For your consideration this time, three albums with a wide array of artists. In addition to these CDs in that "various artists" category, a look at another kind of artist - a visual artist - in a musical about the life of the painter Paul Gauguin.
BROADWAY UNPLUGGED 2
Unplugged is unstoppable. It has become an acoustic coup, proving that going back to having songs performed without amplification can not only fill a theater but fill a music lover with joy, at hearing the pure human voice. Timed neatly with the 3rd annual Broadway Unplugged concert last Monday at Town Hall, the second edition was released on CD this this week. Hearing the human singing voice without amplification is a treat; even on disc, one can appreciate the different style of singing and vocal production. The power and the intimacy come through. So do a lot of personality and entertainment value.
With 18 very strong numbers recorded at the event on the evening of September 19, 2005, the CD is generous and satisfying, featuring songs from each decade from the 1930s to the 1990s. Bill Daugherty presents a well-rounded version of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that treats the Burton Lane melody with great respect. He comes off noble and reflective, rather than just going for the rage or self-pity that might be milked from the Alan Jay Lerner words. Another Lerner lyric, from the classic My Fair Lady, "On the Street Where You Live," suits Euan Morton's romantic side, with nicely calibrated expressions of joy. It's especially satisfying to hear Euan's unique and vulnerable vocal quality au naturel. Norm Lewis is allowed to have his selection be the exception to the "Broadway" category, taking an Off-Broadway number from a show he's associated with, "I'd Rather Be Sailing" from A New Brain. He does it full justice. Marc Kudisch provides a bravura "Fate" from Kismet. (The performers mentioned so far have been in all three concerts and are audience favorites).
In addition to stirring and lovely singing, there are comic highlights, too. Kudisch appears again as he is reunited with his Thoroughly Modern Millie co-star Sutton Foster for that show-offy showpiece of competition, "Anything You Can Do" from Annie Get Your Gun. The perils and pleasures of performing live are captured when they both flub the lyrics but recover and continue to tease each other (when she makes an error, and her next line is "Anything you can do I can do better," he can even more smugly come in on cue with "No, you can't.") Having a group of men take on an Annie number normally done by adorable little girls proves to be a laugh riot. Bringing plenty of life to "It's a Hard Knock Life" are cabaret performers Lennie Watts, Bobby Belfry, Brandon Cutrell, Peter Gonyo and Steven Ray Watkins (who also did the special arrangement). Pleasing in a totally serious way is Eddie Korbich, with a moving "There But For You Go I" that builds and builds beautifully. It also makes Alan Jay Lerner the most represented lyricist here, with three songs; Sondheim fans will find two of his gems: Deven May with a sincere "Being Alive" from the just-being-revived Company, and one of that revival's stars, Barbara Walsh, with a fine "Losing My Mind" from Follies.
As he is on the many Broadway by the Year concert recordings (with their handful of of no-mic numbers that inspired this series), lively host Scott Siegel is a pip with a quip in his own well-written introductions. Of course, Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band have to be a little more little-sounding than in a regular show, but their restraint and judicious playing are impressive.
IF I SING:
On If I Sing: The Songwriters Album, Larry Gatlin performs a fine new version of his hit "All The Gold in California" and is joined by the CD's executive producer, Jamie deRoy, producer Paul Rolnick, and artistic director Barry Kleinbort as well as others (including a few who appear on the Broadway Unplugged 2 album). Of course, he needn't worry about being outsung, because he is, like many of the songwriters singing their own work here, a singer as well as a tunesmith. Some collectors will find it a bit frustrating, perhaps, that some of these song choices have previously been recorded by the writer in similar musical settings. Besides Gatlin's "Gold," there's the previously minted "From a Distance " by Julie Gold. We've also heard Stephen Schwartz singing his Wicked number, "For Good," and Gretchen Cryer starred in I'm Getting My Act Together ... and performed "Old Friend" on the cast album (she's accompanied here by old friend and writing partner Nancy Ford). They're all well done, though, and full of emotion. We just don't get to hear some of them sing often, so it would be more valuable to hear songs they hadn't done in a recording studio. They will be "new" to many listeners, however, and the rest of the CD has some rarer finds.
Avenue Q fans will delight in hearing its songwriting team, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, sing the cut number "Tear It Up and Throw It Away" (about a jury duty notice) in character voices. Lucy Simon, who hasn't made a solo album in years, does an elegant "How Could I Ever Know?" composed by her (with Marsha Norman's lyrics) for Broadway's The Secret Garden. She provides her own piano accompaniment, like almost all the composers here. Other selections from musicals are offered by Shelly Markham ("The Sweetest of Nights and the Finest of Days") and Maltby & Shire (the CD's title song). Maury Yeston shares an old demo for an unproduced show, as he does all the parts for a perky plea for optimism as philosophized by a merry monkey in "Nowhere to Go But Up".
Non-theater songs round out the CD, with Rick Jensen, Emily Bidinger (member of The Accidentals and singing with them), and Renaissance woman Jamie deRoy doing a sincere and sentimental version of "Daddy's Girl" which she co-wrote with Jane R. Snyder and her frequent musical director, Lanny Myers. Jamie, Lanny, and Julie Gold will all be on the roster of the next Jamie deRoy & Friends variety show on December 6 at The Metropolitan Room. It's a holiday show, and will also have theater songwriter Andrew Lippa on the bill. Andrew does a super job on the opening track of this CD: it's the exciting "Live Out Loud" from A Little Princess (the lyricist is Brian Crawley). This wish for a richer existence is a top-drawer recent theater song that sounds great here.
An accompanying booklet has brief anecdotes from the writers about the songs, adding a personal touch. There's nothing like hearing songwriters' own intentions and soul coming through when they sing their own material, even if they're not skilled vocalists. And when they are, I don't mind.
GAUGUIN/ SAVAGE LIGHT
Like some paintings, the one-act musical Gauguin/ Savage Light features broad strokes. The ideas are often telegraphed in very plain language and the melodies are straightforwardly simple. The biographical piece about painter Paul Gauguin, billed as "a musical sketchbook" has just opened at Off-Off-Broadway's Abingdon Theatre on West 36th Street for its second run this year. The two main performers heard on this CD have returned to the production: Jeff Nardone as Gauguin and Kelly Dynan in various roles. Music, lyrics, book and piano accompaniment are by George Fischoff, whose previously recorded musicals are a 1962 musicalization of The Prince and the Pauper, the one-man musical (he's the man) Shepherd!, the Bible story of King David; and the still-waiting-for-release studio cast CD of Georgy (he's not the Georgy in question, it's based on the 1960s film Georgy Girl and played Broadway briefly in 1970, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager).
This is a very short album, clocking in at under 28 minutes. It starts off promisingly, with the cast's most attractive voice: Jennifer Sanchez is compelling singing the prayer-like "Taupau" a capella. The bad news is it lasts just 63 seconds and she does not reappear until the final two tracks, a group reprise of "Savage Light" and a passionate duet with the title character, "Only Dreams." This number is the strongest and longest one (one of only two that run over three minutes in length). Jeff Nardone sings earnestly and forcefully as the artist following his bliss declaiming lines like, "I must be free!" and "I must have something more. I must do something greater with my life!" and "Be the thing you were born to be!" He sounds heroic and determined. Kelly Dynan and Mick Bleyer do well with their duet, "With Love." It's one of those chipper, chin-up/cheer-up charm songs insisting that rich people are all actually miserable and you'll be happier counting your blessings than counting gobs of money. At least as performed here, a few songs have lines that have more syllables than might be best for a nice flow.
Not having seen the show, it's difficult to get that much of a sense of it from the CD. The summary provided consists of two sentences and there is just a bit of spoken material on the recording. The lyrics are not filled with specificity and detail, but it's clear that there is conflict about leaving one's family and home to pursue dreams, there is some mockery of the painting in "Ridiculous," and we know from Art History class that Gauguin ends up in Tahiti.
The composer's piano accompaniment is energetic and suitably rhythmic. I can't help wondering what the score might sound like with other instruments fleshing it out. The lyrics and rhymes stay mainly on the plain side, and fuller arrangements would bring out the moods. Like a Gauguin painting, some variety in color can be a good thing. The CD has some attractive sections, a couple of weaker numbers, and a lot that feels very general. But the cast by and large sings with gusto.
UNDER THE RADAR
A quick look at a various artists album from the new label First Cabin Records. If you recognize some of these cuts as having been previously released, you'd be right. But this is not just a compilation of old tracks. Four of them are new and exclusive to this set with a theme that works well.
THIS IS THE LIFE:
This Is the Life is just what it aims to be: relaxed and carefree, like the vacation we all think we deserve. And it swings, too. Its songs are feel-good ones, focusing on freewheeling free time away from it all with tasty food and tasty music.
Mark Kershner is the featured performer, singing three of the four songs recorded just for this CD and one ("You're the Cream in My Coffee") from a solo album of his. He has a warm and appealing sound, the kind of voice that's easy to listen to, especially with the the ingratiatingly jazzy mid-tempo arrangements and musicians Andy Armer, Clay Smith and Greg Byers. Veteran songwriter Ray Evans (Oh Captain!, Let It Ride, "Silver Bells," "Que Sera, Sera," etc., with his late partner Jay Livingston) has provided a tailor-made song, "A Cozy Bed and Breakfast," about "sleeping until noon" and enjoying other comforts. Mark also shines on two numbers from musical theater: "This Is the Life" from Golden Boy and Noel Coward's "A Room With a View." There's no view in "A Room Without Windows," the final track exclusive to this CD, performed by Philippe Mallen with style and a bit of a growl. It's another show tune, from Ervin Drake's What Makes Sammy Run? and it's got more verve and a bit of nerve in its sexy swagger.
The previously released items include the Irving Berlin sweetie, "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" by The Lennon Brothers with Gail Lennon, and the Cole Porter classic, "At Long Last Love," courtesy of Mark Copeland. There are also two tracks from solo CDs on the PS Classics label: a bright and bouncy "By the Beautiful Sea" by the terrific Jessica Molaskey and Jack Donahue's nifty "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening." (Both singers are in the midst of recording new CDs.)
The album, with 15 tracks total, is attractively packaged, with information on the singers, songs and writers. This is the label's first release and more are in the planning stages. This one is perfect company to play in your car's CD player or listening to in headphones while traveling, vacation to a bed and breakfast or just a vacation in your mind for 45 minutes.
And speaking of vacations, Sound Advice will be taking a week off for Thanksgiving and will return November 30 for a holiday music look and listen.