We begin under the ocean and end up, as usual, under the radar. We have two CDs full of music from Alan Menken, two fish-out-of-water type tales. Then, some comments on Land (Elizabeth Ward Land) and across the sea to see Joanna Ampil, star of British musicals. Then, it's cocktail time under the radar.
THE LITTLE MERMAID
Celebrating or lamenting life under the sea, with perhaps over-the-top fervor, The Little Mermaid's musical adventures have a lot to offer for listeners with a sweet tooth and affection for genial razzle-dazzle and word play. I'm in. The CD of the Broadway cast is high on energy and polish. Songs from the hugely successful animated film swim easily alongside some satisfying new ones created for the stage. Alan Menken's sparkling, satisfyingly melodic and well-constructed melodies are a pleasure to hear, both the film songs with the word play of late lyricist Howard Ashman and the bright new ones with like-minded, talented wordsmith Glenn Slater. (All of the lyrics are in a booklet with color photos of the production.) As expected, it's all often heavy on the cute, but it's also astute in the way grown-up appeal is present, with some spice mixed in with the sugar and the arrangements and characterizations for the ocean dwellers are not watered down but are full of detail for ears that can catch and appreciate them on first or later listenings.
For adults, I think, it's not the title character who makes the biggest splash here. Though Sierra Boggess has a suitable ingénue-type voice with innocence and a bit of feisty determination, she doesn't anchor the proceedings or sound distinctive. She's likeable and doesn't, thankfully, overdo the spunk or dewy-eyed longing to land on land. Her co-stars land their songs better. Sean Palmer as Prince Eric, a noble but more than cardboard hero as satisfyingly written and played here, gets a major share of the new songs in the score and he handles them with panache. The love-haunted "Her Voice" is the more complex and sophisticated of his two solos, allowing for some anguish and feelings beyond paper-thin valentines of falling in love at first sight (or in this story's case, first hearing of a captivating voice). "One Step Closer" is his more serene, gentler ode to the magic of communicating through dancing. Leading big, happy production numbers retained from the film score, Titus Burgess ("Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl") and John Treacy Egan ("Les Poissons," the relishing of fish as food rather than live companions - what a concept!) are strong. These numbers may peak a bit early or feel long (two are immediately reprised), but they are done with care and flair and certainly exuberance.
Thoroughly delightful Sherie Rene Scott as the gleefully scheming Ursula thickens the plot with her evil-doings as she's doing great things with the songs. Belting, sneering, grumbling, she colors her words with such deliciously juicy specific attitudes that she spits and snarls and laces with sarcasm. This total pro makes the best of each moment, but is also given many great moments to play in the tour de force "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and the new show-bizzy showstopper "I Want the Good Times Back." Tyler Maynard and Derrick Baskin make terrific, snickering sidekicks/foils/enablers for her. Song-and-dance man Eddie Korbich flies high with hard-to-resist goofy, plucky charm as Scuttle, leading his fellow seagulls on two chipper new production numbers, "Human Stuff" and "Positoovity." The dynamic Norm Lewis seems shortchanged, with too few chances to sing and saddled with having to be stern and disapproving as the wet blanket of the ocean dwellers.
The sound quality and ambience on this well-produced album are bright and rich. What makes everything work extra well are the delightfully detailed arrangements and orchestrations that enrich everything. Line by line, they echo phrases, underline emotions, add extra winks of humor and spunk, deepen a feeling on a more serious moment and pepper the score liberally with smiles and traditional musical comedy zing. Special praise goes to musical director Michael Kosarin and orchestrator Danny Troob for making a world of difference. They can't be overpraised for their contributions to the world under the sea and on the CD. They make the merry music of Menken and the mermaid more marvelous.
The cast of the show will appear, out of water and out of character, on March 24 in a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Help Is On The Way Today at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Cafe on Manhattan's Theatre Row.
Coming out on DVD next week is another Disney project with more music from Alan Menken, and, while its songs (more so than on other scores) need the context of the story and its attitudes, the CD itself is a worthwhile listen. For one thing, you get to hear the instrumental numbers on their own without the dialogue, which covers up some of the music in the movie. For this tale of fantasy bumping into reality, with extreme personalities, thrills and chills and storybook romance, plus a pastiche of princesses past a la Disney, composer Alan Menken gets to dip into all of the flavors musically. Some instrumental tracks are grandiose and melodramatic with background choruses "ahhhhing"; other cues are the kind of functional incidental music accompaniment to action and mood heard on many a soundtrack album. The composer even quotes a bit of "Here Comes the Bride" to make a point along the way. There's also a wonderful suite of the themes at the end. As on The Little Mermaid cast album, musical associates Michael Kosarin and Danny Troob (among others) are on hand throughout for arrangements and orchestrations.
Of special interest are the six new songs, all of them with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (some are heard reprised within the instrumental sections). As songs, these are an intentional, sly, non-subtle homage to/ parody of the uber-romantic and simplistic rose-colored glasses world of fairy tale predecessors where dashing princes and innocence reign supreme. The lyrics are spot-on in achieving the goals of exaggerated fantasy and pep. Amy Adams as the relentlessly plucky princess sings to and with perky animal pals who also tirelessly and without salary or second thought help with housework and matchmaking, knowing well that true love makes the world go 'round. Playing it straight and joyfully, she spunkily croons her tunes, with warm cheer toward her furry, fuzzy four-legged friends ("even though you're vermin"). (Note: Broadway's Idina Menzel is in the cast but does not sing.)
Pop stylings come via Jon McLaughlin, with a contemporary sound, with an appealingly husky sound and falsetto high notes on "So Close" and pop-country recording star Carrie Underwood singing an overproduced, busy "Ever Ever After." She's also credited with writing its "additional material." An "enhanced" version of the soundtrack is also available, with a bonus music video of the Carrie Underwood performance, playable on most computers and DVD players.
The prince du jour for this particular fantasy is played by James Marsden, who is only heard singing briefly in the opening number, but is given the Harry Warren/ Jack Brooks golden oldie "That's Amore" as a P.S. at the very end. It's happily ever after, of course.
ELIZABETH WARD LAND
A rather attractive version of "The Change in Me," an Alan Menken/Tim Rice number from Beauty and the Beast, begins the solo CD by Elizabeth Ward Land. The singer-actress's resumé includes Broadway, group vocals in the film Enchanted and playing the Mother Superior in the Menken/Slater musical Sister Act. The album ends in the style of another kind of sister act, the harmonizing Boswell Sisters, where the singer is joined for "42nd Street" by her co-stars from a stage show saluting the trio. That vocal blend with Amy Pietz and Michelle Duffy is pleasing to the ear as is its quaint period charm and bounce. For that, hooray.
Elizabeth Ward Land has vocal skills and her voice can sound pretty or pretty strong, but her work here is not always infused with a sense of vulnerability or real-feel emotional involvement. It's odd, because it's not as if her voice is without warmth, nor do her song choices or treatments of them project a cavalier approach. Surely there is a lot that sounds lovely on the CD and moments where the singer projects yearning and generosity of spirit.
Still, as I hear things, there's something slightly removed and controlled that prevents full immersion in sorrow or joy, favoring considered analysis of feelings rather than feeling feelings. An illustrative example is "When the Sun Comes Out," presented as "inspired by" the early Barbra Streisand recording arranged by Peter Matz. Though studiously following the game plan gamely (with the phrasing and the band building the moods), there is vocal range and power in evidence, but the desperate optimism and simmering fury are absent. They were the raison d'être and guts of the original Streisand version, reprised in her 2006 tour for which Liz worked as the stand-in. There is very little letting go. The point of looking back where a person has finally made peace with - and figured out - a past relationship is what I sense in some of the approaches. That's exactly what Michael McDonald's "I Can Let Go Now" is about, so its inclusion seems a natural fit. But where is the bittersweet quality or lingering regret indicating a healed but not forgotten wound that this song potentially has?
A highlight of this LML album is a duet with the label's founder and this CD's executive producer, vocalist Lee Lessack, as sweet reflections on childhood's ever-lingering memories radiate through their country-tinged, nostalgia-soaked "Flies on the Butter." On the change-of-pace fun rant "Why Haven't I Heard From You," Lee is also part of the back-up vocal group along with Amy Pietz, Todd Murray, husband Ken Land (who also plays guitar on this one track) and the album's tasteful pianist and primary arranger, John Boswell. The tender "When You Take My Hand" is one of Boswell's own, written with Julie Last (and has also been recorded by him alone and on his album with Babbie Green, Two, too). It and the track honoring those other Boswells are two very different reasons to like First Harvest, which also has elements of dignity and grace.
The name Joanna Ampil is a familiar one to theatregoers who have attended shows overseas and also to cast album collectors. Lovely-voiced Joanna has played leads in Miss Saigon and Jesus Christ Superstar and has been featured on studio cast albums of these shows from the mid-1990s. Thus, her JAY Records solo album debut, which is mainly a trip down Memory Lane (or Drury Lane) revisiting roles she's played re-treads a few songs she's recorded before.
This time, her singing partners for Miss Saigon are Simon Bowman (for "Last Night of the World") and Niklas Andersson (for "Sun and Moon"). Andersson also joins her for two big duets from Phantom of the Opera, a show not (yet) on the impressive soprano's resume. Other duet partners are Julia Moller for Chess's "I Know Him So Well" and Koit Toome for Rent's "Without You." Joanna did the European tour of Rent as Mimi and also has a solo version of "Out Tonight" on her CD. Though she sounds comfortably contemporary on these tracks, she thankfully does not go overboard to make them gut-wrenching screamers. The pleasing album ends with a final duet with Graham Bickley, a medley from Metropolis returning the favor for the same pairing of voices and songs on his own album reviewed in this column back in 1999.
Once again, gratitude is given to producer John Yap of JAY Records for bringing us a British stage star getting the big treatment: big voices (the duet partners are all grand and sturdy-voiced, too), big songs and big orchestras (often using original orchestrations or respectful latter-day versions). It's grand to hear the sweeping sounds of the National Symphony Orchestra in the dramatic numbers, and it's a nice change of pace to have a smaller group for three tracks: the comic relief moment of "Birds" from the parody-playful Musical of Musicals: The Musical and two tender choices from I Sing!, "Daddy's Girl" and "The Old Apartment." These three also serve as a needed respite from the warhorses here that have been recorded again and again. And again. It's a compliment that some of those still feel welcome here with taste and restraint often shown that emphasize the beauty of the melodies rather than going too far down the tour-de-force, overwrought path. These treatments allow Joanna to be more judicious as to when to turn on the juice and turn up the drama. Occasionally, there are changes in vocal dynamics that seem a bit jarring and sudden. Certainly, Joanna has various colors to her very attractive voice; my favorite flavors are the creamy ones.
Those who prefer the musicals after the Golden Age will be glad to find those latter-day scores are the focus here. The two most senior members, however, are nicely done: Hair's "Easy to Be Hard" and "Never Never Land," using Craig Barna's orchestration for the revival. This album will also be most appreciated by those musical theatre fans who tend to be closer to the purists and don't like the songs to be mucked with, re-invented, stripped down or jazzed up. The renderings are not so slavish to originals as to seem like we're just flying on automatic pilot; on the other hand, there isn't a big agenda to personalize the lyrics and one doesn't start to hear new emphasis from shifts and shadings in phrasing.
In listening to these 16 tracks, one can't help but admire and look forward to the future of a competent and classy soprano whose packed career has already included playing both Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables in London. And, as you may be guessing, she sings "On My Own" and "I Dreamed a Dream" from that show here - and does so in fine style and fine voice.
UNDER THE RADAR
Hailing from Canada, here's a working musician who's been around for a while but is a happy discovery for me ...
The old adage that you can't judge books by their covers also applies to this CD: you can't judge a Dooks by its cover either. The gloomy looking photo and title Cocktails, Heartaches and Cigars might lead you to think this is a droopy downer to drink away your troubles with, right? Not so much.
There are a couple of downbeat tracks on Steve Dooks' hip little album, but they only come at the end. And as blue moods go, these are a cool blue. The title song is a big, upbeat celebration that really cooks, and the brass players make it especially sunny. Steve himself plays piano and guitar on many tracks (presumably not at the same time) as well as singing on all ten. Only ten? There's the first of two complaints. The other is that some of the instrumental breaks go on just a bit too long and don't always seem to match the mood already set (most of the arrangements are his own). However, the playing is generally tasty, with musicians joining Steve on sax, drums, bass and brass.
The guy is a hip and mellow or gently swinging jazz man and his album is instantly ingratiating. Vocally, he has a modest but very effective jazz-friendly voice that he can make sound smooth or raggedly gruff, as if he'd had too many cocktails, heartaches and/or cigars. Playing piano and singing in Halifax for years, he had one previous CD called Two Days on the Floor which, like this one, is mostly original songs. His songs somehow seem like old friends, with a warm and fuzzy and quirky feel. To employ the title of the album's first song, they go down "Smooth and Easy." It's one of several originals expressing gratitude or contentment.
Accompanying himself, Steve's piano playing is especially moody on the thoughtful songs. For example, his one Broadway song is a treat: a laidback "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" that really works as a lost-in-reflection piece. He makes a few minor changes in the lyric we've grown accustomed to, but not in a way that changes the meaning. The other two non-originals are both from the songbook of the witty Dave Frishberg. They are tunes that have found their way to other jazz-leaning singers with a sense of whimsy: "Let's Eat Home" and the sly "My Attorney Bernie," which is done with more energy and pow than it usually gets. This Bernie is an attorney you can dance to, with a Latin twist. If I found Steve Dooks playing piano and singing at my local bars among the cocktails, I'd never want to go home. I know that because it's hard for me to stop playing this one over and over again. It works in the background or when you pull up a cozy chair.