Four albums this week - all with mega-doses of energy, exploding like fireworks for
the Fourth of July. First, a celebration of a man named George, actually born close to
that holiday. (No, not George W. Bush 7/5/1946, but Mr. Cohan, 7/3/1878.) Also: a
musical taking place in the jungle (No, not Tarzan, that'll be next week) and two
more especially lively offerings.
GEORGE M. COHAN TONIGHT!
What becomes a legend most? In the case of theatrical icon George M. Cohan, it's the partnership of Jon Peterson, who as Cohan is the entire cast of this show, and writer-director Chip Deffaa. This one-man musical, which, played earlier this year at The Irish Repertory Theatre, was an amazing display of non-stop singing, dancing and acting.
Jon is an instantly appealing performer. Listening to the CD allows one to better appreciate some subtler details and shadings of the characterization of singer-dancer-actor-songwriter-producer Cohan. To more easily satisfied presenters of nostalgia, the endeavor could have been just a recital of recycled rah-rah rousers and dazzling ditties. There's plenty of pleasure to be taken in the fast-paced, vaudevillian slam-bang toe-tappers, but there's more being offered. Yes, George M.Cohan's life and career (to him, it was the same thing, as this show emphasizes) got the Broadway and film bio treatment in the past, with George M! and Yankee Doodle Dandy respectively, but the word "redundant" is not the operative one.
This is the latest incarnation of Chip's fascination with Cohan's life story; he presented versions with other characters in past years, and Jon has become quite comfortable and expert filling the tap shoes of the showman. Chip provides bits of linking autobiographical narration which set up the numbers. Many of the original Cohan songs have lyrical revisions done by Chip and a few lyrics are completely his own, using Cohan's melodies. These are especially well done, and most come near the end of the piece and allow a real window into the soul of the man who otherwise gave virtually no glimpses into what was behind the grin. Two such little triumphs are "Did You Ever Have One of Those Days?" and "I Won't Be an Actor No More," both offering a genuine sense of awe and appreciation for theatrical success. They pave the way for the character to totally drop his guard as Jon takes on Cohan's bittersweet "Life's a Funny Proposition After All." It's a brilliantly nuanced performance, reflective but restrained; vocally there's a good use of vibrato highlighting the emotion and a lovely pianissimo high note at the end.
The trademark numbers are all here: "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Harrigan," "Over Here," "Yankee Doodle Boy," "Give My Regards to Broadway," and more. The patriotism and old musical comedy stylings are unapologetically and fully embraced, but never sound tired. No song is allowed to overstay its welcome, and many are wrapped up in under two minutes. My favorite of the many upbeat items is a bit longer, the merry word to the wise, "You Won't Do Any Business If You Haven't Got a Band."
Speaking of bands, the accompaniment is in step like an accomplished dancing partner: pianist/musical director Sterling Price-McKinney, Rob Garcia on percussion and the happy choice on bass of Vince Giordano (leader of his own band, The Nighthawks, which specializes in music from Cohan's era). The arrangements are mainly by Chip. The album is produced by Joel Moss and executive producer is Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom's Kurt Deutsch, the latest in their series of victories.
Singing, dancing, pouncing, bouncing and flouncing animals take center stage in the high energy musical Just So, derived from the classic stories by Rudyard Kipling. The piece has had numerous productions, beginning with a few in England in the 1980s, then in the USA in 1998 at The Goodspeed Opera House, and in 2001 at North Shore Music Theatre. Returning to England, it was produced in 2004 and this CD features that cast. Along the way, the show has gone through revisions; its long history and growing pains are detailed in the accompanying booklet by Anthony Drewe who wrote the book and lyrics, directed this version and also plays the role of a Cooking Stove.
Since his lyrics (all in the booklet, too) are so full of word play and lots of rhyming, it's an extra treat to hear Drewe him relishing the words and sounds in his own performance, as in "My career is blighted/ Why did I deserve this/ Lack of active service?/ I can't recall/ When I was last ignited." He appreciates and appropriates Kipling's alliterative phrase, "great, grey, greasy Limpopo River," but Drewe has very much his own voice. The fun of the lyrics is matched to mostly lively and celebratory melodies by his longtime partner, composer George Stiles. (They also wrote the score for Honk! and the impressive new songs added to the score of Mary Poppins for its stage incarnation.)
The brash, splashy songs are performed with gusto by a spirited cast and orchestra. I like it very much, but can see why those expecting the gentler, more mysterious tone and plots of the original Rudyard Kipling stories might find that this feels like a whole other creature. Like the kangaroo character here who delights in his discovery of his unique movement, it takes quite a leap. On the other hand, Just So doesn't share much of the jazz, hip sensibility of the Disney musical version of Kipling's The Jungle Book either. Some of the performances have the flavor of old time vaudeville strut and others have a pop oratorio sensibility, all given a lot of oomph by musical director David Shrubsole and the orchestrations of Christopher Jahnke, with John Clancy credited as associate orchestrator.
The welcome presence of musical theater leading man John Barrowman provides rich singing on many tracks. He opens the proceedings leading the company with the title song, reprised midway and at the end. The first track was recorded well after the rest had been preserved, substituting the title song for the opening number actually used in the production. (Because the company could not be quickly reunited, a different chorus and orchestra were called in to support John in his role as The Eldest Magician.) John also leads "If," whose lyrics are taken verbatim from Kipling's famous poem which begins, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ..." The credits neglect to mention that all those words are pure Kipling; Stiles' music serves it gracefully.
There's a lot of razzle dazzle in the performances, but there's also some heart. Especially effective is the seemingly flightless confidence-challenged kolokolo bird's solo, "Wait a Bit." It's touchingly sung by Julie Atherton. Also on the winsome side is the character of The Elephant's Child, essayed by Richard Dempsey, although a more childlike sound would be more heart-tugging on CD. The two are a delight sniping at each other in "The Argument" and add to the zip of the animal dance piece, "Pick Up Your Hooves and Trot." (I love Julie's spoken aside, as she doubtfully asks, "Do we really have time for a tap number here?")
There is strong ensemble work, although I confess that my favorite performance is the hilarious solo by Nicolas Colicos as the self-deprecating rhino apologizing for his insult-deserving unappealing qualities, glad he has "Thick Skin." Although family-friendly, this is no dumbed-down, simplified-vocabulary kiddie event. It's full of sparkle and puns, all captured with bright, clear sound in this album produced by the writers and producer Cameron Mackintosh, who was one of the judges in 1985 choosing the first draft of Just So as the winner of the first Vivian Ellis prize for work by young, new writers. He's championed, nurtured and sometimes produced the work ever since. Coincidentally, another of the judges was writer David Heneker, whose musical is reviewed next.
HALF A SIXPENCE
Simple charms radiate through the score of Half a Sixpence, and its ingratiating melodies and sincere "money can't buy happiness" theme don't feel stale. It's based on an H. G. Wells novel called Kipps, the name of the main character. Vigorous Tommy Steele starred in the original London production, the Broadway version and the film; this first go-round is the gentlest and least showy of his three performances as the clerk who inherits a fortune and almost loses his perspective, values and his longtime sweetheart. (There were also a few studio cast versions of Sixpence and a nifty instrumental cover album by Count Basie.) The score went through changes, with songs added and subtracted. The orchestrations for this first recording of the 1963 score are less pumped up and show-busy than they later became.
Re-released to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of its composer-lyricist David Heneker (who lived to the age of 94), the sound quality of this Sixpence is not as crisp as one might like. The short overture is a bit muddy and occasionally some words get lost in chorus numbers. The finale reprises the company sounds like they're somewhere under the English Channel. The writer's centenary did not inspire a deluxe edition with bonus tracks or photos from the production, but there's a helpful history and a plot synopsis, as well as the original LP notes.
As the leading lady, that poor but sure-to-be-true love, Marti Webb had her first lead part (she also dubbed for the actress who got the movie role.) She sounds like she's having trouble finessing what sections to belt in her solo, "I Know What I Am," with an awkward switch in registers. However, she's fine and dandy in her burst of anger, "I'm Not Talking to You," and two duets with Tommy, the ballad "Long Ago" and the darling title song. It is Tommy Steele's irrepressible and magnetic personality that dominates the recording, as he is in almost every number. Bursting forth with big voice, he makes the Steele-belted numbers like "Flash, Bang, Wallop" pure music theater joy. Whether singing of burning love or "Money to Burn," his talent blazes through.
The unpretentious material is refreshing and sweet. The opening number, however, has sarcasm and wit that is not heard again in any large measure later on. It is called "All in the Cause of Economy," a misery-loves-company complaint about an employer's tightwad ways, and Steele and three fellow workers perform it with glee. On many selections, the orchestra and vocals are mixed in a way that you can really hear both prominently, prompting attention to the orchestrations which have a lot of playful and genial figures.
100th birthday or any other excuse is a happy reason to have this Half a Sixpence back in circulation. It has long been a personal favorite and is a real audience pleaser with catchy tunes and a high entertainment quotient in the good, old-fashioned and solid musical comedy tradition. It's spunky.
UNDER THE RADAR
Two weeks ago, I reviewed the impressive CD of the musical Every Little Vow, written by David Austin. This week, I'm happy to report on another album featuring the work of this man who is, to my ears, a top talent. He is gifted as both a composer coming up with strong, emotional melodies and as a lyricist with a real fountain of ideas showing intelligence and love of language. Like Vow, the CD In the Same Boat was recorded a few years ago but has had limited visibility. Both are available on the website www.TMCworks.com, where sales benefit The Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Awareness.
The songs here, all sung by women (solo and in groups), are presented in the context of facing challenges of life and health. Dismiss the idea that this album will be a defeatist downer or a weepy affair. Quite the contrary, this is a high-spirited listening experience like everything else in this week's column. David's music tends to be driving, pulsating and full of life. The women are belting. The lyrics have wit and positive thoughts as well as references to the struggles.
David is the pianist, serving his own material quite well, and is joined by a few other players on cello, guitar and percussion, and a bass player on the jazzy "Back to the Scat," a loose and limber solo by Charlene Parker. Tracy Coe is heard on half of the 12 tracks (the striking title song is the opening vocal and reprised twice). Tracy's solo "Lady and More" is an exciting powerhouse. Her other solo is the sincere and touching ballad, "Simple Ways". Rebecca Castelli is moving on "No Need for Angels" and Loretta Deranleau makes a strong impression as well in her appearances.
There are a few instances of pushing too hard in singing and arrangements; the material is strong enough and doesn't need to be oversold. A couple of songs have a few lines that don't scan perfectly, with misplaced accents. However, these are exceptions to the rule of the fine craft and heartfelt performances on display. There is a track that will let you access visuals and text on your computer, providing background information and artwork.
I was happy to hear that the prolific Mr. Austin, who was part of the New, Emerging, Outstanding (N.E.O.) concert at The York Theatre this month, is at work writing, and that the singer-actor side of his career is being preserved too: the recording of the Off-Broadway musical he appeared in this year, I Love You Because, was announced this past week. This is a man to watch.
Meanwhile, as we watch June melt into July, we'll have more to hear and (hopefully) cheer.