35 years old doesn't make the revived-again pop musical ancient Grease, but it's back on Broadway. So is Judy Kuhn, but her new CD finds no show tunes ... it's soul-stirring Laura Nyro material. And a gently swingin' set of standards swings through, right under the radar, in a debut CD by Jim Altamore.
This popular show's peppy, poppy score has spawned several albums and this latest, a cast album of its 35th anniversary revival, is quite straightforward. The revival from the 1990s was done with more of a wink and star turns. The performances of this Broadway cast, recorded three days before the official opening night in August, show a more earnest and chipper approach. At times, humor and broad characterizations are sacrificed in favor of evoking a more low-key, scaled-down presentation that some will find closer to a mid-20th century teen ambience. In its favor, on disc many of the characters sound closer to the ages they are playing because indeed the many cast members are closer to their high school graduation than their 20th high school reunion. Unfortunately, a lot of the energy seems forced and mechanical rather than inspired. Singers, especially in ensemble singing, are singing with some force, but it feels like forced force - singing loudly and with 1950s stylizations as if directed to, rather than from inspiration. Attention is paid to diction, usually good news, but there are sections of ensemble singing that sound robot-like with joy and personality surgically drained.
Immediately noticeable is the dominance of the percussion and strict rhythms in the orchestrations and album mix. This is the case on most tracks. Beat out the rhythm on the drum, as Oscar Hammerstein once wrote. Crisp? Yes, but the simplicity and pounding relentlessness of that seems more at home for a guide track. Embellishment seems like a foreign word for this production in the instrumental and acting work. It's the band leading the bland.
The two leads, chosen by voting audience members of the TV "reality" show where hopefuls auditioned, have some endearing qualities and have grown from their early small screen attempts. Still rough around the edges and with more "A for effort" sincerity than polish, the tracks featuring this Danny and Sandy are among the better ones. This is especially true in three included songs written for their characters to sing in the movie version: Max Crumm's solo of "Sandy" is rather tender and more than a teeny bit "teen-ish." Laura Osnes has a sweet quality on the softer parts of "Hopelessly Devoted to You," and, while she's less impressive with the belting parts and doesn't sound like she "owns" the lyric yet, there's real warmth there. They are enthusiastic but sound more drilled than thrilled in "You're the One That I Want," joined by the company near the end. The large group also takes on the film's title song, still sounding anachronistic in its musical style. (These film tunes were not by the original musical's songwriters, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.)
Turning to the original stage score's numbers, what to say about Jenny Powers, memorable as Meg in Broadway's recent Little Women, in the raunchier Rizzo role? Really rather reserved is her approach compared to others who have taken it on, but she has some style and fizz that's sorely missing elsewhere. "Beauty School Dropout," a potentially showy showstopper, is especially anemic and comes across as somewhat tentative as sung by Stephen R. Buntrock.
Too much of this sounds like a game but lame group of performers in an efficient but too often colorless version of what can be a splashy, frolicsome musical comedy. I guess there is a camp of Grease fans who won't want the campiness. Maybe we're brought a few steps closer to the portrayals of believable teens? There are worse things we could do.
Musical theatre performer Judy Kuhn, who is revisiting Les Miserables by joining the cast of the revival as Fantine 20 years after playing Cosette in the original Broadway production, is also revisiting the music of Laura Nyro. Judy was part of Eli's Comin', a 2001 theatre piece using the material of the late singer-songwriter, and employs some of the same songs on her all-Nyro CD. Oddly, Serious Playground is named for a fine Nyro song not included, but what is on the album represents a strong cross-section of the oeuvre, though it favors the earlier work.
This is a very respectful endeavor. Often the renditions follow the originals quite closely and honorably. Kind of a calmer stand-in for the very passionate and sometimes angst-drenched Nyro, Judy does not take many liberties in interpretation, phrasing, or tempi. The mission seems to be to pay homage to the originals rather than reinvent them or put her own stamp on them. For those of us familiar with and fond of the gutsy, emotional and idiosyncratic singing of Laura Nyro on records and in concert, memories will be stirred but not shaken. There are similarities in sounds, particularly - and this is key and essential - that Judy can comfortable float up to her attractive head tones and use power there. It was kind of a Nyro trademark, and singers less gifted or comfortable with the range would be in trouble. As someone who has those old records stamped on his brain from many years of listening, I appreciate the efforts but miss the sense of surprise and something personal brought to a number of the songs. Those unfamiliar with the material, or who only know a few of these from cover versions by The Fifth Dimension ("Sweet Blindness," "Stoned Soul Picnic") or Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand (each of whom recorded "Stoney End"), however, have a wealth of discoveries to make.
Each time I listen to the CD, and having now seen Judy do some of the songs in person, I find more pleasures to take in her work here. That includes the taste, the obvious affection and admiration, attention to detail, plus the basic joy of hearing her rich voice again on a solo CD. Though she has been heard on numerous cast albums, it's only her second album on her own, the first being a Jule Styne collection.
One of the songs that is treated to a different feel is "Stoney End," which is slowed down and becomes more vulnerable rather than gritty or angry. Liberated by the tempo change, Judy is able to phrase with more reflection and subtly shifts the emphasis on certain words. The regret comes through, and the line "Now I don't believe I want to see the morning" has a quiet and naked resignation. There is an abundance of grace and tenderness in "To a Child," which sounds very involved and "Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp" paints a real scenario and has a pin-drop hush. The happier numbers are not as loose and free and legato as the original versions. Judy at times seems to be treading more carefully; she's not quite walking on eggshells but doesn't totally let go. On the plus side, her mindfulness of the musical lines and intricate lyrics sometimes brings them out in more dramatic relief, underlining words and phrases that could have been lost in the shuffle. Her diction is also quite good, not always a strong suit of Miss Nyro's own singing.
Songs reflecting aching loneliness ("Lonely Women") and drugs ("Buy and Sell") took Laura Nyro down some bleak roads and through wells of despair. Judy Kuhn doesn't go there. Her telling the tales comes across as more of an observer, and she seems more solid than the fragile, anguished persona of the idol whose soulful cry could be riveting but truly intense. Certainly for some, Judy's versions will be more accessible. She's a guide of sorts but also a rewarding and rapturous performer in her own right.
The CD's pianist Jeffrey Klitz did all but two of the arrangements and orchestrations and co-produced the album with Joel Moss. "Captain St. Lucifer" and "Stoned Soul Picnic" borrow the treatments by Deirdre Murray from the Eli's Comin' stage production. There is a different musical palette here, with a dozen instruments and two background singers on some tracks. This gives some of the accompaniment a fresh and more complex feel than the old records: also a dramatic pianist for herself, Nyro's records were often piano-driven and she often used her own voice layered in tracks for harmonies.
Judy Kuhn is doing the Nyro material on Mondays this month at Joe's Pub at Manhattan's Public Theatre, and then at the Kennedy Center. Serious Playground is serious business - and a seriously remarkable new album.
UNDER THE RADAR
Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole may be gone, but their influence remains strong for those male vocalists who want to sing and swing their numbers. Here's yet one more ....
The laidback jazzy swing style suits singer Jim Altamore more than the harder-driving swing he occasionally tries on his debut CD, License to Swing. The Sinatra shadow looms large when he takes on songs the master did, such as "Nice 'n' Easy," but Jim is nice 'n' easy to listen to on such numbers. He's relaxed, and his following in the footsteps of those who paved the way is not a matter of tiptoeing and does not get to the point of slavish Xeroxing. He has a low-key confidence and projects a comfort level with the material and the musicians. Though no great ripples will come from any groundbreaking on these dozen tracks, it's a respectful and competent outing on its own unpretentious terms. I suppose the word "subtle" applies, though there are many times I wish there were more voice and more get-up-and-go to go with it.
Jim eases and breezes through two familiar Cole Porter numbers, "Just One of Those Things" and "All of You" (that one has a generous and appealing solo by guitarist Eric W. Johnson). This is undemanding listening, as the songs are mostly taken with no agenda for drama or bursts of celebration. But just when you think the album only wants to be a feel-good lighter affair, the singer and musicians show their serious side late in the game, on the 10th track, the Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn movie song, "Call Me Irresponsible." It may seem strange to recommend the one sincere romantic ballad performance as the highlight of an album with the word "swing" in its title and seemingly its raison d'être, but it's more impressive. There's real thoughtfulness and nuance here, making me wish Mr. Altamore had chosen instead to have a license to croon. Still, he won't have his license to swing revoked as he can do that do that with no sweat broken and no finger-snapping needed to help him along. The session ends with a couple of other old movie musical nuggets that became standards, "The More I See You" and "You Stepped Out of a Dream." Though sometimes done as ardent ballads, they're treated to happy and carefree approaches here.
One of the most successful tracks is "Beyond the Sea," with welcome ebullience and a real joie de vivre. When the vocals become a little too casual and tossed-off for my taste, without a lot of voice used, the nimble band keeps things interesting and playfully hip. Among the five players, I especially like the decorative and rhythmically interesting piano work by Rio Clemente, who is also the arranger. He doesn't just accompany, he plays original figures to support and amplify, without stealing the spotlight. Bill Easley is on sax and flute, with particularly tasty and tasteful work on flute. The band is rounded out by Steve Johns on drums and bassist Wayne Batchelor.
This album is only available by mail, through the singer's website, www.jimaltamore.com.
We'll swing back with more music next week.