THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1929
Even theater fans who were around for the 1929 Broadway season will be excused if they can't can't remember the words to "I Can't Remember the Words" because it's never been recorded until now. It's a cute opening number for this Broadway by the Year concert as six singers comically lament how, despite the efforts of the writers, some songs' words don't stick in your head. The long-lost treat is from a revue called Murray Anderson's Almanac, named for the writer-director-producer more frequently called John Murray Anderson.
And two songstresses named Anderson are two of the standout stars of this CD. Leslie Anderson, nominated this past week for two MAC Awards (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs), has some fun with "My Husband's First Wife" (Sweet Adeline by Jerome Kern and Irene Franklin) and is even more impressive on "Can't We Be Friends." Usually it's done as either a swinger or a weepy wallow in self-pity, but she goes further: yes, a bit of swing and a tear or two but she also finds a wry approach that builds to some real frustration and rage, with a great belting end. The other Miss Anderson is Nancy, who most successfully captures the bygone singing style of the period, here in a rarely heard "It's You I Love" with a high, silvery soprano taking a sincere approach to this ardent admission of emotion. In a successful misery-loves-company duet on Rodgers and Hart's "Why Can't I?" she is joined by Emily Skinner. Emily, who appeared in and directed the latest concert in the series just a few days ago, also shines on one of the super standards that came from 1929, "More Than You Know."
The aforementioned solos by Emily and Nancy are done "unplugged" (in an audience-pleasing gesture to the natural way Broadway songs sounded in the pre-amplification days), and they rise to the challenge, seemingly making no sacrifices for interpretation and styling. Some (over)compensations for the no-mic rule seem more problematic for the other two who take the dare: Mary Bond Davis's voice sounds harsh to me in parts of her "Moanin' Low" (more yelling than "moaning", more loud than "low"), especially on the phrase "he's the kind of man" that ends each chorus. Ron Bohmer's "Without a Song" suffers from overarticulation and formality that are distancing, at least at first - by midway, the thrill of his tones as the drama builds brings satisfaction. Both have better moments elsewhere on the CD.
There's a major burst of theatrical adrenalin from Bryan Batt who gets one of the concert's several Cole Porter numbers, "I'm a Gigolo," and makes it a real character piece, with some drama bubbling under the surface. And his "Liza" simply bubbles in a happier, snappier way. Noah Racey, who graced the program with his dancing skills, sings gracefully, too ("I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan"). Alas, the vocals of fellow dancer Jeffry Denman, also an effective singer, are just heard in group numbers. Christine Andreas brings intelligence and sensitivity filtered through her luminous voice. My favorite is her performance of Noel Coward's "If Love Were All," beautifully detailed in phrasing ("crying when I must, laughing when I choose"); her rendition includes a less often done set of lyrics.
As usual with this series, the accompaniment by Ross Patterson's band is respectful of the material and flavorful and there's a generous program: 21 songs plus the witty and informative narration. Given the proven audience interest and response to creator Scott Siegel's style of history lessons, it seems it would be a good idea for him to expound and expand by adding to the liner notes that have always been brief. The perspective is valuable and so are the behind-the-scenes stories told on stage. Eager Town Hall audiences can look forward to two more concerts this season, with show tunes from 1959 and 1964 as we all give our regards to Broadway, by the year, by the stars.
The most exciting of the many cabaret shows I saw last year was in October when Marilyn Maye raised the roof in a one-nighter at the Metropolitan Room, her first New York club appearance in over 15 year(she's repeating her triumph at the same club through Sunday). Her voice is in simply spectacular shape, rich and strong, and full of life - and she's full of joy in her presentation. Much of that is captured in her most recent CD, a tribute to Ray Charles, titled Maye Sings Ray.
As in her act, Marilyn is joined by musical director Billy Stritch, who also does some vocal duets. It's a blast. She has written some lyrics to salute him for "Hallelujah, I Love Him So," and has a funny disclaimer about not attempting to copy his style ("I'm too white"). She also adds on to "Busted" to tell the tale of her being "disgusted" and a man she shouldn't have trusted.
She picks from the wide variety of material that Ray Charles did, having a ball considering a couple like "Hit the Road, Jack" with Billy as her foil. But she also gets serious and sensitive and shows off the beauty of her voice and interpretive skill with "Georgia on My Mind" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." And speaking of shine, that's the key word: the lady's talent, big heart, and musical savvy shine through whether she's wailing through "Cryin' Time" or sailing through "Let the Good Times Roll." With her obvious chemistry with the talented Mr. Stritch, it's a shame they didn't dig deeply into the duets Charles recorded with Betty Carter on their classic album, but there's a lot here to savor.
Cast album fans and Maye mavens take note: Marilyn played the lead in Hello, Dolly! for years and recorded a long-elusive LP of the songs. Just this month, it has been transferred at last to CD. Her ebullient personality and bright vocal color are a great match for the matchmaker character. Some tracks were recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and some with a jazz group. Since this isn't literally a cast album, she had the freedom of taking some liberties. Occasionally, it feels a bit jarringly schizophrenic (in the nicest way possible) when the usual show tempi and arrangements are used and suddenly there's a change. There are moments when Dolly, that merchant of Yonkers, goes Vegas and the song "Elegance" attractively visits Dixieland. A couple of times, to approximate the feel of the chorus joining in, Marilyn's voice is layered at the end; it is not necessary, as she has enough energy for a whole chorus just on her own.
Marilyn Maye knows when to soar and when to pull back, when to jazz up and decorate a line for extra zing and when she needs to play it straight. This is a delightfully delicious double-dip into Jerry Herman's score. See the note in our interview with the singer for ordering these two CDs and her others, currently only available by mail.
Nobody tries to recreate or imitate Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr. on LML's CD. The absence of that agenda is wisely and winningly made clear immediately with "Who Would Dare?"/"Fingers Snappin,'" one of three short, appealing originals by Brian Lane Green. (Lee Lessack sings "Cool Cat," a valentine to Sammy, and Johnny Rodgers toasts Dean with "From the Barstool.") Each singer has solos and they combine forces and voices with very attractive harmonies. As far as trademark hits, many of the usual suspects show up, including some show tunes, on this snappy live CD.
It's all fun and well done. As one of the songs rhetorically asks, "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?" Sure, on their other CDs, these singers all have done meatier work - think of this as dessert. And there are some surprises: Brian finds the serious side of "Strangers in the Night," in many spots Lee shows a looser, brassier side that he less often reveals in his CDs that tend to focus on very romantic or dead-serious ballads. Johnny cements his growing reputation as a very cool, smarm-free (even with all the Vegas ambience) personality, steeped in musicality as he does double duty as the act's pianist on the baby grand. All three contributed to arranging and producing, with John Boswell also credited as a producer (he has also worked as a singer-pianist with Lee and Brian). This non-Rat Pack is just packed with easy, breezy good times and good singing.
Some male singers who admire Frank Sinatra sound like him even when they are trying not to do so. Steven Maglio is trying to do so. He's pretty successful. He's done his homework. Sometimes he really is right on the mark and has the vocal quality as well as the trademark stylings. Steven's mission is not to mock or exaggerate, but to get the real sound and personality. Others have tried and gotten the gist, but he leaves them in the dust. His Xerox is not 100% precise and won't fool the real Sinatraphiles in a listening comparison study, but he's impressive on both the ballads and the swingers.
In most cases, though, it's "close, but no cigar." Speaking of cigars, I'm reminded that Steven does his Sinatra stuff live at the rare New York venue that allows smoking, The Carnegie Club, a "smoking lounge." (I love Sinatra but hate smoking, which is why I can't report on how effective he is in person.) There's a real band, a capable one, and the arrangements are mostly closely modeled on Sinatra's charts. And over the years, Sinatra's voice changed considerably; Steven is closest to the middle period, though he gets some of the older Frank sound on "Cycles" and "Drinkin' Again," both capturing a bit of the hurt he displayed on those records.
At the end of the day, though one admires his skill in impersonation, there's still a spark that's missing, and nothing has been "added" to balance that. With only 11 songs and a playing time under 34 minutes, it seems a thin slice, especially considering the huge number of possibilities. Once the curiosity is satisfied, I suppose some Sinatra fans may just think they'd rather have one of the master's albums not in their collection. After I did my detail-by-detail comparison, I personally found other attractions. Strange as it may seem, I became more attracted to the least clone-like tracks and wonder what a Maglio as Maglio performance would be like, because he has some appealing vocal qualities that shine through. There's a sweetness in "Put Your Dreams Away" that is encouraging, and another asset is the great guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli featured on "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)." But give credit where it's due: this guy has a lot of the Frankisms down.
A very effective and extremely affectionate tribute to Maurice Chevalier is on disc from Don Sheppard, who began his Maurice piece in the late 1980s, performing it live in the Phoenix area. It's well honed and well researched. In this case, the performer sets out to truly impersonate the subject in all ways and mannerisms, and he succeeds quite well. The speaking voice's rhythms, singing voice, thick French accent, attitude, energy and flair are really there, cannily captured. It's quite the labor of love to honor his idol.
This tribute is a simulation of two concert appearances by Chevalier. Much depends on the personality of the character when talking to the audience and charming them. But the performance was not recorded live - the "audience" is laugh applause tracks, and the performance was done in a studio. The orchestra is synthesized, too. It may sound absurd, but once you accept it and buy into it, it works surprisingly well much of the time.
Don does a very, very close Chevalier. The bonus tracks of him singing "Gigi" and "Isn't It Romantic" in his quite different, natural voice (smooth and unassumingly low-key) prove what a remarkable job he did. All the famous songs are here, a good retrospective.
And now another Maurice and another tribute:
Broadway veteran Maurice Hines (Eubie!, Bring Back Birdie, the recent Hot Feet) has some Broadway songs to offer on his most recent album. They include two from Lerner and Loewe, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "Almost Like Being in Love," but the album is first and foremost a jazzy tribute to his hero, Nat "King" Cole. Nat is one of the most popular subjects for tribute albums, but Maurice's is no also-ran or redundant latecomer. He has his own style and it's an all-around winner.
The top-drawer jazz musicians are major co-stars with fresh and truly interesting instrumental ideas. Among the players are veteran Frank Owens on piano, Howard Alden on guitar and drummer Sherrie Maricle of the terrific all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra. There's great solo work, some of it subtle, some more splashy, with some great Tommy Newsome arrangements. There are intriguing changes in tempo and, perhaps because Maurice is a dancer, rhythm is a prime consideration and things feel ultra-crisp, including his diction. Though the Nat "King" Cole songs are honored, the treatments have no residue of the syrupy arrangements that weighed down some of his more commercial hits.
There are no duds here, and it's a smooth, super ride through "Route 66," "Unforgettable" and other Cole favorites. Somehow I missed hearing about this classy CD when it came out, but I was glad to catch up with it as it came to my attention when I happily caught Maurice's nightclub act at The Metropolitan Room, featuring some of the material. His versatility is a pleasure to behold and he has real magnetism.
UNDER THE RADAR
Recorded live, Mindy Simmons' salute to Peggy Lee is musically astute. Listening to her albums that feature her singing other songs, you can hear a strong similarity to Lee in her usual voice. She's simply a good and interesting singer who happens to have the same kind of timbre, and a good sense of rhythm.
Her repertoire with these 19 tracks covers a great many key Lee hits, including some the late legend co-wrote. It's nicely balanced with ballads like a breathy "You Go to My Head" and lively swingers such as "It's a Good Day" and the cute, sly things like the pair from Lady and the Tramp and "Manana." No matter the style, she really pegs Peggy without any obvious effort or self-consciousness showing. It doesn't feel studied. The musicians vary somewhat, as this was taped at various concerts, but it all hangs together well, and sound quality is pretty good.
Mindy, a new discovery for me, actually has several albums and records a wide variety of material. Not just an entertainer, she works as an educator and with church groups. She sent along her recent CD of politically conscious songs, If It Were Up to Me, that I find to be very strong with a lot of integrity in the sentiments thoughtfully expressed. It also shows other talents, as she plays guitar and wrote or co-wrote six of the folky but forceful songs. She sounds a lot less like Peggy Lee on that CD, but it has a lot to offer. Samples of her singing can be heard at the CDbaby.com website. Where has she been all these years? Apparently in Florida and for another live album, in Pittsburgh.
In upcoming weeks, more looks at icons from Steven Brinberg's recreation of Barbra Streisand (with duet partners), Marieann Meringolo's salute to other women singers (including Barbra and Peggy) and, next week, some brand new cast albums.