Two Divas with Debut Discs from Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom
The two leading ladies leading off the column with their first solo albums are hardly newcomers to singing and theatre. Linda Lavin has been brightening theatres and TV screens for decades and began in the nightclub biz, recently returning there. A (relatively) recent marquee name, Anastasia Barzee, goes solo, too. Both have appearances in NYC coming up in this just-begun month of March and their CDs are on Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom. Dakaboom, upbeat up-and-comers, should have a booming career: they're a couple of fellows in their 20s loaded with musical and comedic talent and theatrical flair.
On Possibilities, Linda Lavin's plucky personality with playfulness, a distinctively appealing fuzzy, friendly tone with wistfulness, warmth, winks and grins that are implied come through in its best moments. I like her basic vocal quality and always have. There's often been a sense of joy, wonder or feistiness around the edges or bursting forth with mischievous verve. The old song "'Deed I Do" lets her bubble up with some of that confident, strutting energy. So does "Hey, Look Me Over" from the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields score of Wildcat, and that same songwriting team is represented by a pretty nice turn on the ballad of quiet awe about being loved, "It Amazes Me." But all is not rosy and rewarding as I hear it, and some frustrations come forth. The CD's tracks don't always fulfill their promises and possibilities, with energies that show flickers not building to hoped-for flames of energy, but kept on a slower-burning simmer. A proven gifted comedienne, the material chosen gives her little chance for loopy laugh-out-loud levity or full-out character pieces. Instead, we get passing moments as mini-opportunities and "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" (Arthur Schwartz/ Howard Dietz from Inside U.S.A.) with its cuteness centered on names of states and their pretend prize products, playing on word similarities ("Pencils come from Pennsylvania ... Coats come from Dakota ... "). Lavin is also a strong dramatic actress, but there's no big dramatic challenge or lament to indulge that talent; we get wistful and romantic ruminations instead, or lingering in Languid Land. There's some admittedly wonderful material, but it's been sung by many a balladeer year after year, some with more purely golden tones (like the serene Henry Mancini/ Leslie Bricusse "Two for the Road").
Rhythms that shuffle or sway seem frequently more the focus and priority than delving into lyrics for personalization, so we get more cozy laidback ambience than interesting tension or bursts of bliss or bite. And, sure, she's in a comfort zone with pal Billy Stritch, the immensely gifted and able musician as pianist, arranger and musical director and husband Steve Bakunas on drums. Bassist John Brown wears producer's hat, and the only other musicians are Ray Codrington on trumpet and Baron Tymas on guitar, all doing fine, supportive work. With the early-on lyric "Quiet chords from your guitar," Tymas gets his perfect invitation for a tasteful turn in the spotlight on the Brazilian classic "Corcovado" (called "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" in English, the tongue in which it's crooned here). Billy's gentle singing also welcomingly comes into play here. However, his supreme ease with the style (floating through the sinuous melody line) and the guitarist sounding so at home in his accompaniment and mid-song solo make the female star seem all the more like the tentative "tourist," in Brazil with a passport, treading cautiously, not so comfortably negotiating harmonies.
There's no one who sounds quite like this lady and a unique sound with real personality counts for a lot in my book, whatever the songbook. What we have in Lavin in medium-size doses and in flashes is some charisma, as well as sparkle. And tenderness is evident in the plush moments. Certainly the song suggested by the album's title, a return trip to "You've Got Possibilities," which she introduced on Broadway back in the 1960s in It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman is swell to hear again. More low-key and casually kittenish, in new musical garb, it's a more mellow and yet rhythmically percolating make-over of the number about a make-over to bring out the potential tiger in the timid, fashion-challenged chum. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' bright bit of business still fits the star like a favorite old, worn sweater.
On March 12, Linda Lavin will be honored at NYC's Hudson Theatre, along with playwright Nicky Silver, in whose The Lyons (now Broadway bound) she recently starred at the Vineyard Theatre. The Vineyard is presenting the evening, their annual fundraising gala, and performers include Lavin, Cheyenne Jackson, Judy Kuhn, the original cast of [title of show], and co-hosts Charles Busch and Julie Halston.
Anastasia Barzee has theatre experience that runs the genre gamut from the edgy, satirical Urinetown to the warm and cuddly classic, old-fashioned: the stage version of Irving Berlin's White Christmas (recorded as a cast album with her). A co-star from that production, Brian d'Arcy James, duets on the title song here and, although its lullabye cool-down style doesn't call for his excitingly robust voice, it's lovely to hear them combine their mellifluous mellow tones on this celebration of dusk. Barzee otherwise isn't leaning on the theatre styles she's made her name in as heard in numerous other musical theatre roles. For her debut solo CD, she steps away from theatre music, with the exception of a refreshingly restrained "Nothing Like Like You've Ever Known," heard on Broadway in Song and Dance (its Song parts originally titled Tell Me on a Sunday, from the world of Andrew Lloyd Webber/Don Black).
Song choices from the worlds of pop and folk music favor the work of major singer-songwriters of the past few decades or so. She may take on their songbooks and be somewhat chameleon-like, but she doesn't ape their sounds and personae. Things begin promisingly with Kate Bush's gem, "The Man with the Child in His Eyes." On this and other selections, she selectively grips music and lyrics tightly or lets go to let them have their more amorphous and ethereal, wispy ways. That works to an extent here, and the gentle, extremely attractive vocal sound caresses the ear. Legato loveliness floats and settles upon us. But sometimes the path or thread seems lostor at least lost on meand I need to force myself to listen more attentively to the words than I want to, preferring that the singer would seem more fully engaged in them so that I would be.
It's a somewhat odd thing. Anastasia sometimes seems to me too intellectually in charge, possibly because she's so in command of her gorgeous and impressive vocal instrument, that I don't sense her fully abandoning herself to the most close-to-the-bone/heart of written words and feelings. What could potentially be despair can seem measured, dealt-with, processed disappointment; lamented acceptance, weariness, wariness and worry can feel merely wistful. Open wounds turn to mostly healed scars. All these are exampled in her treatment of Paul Simon's "American Tune." In his own and others' renditions of this, I get a brave but burdened and disheartened idealist soldiering on and really troubled and mystified by the dreams of dying and flying. In Barzee's approach, there's less of an ache and more a sense of intellectualizing and reserved reflection. I don't know that it's intentional, but all I know is that when I experience her take on Jimmy Webb's "All I Know" all I feel is that she's content to know that she knows her feelings of love are real and "we both bruise too easily" is of less consequence. With "Lilac Wine" she indulges in its heady melody, but seems not lost in its subject's intoxicating control-slipping quicksand.
Rufus Wainwright's "Dinner at Eight" could have drowned in a drone-like dirge, but the golden quality of her vocals and eschewing of murkiness and self-pity let it have some grace. A seemingly contradictory decision to sometimes treat rather heavy material with a lighter touch diffuses some drama and keeps things in the no-rush, no-push traffic lane that here and there can come to an almost crawl. But it can be a nice break where we can luxuriate in moods and intellect. There are layers of sound and some more energized instrumental settings and spotlights on this album with arrangements and keyboards by Gil Goldstein, with varied instruments to listen to and enjoy. It is a classy, artful affair. On the next-to-last track, there's a very atypical burst of adrenalin and sass with a real romp through April Smith's "Terrible Things."
Monday, March 5 will bring the lady to Birdland for a night at that theatre district club.
I'm not one to use the adjective "awesome" without blushing and feeling awkwardly retro or ill-fittingly neo-hipster, but that word in the dazzling duo Dakaboom's CD title is appropriate. This rave review's recommendation could be summed up in three words: Get Get Awesome. It's quite the compact disc discovery, but I was happily to come upon this California-based multi-talented pair performing liveand very lively. Their show was one the most invigoratingly fresh and zingy and adventurous I've found in many moons, a savvy treat full of solidly structured, well-timed, polished songs and scripted squabbles that feel flush with surprise. The flavor is represented remarkably well on CD (some numbers incorporate bits of their pick-on-each-other/ goofball patter). Energy bounces everywhere, seemingly loose-cannoned that could misfire, but this is a well-oiled machine.
Dakaboom consists of singer/vocal percussionist Ben McLain and singer/pianist Paul Peglar. The latter has a killer falsetto, a voice of great range and versatility. Their material, much of which they write, reflects their varied interests and experience: current and classic pop, boy bands, musical theatre, barber shop and jazz a capella vocal groups with a wink at hip-hop, the voice as instrument and rhythm section (think Bobby McFerrin kind of versatility and agility, but with a mischievous streak). With childlike cheekiness and a bag of musical tricks informed by old school vaudevillian sensibilities, they can slide from slick to shtick and then turn around and demonstrate the most solidly sophisticated musicianship. Perhaps most admirably, they can be nutty and musically adept at the same time when they choose to and within a piece of complex specially arranged special material do lightning-quick changes of tone and musical genre. The guys have played roles in musical comedy, worked with an a capella vocal group called Sonos, and Paul is involved with a musical theatre piece with Burt Bacharach music.
Here and there, there are moments that are admittedly juvenilesilly on purposebut not foul-mouthed; there are a few lines that might seem funnier if you were high, or enrolled in junior high. Admittedly, they're more ludicrously palatable when set to cooing music. McLain and Peglar name The Muppets and The Smothers Brothers as touchstones to their sweetly dopey stage personalities. Friends, roommates and theatre/vocal ensemble colleagues since their schooldays, they have a BFF/LOL way of teasing and one-upping each other and upping the comedy ante. Some of this is sampled in the cleverly compact "F.A.Q." which is a litany of fun facts and bland bio bits bloated into self-important, braggadacio hip-hop tough talk ("Favorite color is blue" and "In kindergarten, neither of us ever ate glue"). It also shows their willingness to be self-deprecating, as does their admission of being romance-challenged lame losers in "Desperate" and "Single Song." Glee (to drop the name of the TV show Paul has appeared on as a pianist) is a word that well describes their exuberant energy and positive, fearless approach.
I'm left a bit hungry for more that's musically "meaty" or a more spectacular, full showpiece, amidst the spiffy and wacky, but I suspect that will come in time. (The disc is just ten tracks for ten bucks and some are short, if short and sweet, and the longer yuletide gripe, "Xmas Bums Me Out," is a one-joke, repetitive, lyric-thin anticlimactic final cut that doesn't cut it as anything but cutting loose. Others click solidly.) The other musicians are drummer Reade Pryor and then Andy Lange who plays several instruments and is one of several backing vocalists.
There is some familiar musical material here. "I Hear Music," which gives them free reign to create all kinds of musical soundsand they run with itis the 1940 Burton Lane/ Frank Loesser movie song. An "Infomercial" for themselves as musicians for hire squeezes in some tunes you'll recognize and chances to mock schlock music as would be performed dutifully (for a price), hawked by Ben as a thickly-accented TV huckster. They also include the bright-tempoed buddy-bonding piece from the Disney film Aladdin, "Friend Like Me," which acts as a companion piece to the perky litany of other pals and pairs, "Peas in a Pod," which is done with the panache of smiley musical comedy showmanship and the joy/annoyance of togetherness ("It's really been a journey ... Please put me on a gurney/ I'm only kidding!/ But please hurry ... Like Abbott, Costello/ He's crazy/ He's mellow ... "). It's not too far removed from a similarly titled nostalgia vaudeville turn in the musical Grey Gardens, but zippier, adding caffeinated pizzazz and polish to the soft shoe. Likeably likewise, "You and I" is their song-and-dance/piano cheer-up-or-else number. They're based in Los Angeles, but the opening track "I Love L.A." is not the Randy Newman song of the same title, but not without its own slyness and snarky quotient of lies presented as truths ("The air is clean ... No one's fake and there's free parking ev'ry day ... ").
Though quite impressive, I suspect that what's glimpsed with Get Awesome and their other work on display is just the start of bigger, even more eclectic, creative things to come. But it's a running headstart ... .so, heads up and onward and upward. For more information on this pair, visit www.thedakaboom.com where physical copies of the CD can be purchased rather than downloading. They appear next in person in a free show in Los Angeles March 12 at the Hayworth Theatre.