next week), sounds wonderful, with his legato rhapsodizing on two tracks, a solo and a duet with Felicity LaFortune. Her singing in two versions of "La Marseillaise" is actually not a lot of "fun" to listen to, though it may serve a dramatic point.
A few particularly pleasing tracks, as I hear things: the sly "Ginger Cat Waltz"; a brooding and multi-layered "Nothing but Self"; the juxtaposition of tension and elegance in "After the Soiree"; a majestic "Shipwreck Finale"; and the haunting "Like a Dream." On the more blatantly dramatic selections, the sustained strings and pounding rhythms that effectively give a sense of foreboding are powerful, but it's the smaller moments that continue to intrigue.
Billed cutely as "the musical that's hard to conceive," Infertility is indeed sometimes cute but also definitely has its serious side. It chronicles the struggles of protagonists who pine for progeny, but parenthood is not easily attained. Music and lyrics are by Chris Neuner, who knows whereof he writes: he and his wife went through the challenges of laboratory-assisted pregnancy attempts in order to finally have their twins. The musical was presented at a few New York venues and was part of The Fringe Festival.
Kurt Robbins and Erin Davie (she's currently on Broadway as the younger version of Little Edie in Act One of Grey Gardens) are likeably energetic as the married couple. Singing "Infertile Love Song," for example, they communicate and commiserate entertainingly and both sing strongly.
Jenni Frost and Seri Johnson as a lesbian couple seeking a male sperm donor get to show real range, although their singing feels strained in "big" moments. Their "We Found Love Our Own Way" comes off as a forced, over-reaching anthem. They have some good moments elsewhere, interacting believably and with chemistry. A single woman seeking a child is capably played by Cadden Jones who looks back on her own life patterns with a cold eye but a warm heart in "Cricket." Larry Picard exuberantly sings as a doctor who ever so cheerily gives a lesson in the biology/chemistry of reproduction (or the lack thereof) with the bouncy "You've Got Parts," putting the "organ" in "organized."
The comic highlight is "The Donor Dating Game," where the screening of possible biological fathers is envisioned as a TV game show with contestants. There's some great ensemble work here, with sharp comic timing in the waiting for the other shew to drop as candidates rattle off their pluses and minuses and the mama wannabes react. Another under-the-microscope fantasy is "Adoption Interrogation," which is quite deftly performed. On the dramatic side, there's a long dialogue scene in which the potential parents must face their disappointments and the possibility of living without the happy ending they think they wanted. Played sincerely, it has some raw pain that is palpable (the show's director was Dan Foster).
Accompaniment is piano, bass and drums, efficient and brisk, though a couple of big or poignant numbers might benefit from more instrumentation. Though somewhat uneven, the recording has strengths, integrity and charm - and also what these characters long to hear: a real human heart. More information available at www.infertilitymusical.com.
UNDER THE RADAR
This is a disc with just three songs. If you tend to browse for singers in a store or on websites and start alphabetically with "A" - well, you may never have gotten up to ...
Though Marilyn Zavidow is not a new singer (she has appeared in cabarets like Danny's and Odette's and has two full-length albums), her new release might be easy to miss, as "singles" or EP recordings can be. Safe and Sound is a trio of songs Marilyn wrote herself, performed with a languid style, even though her lyrics are hardly devoid of emotion. Rather than opting for high drama, there's a pensive mood here as she lays out and examines her feelings. The low-key, moody, slow-tempo tracks let her spin out her lyrics leisurely.
Vocal power may not be on the agenda here, but Marilyn has a quiet intensity. More variety in the vocal dynamics and colors here would make this more captivating rather than relying on a sameness of sound, pleasant and hypnotic though it may be. The singer uses her smooth voice in an intimate way that matches the sensitive, unapologetic directness of the lyrics. At times they sound like love letters or floods of memory ("There was no need to speak as our lives flowed together in silence/ And I knew there and then, without doubt, that I'd always love you ..." It's part of her recollection in the middle song, "Mar y Sombra" ("Sea and Shadow") sung in English and Spanish, and she names five people as having contributed to the Spanish translation. That may be a record, but it makes for a nice record indeed. Like the first song, "Defenses Down" it takes some repeated listening to get beyond the initial hypnotic simplicity of her melody, despite - or perhaps because of - the length. (One is 7:08 and one is 6:08.) The final track, the title tune, is the most instantly accessible. At under four minutes, it is the tightest overall and benefits from its economy of music and lyrics. To my ears, this track has a different ambience, the sound on "Safe and Sound" being less clean and open than on the first two.
The musical settings are key here, adding immensely to the moods, making mystical what might be mushy otherwise. A real sense of elegance and subtlety is evident in the understated arrangements by Don Rebic and in his tender, intelligent piano playing. The musician has recently been working with Karen Akers and his resumé includes musical contributions to theater, too. He shapes these songs and provides structure with admirable precision. Don, who co-produced with the vocalist, is joined by Brian Glassman (bass), Dave Schiavone (sax) and Eric Wills (percussion) and good taste is omnipresent. (All but Glassman appeared on Marilyn's 2004 CD, Love Is, which contained mostly standards).
And that's the sound of Safe and Sound, Sound Advice style. Have a safe and sound week.