Ordinary ..., ... Special ..., ... Fabulous
Nothing "ordinary" here. First up, an up-and-coming theatre writer with a musical about quirky New Yorkers with lots on their plates and some unusual ways called Ordinary Days. Then, we have two female vocalists with distinctive, engaging styles, approaches and voices; both began as performers decades ago and took off many years off to raise their children, returning to performing after being widowed and releasing their debut albums this year.
Composer-lyricist Adam Gwon's work attracts the ear and the mind with his work on Ordinary Days, which opened Off-Broadway in the Roundabout Underground initiative a year ago this week for a limited run. The often kinetic, busy, restless energy of the music is well matched to the lyrics which are well crafted but appear on the surface to, appropriately, be the characters' stream-of-consciousness thoughts and interactions (sometimes more like the rushing gush and rapids and undertow than a stream). The story is set in contemporary times in New York City and is full of the rush of busy, split-focused people with neuroses and defenses and edginess.
Gwon writes lyrics that comfortably use modern expressions and patterns of speech, character-specific without doing so self-consciously or over-relying on that. Examples: emails are sung, complete with backspacing for re-thinking and with a "smiley-face" to indicate tone. Self-deprecating character Deb, the book-losing grad student, calls herself a "dork" (which conveniently rhymes with "New York") and, when not using words the way she might when in writer's mode for her thesis in literature, is typical of many younger people using the word "like" constantly as an all-purpose substitute or filler ("My hometown was, like, the suburb of a suburb") and profanity is used sparingly: expletives as explosives in frustration. Sometimes the argumentative nature of the interactions or the more banal aspects of the conversations-set-to-music may seem to offer a thinner brew than some musicals.
Jared Gertner is Warren, an upbeat, "nice guy." His goofy, beaming energy is zippy fun. Cautious, impatient Deb (played with gusto and cute playfulness by Kate Wetherhead) just wants the crucial notebook back, but he cajolingly tries to wear down the wary, weary-of-NYC woman. Hunter Foster and Lisa Brescia are convincing if not instantly interesting as the couple challenging themselves in their sometimes oil-and-water relationship.
Due to the the style of the writing, it's more the naturalistic acting and the sparks and chemistry between each couple that impress, rather than showing off voices with held notes, vocally rangey songs, harmonies, or lovely legato phrases. The score features solo numbers that are rants or fast-paced, densely-worded bursts of thoughts and feelings or slice-of-life conversations that involve frequently interrupted interchanges with sentences cut off or incomplete, tempers boiling or held in check with effort. Each of these accomplished actor-singers is given a dominant and intense personality to show in the early parts, but also gets some contrasting material later and displays somewhat different vocal "colors"opening up to be more relaxed and sensitive and smootherenergies with them. Hunter Foster's "voice of reason" Jason gets less material showing change than the others, but goes from being upbeat and vocally bright-toned to being harsher and tighter when conflicts emerge with his partner. Kate Wetherhead gets to show a good deal range as we hear her interacting with the unseen professor, singing girlishly and cute to request a favor, singing with a toughness and ire later, and relaxing to sing with more open, defenses-dropped warmth near the end. As structured, the two pairs barely interact so there is not the aural variety of trios or quartets, or for the two men or two women to sing in duet.
With just piano accompaniment (by the ever-impressive Vadim Feichtner), this is an intimate musical without being a quiet one. Listening to the interactions which feel realistic, given artistic license and words that rhyme without awkward, self-conscious, attention-grabbing stretches to do so, it feels a bit like eavesdropping on neighbors' conversations through thin walls. Some songs might strike you the way big swaths of overheard cell phone conversations do. Ordinary Days may sound like conversations held in ordinary ways by ordinary people, but more careful attention reveals the art behind it all, both from second and third playings of the disc and reading through the enclosed lyrics in the booklet. Like Deb and Warren singing about having a plan or "Big Picture" in life, there is a big picture here, too, that is more than the sum of the small parts. Yes, it's full of smile-inducing, recognizable day-to-day bits like demanding, determined Deb oh-so-specifically ordering Starbucks's "mocha caramel lattechino made with skim milk, no whipped cream" put in a different sized cup, and relaxed, easy-to-please Warren simply saying, "I'll have a tea." But there are deeper things to come with more eye-opening emotional wallop. It's a cumulative effect worth all the sipping of personality traits in the beginning scenes until we know these people better and care about them more. And we do. The score is well delivered, acted and sung with investment, and presents a writer very much worth watching ... and listening to.
There's an intensity and commitment in the singing of Dolores Scozzesi, making her work on this debut album unusually compelling. With a contralto voice that occasionally flows up high for a light head tone or takes on a hushed whisper signifying foreboding or a "listen to me" sense of command, taking lyrics seriously and even reverently, it's easy to be pulled under her spell. This review could almost be summed up by a compliment that is the title of the first sublime selection: "You Fascinate Me So." Although that Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh witty slow-bubbling sizzler of seduction is fun, it is also very adult in its sensibilities, like almost everything on the tasty 10-track treasure.
The album title comes from one of songs, the persuasively appreciative pronouncement that "Jazz Is a Special Taste," a love letter to the style of music Dolores clearly loves and is a fine exponent of. It's from the score of the musical Play It Cool with sinuous music by Phillip Swann and lyrics by jazz singer Mark Winkler, who is the disc's savvy producer. Musicians are particularly well used: they not only get to play tasty licks and solos, but it's always at the service of the songs and enhancing the often spellbinding moods. Very few musicians are used, often a keyboards-bass-drums trio with one prominent guest musicianflute, guitar, cornet and violinadding distinct and dramatic qualities, with no muddiness or random, pat or extraneous sounds. Arrangers include two who alternate on keyboards with great skill and evidence a well of feeling: Gary Fukushima and Eli Brueggemann.
The in-the-moment believability that is so present here may be partly the result of early training in acting and improv, working with jazz artists in Europe, and, later, cabaret experience after her return to singing five years ago. She seems to be very much her own person, comfortable in her own musical skin and believing the words she is singing. She has strong musical skills and an appealing tone with some variety, though I wish she'd exploit her head tones more. They can be exciting and reveal vulnerability in a different way than is experienced in the darker-hued timbres she favors.
"When Did You Leave Heaven?" (Richard Whiting/ Walter Bullock) is the kind of song that could be too precious, referring to a loved one as an idealized angel, but it works here, imbued with awebut not infested with the cutes. And, by coincidence or subtle planning, it is one of a few songs in a row with the word "Heaven" in the lyric, adding to the sense of flow in the sequencing of rather varied songs. The classic ballad "My One and Only Love" has rarely been treated with such elegance and richness of tone and feeling, not at all wearing out its welcome despite a six-minute playing time. The flowery language ("You fill my eager heart with such desire/ Every kiss you give sets my soul on fire/ I give myself in sweet surrender ...") does not become a sweaty, perfume-soaked trap, but sounds genuinely passionate. The singer sounds like a woman unafraid to know and express her heart, and one senses that sorrow is no stranger, as concern and a sense of foreboding and acceptance of life's uncertainties seems nearby at time. "Stay Out of the Moonlight" (lyrics by Tom Culver with music by Effie Joy) demonstrates a singer who can tread wisely on the both the cloud and its silver linings, knowing that love's intoxication is a rewarding and heady thing with an emotional risk. Especially effective and hypnotic are treatments of two Bob Dylan songs, the second and third tracks: "One More Cup of Coffee" and "Just Like a Woman." She makes these complex songs accessible and very much her ownno easy feat. The oldie "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" is a rare light moment, but the album is so successful in its romantic and thoughtful, grown-up portraits that I didn't find myself longing for a respite or change of pace at all.
A Special Taste leaves me with a taste for more.
She began singing and playing piano back in the middle of the last century and took thirty years off, but she sure kept her flair and knowledge of how to entertain. Jo Thompson is very much an entertainer, full of old-fashioned, sure-fire sass and broad humor and goodwill on material like a medley that is a nod to Fats Waller, "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Your Feet's Too Big." Blithely and even brazenly skirting any vocal challenges that might make other grandmothers well over 70 hesitate, she does not hesitate to dive in or find her own way into a song by doing something other than singing it straight and pure. She'll growl, purr, bellow, bark out the blues in crisp staccato snippets, pointedly talk a phrase, put forth attitude and confidence as she accents and underlines and smiles, all in the name of bringing ageless pluck and panache. Determination to please and tease is obvious and it works like gangbusters.
Playing her own piano with same pronounced forcefulness and directness, she incorporates styles of stride, barrelhouse, blues and jazz. Contributing hugely to the rollicking raucousness is the brassy, hard-swingin' band. Members of the late J.C. Heard Orchestra are heard under the direction of Walt Szymanski, one of three trumpeters, the man who inherited the baton. There are also three trombonists and four men on sax, in addition to guitar, bass and drums to join the lady on piano who remains at the center, not swallowed up by the big sound, but accented by it.
In the same way that the back cover doesn't give the exact official title for some of the songs or leaves out punctuation ("Don't Get Around" is "Don't Get Around Much Any More," for example), Jo seems fond of paraphrasing or embellishing lyrics from time to time to suit her personality, conversational asides and relaxed style. Purists may grumble, but she gets away with it rather well and the effect and intent is understood. She adopts more than a little of Louis Armstrong's vocal quality when she charges her way through "Hello, Dolly!" and sounds like she's having a ball. With a few surprises up her sleeve, she can turn coy and even silly and then suddenly catch your ear by seriously playing more than a bit of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Bluenot indicated on the track listbefore launching into the Gershwin brothers' "Embraceable You" (She's less interesting and attention-commanding on the ballads, but there is a touch of class and a tinge of heartbreak lurking, most effective in "Try a Little Tenderness.")
The fold-out package is decorated with vintage photos of the lady, including glam shots in gowns on the cover and disc itselfher gowns these days are designed by her son Greg Dunmore, who designs under the name Carlos Nina, is her manager and co-produced the CD with the bandleader. It all sounds swell and swinging and full, full of hard-to-resist old-school knowhow and snappy, feel-good flash and splash. For an uncomplicated, mostly happy ride that's often bursting with joy and verve, this pal of a gal and her grand band of a dynamic dozen men are just the slick ticket ... pros with pizazz and plenty of pluck.