Curtain up! The weekly Sound Advice column returns from a hiatus to look at two impressive CDs. First, the new revival cast album of the Jule Styne/ Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical Gypsy. It boasts bonus tracks of cut songs and is dominated by the exciting and explosive performance of star Patti LuPone. There's a different kind of excitement and electricity with sparkling singer Shaynee Rainbolt's new release of songs byand withmusic veteran Russell Garcia.
The 2008 cast album of the the much-revived and much-loved musical Gypsy has much to recommend it. As he did with recordings of the scores of Follies and, earlier this year, Annie, attentive producer Robert Sher gives us a rich banquet plus delicious desserts, meaning extra-special extras.
Though some of the songs cut before the original production opened on Broadway have been recorded in the past (on various albums; two showed up as bonus tracks on the expanded, remastered CD of the original 1959 cast album), this is the first time for an extensive grouping on one release. The least known of the rare material? Two versions of a song about "Mother's Day" intended to be pastiche schmaltz sung by the children in their vaudeville act. The over-sentimentalized, over-the-top demands to honor thy mother ("Give her a little something/ She gave you birth") are a hoot, the ultimate hokey hard sell, hysterically played to the hilt by the current cast's perky, pint-sized professionals (a solo by Sami Gayle as Baby June, joined by stage sister "Baby Louise" Emma Rowley for the longer "Tomorrow's Mother's Day").
Another appealing recording of a cut song features the older versions of the characters (Laura Benanti as Louise, Leigh Ann Larkin as June) with "Mama's Talkin' Soft," originally planned to be used in combination with "Small World"and that's how it's preserved here, with Patti LuPone indeed "soft"-er and warmer as she sings "Small World" with Boyd Gaines as Herbie. He solos effectively on the song that would have been the clear-eyed look at her strong persona, warts-and-all, "Nice She Ain't." Our Madame Rose du jour, the dynamic LuPone, gets two solos, both cut from the second act. "Who Needs Him?," defying tears and regrets, refers to Herbie as he walks out on her, and it's great to hear, especially so well performed and in character. Her other piece is a contrastingly comical one, but still in in the stiff-upper-lip arena, called "Smile, Girls." In this, she gives a peppy pep talk to the new troupe of troupers-to-be (she hopes), advising them to keep smiling at the audience and at their troubles. It's a lot of loose and loopy fun, especially when the character can't remember the name of one of her chorus girls. The informative liner notes by theatre author-historian Steven Suskin tell us the song was performed only once, during the 1959 pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia, shortly after it was written.
Finally, there's "Three Wishes for Christmas," another loss from the second act. Written as a burlesque stage extravaganza after Louise becomes a star stripper, it's done as a big cornball hyper-holiday big-voiced big deal. Tony Yazbeck, the current cast's likable Tulsa, does double duty as the would-have-been Minsky's baritone to provide a gamely grandiose and flowery lead vocal and he's joined by a female chorus. (Scaled-down versions of this number reveal it to be a gentle Christmas lullaby; it can be heard on holiday albums by D. C. Anderson and the early Broadway Cares CD Cabaret Noel sung by Carolyn Mignini.)
For completists and the curious or dedicated Gypsy fan, these extras are reason enough to say everything's coming up roses, even more so because they are so richly performed in character and sound great (the "Mama's Talkin' Soft" uses the original orchestrations, these others have brand new and very satisfying orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick). Rather than placed in their originally intended sequence, they are clustered as "P.S." items at the end since the album is also a document of the show as currently presented.
Those who buy this Gypsy from Barnes & Noble will get an extra exclusive disc with eight tracks, running just about twelve minutes. It contains no singing. There are orchestral instrumentalsshort bits plus the Entr'Acte and exit music spotlighting mostly the lighter, brighter feel-good numbers from the score, with the strings strongly selling the melodies; naturally the Entr'Acte has more snap and theatrical build-up and the exit music is more lilting and is a relaxed cool-down. The spoken sections are a brief bit by Lenora Nemetz as a theatre secretary at an audition, a couple of lines from June's sticky patriotic paean to Uncle Sam (addressed to her audience), and the final scene with Tony winners LuPone and Benanti facing each other and saving face. There is, of course, some dramatic tension here and it's nice to have this penultimate scene by bookwriter and current director Arthur Laurents preserved, with interesting and thoughtful shadings in the line readings.
Out of their surrounding context (though in order of appearance in the show), the Barnes & Noble exclusive tracks are valuable to the collector and enjoyable and expertly performed/produced, though understandably odd and less effective pulled out this way, one track after another. Some listeners wanting the full impact may want to re-sequence their playing with the main disc. In any case, it's an extra treat to have these missing links of music and theatricality.
Each rendition of the Gypsy score has something notable and reinforces our memory of this as one of the most accomplished and dazzling scores ever. Its show biz milieu and family ties and emotional longing feel pretty fresh here, though much of the recording feels as cozy and familiar as a visit with an old friend who never changes too much. We have the original orchestrations and the original director tying us to the past, but rarely does it seem too dyed in the wool (not a reference to the "Little Lamb") or tired.
Not surprisingly, Patti LuPone's work has the most personalization and unpredictability. Her rather powerful and idiosyncratic performance is sometimes daring, sometimes more in the blueprint of predecessors. There's the requisite drive and single-mindedness early on, whether her goal is getting 88 cents or rehearsing for the 88th time, turning on the charm or turning up the heat. Her character's breakdown in "Rose's Turn" is chilling and the ultimate theatrical roller coaster ride. Yes, a roller coaster ride can go over the top, but this one, for me, is appropriately frightening and engenders sympathy. If it chooses drama over musical values in the singing of the number, so be it. It has the impact needed: devastating, naked, teetering on the edges of sanity and catharsis.
The expanded track showing Laura Benanti's morphing from terrified girl on the spot in the spotlight to a fully comfortable star who teases and pleases is quite a triumph of a different sort. (And her Louise comes a long way from the world's most talent-challenged mooing cow.) The trio of strippers (Miss Nemetz, Marilyn Caskey and the terrific Alison Fraser) aren't the brittle, bitter or broadly played broads we've seen in the past, but their stripper mantra "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" still stands out and entertains solidly. In fact, there's no weak link here to complain about, and it's good to have full versions of numbers somewhat truncated on other versions or even missing (the paean to "Broadway" from the Farmboys section). And it all sounds so bright and brash and bristling with brio and drama when needed, thanks to the talent involvedincluding the caring and skillful, no-corners-cut dedication of producer Robert Sher. Rather than redundant or going overboard to be different for its own sake, this newest Gypsy is a worthy and winning one in a long line of joyful Gypsys.
A couple of years aborning, I'd been hearing about talented singer Shaynee Rainbolt's association with Russell Garcia project for some time now. Having had some previews before the recent release timed to this month's performances of the material on both coasts, I have been bursting to write about it since. Buzz has increased following availability of online tracks on her website and his myspace page, and particularly since members of MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) voted one number as Song of the Year. Titled "I Remember," that rhapsodic and lush ballad is the one track where the multi-skilled lady (also the co-producer with Andy Waterman) is the co-writer. It's simply a gorgeous piece, tender and timeless, richly romantic, but just one of many highlights on the masterful 16-track album, the singer's third and best CD yet.
Russell Garcia, now 92 years old and still musically active, not only provides the material from throughout his career, but arranged and conducted the album, plays synth vibes and was very involved in the planning and execution of the album that is, in effect, undeniably a tribute to him and his talent and taste. His resumé includes musical settings for such major singers as Mel Tormé, Anita O'Day, Frances Faye and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (the recording of the Porgy and Bess score for these last-named two) and many instrumental and vocal works. The pleasing and moody but exciting four-trombone sound that was one of his special creations is revisited here, as the title indicates, but strings and a rhythm section are present on the album, too. The material is diverse, encompassing very jazzy (but very accessible) melodies, swingers, ballads and soundtrack music (the catchy opener, is from his film score to Atlantis: the Lost Continent and the evocative "The Time Traveler" is based on his theme for The Time Machine). Some numbers call forth an ethereal or lonely ambience, wisps of elusive memory, while others imply real perspective still others serve as respites from seriousness, just adding a zesty sense of fun and big bursts of musical adventurousness.
The energetic "Flyin' Free" and tricky rhythms on other numbers originally conceived as instrumentals with no thought of being singable, challenge the singer and she more than rises to the occasion. She triumphs. Her voice is simply sensational here when called upon for a real workout. More often, though, it's the subtlety and control that are the order of the day, as many are elegant and mood numbers that require nuance and restraint, more understated but truly demanding vocal work of a gentler sort. Always sounding warm and involved on the love songs, with their emotion-laden or poetic lyrics (many by the musician's versatile wordsmith wife Gina Garcia), Shaynee shimmers. With the more serious material, she and maestro Garcia and the sensational musicians create more of a self-contained world of their own than most recordings can ever hope to suggest. The title song comes last, as a light and indeed charming exit hug, with a happy Bob Russell lyric (one of three by him) to the melody by the man at the center and the late, great Oscar Peterson.
Often, listening to the album feels like hearing a long-lost jazz-pop masterpiece from the 1950s, the great album you never heard of, bursting to thawed, awed life from a well-preserved time capsule. In fact, the album feels modern in a way and certainly not entrenched in nostalgia to feel at all out of date or like a relic. But it embraces the past as much as it embraces the talent of its musical icon. Mr. Garcia and Miss Rainbolt debuted their work live in California this week, with two more performances right around the corner: Yoshi's in Oakland, California (his old stomping grounds), and in downtown Manhattan at the Highline Ballroom on September 23.
This CD is something to revel in, and repeated listenings over time suggest it's going to be one of those that will be pulled out often and pull you in to an atmosphere that is, to quote a title of one of its many marvelous cuts, "Warm and Wonderful."