Before we get to three satisfying albums from singers who are serious about their work - and succeed with serious talent interpreting show tunes and more - let's tickle your funny bone. That supremely silly show about nuns is back yet again, this time with men playing the Sisters.
Not that the original Nunsense is short on the camp quotient, but things are cranked up a few notches by casting it with men playing all five nuns. The show was always a hoot and remains so. Listening to the the all-male cast version, cunningly and punningly retitled Nunsense A-Men!, we don't hear that much in the way of the gentlemen imitating women's voices by using falsetto or Monty Python-style extreme female vocal characterizations. If you didn't know anything about the show, you could casually listen to some of the cuts and not know the men were playing female roles. From the show's reviews, it seems that seeing the show may be a whole other experience, watching the men play women. As an album, the songs and performances are still quite hilarious.
If you're a novice to Nunsense, here's a quick catch-up: The broad but affectionate musical is about nuns who put on a show to raise money for the burials of some nuns accidentally poisoned by bad vichyssoise whipped up by one of their own. (Oops!) It began Off-Broadway in the 1980s and ran for a decade. It's been produced all over the world, taped for TV broadcast, and spawned sequels with new songs. The original was first cast with men in the 1990s and that gender-bent plan has been put into practice in some productions ever since.
Dan Goggin's jokey and jaunty songs from the original Nunsense are delivered with relish here by this lively cast. They punch up the punch lines very crisply, so that you really catch a lot of the stuff that whizzes by in other versions. They sound like they are having a good time and never met a joke they didn't like and want to milk the whole life out of, which is their job. But it must be said that the warm spirit and any sense of being able to relate to the characters as real people are seriously diminished. If their voices contrasted to a greater degree and were more idiosyncratically unique, the CD would be more effective. For these nuns, the order of the day as far as the level of hijinks and volume - well, it's kind of relentless.
Dan Foss as the Mother Superior is raucous and brassy, with her (sorry, his) "Turn Up the Spotlight" spot on. As Sister Robert Anne, Rodd Bayston holds his own in their "Playing Second Fiddle" duet and in his solo, "I Just Want to Be a Star," he winningly pulls out all the stops. John Hensley (Sister Leo) does well, too, and Shawn Kilgore as the nun with amnesia seizes some of the comic opportunities. Musically, the 11 o'clock number, the rousing "Holier Than Thou," is the knockout, with Reggie Whiteside creating real excitement with quality singing. It's a blessing that the ensemble numbers also work well, with some decent harmony singing. Michael Rice's original orchestrations are used, but the clarity of the instrumental sounds is not ideal. Still, you can't argue with the success of the humor and so, if the cast members wear boxer shorts under their habits, the dippy Sisters seem to act as if they're nun the wiser.
Talk about a sabbatical! Joanne Beretta sang in cabarets in the 1960s and 1970s, making one long out-of-print record before putting music aside and basically vanishing. Reading her praises in James Gavin's remarkable anecdotal history of New York nightlife, Intimate Nights, piqued my curiosity (he also wrote the liner notes for this comeback CD) and I've joined the fan club. I'm glad to finally hear her, both on this album and in person - she's currently gracing Danny's Skylight Room on West 46th Street in Manhattan on Friday nights.
Joanne's Love Life is an elegant affair; if she didn't project so much warmth, you might describe her as seeming almost regal. There's something mesmerizing about her performance, and the interpretations feel honest and lived-in rather than calculated, through there are moments here and there where one wishes things could be smoother or more relaxed. The lady has an air of implied hard-won wisdom. She seems as comfortable with a Broadway number like Frank Loesser's "Joey, Joey, Joey" as with the '60s pop-folk song that coincidentally just landed on Broadway, Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," wherein she adapts the pronoun "she" in the lyric to sing in the first person. Joanne excels at material that lets her portray a character involved in the examination of her own feelings, taking a long, realistic look at her non-perfect self, as in "How Insensitive" or "If Love Were All."
There is a sort of refined vulnerability in "Make the Man Love Me" (from the musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields) and Joanne shares a talent with Mabel Mercer for making a song and sentiment seem noble. Her mezzo voice has some wonderfully rich, deep tones with a wealth of feeling. There is a prominent vibrato which is the most evident feature, especially because the tempi here are slow and quite serious. There are no uptempo or lighthearted tunes. Even the Harold Arlen melody of "My Shining Hour" sounds somber, and its Johnny Mercer lyric describing the time as "calm and happy and bright" sounds like things are weightier.
Some will find this heavy going. As I listen to the album over and over, I find any disappointment about the sameness in tone to be a non-issue. I have fallen under its spell - if Joanne Beretta is an acquired taste, I've acquired the appropriate musical taste buds and find the CD very tasty indeed.
The accompaniment is just piano and bass on all 14 tracks. Pianist Franklin Underwood (who did many of the arrangements) and bassist John Beal give her plenty of room to phrase and provide stately accompaniment that enriches the mood. James Keough is the producer, giving the album a dramatically intimate feel.
The CD is currently only available through the vocalist's website but may make its way to other outlets soon. Welcome back, Joanne Beretta.
To swing or not to swing? When Sarah Partridge's instincts lead her to swing, she can do it in a light, breezy way that feels natural. The rhythm and groove are priorities and she takes off comfortably and confidently, with the good jazz alliance of her band. She can scat and be playful with a melody line, too: taking on Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's film title song "Out of This World" is one example where she does it all, including a scat-singing duet with herself, thanks to technology. When she decides to focus on the lyric of a ballad, she can really dig into it with intelligent and sensitive phrasing. Either way, her work is tasteful and never overindulgent. Sarah has an exceptionally clean sound: unencumbered, healthy and free.
You Are There: Songs for My Father is Sarah's third very satisfying CD. All songs can be sampled at her website and are the kind that make for easygoing, ingratiating company, leading to repeat spins. The singer opened the season at The Algonquin's Oak Room in New York and it was a thoroughly enjoyable show, based on this recording. She returns there in June.
The opening track, Stevie Wonder's "You and I," starts off sensitively and sparingly in a way that commands attention. Quite soon she changes course and casual jazz sensibilities take over. It becomes a happy excursion rather than a dramatic one. There are times when I wish she'd invest more theatricality in a piece or really go to town with a jazz workout. A couple of arrangements seem somewhere conservatively and off handedly in between. That's less interesting.
On the one song she wrote herself, "Dancing in My Mind," she's able to retain a lot of emotion in her voice even though there's a Latin feel to the musical stylings. This number is about memories of early times with her dad - the whole CD is a tribute to him and the kind of music he introduced to her. Some songs are simply those favorites and others resonate with feelings associated with dealing with the loss of her father. Thus, the title song (by Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mandel) is especially poignant, and it successfully embodies the kind of calm that can only be gained from the perspective of time having passed. The song's words about sensing the presence of someone who is gone are very well phrased.
The accompaniment is piano, bass and drums with Sean Jones on trumpet or flugelhorn added on a few tracks. Tony DePaolis and Jeff Grubbs alternate on bass and James T. Johnson III is the drummer. All are quite fine, but it's the piano work by Daniel May that really stands out. He's kind of the perfect match for Sarah: never showy, but the more you listen, the more you find to admire in his skill and subtle touches. They have some good ideas in their treatments for a handful of older Broadway songs, including a smooth ride through Rodgers & Hart's "Where or When," a tender touch for "Why Did I Choose You?" (Mickey Leonard/ Herbert Martin, from The Yearling) and a snazzy My Fair Lady choice that takes a fair number of liberties, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly."
This CD is loverly and loving.
UNDER THE RADAR
A New York-born, California-based singer makes his debut. Like Sarah Partridge, he chooses a My Fair Lady song and a classic by Rodgers & Hart. Like Joanne Beretta, he chooses "How Insensitive" and and some Frank Loesser and Arthur Schwartz. Like both, he picks from the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer collaborations. But he brings his own fresh energy.
You'll know before the end of the first chorus of the first song on Jonathan Poretz's first CD that the guy can sing with confidence and style. That first track is the album's title song and Jonathan happily swings the Bye Bye Birdie tune with spark and feel-good snap. Sit back and relax - you're in good hands. The songs are standards, nothing more recent than the 1960s. He doesn't beat himself up much on "How Insensitive," or let it bring him (or thus, us) down much. He takes two helpings from Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls score, with "My Time of Day" proving he can pass the jazz test and "I've Never Been in Love Before" earning him his merit badge as a sincere romantic balladeer. He also does well in the "I am in love" department floating across two Arthur Schwartz melodies: "Then I'll Be Tired of You" with its Yip Harburg lyric of eternal devotion and the ardent Howard Dietz words in "I See Your Face Before Me."
As a student in the school of singing, Jonathan seems to be majoring in croon and swing rather than drama, so he doesn't mine the deeper songs for their complexities. Thus, the Harold Arlen/ Johnny Mercer numbers are less well served: "Come Rain or Come Shine" gets kind of glossed over (is it just me or do a lot of singers miss its potential for determination and intensity?), and "This Time the Dream's on Me" trades its bittersweet quality for cheer. Rodgers & Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind" finds him catching some of the wistfulness and regret, although you wouldn't prescribe antidepressants. In general, he definitely projects a man who sees the glass as half full. His ebullience is welcome on My Fair Lady's "On the Street Where You Live," a celebratory performance that is a highlight.
Jonathan has been wearing the Frank Sinatra hat, singing as one of the performers in a tribute to The Rat Pack that has played in several cities. Although many of these numbers were also recorded by Sinatra, he's not caught in the trap of aping the master's sound or trademark stylings.
He also gives generous time to the band for longish instrumental breaks and solos. I grew restless with some. Noel Jewkes gets a lot of time in the spotlight on sax, but I found his work far more interesting when he switched to flute or clarinet. He's also on trombone, and Jonathan takes time to trade some phrases with him when he scat sings (which he does pretty well). Lee Bloom is the nimble pianist and collaborated with the singer on the arrangements. Pierre Josephs and Jeff Neighbor alternate on bass. On drums, it's either Vince Lateano or veteran Harold Jones (whose resume includes work with Count Basie and Tony Bennett).
Jonathan is performing his Birthday Bash tonight at Shanghai 1930, 133 Steuart Street, San Francisco. He continues to perform throughout the month in California; his schedule can be viewed on his website, www.jonathanporetz.com. So, happy birthday to a talented singer whose first CD is certainly very impressive.
Coming attractions: a newly recorded album by Theodore Bikel, composer Charles Strouse sings his own songs, reissues of classic Broadway scores, Charlotte Rae's solo album from half a century ago, and more - including, inevitably, Christmas.