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Taking one's own path:
Noël 'n' Nancy

Welcome to the sophistication and very grown-up world of Noël Coward, inhabited by Steve Ross and guests, and the very much child-centric world of a kid named Nancy in the musical for kids, Fancy Nancy.

Steve RossSTEVE ROSS AND FRIENDS
(JEANNE LEHMAN, LISA RIEGEL, EDWARD HIBBERT)
NOËL COWARD OFF THE RECORD

Original Cast Records

Good things are worth waiting for. If you're a musical theatre aficionado, and those good things are previously unrecorded numbers by one of the giants of musical theatre—Sir Noël Coward—recorded by those who seem born and bred for the assignment, well, it's a belated bounty of bliss! Well steeped in Coward's oeuvre for many years, Steve Ross is the ideal host: presiding at the piano, singing, accompanying himself or his guests (his own arrangements), including chatty, fact-filled spoken introductions. He projects more warmth and sentiment—and reserve—than Coward's own personality projected in his recordings. This is all to the good, not only to avoid the trap of overdoing the arch attitudes or sarcasm, or coming off as a pale version of Coward. The presence of other singers allows for camaraderie and contrast.

Ross is never at a loss for a way to get into the period flavor and wit, as well as the antiquated styles of presentations in the earliest numbers, avoiding the pompous circumstances of being too "above it all" and grand. Instead, there's a playful insouciance with the frothy/fun stuff and a true elegance and yearning in the more operetta-influenced or formal statements. And he's the kind of performer who can address a loved one as "dear" and not sound too fake or fawning. Things become generally accessible because he seems to have an ease and comfort level with the work and communicates a joy in knowing and sharing them. This applies to his singing and playing which crisply convey the moods and relish the rhymes and word choices (like "Kodachrome" rhyming with "home" in "When the Journey's Over" or the alliteration in "languid, loose and lazy" and decorative sprightly figures in "I'm So In Love"). Listen carefully and you'll note him having some fun with the attitude in the internal rhyme "Though love is dead, you might have said goodbye" which precedes the line which is the song's title, "Why Do You Pass Me By?" (set to a melody by Charles Trenet).

Based on a 2007 concert and produced by Steve Ross and Original Cast Records' Bruce Yeko, for whom digging up neglected numbers is a mission and joy, this CD sounds clear and clearly like a labor of love. With the old-timey flavor, spoken intros and guests, with just piano accompaniment, it feels like an evening of parlor entertainment. Edward Hibbert, a genuine Brit, only appears for one guest vocal, a solo on "We've Got the Country at the Corner of the Street" from 1949, from the score for an unproduced show called Hoi Polloi. It's its own little hoot, from the flip understatement about World War II which opens the piece, "Since the War mucked up our town a bit ...," through lines like "to see how green is our valley that once was just an alley."

The female vocalists, Jeanne Lehman and Lisa Riegel, are far more prominent—singing with Ross or alone on numerous tracks, and they duet with each other once ("When We Were Girls Together"), their trained voices bringing an appropriate formality that can make things sound dated rather timeless to more resistant ears. But there's no condescension or awkwardness; all just seem to dive into the needed flavor. There may be a wink, but it isn't blatant. Jeanne Lehman, veteran of Broadway and concerts, has a quite flexible and still sturdy soprano, with her range impressive. She's somewhat of a chameleon, as is the other soprano, Lisa Riegel, who carries off an art-song-like lyric in French ("Meme les Anges") and spunkier assignments.

Oh, sure, there are moments when some creakiness shows, and we're reminded of more artful or sharper turns of phrase in the Coward canon and characterizations—some more flowing melodic strains or more knowing depictions of similar subject matter. In his commentary, our happy host acknowledges that not everything here would be considered the cream of the Coward crop, but that second-tier Noël is still pretty good. And it's certainly worth hearing. Some are cut songs from scores or just odd long-lost items, including early numbers where the young Master-to-be did not write both music and lyrics. In one case, written for a show that died aborning, the composer was Jerome Kern ("Morganatic Love") and the key part of the melody line morphed into "Where's the Mate for Me?" when Show Boat sailed onto Broadway. Some of the numbers may take a few listening to fully embrace, but it's quite worth the time and effort to let these strangers get to feel like the old friends they might have been had they been dusted off decades earlier. Better late than never. Thank you, Mr. Ross and friends, so very much!

Fancy NancyFANCY NANCY
THE MUSICAL
ORIGINAL OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records

A spiffy and spunky little children's musical based on a series of children's books about the titular young girl with attitude and determination and her own sense of style (she favors wearing tiaras and frowns on anything bland), Fancy Nancy is fun and free-spirited. The show recently ended a run in Manhattan, via Vital Theatre Company, and should have a happy life in theatres and schools all over. A six-person cast and bright, bouncy tunes and easy-streaming conversational and crackling lyrics make it pop and bubble along. Spice and sass cut through the more sugary moments. Feel-good messages about following one's own desires and goals, individualism, support and unconditional love of a mother for her child, and bucking up are obvious to the adult ears and mind, but not overly heavy-handed for kids. Gleeful or grousing, fuming or flip, the kids (played by adults) merrily go their way and get plenty of juice out of the joyful numbers.

Based on Jane O'Connor's books, the lyrics—a collaboration of contributions by Susan Di Lallo, who did the script, and composer Danny Abosch—are playful and glib in the better sense of the word. The first number, "Anyone Can Be Fancy," is cute and brisk and energizing, but more uniquely serves as a vocabulary-builder for children. Since Nancy goes for anything fancy, she like fancy words: big, long ones, and French phrases, all of which she translates into more common words kids would know. Alyssa Bloom's chipper delight as the title character is peppy, if a bit steamrollerish, but she holds attention and her me-centric attitude doesn't cloy; it's entertaining instead. And theatre-lovers will get a kick out of the main plot: trying out for and putting on the school play. (Nancy does not get the fancy role of her dreams—a mermaid—she's cast not even as half human ("I'm a Tree").) The one male character, played by Kyle Motsinger, gets the surprisingly cute rap number that's also funny. He plays a shark and gets to strut his tough-guy stuff, but he's so endearingly harmless that it's hilarious. Especially with the musical theatre nod to West Side Story ("When you're a shark, you're a shark all the way") and bragging about using another fish as mere dental floss for his prominent teeth, it's adorable.

The group number "Something Terrible," about troubles that befall the star of the show when she falls, is a zippy plot-thickener as the news spreads and is somewhat misunderstood. (Does "she" mean the young actress or her cat?) While the point of Mom singing "You'll Always Be My Star" to Nancy (who's still upset about not getting the lead/dream role) is a bit sticky and obvious, it is sung sincerely and straightforwardly with some warmth by Amanda Savan. When this actress sings in other numbers, it's not immediately obvious that we're hearing Mom because the kids are played by adult actors and, despite their efforts, the contrast isn't enough. A one-ups-man-ship duet by the characters of Wanda and Rhonda suffers from comparison to other musical theatre songs of competition and quibbling, but Tricia Giordano and Jes Dugger give it the old pre-college try. Darilyn Castillo as Nancy's BFF Bree adds some nice contrast and smoothness to the could-be-abrasive Nancy character.

Accompaniment sounds synthesized a lot, though often effective (only the composer is credited for musical duties). Although this is not as much an all-family musical as one that speaks to kids in their own language without broader strokes, it's engaging and perky and tickles the ear. At a playing time of less than 35 minutes, it's a shame the disc could not have been filled out with some additional dialogue (there's some) or instrumentals or alternate versions. The melodies are enjoyable and could stand reprises, if only for the album. But there's a lot of tang and zing here that makes Fancy Nancy—simply—a good, unpretentious, unlabored fine time.


- Rob Lester


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