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On tap: two musicals, two singers. We begin with a show called Bad Girls from Great Britain. Another kind of great Britton is singer Dwayne Britton with an impressive first album. Also with a debut is the sublime Elli Fordyce. And not to be missed, Gone Missing from off Broadway.

Bad GirlsBAD GIRLS
LONDON CAST

First Night Records

Bad Girls isn't bad at all, but it's a mixed bag with some tracks that work far better than others. This story of women behind bars raises the bar pretty high with a very strong opening number, "I Shouldn't Be Here," that's also economical in getting a lot of information and numerous personalities into one piece. It introduces the main prisoners' stories in a way that engenders sympathy for the humans behind the admitted crimes and puts a glaring light and sustained tension in place with the necessary claustrophobia and sense of danger.

Other tracks start off promisingly but become repetitive or start to O.D. in clichés of speech or wannabe anthems. Some seem to lean too heavily on a rock style or pounding percussion for pulse to provide the tough energy and rage when they don't come as vitally from the material or performance. There's musical variety in the styles of the score by Kath Gotts, though, with a lullaby and more splashy musical theatre-ish flavors. With the melodrama potential of good girls gone bad, lost souls, soul-bearing and the history B-movie prison stories, there's dangerous potential to sidestep.

It kind of puzzling to find a score where some songs feel so full of plain, pedestrian language and overheated or lukewarm melodies, and others are winners. Some are sharp - full of smart, tart rhymes and satisfying music. "The Baddest and the Best" is, well, not the best, more of a war cry with lines like, "You've been messed around and trampled down/ Get it off your chest/No, you don't get mad/You just get badder than all the rest." As in other songs here, it chooses to end by hammering home the title or basic idea a few times rather than having a topper or surprise. The final number, "This Is My Life," ends with "I'm gonna be there/ I've gotta be there/ I'm gonna be there/ I want to be there!" It's as uninteresting (and worse, unconvincing) as an earlier part of the lyric, "I have plans and I have dreams/ Though maybe some of them are just crazy schemes/ But still I/ Wanna try."

Ah, but then there are those that hit the target and show real skill with drama or comedy. There's a sly vaudevillian song and dance number for two of the employees (David Burt and Helen Fraser) called "Jailcraft" and Burt again on a solo called "The Key" where the tension could be cut with a confiscated knife and the power play reality is eerily dangled. A soulful dream of a "Freedom Road" led by Camilla Beeput rings true as she gets the longing, loneliness and pathos in her powerful voice, but calibrates it magnificently. A fantasy sequence for the ensemble, "The Future is Bright" is like an old movie musical or Follies-style over-the-top extravaganza with its "toe-tappy" uber-cheer. But then it's back to mundane blatherings.

An 8-person band plays the score for the cast of 23. All of the lyrics and some included dialogue is in a booklet which has background information, a detailed plot synopsis and color photos.

Dwayne BrittonDWAYNE BRITTON
DWAYNE BRITTON

LML Music

Looking at life and looking inside himself, Dwayne Britton's self-titled CD is an intimate introspection. The spare instrumentation and arrangements and close-to-the-mic singing make most of the tracks cozy confessionals and romantic ruminations with a minimum of angst. With his soft, held-back vocals that can be breathy or husky or dreamy-crooned, Dwayne's interpretations come out as communicative rather than navel-gazing self-involvement.

He sounds equally convincing on songs that hark back to simple child-friendly innocence and hope, connecting to "The Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie, and to the more complex, like the very grown-up "Baker Baker" by Tori Amos. In the latter song about a love relationship, Dwayne keeps the "he" pronouns.

Sincerity is the key word here all around, but it isn't insincere sincerity that feels like artificial sweetener. Here and there he may come on a bit strong when going for the soft touch, and a couple of choices in phrasing may be just a bit gee-whiz for the curmudgeonly and embittered. You can understand why he was chosen to sing "I Can Go the Distance," the song of young Hercules for Disney events. It's included here and he finds a quieter sense of confidence and never is in danger of overselling it and venturing too near "power ballad" territory. It does gather some guts and earnest eagerness in the last few lines, but instead of a big flashy belted last note that you feel coming inevitably, surprise! - Dwayne goes into his head voice for a long, held, pure pianissimo. It's the prettiest note on the album - and the last one. From an earlier Disney movie musical, Pete's Dragon, comes the rarely done "Candle on the Water." Another refreshing song choice is the sweet "Under the Tree" from the Tom Jones/ Harvey Schmidt musical Celebration sounding tender and tremulous.

Though most of the tracks are quiet and hushed, clearly Dwayne has more voice than he's using most of the time. We can hear some vocal power and strength when feelings start to heat up in "More Than This" (Stephen Schwartz/ Dean Pitchford) and Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan's excellent and exciting "Run Away with Me." That one is perhaps the best showcase here, letting Dwayne go from being vulnerable, a character putting himself on the line, and then building intensity with an impassioned plea. These two tracks were the last recorded, after the project went to LML Music where the label's head Lee Lessack came on to executive produce and brought frequent collaborator John Boswell as musical director/pianist. The other 10 tracks have Scot Woolley doing sensitive work as musical director and on keyboards with Stacey Wooley on violin (not often enough), Ted Karas on guitar and Brian Braverman on percussion. Like the vocalist, the musicians here show restraint and don't milk the emotion or overplay.

Dwayne, whose experience includes some musical theatre work as well as cabaret and singing on cruise ships from sea to shining sea, plans a New York gig in May. A portion of the proceeds from this CD go to The Matthew Shepard Foundation for education against hate crimes. His website and youtube commentaries reveal a heart as committed, soft and open as his singing.

Gone MissingGONE MISSING
OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records

The selling price is admittedly lower than most items but Gone Missing will probably go down in our history as the shortest-length cast album. It's barely 20 minutes long. If it were a masterpiece and a revelation, I'd say, who cares. But it's a pretty good album with some charming moments, although little of it screams musical theatre. After the first track, which is a very short spoken piece, there are nine sung numbers, starting with the title song. It, like others, is a list song of things someone misses, lost or wants. The whole show is about missing things, based on interviews with people about things that have "gone missing" either everyday things or feelings. Music and lyrics are by Michael Friedman and the songs recall various pop styles and figures: some '80s pop, a bit of Bacharach, a shadow of Suzanne Vega, and a dash of old school musical comedy fun. They tend to be kind of cameo-like, with some nice use of language.

My favorite numbers are the endearing and smart "Lost Horizon," with some surprise twists and good references, and "The Only Thing Missing," with some wit and spunk, making the most of the concept. The Civilians is the name of theatre troupe performing the songs (they also created the show through the interviews). Each of the six singers has a chance to do a solo or lead a number; there are some good pop voices that also have personality. The accompaniment is piano, bass and drums.

These songs are small but distinct pleasures and there's a real sweetness to the proceedings that invites smiles. I like the "too bad" attitude socking it to someone whose left-behind possessions were not kept in the house deserted ("I Gave it Away") and comparing memory to the old "Etch A Sketch" toy where things come and go with a shake. Two songs are done in other languages but the booklet translates them.

This album translates into a nice little (very little) slice of life of the kind of day-to-day details not sung about as often as the big emotions and dramas of life, but there are hints of those larger events, too. They haven't quite gone missing.

UNDER THE RADAR

Something Still CookELLI FORDYCE
SOMETHING STILL COOL

(FEATURING JIM MALLOY)

I heard about Something Still Cool, Elli Fordyce's first CD, in January and stopped by a restaurant where she was singing. I intended to just ask about a review copy of the album, but I ended up so intrigued with her style that I stayed for a couple of sets and returned the next week

The fact that I just love Elli's basic sound and the super-tasteful playing of her excellent musicians explains a big part of the attraction. I also enjoy her casually conversational camaraderie with easygoing guest singer Jim Malloy, who is on several tracks, like their duet of the Broadway songs "Hey There" (The Pajama Game) and "Almost like Being in Love" (Brigadoon) or their sharing of the Jobim Brazilian favorite "One Note Samba." Luxuriating in his Brazilian melodies, whether "hush" or "lush" being the agenda, is a zone she's clearly comfortable in, and "Dindi" is especially tender and touching. The solo of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" also finds her in that snuggly, dreamy mode and mood, and it's another highlight.

The standard "Imagination" is a good example of how she turns a lyric into something addressed personally to a listener. With the opening line, "Imagination is funny," she phrases it with a kind of mini-chuckle and pause, as if she's newly amused and including us in her observation. Then she develops the process as she unfolds the song and it becomes more and more romantic. "Something Cool," that real set piece of a character song about a lonely woman in a bar meeting a man, displays some acting skills. The occasional brisker-tempoed track doesn't (understandably) give the same opportunities for painting pictures and reflecting, with "It Could Happen to You" feeling unnecessarily rushed for my taste, but the change of tempo provides a breather and it's fun.

I'll save some adjectives for her second album, as I was in the audience when she recorded it live recently. It's being readied for a release fairly soon. Two CDs in a year is not usual for new singers, but Elli Fordyce is making up for lost time, as she put music aside a couple of times for very extended periods. You can tell from this belated debut that she has long known how to be a friend to a song and an audience. She's not at all shy about her age Elli turns 71 on Monday - and a life's worth of wisdom and perspective comes through loud and clear (OK, not loud, but clear). And it's clear this is someone with something to say. And I say, it's something interesting and Something Still Cool .


See you in April.


- Rob Lester


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