and a Smile
They say there's nothing new under the sun, and maybe that holds true for rainy skies, too, as we look at the newest production of the stage incarnation of that 60-year-old movie, Singin' in the Rain (whose songs weren't new even then). Or, let a Smile be your umbrella with Andrea Marcovicci's songs of happiness. But we begin with the last moments in the sun for what the liner notes punnily call "Newley discovered" tracks by showman/ theater songwriter Anthony Newley.
A mix of the very familiar and obscure items from Anthony Newley's career arrive in this second posthumous Stage Door collection. With previously unissued performances of songs from his scores (some written with collaborators), renditions with singing partners, show tunes that didn't see the light of day, and two Christmas numbers unreleased until now, it's an eclectic and interesting mix ranging from the lighthearted to the mournful to the grandly serious. Almost all of the 15 tracks were recorded in the 1990s by this major figure who passed away in 1999.
In general, he sounds earnest and in fine voice, with the braying vibrato and weepy melodrama that could be distracting and overwhelm his work at times mostly held in check. A few live performances find him pulling out the stops more and going for some big moments. And certainly his trademarks of intensity and flamboyance are often present, along with the frequent song theme of self-evaluation and/or regret, crystallized in "What Kind of Fool Am I?", and the tour de force look at the price paid for being addicted to the spotlight in "The Man Who Makes You Laugh"two of the live recordings that come at the end of the disc. Especially interesting in the theatrical might-have-beens are a number from his unproduced musical about Richard III ("Beware the Night") and a cut song from his bio-musical on a famed entertainerthe one also brought to Broadway this year by others, also titled Chaplin. This piece, "Are We Having Fun Yet?," is another what-went-wrong lament and is a potent (if lyrically dense) duet here with British musical theatre star/director Julia McKenzie.
Other guests include Petula Clark on the perky trifle "The People Tree" (she sounds splendid, but the performance is marred by some leering suggestiveness and lame embellishments and asides towards the end). "Music of the Universe" features Marti Webb and a chorus for an ambitious, grandiose piece about being children of God and Nature, with lyrics that repeat a lot to hammer home the message; it feels overblown at well over five minutes in length. While effective in its own Big Statement way, more gripping are the more naked personal statements and confessions. Most satisfying and artfuland most powerfully arrangedof these is the well-calibrated performance revisiting "There's No Such Thing as Love" (co-written with Ian Fraser). Of course, given the timing of how late in the game they were recorded, two comments on heavy-hearted songwriting now take on even more of a bittersweet pungent feel: "The Last Song" and "Love Songs Don't Come Easy Anymore."
The Christmas items couldn't be more different from each other. "What Shall We Bring" is a reverent narrative of the Wise Men's gifts to the infant Jesus and features an unidentified child soloist with a disarmingly pure voice, plus a choir. The other is a very goofy tale about finding out that Santa Claus's duties (and Christmas stockings) are being filled by a famous person, the reports of his death being incorrect: "Santa Claus Is Elvis"complete with (I kid you not) a chorus chirping, "He's alive! He's alive!" Pretty wild. And speaking of "Huh?" moments, there's a 1980 disco arrangement of the Newley/Bricusse standard "Who Can I Turn to (When Nobody Needs Me)?," complete with side comments about going gamely with the flow/trend. The song remains vigorous and is not quite undone by the revamping and thus doesn't have the all-out cheese factor you might fear or hope for as a nutty guilty pleasure.
Indeed, despite some florid and lugubrious sections, the album stands up as a showpiece for the power and talent of Anthony Newley as a theatrical force of nature. While not always subtle, he was very much confidently his own man in his own style, digging in his heels and taking the stage, in his multi-faceted way, with something to say.
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN
Cheery and bright, the latest British version of Singin' in the Rain isn't setting out to rock the boat of nostalgia. The company is not out to take chances or make changes with a movie property dear to many hearts, and the likeable cast isn't putting strong new stamps on their roles or songs. Sweetness and charm are the hallmarks, but there's also often a kind of cautious conservatism here. Some renditions of famous songs feel rather generic in their genial manner. Enjoyable and warm without being distinctive, it's a blithe and bouncy recording with plenty of cozy charm and good spirits.
Adam Cooper, Scarlett Strallen and Daniel Crossley play the roles originated on film indelibly by, respectively, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor. Smooth of voice, they sing the sentimental and buoyant numbers with affection and a real comfort level with the material's romanticism and ebullience, the 1952 film's score mostly culled from the songbooks of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, plucking songs from various earlier works. In her one number, "What's Wrong with Me?," Katherine Kingsley brings enormous fun and spot-on comic zest to her performance as the screechy-voiced silent film actress.
The British have mounted major productions of this piece in each decade since they began in the 1980s when Tommy Steele was star and director. That first stage endeavor (recorded) added several well-known songs from other scores by other writers. In the next decade, Steele again directed, but passed the torch (or, rather, umbrella) to another leading man. In between, it came to Broadway for almost a year, without all those interpolations, but a few others. This time, we're back to basics with the songs used in (and cut from) the film. Note that what the album lists simply as "Broadway Ballet" is an extended number that features some instrumental reprises and has "Broadway Rhythm" as its vocal centerpiece. (The packaging includes no liner notes, and does not give credit for two cute and lively numbers not by Brown/Freed: on "Moses Supposes" credit goes to composer Roger Edens and the scriptwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green for its lyrics; "Fit as a Fiddle," has a lyric by Al Hoffman and Al Goodhart.)
A 23-piece orchestra sounds swell and the orchestrations by two solid pros, Larry Wilcox and Larry Blank, are delightful in their vaudevillian bounce and snap and the string-laden long lines for the nostalgic and wide-eyed ballads like "You Are My Lucky Star." And, naturally, there's that ol' familiar vamp that begins the title song and gets us smiling (and maybe dancing and imagining precipitation).
If it's big-hearted joy and gentleness you crave, absent of any condescending sneer or too-thick, too-slick attitude gumming up the works, the glide though Singin' in the Rain brings back Happy and Hearty and goes down easy.
Happily, Andrea Marcovicci's collection of happy songs finds her pretty much in fine form. And, while there are 15 tracks, a few of which are medleys, that much happiness does not overstay its welcome Smile. There's a fine mix of evergreens and quaint antique novelties and some little-known material, with felicitous playing by a solid band led by longtime pianist/musical director Shelly Markham, who joins her for a few numbers vocally to fine effect.
It's no secret to followers of the elegant cabaret diva of longstanding that she has had her share of vocal troubles and rough patches. Her unusual voice can be unreliable, but in this studio recording of her most recent theme show, things are more in focus and we're on more solid musical ground without a labored feeling about it. The arrangements and phrasing bring nice welcome nuances and colors.
While some singers sound like self-conscious but game visitors while exploring vintage material, Andrea sounds right at home, relishing it, owning it, wrapping herself in it all. Her delight is infectious. Ever aware and respectful of the craftsmanship of songwriters, she brings out and points up rhymes and the more delicious or evocative adjectives and turns of phrase. An actress who can do a lot with a line or an attitude, she can deepen a song most toss off (taking "It All Depends on You" seriouslya rare event). And, with attentive skill and affection, she finds and masters the crisp, quick rhythms in "Umbrella Man" and "12th Street Rag," welcome choices. Her comic timing is fresh and piquant in the sly get-over-yourself Carolyn Leigh lyric, "Shakespeare Lied" (from How Now, Dow Jones, melody by Elmer Bernstein), one of a few numbers on the album she has recorded before. And when it comes time for genuine warmth, she has a well of feeling that illuminates a lyric line and her way of clinging to a melodic phrase.
While the torch song has been her bread and butter, it's a lovely change to have this big ladleful of honeyed happiness in material. It's not just sweetit's invigorating.