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Hear what's here and now, starting with Here and Now, a Lauren Kennedy CD with lots of newish theatre songs. Also here and now released for the first time is a Betty Buckley album actually recorded 40 years ago, plus Andréa Burns' debut disc with a mix of old and new, and decidedly older songs with a Vegas touch by Sandy Kastel.

Lauren KennedyLAUREN KENNEDY
HERE AND NOW

PS Classics

There hasn't been much time for cobwebs to grow on the songs chosen by exciting theatre singer Lauren Kennedy for her second CD, Here and Now, because she's consciously chosen recent material by writers of the new generation of musical theatre talent. The album is full of powerful theatrical performances. Naturally, Lauren chose songs from a couple of shows she's worked on and others she's admired and discovered along the way. She scores with all of them, and it's tough to pick just a few favorites.

The vibrant-voiced vocalist's prior album was a collection of songs by Jason Robert Brown; two of his songs are on this one, with his own arrangements and orchestrations. He's on keyboards for his sarcastic but perky country cutie, "Mr. Hopalong Heartbreak" from Urban Cowboy (which didn't get a cast album), sassed by Lauren with high-stepping high spirits. The other Brown song is the serious and openly emotional "In This Room." It's a powerful duet with Rozz Morehead, actually recorded a few years ago, sung by these two at a special occasion for which it was specifically written: the songwriter's wedding to Georgia Stitt, whose song "My Lifelong Love" is also on this CD (and she conducts her own orchestration and plays the piano). It's a delightful story song about pre-teen crushes.

An intensely dramatic performer, Lauren sometimes tends towards big belting blasts, and for some there may be moments that border on overkill, for others it's the thrill of the explosive climax. But when she holds back with discretion, she can be just as (or more) effective. One example of that is a real gem, the easy-to-like "Easy" (Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy) from Waiting For the Moon, a musical about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald that Lauren starred in during its debut New Jersey in 2005. Another highlight is "Just Not Now" by the very talented team of Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham from their I Love You Because score. She's also successful with the spunky, spritely "Spread a Little Joy" Andrew Lippa wrote for an unproduced project, a musical about that great American heroine, Betty Boop. Again, it has the benefit of arrangement, orchestration and keyboard work of Jason Robert Brown, as does the tender "Through the Mountain" from Floyd Collins.

Lauren will be singing songs from the album today at 5:30 in a free half-hour concert at the Barnes & Noble store on Broadway and West 66th Street where the powerhouse singer (who is used to being further south on Broadway appearing lakeside in Spamalot) will also be signing the CD for customers.

This is a treasure chest of 21st century theatre songs by a performer who knows how to dig into the treasure and seems to treasure it, too.

Betty BuckleyBETTY BUCKLEY
1967

Playbill Records

1967 is a never-before-issued album recorded by Betty Buckley in that year, when she was a college student of 19. If you have the mature Buckley voice burned into your brain cells, you may find yourself saying, "Oh, there's a sample of what would develop into the dramatic vibrato!" or, "There's a more commanding turn of phrase or unique choice like the Betty we know." At other times, you may be so thrown by how much lighter and higher the voice is that it's hard to enjoy it on its own terms. The more I listen, the more I can get there, though some tracks are more instantly rewarding. That's because they have more of the later Buckleyisms in evidence (Can-Can's "C'est Magnifique") or, conversely, are less "Buckley-esque" and charm with a rush of youthful zeal (Bye Bye Birdie's song of serene teen romance, "One Boy").

Certainly there's a more carefree sensibility and easygoing approach, rather than the microscopic examination of lyrics expressed with many nuances that mark the artist's later work in theatre roles and her solo albums. She sometimes is skimming the surface, just singing the words and notes (and not always with the greatest of care). High drama and recasting of song structures that often come with her later work is pretty much absent here. For example, her "My Funny Valentine" is pretty traditional, just a sweet, pretty, what-you-see-is-what-you-get calm rendition. It gets a little passionate near the end and gathers some force. A number like "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)" betrays the inexperience, not very believable in its lack of anguish or projected loneliness. (Again, one imagines the gravitas and volcanic emotions she would have brought to it in later years.)

The future diva was already singing in a local club at the time the recording was made, working with the same trio heard here (pianist Charlie Baxter, bass player John Monaghan, and drummer Wayland Smajstrala). There's innocence and youth overwhelming much of this, but that is not to say it sounds very amateurish or awkward. The confidence and abilities are clearly apparent. Two years later, she'd land her first Broadway show, 1776.

The liner notes full of memories and modesty tell us the songs were all done in one take without any tinkering. Playbill's Andrew Gans, admitted king of Buckley fans, adds his awestruck comments and appreciation as well as the history of tracking down this long-lost recording. Sound quality is clean and bright throughout the short album (11 tracks, running time just about 28 minutes). The cover promises "certified hi-fi mono sound" and, as a nod to the era, this recording has also been issued on 12-inch vinyl in limited numbers.

Is this unexpected issue just a footnote or a fascinating flashback? Either way, it's an interesting look at the earliest evidence of the developing style of a woman who'd grow to be a dynamic entertainer. On its own merits, it's often endearing, refreshing and disarming, a pleasing prequel.

Andrea BurnsANDRÉA BURNS
A DEEPER SHADE OF RED

PS Classics

"A Little Brains, A Little Talent" is just one of the deliciously delivered songs on Andréa Burns' first solo CD. Her performances show quite a bit more than a little brains and quite a lot of talent. The number from Damn Yankees, sparklingly arranged and orchestrated by Jason Robert Brown, has zing and punch. Andréa's voice can be brassy, bright or brimming with emotion. Most of all, it has warmth. She is always focused and connected to the lyrics, and on a serious song, it's rewarding to find her so fully using her acting skills as she establishes a basic character and mood and then details it with with attentive, detailed phrasing that does not feel studied or labored.

Among the 12 tracks is a character piece created for her by Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer of the show that's a new addition to her resume, In the Heights. It's a cutely contemporary number full of email/instant message shortcut language, "BTW, Write Back." From the belatedly produced 1954 Stephen Sondheim musical Saturday Night, there's "What More Do I Need?" sung with joie de vivre and abandon. The revue of John Bucchino songs It's Only Life is represented by the excellent "Love Quiz." Those who have the cast album from that show, on the same label just last year, have Andréa singing that song and might wish for something new instead of the rerun, though it's nice to hear it with an orchestra rather just piano.

Most tracks have a 20-piece orchestra, which is great. Exceptions are the first and last tracks: The yearning and reflective "The Wish" by Dee Carstensen has just piano accompaniment by musical director Steve Marzullo. A gentle but lovely take on "I Have a Love" from West Side Story is a nod to the role of Maria which Andréa has played often, and she is accompanied sensitively and beautifully just by John Pizzarelli's guitar.

Pop songs sit comfortably beside the theatre songs and one track is a two-song medley combining the genres just as easily. Kate Bush's "Man with the Child in His Eyes" leads into The King and I's "Something Wonderful." Each song presents an understanding picture of a complex man and fusing them makes sense, with Andréa painting a clear and sympathetic portrait. Melodrama does not come into the picture here or elsewhere, as she has a restraint and taste that allow emotions to bubble to the surface and simmer and be explored, rather than the easier and less interesting option of letting them simply boil over.

Produced by PS Classics' Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin, who bring out the best in the songs and singer, with a rich and textured sound, A Deeper Shade of Red has a rosy glow.

UNDER THE RADAR

This time going under the radar means going for a visit to Vegas, but with some Broadway songs in the deal.

Sandy KastelSANDY KASTEL
THIS TIME AROUND

Silk and Satin Records

Las Vegas-based entertainer Sandy Kastel has come up with an album inspired by entertainers who have performed in the showrooms there. But don't assume this is all razzle dazzle super-charged, overly busy arrangements or some kind of cheese factory. The album opens promisingly with Sandy sailing through a splashy big band bustling "Come Back to Me" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

The treatments of trademark songs recall famous versions, but this is not a copycatalogue. For example, Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" in the middle of a Frank Sinatra medley uses some of his vocal embellishments and the basic structure and key parts of the famous Nelson Riddle arrangement for Sinatra without copying it exactly. Likewise, the "Don't Rain on My Parade" treatment is clearly following the lines of the Funny Girl movie arrangement, though with a vocal that doesn't seriously get the guts of it.

All but two of the 15 tracks were recorded in Nashville with a huge orchestra, so lush or brassy sounds predominate. Much of this is breezily good-natured upbeat stuff or sentimental. Though hardly groundbreaking or innovative, it's kind of plushy and mushy in a non-demanding, easygoing, easy listening way.

Sandy has a flexible and easy-on-the-ears voice, sounding kittenish on seductively playful numbers ("Fever"), light and lighthearted on some uptempo numbers that might be more assertive vocally, but she tends to leave the brassiness to the brass section. There's real kick in some of the charts and playing for the orchestra. For pure Las Vegas self-love, there's the Nevada nirvana classic "Viva Las Vegas," done with cheer and sounds of a cheering casino crowd. Because "Luck Be a Lady" is about gambling and dice, it's a natural fit here, and the Guys and Dolls number also brings up the show tune count.

Cozy, well-phrased takes on "Misty" and "My Funny Valentine" are the highlights on the serious side. They are the two tracks without the orchestra, just featuring a trio of piano, bass and sax. I also kind of like "Strangers in the Night" taken sincerely. But for snap and energy, the big band treatments are perky pick-me-ups.


Coming before the end of the year: new cast albums, songwriter collections, more vocals and, of course, holiday music.


- Rob Lester


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