In this week that began with Memorial Day when those stirred-up thoughts combine with the daily reminder of an ongoing war, here are looks at three musicals where war is in the picture and the plot.
WHEN THE LIGHTS GO ON AGAIN
Taking place during World War II, When the Lights Go On Again deftly and deliciously revisits that era by adopting 22 pre-existing songs for its score, but not just the obvious choices. The show, especially impressive on stage, just wrapped up a seven-month run at the Triad on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. It has a modest plot about a singing group whose members get involved in the war effort and each other's lives. The war temporarily breaks up the group and they work for the USO and sing of the sacrifices and patriotism. But dialogue is not included here, and you don't need to know the story because the songs can easily be enjoyed for themselves. In fact, most were used simply as numbers the group sang in performance. Suffice to say, if most sound polished and professional but with a more generalized sentiment, it's because they are not used as plot songs.
On the other hand, Paul Kropfl's tender version of "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)" and Connie Pachl and Christina Morrell's heart-tugging duet of "My Sister and I" sound more genuinely involved because they are more tied to the plot: Paul plays a soldier far from home who is singing about missing a character conveniently named Nancy (Christina, whose ingenue character is not only a member of the group but also happens to be sister to Connie's brassier character). Bill Daugherty, who is also conceiver, writer, director and record producer, plays the fourth member of the fictional vocal quartet. All sing with aplomb and real affection for the material, whether alone or in combination in this cozy nest of nostalgia.
Finely crafted, creamy vocal harmonies are the heart and soul of this album. The agreeable instrumental arrangements are kept fairly understated so the emphasis is on the sensational blend of the voices. Though faithful to the general tone and tempi of familiar favorites, this is not wallpapered sound or limp copying. There's real presence and joy in the performances, and the attention to detail does not result in a clinical sound.
There's a nice mix of World War II-specific sentimental balladry (the group's "The White Cliffs of Dover" and Bill's "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen") and bouncy numbers that perk things up. In this latter category, Connie, Christina and Bill pluckily strut through Johnny Mercer's "G.I. Jive" and Irving Berlin's "Any Bonds Today?" Though Connie has some cheeky fun with "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," it still shows restraint; don't go looking for hamminess and showing off on this album nor any rocking of the musical boat in these safe waters.
Christina admirably avoids milking the sentimentality in the title song and "We Mustn't Say Goodbye." Bill and Connie, who each have superbly recorded solo for the same label, lend real spark and a sense of authenticity to the material, sounding supremely comfortable. I especially love the real yearning quality Paul embodies in the aforementioned standout "Nancy" and his featured vocal in "Don't Wake Up My Heart."
Pianist Doyle Newmyer did many of the atmospheric arrangements and transcribed some others. He's joined by by guitarist Jim Conant and bass player John Loehrke, with Chip Fabrizi on drums. In this 1940s time machine visit, nobody's looking for an army of new ideas - all were "drafted" to recreate a sound and a time and they achieve victory.
SOMEONE LIKE YOU
There's a curiosity factor about the British musical Someone Like You. The liner notes on this "world premiere recording" of a dozen of its songs more than hint at the 1989-90 show's troubled history. The saga includes artistic differences among the creative team, overhauls of the material, and a sudden closing, leaving no original cast recording beyond a single with two songs.
The story takes place in the American South at the end of the Civil War as a woman has come to find her soldier husband but ends up in a romance with a clergyman tending the wounded. The show had starred its composer, veteran pop singer Petula Clark, but she does not appear on this CD and apparently had no new creative involvement in this version. he has no involvement with this belated recording. Her earlier recordings of a few songs serve the material better than this CD, which has an identity crisis: tentative in approach one moment and then forceful.
On keyboards, one of three listed musicians is original musical director/arranger Kenny Clayton. He returns to those jobs, providing mostly new arrangements that are alternately very simple (guitar accompaniment is effective) or cluttered with synthesizers and echoing pop rhythms that certainly don't suggest the 19th century. Granted, it's made clear in the accompanying notes that the CD is not intended to recreate the theatrical context for the material, and it certainly doesn't shout "musical theater." There's a heavy feeling hanging in the air here, with performances often feeling labored and lugubrious or unsettled, rather than natural.
The CD features some earnest singing from the three noticeably British-accented performers who share the vocal assignments: original cast member Lewis Rae plus Debi Doss and Andrew Derbyshire. None stick with one character, and Dee Shipman's lyrics lean toward the general rather than being character or plot-specific, so things are further muddied. Still, there are some nice moments to be found. When it isn't turgid, it's touching, even if the well-meaning sincerity is encumbered by some clumsiness or style-clashing. For example, there's a heart-on-the-sleeve vulnerability in much of the singing by Debi and a committed performance of the title song by Andrew who does some vibrant vocalizing elsewhere, and Lewis's "I Am What You Need" has some juice. The effective big lamenting ballad, "Through the Years" is heard in two versions; the title song is also heard as an instrumental.
Lyrics tend to state their point early on and then wander, or go for overkill by, in a few cases, repeating a key line over and over at the end. The melodies are less self-conscious and some are attractive. There is no interactive dialogue, but non-singing Leigh Lawson has several appearances speaking in rhymed speech to solemnly state some observations about human emotions to set up (or give away) the mood or point of a song before the singer takes over.
The album does not include all of the songs from the score and some here were revised. Strangely, rather than put the songs in context or give plot details, the liner notes give specific information on the earlier, unreleased demo recordings of each song. This recording itself, in fact, still plays in many ways like a demo rather than a theatrical facsimile of a cast album.
UNDER THE RADAR
This particular Little Princess, with music and lyrics by Mel Atkey, played the Wings Theatre in downtown Manhattan in 2003, but has only recently been released on CD. (Note: This album is not to be confused with another adaptation of A Little Princess, with a score by Neil Minsky and Ed Mintz and also on the Original Cast Records label.) The cast for this recording is mostly new, with a few holdovers from the New York production. Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel about Sara Crewe, a little girl in England, undergoes an Americanization process this time, with the boarding school story reset in Washington, DC, during the Civil War. Sara's colonel father is off to the battlefield as is the beau of one of her teachers.
There's some charm here, with performers of varying levels of professionalism and problematic sound quality. There are evident vocal struggles and some clunky moments in the performances by some of the young girls here. Kelly Quinn as Sara has some shining moments and radiates sincerity, but it's a precarious path to trod. She seems at ease and in character one moment and out of her element the next. But to be fair, she and others are saddled with some melodic lines that are awkward and keys/high notes that seem uncomfortable. The assertive characterization through powerfully in-control work by the late Patty Montano as the cold-hearted headmistress is a highlight, as are two energizing song-and-dance man turns by Brian Breen (who co-produced the album with director/bookwriter Robert Sickinger).
There is no credit given here for the musical accompaniment, but at times it is unbalanced - in competition with the singers or sounding like an oversimplified guide track banging out the melody line. It seems that sometimes the singers are accompanying the instrumental tracks rather than the other way around. Another sound problem is the variation in clarity and ambiance: two tracks sound like they were recorded live with audience sounds audible.
There are some sturdy (if overly-hammered-in) melodies here and lyrics that illustrate character and espouse admirable qualities ("Carry On"). There is nobility in the duets for father and daughter showing a warm love and in the final number called "Take Away" for the character of, yes, President Abraham Lincoln as he reflects on the Civil War. All's fair in love and war, but it's sometimes a battle to find the real potential in this album, though it has its attributes.
Until next time, at ease!