Variety is certainly the spice of life and it's been a pretty spicy week. In this week's column there's a bit of something for each taste: theatre music that looks forward and backward, classy jazz sounds, good time old-time rock and roll, comic relief, and new things to discover.
THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
The letters of the alphabet, when put exactly in the right place, can make you a winner. No wonder one of the spelling bee finalists sings an ode called "My Friend, the Dictionary," recalling how she pored over it starting at the beginning: A, B, C, D.... Now we have: a "Bee" C.D.
This is a winner of a recording. The singing actors, well directed by James Lapine, get a lot of characterization into their voices for a satisfyingly theatrical listening experience. Through many nice touches and sharp timing, the emotions are fleshed out smartly by the orchestrations of Michael Starobin and musical direction of Vadim Feichtner. It all spells success.
On the surface, it's just about the orthography contest, but these talented people show us the emotions indicating so much more. It's about social success (or lack thereof) and self-image, and you can hear the pain and tenderness, which make these performances more just adults playing kids as cartoons. Leave it to composer-lyricist William Finn, who can write emotionally wrenching and searing songs like those in the Falsettos trilogy and his Elegies song cycle, to craftfully layer humanity under the hilarious and impish character songs for these junior misfits and dweebs.
Each cast member gets at least one big moment to shine. Lisa Howard's clear and smooth, pretty voice wisely provides a change of pace from the childlike voices affected by the bulk of the cast who are the kids. Each of them is loveable. Celia Keenan-Bolger has a chance to show more vocal variety and does a marvelous job. Jesse Tyler Ferguson nails his self-deprecating "I'm Not That Smart," finding pathos and all kinds of quirky idiosyncrasies. In the number showing that losing can be the struggle to stay focused when other thoughts fight for one's focus, Jose Llana sings of the "unfortunate" stiff competition. Deborah S. Craig, Dan Fogler, and Sarah Saltzberg are also close to "letter perfect." Jay Reiss adds to the to the fun in brief bits as the Vice Principal, and Derrick Baskin is just right as the adult who escorts the devastated losers offstage (he's called the "Comfort Counselor"). The dreaded sound of a bell, meaning a spelling mistake, is used frequently on the album, signaling each loss. The gleeful fake-sympathetic sung "goodbyes" follow each loss and are a nifty running bit.
This deceptively simple show has a lot of heart and makes you think about all those issues of being accepted by others and by oneself - the struggles we don't really leave behind when we get the braces off our teeth, or wear a cap and gown, or get the spelling prize. The album is yet another current cast recording from the folks at Sh-K-Boom who must be putting in a lot of overtime hours. This "Bee" is a genuinely sweet show and a prize of a recording.
LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA
Some theatregoers have gone on record as finding this show's songs resistible. Now that the score itself has gone on record, will you agree? I simply surrendered to it the first time and it swept over me or swept me along with its strength. Certain tracks require doing something not all audiences like to commit to - listening harder and concentrating. Two solos, the title song and "Love To Me" are less complex than the others, gentler, easier to "get" and get happily hooked on with a first hearing. The majority of the music is rapturous and ravishingly romantic. Since there is conflict and anguish in the story, other sections reflect that. What I resist is the temptation many have had to make comparisons to other Broadway writers or musicals set in Italy. Adam Guettel is an intelligent writer whose work explodes with passion and ardor. Repeated listenings may be prescribed for the reluctant whose Broadway ears have been spoon-fed, literally, by singing spoons and prancing plates of Beauty And The Beast or the already familiar and simpler pop, pastiche, and Presley (see below) heard in other current shows.
Blessed with glorious voices, the cast is well suited to expressing the emotions demanded. Victoria Clark as the mother is a commanding presence on disc, as much actress as singer. The most troubled and burdened of the characters, her Margaret's plate is full and the performer is given a full palette of musical colors. Kelli O'Hara as the daughter discovering life and love has many lovely musical opportunities, although in her words much leeway in terms of artistic license must be grudgingly given considering the limitations her character is supposed to have. Matthew Morrison succeeds in sounding lovestruck without making awe and sweetness the only cards he plays. Mark Harelick and Sarah Uriarte Berry are the other featured singers, and they add vocal variety with admirable skill.
The orchestra is recorded with attention to detail, with a major plus being the composer's orchestrations, created with the conductor, the sterling Ted Sperling (additional orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin). They make the elegantly aching melodies even more exquisite and clarify or underline specific moments with a flourish or contrasting emotion voiced by a specific sound. Adam Guettel himself plays guitar on my favorite track, the aforementioned "Love To Me" sung by Matthew Morrison, and an instrumental cut called "American Dancing." The large string section provides grace and dramatic excitement for the romance and Italian ambiance. You may find yourself listening to the orchestra as much as the singers, which is not to say that the balance is off or the instrumentalists upstage anyone. It's just that they're that good.
I'll acknowledge that this won't be to everyone's taste any more than a rock musical would be. My "sound advice" is that an open heart and mind will let you get in touch with Adam Guettel's shimmering and poetic score, well worth the investigation, as is his earlier work. My real gripe is that he's not more prolific, as he's been nursing this project for several years and I don't want to wait anywhere near that long to see what he creates next.
ALL SHOOK UP
To some, the phrase "jukebox musical" has become an anathema. Recent stage shows using a collection of old rock hits with a contrived story as song cues have had many Broadwayphiles all shook up with anger and protest. I'll sign the petition, but the task at hand is to tell you about the cast recording resulting from a show of this genre. Putting aside any criticism of other aspects of All Shook Up, let's just focus on what we hear on the disc. We've got a couple dozen Elvis Presley songs. Is it an enjoyable listen? It has its moments, as long as you're not expecting too musch of a"Broadway" sound, and not expecting it to be especially "Elvis-y" either. You won't find much of the rawness or sense of danger so attractive in the early Elvis sound and presentation. It all sounds kind of sanitized and homogenized, not quite the Disney version of Elvis, but grit is hard to spot. Could this be the album for people who like Presley songs but don't like Presley's voice and style? If there is such a niche market, they'll love this.
There is a sense of joy, plenty of energy and good spirits. The arrangements are neither Xerox copies of the originals nor stunningly creative. Whereas some of the cast members become strident when pulling all the stops out, I rather like leading man Cheyenne Jackson's sound because he isn't pushing and trying too hard. His "Roustabout" hits the mark nicely while "If I Can Dream" starts off with some real emotion as a solo before turning into a big ensemble number that builds in a way that's more predictable than thrilling, but still a bit exciting. Unfortunately, the funny and powerfully voiced Alix Korey is given very little to sing.
The sound is bright, thanks to veteran record producers Jay David Saks and Bill Rosenfield. It's a lively romp through some feel-good early rock and roll tunes and it will get your blood pumping without taxing your brain.
She's thinking all the time. That's what you sense when you listen to Catherine Dupuis going through a lyric moment by moment. She's truly in each moment, thinking it through and communicating it to the listener. Maybe it's because she has a degree in theatre and worked as an actress. It shows. She's also studied music with some of the best, and the lady is in command. With a pleasing sound that can be creamy, belty or wistful, Catherine is a pleasure to hear. The title song and "The Best is Yet To Come" (I bet that is true in her case) are both Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh sparklers that bring out her playful, effervescent side. Broadway ballads "Who Will Buy" (Oliver!), "I Have Dreamed" (The King And I) and "I've Never Been In Love Before" (Guys And Dolls) get warm, tender treatment and a genuine sense of longing with an equal measure of optimism. "Someone At Last," the Harold Arlen/ Ira Gershwin item from the film A Star is Born gets a new flavor and is all the better for it.
The other very good news is that she surrounds herself with musicians of the highest rank. Russ Kassoff is arranger, orchestrator, conductor and pianist as well as co-producer with Catherine. His settings are inventive and exciting, very rewarding to pay attention to on repeated listenings for the many ideas big and small, figures and accents that are assets to the story of the song. He also wrote two of the songs with lyricist Deirdre Broderick. "When He's Near My Piano" is an unusual ballad that's been growing on me. The other is "You're All the World To Me," also just recorded by the bright new talent, Jasper Kump, with whom he's performing in New York. The brass here is especially strong: Bruce Bonvissuto playing trombone and Marvin Stamm on trumpet and flugelhorn. Four tracks have the extra added attractive attraction of guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli and on two others Joe Cohn is guitarist. Catherine and Russ are well matched, and his piano playing throughout adds immeasurably to the full effect.
Catherine can be moody and meditative or bubbly, but she's more than anything else an interpretive singer with jazz sensibilities and a great sense of swing. I suspect she's as much in love with the music as she is with the lyrics. While listening (and seeing her in person recently) it occurred to me that she reminds me of three stars of the past, all coincidentally named Betty. There are traces of the ebullience of Betty Hutton, the old-fashioned femininity of Betty Grable, and a touch of the sauciness of Betty Boop. I sense there are a couple of out-and-out comedy songs in her that want to come out and a few big, dramatic torch songs as well. Still growing, still experimenting, still thinking. Always thinking. That's good. There are 13 lucky songs on this CD by Miss C.D., all pleasures for the ear. It's her third album.
UNDER THE RADAR
The choice this week for an enjoyable, little-known recording which you've probably never heard is the cast album of Wicked by Stephen Schwartz. No, this is not some horribly embarrassing typographical error. No, there is not a Czechoslovakian cast album of the show. I'm talking about a karaoke accompaniment album of the score. This is a 2-CD set: one disc has just the tracks, but the other has vocals that are quite good and totally listenable as entertainment. Often, these products have what's called a "guide vocal": a generic-sounding voice singing the song in a very simplified version devoid of personality or characterization. Not this time!
WICKED: HITS YOU CAN SING TOO!
Wicked's score and cast album are much-loved by a legion of Broadway fans. Many know it almost by heart from repeated playings and attendance at the show. They'd welcome an alternate version. If you are one of those, find this set. It sounds more like a cast album than a karaoke teaching tool. Listen and/or sing along with the accompaniment tracks. Please be aware that there are other karaoke versions - we're talking about a 2-CD set on a label called Stage Stars. One disc has the well-sung, theatrical vocals, not a quick once-over by a studio singer just presenting the vocal line without a sense of or familiarity with the characters. The second disc has the accompaniment tracks only.
The music director is Michael Lavine, who also plays Boq. Michael has conducted shows at the Kennedy Center, the York Theatre, Lincoln Center, in London, and at Music Theatre of Wichita. And who are the witches you ask? Sarah Farnam (Glinda) has toured in major roles and performed in New York. She's also on eight other karaoke cast albums by this company. The leaner, meaner, greener witch is sung by Julie Garnye has been in the national tours of Cats and Bat Boy. Miles Phillips (The Wizard) is known to New York cabaret audiences, has traditional musical theatre acting experience and has recorded on his own. They and the other cast members play the roles full out with passion and panache. And chops!
You get a small band, all the lyrics for the 15 tracks, and the chance to turn the separate vocal channel up or down if you are learning the material. Certain compromises are made so the accompaniment will be strong enough to follow when the vocals are absent, of course, but this comes as a delightful surprise. I never guessed I'd be reviewing a karaoke CD, but this is that and more.
Till next time ... We'll be listening for you.