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Songwriters' Corner

Out comes the welcome mat for interesting songwriter showcases. Here are three on the Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight record label, spotlighting the work of the new generation of songwriters in and around musical theatre. Their mostly serious, emotional material reflects a youthful perspective on navigating one's way without frequent flyer miles through romantic love and relationships—with angst and realizations aplenty, private or proclaimed. Each CD has a roster of singers, with Broadway performers prominent, several appearing on more than one (Matt Doyle shows up on all three).

Our First Mistake
OUR FIRST MISTAKE: KERRIGAN-LOWDERMILK
VARIOUS ARTISTS

Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records

Life and love are felt rather deeply and presented thoughtfully in the songs of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk. Gathered together are some excellent singers who treat the material with the care it deserves, making for a heartfelt—and occasionally heartwrenching—listening session of committed performances. The frustrating thing about this collection featuring some pages from their songbook is that it's on the thin side. There are only ten tracks, two of which present the same song, and one track labeled "Mistake" that is simply composer Lowdermilk briefly noodling at the piano, work-session style, with his partner heard making a comment at the end. Also skimpy is the packaging: the cardboard sleeve gives us virtually nothing but the names of the songs and singers (however, we are directed to their website, www.kerrigan-lowdermilk.com, where one finds all the lyrics, some background information like which ones are from which of their stage works, musician credits and online liner notes written by Matthew Murray).

There's some knockout singing and playing on the worthy material. Katie Thompson adeptly conveys the sense of awe and joy about being a representative sample in the mathematical hugeness of humanity with "Five and a Half Minutes." By the end, she gets to show the exciting hugeness of her vocal prowess, too. In an electrifying performance of raw nerves and raw energy, Matt Doyle roars and despairs through "Last Week's Alcohol" wherein a sobering effect comes from drinking in the truth along with the booze. Another truth serum comes when he joins Jay Armstrong Johnson to add force to Morgan Karr's declamation of desperation in seeking human contact and connection beyond the physical with "Two Strangers." This is potent stuff. A more collected character with seemingly more control and analyzed feelings, but also sounding driven in driving home the points in stating "My Heart Is Split" is Laura Osnes, joined by Meghann Fahy.

Matching the expressions of thoughts tumbling out or tentatively tip-toed around, the music by gifted composer/pianist Lowdermilk can be throbbing and pulsating—or cautiously halting. Stepping into love and commitment can be like treading on thin ice or turn around to be a plunge into quicksand; either way, turning back seems not to be the option. What should be walking on familiar ground—literally being on home territory—can feel different, analyzed in "How to Return Home," from the point of view of someone who's had that first adult chapter living on their own. Natalie Weiss handles this with an involved performance that demonstrates the building of—and on—realizations, gathering strength. Even when insisting that a developing relationship with its own isolated moments and momentum seems to be "Not a Love Story," its seeming significance for the lovers hovers in the air, even if it's not "something you'd put in a play." In this piece, Kelli O'Hara captures the desire to be self-convincingly clear-eyed and clear-headed, the repeating of lyrics' protestations quite effective.

The coming-of-age story The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown (coming to Goodspeed Opera House in August) is represented by two excellent numbers. Vienna Teng, providing her own piano accompaniment, attractively and encouraging jumps more fully into love's waters with "Say the Word." Michael Arden, who memorably sang "Run Away with Me" in presentations of the musical and in concert, scores with the score's standout again. His calibrated performance is rich and rewarding, beginning with the proposal of sorts, causing nervousness mixed with determination ("If it seems like I'm sweating/ Well, that's 'cause I am ... ") and then gaining strength verse by verse. This is the song that's repeated, vibrantly, by a trio billed as The Spring Standards but not named individually here (they are Heather Robb, James Smith and James Cleare). "Run Away with Me" has been a magnet for singers over the last few years, chosen in concerts and cabaret and previously recorded strikingly on solo CDs by Dwayne Britton and Josh Young. It captures the writers' embrace of life-affirming messages. As I hear things, even when they are presenting jangled nerves and anguish, there's a sensibility that problems can be worked on, solutions are on the horizon, and the likelihood that "This, too, shall pass."

Chasing the Day CHASING THE DAY
THE MUSIC OF WILL VAN DYKE
VARIOUS ARTISTS

Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records

Whether the overall feel is fragile, fraught or fervent, the songs on Chasing the Day have the heart worn on the sleeve. We have an intense, dense cascade of confessions and questioning. Will Van Dyke writes music that can be delicate to represent vulnerability, but often with an underlying or even dominating strength as if to buoy or enable it. Lyrics are all co-credited to Josh Halloway and so it's puzzling why he doesn't share billing in the album's title and isn't pictured. (Halloway does contribute a few lines of liner notes, noting that the songs were written in numerous locations "on the road" and that they are about "the places that life takes us and the people who bring us back.")

Almost all of the one dozen songs are about one-on-one romantic relationships in various states of solidity, as well as those not yet begun and those lost and lamented. Love is found and lost and found again, often confounding and conflicted, and overwhelming in some way. The plea "Come Home" provides the CD's title, as the pleading protagonist, sung with impactful naked need by Carrie Manolakos, wonders at first " ... what am I doing here?/ Chasing the day to be with you," but soon switches to a solid assurance that the reunion is the only answer, "chasing my way back to you." Another sorrowful portrait of separated lovers, with one not willing or able to give up with ease is "Settle," with Matt Doyle the troubled but forceful voice this time. He's ably encouraged musically by the composer on the piano, one of several where he plays his own music, and one of just two where he did the arrangement also.

Lyrics are peppered with questions and more questions—or should I say "riddled": In "Fly Away Gone," Stephanie J. Block, with her intense, breathy delivery deliberates a long series of queries starting with the words "What if ...," and in "Life Times," John Eric Parker dramatically begins each section with a question that that starts with the words "What do you do when ... ." In "Why'd You Hold My Hand," singer Pauline Pisano puzzles over, besides the title line, wondering "Maybe I'm not strong" and then "Why'd you give me the time/ Why'd you trip up my heart ... . Maybe I'm not good?"

But it's not all uncertainty and heavy going. There's "The Lighter Side" about little day-to-day moments, with Danica Dora nicely flavoring the number with serenity. Perspective, with a dose of humor, rears its welcome head with "The Very Worst Year" where Jay Armstrong Jones sings wonderfully, with a breath of fresh air, checking in with a reality check on how one can survive what seemed like traumas of "the second grade, the chicken pox" and an irrational "fear of cows." The clouds, however, return, and it's about being broken up and being broken up with again ("the night you left/ the days we lost"), but survival after scarring is confidently imagined.

The CD ends with a feel-good, spunky blast of energy, a big production with five singers called "The Legend of Wonderboy." This pure confectionary escapist delight is about a gloomy planet called Dearth populated by empty souls and a cave-dwelling monster who is conquered by the heroic Wonderboy, known as "humanity´s friend."

In their own subtly crusading way, with songs, the team of Will Van Dyke and Josh Halloway are humanity's friends, championing the humanity we share and the feelings we struggle with, may fear or be immobilized by, but the possible rewards of returned affection—they seem to remind us—are worth the risk and the chase.

Thirteen Stories DownTHIRTEEN STORIES DOWN
THE SONGS OF JONATHAN REID GALT
VARIOUS ARTISTS

Sh-K-Boom/ Ghostlight Records

Although some of its songs and performances are drama-drenched, the 13 tracks tracking checkpoints in interpersonal relationships on Thirteen Stories Down don't have that many "down" moments. Jonathan Reid Gealt's songs present us with perspectives of people who have been through a lot, but seem to thrive or have the confidence that they will persevere. They take charge or aim to. For example, in "I Won't Have To Anymore," Adam Chanler-Berat brings a young man's quiet self-assurance to beginning a new chapter of independence, moving on from a youth full of a father's insults and threats ("Who knows what'll happen, or what life has in store./ But, I've gotta keep trying, to fix what's been broken./ And, sooner or later I'll be stronger than before."). With grit and guts that gather steam along the way, Alysha Umphress sings first bluesily, then in a self-empowering manner that she knows she is "Lovable" and isn't willing to settle for more of the hollow feeling ("When I said I loved you, you said nothing in return."). And Natalie Weiss deftly demonstrates the resolve of a person who knows remaining "Quiet" and thus giving up isn't the answer, nor is waiting for "a glimmer of hope." There are glimmers of hope in the songs, and sometimes the glimmer turns into a bright spotlight that radiates through much of the story.

Orchestrations, by Lynne Shankel or keyboardist August Eriksmoen, are sometimes grand and sweeping, swelling with strings and punctuated with percussive punch, but the big emotions proudly proclaimed can handle the weight. Gentle, understated moments work well, too, such as Zak Resnick's touching and tender recollection of "one of those moments when time seems to stop" as he recalls the smile (and she who smiled) causing everything to change in "September of '92."

Nailing the comic relief assignment, Lauren Kennedy is a delight with the pop-flavored hypochondriac/ pessimist's tale, "Alex ... You're Fine!" which begins with "As a child I diagnosed myself with something different every week."

There are a few songs with gay themes: central, tangential or hinted at. For example, "wanting" is the scenario of two men in a movie theatre who are attracted to each other and they sing both their conversation andprivate thoughts—from wondering if the other is gay to second-guessing the flattering comments they've just made out loud. "I Won't Have To Anymore" refers to a parent whose "disrespectful remarks" include criticizing clothing that affect how his sexuality is perceived. Several of the numbers here were written for characters in Gealt's song cycle, Forward. Among them, "Expectations of a Man" is delivered with just the right charming mix of spunk, self-awareness and surprise by bubbly Bridie Carroll as a wannabe-bride.

Duets are prominent. Will Chase and Kate Baldwin warmly share "Lessons Learned" about two people who learn from each other to "follow your heart wherever it leads you." There are three male duets: a reconnection with "My Best Friend" for Tituss Burgess and Quentin Earl Darrington; a scenario of the nervousness and exhilaration of instant attraction, along with some self-deprecating second-guessing in "Wanting," nimbly done by Matt Doyle and Darius de Haas; and an unapologetic, uncomplicated call for reassurance sung with sincerity ("Stay/ I'll Never Go") for Adam Armstrong with the songwriter himself who sings with the same open-heartedness as he writes.

Like the other two albums reviewed above, Chasing the Day is not what they used to call—for a reason—"easy listening." There's little "easy" or simple about the fervor expressed, whether that comes through with titanic-voiced singing or tension in the so-much-at-stake expressed feelings that make a listener feel like an eavesdropper. The tracks are as much catharsis as they are songs: as acting pieces and vignettes, they could almost be audio supplements to demonstrate theories and slice-of-life examples in a self-help book. Convincing acting and dynamic, nuanced singing and illuminating accompaniment/orchestration ideas that serve the material is what we are getting rather than singers showcasing their voices or decorative, distracting instrumental sounds. Interestingly, I happened to see a performance of several of the songs at Barnes & Noble yesterday, shortly after writing most of this review and can say that even with just piano accompaniment (by the CD's orchestrating partner Lynn Shankel) and some of the CD's cast reassigned other songs from the album, the material worked powerfully.


Those especially interested in the newer crop of theatre songwriters such as these should note a concert on April 6 in Greenwich Village at Le Poisson Rouge where, among others, the works of Mr. Gealt and the Lowdermilk/Kerrigan partnership will be heard. More songwriter albums are in the pile, so another examination of such songbook CDs is coming up in April.


- Rob Lester


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