Equal parts intelligence and passion mix pretty well in the songs of composer Jenny Giering. She did a double-header on Monday, May 2 with back-to-back concerts. I was lucky enough to catch the first, which was an informal but polished sampling of her work on various projects. Playing hostess and song presenter, she came across as down-to-earth and classy. Her melodies soar and pulsate, often feeling like contemporary music and art song in one. No simple little hum-along ditties here.
Many listeners became aware of her work back in 1997 when Audra McDonald, in her first solo CD, recorded "I Follow" (joined by Theresa McCarthy). This elegant piece of art has both music and lyrics by Jenny Giering and is haunting and poetic. Most of the numbers presented on Monday at the 45th Street Theatre (conveniently located on 45th Street) had lyrics by others. In all cases, the lyrics were thoughtful and sometimes dense, never pat or simplistic. They lean heavily toward the serious side as opposed to the light or frothy. These are theatre songs for grown-ups - grown-ups who can really listen. In fact, a few might take a couple of listenings to fully absorb: there's a lot going on and the music is sometimes complex and takes unexpected twists and turns. And the singers on stage were up to the task.
The concert was presented jointly by Musical Mondays Theatre Lab and Musicals Tonight!, the group that presents lesser-known older musicals at the same theatre - and does so with care and integrity. This series features writers from the BMI Workshop presenting their work at the affordable price of $15.
The appreciative audience heard a woman who is not only skilled at creating melodies and words, but also has a top-notch singing voice. Although Giering modestly tried to minimize that aspect of her talent, her own solo on the stand-alone song "Paradise Mountain" revealed that her voice is strong and lustrous. (Musical theatre fans who own PS Classics' lovely recording Windflowers: The Songs Of Jerome Moross already knew that.) Also heard on piano was James Sampliner, a skilled colleague.
The talent of Beth Blatt was also much in evidence, as lyricist on Caraboo, Island Of the Blue Dolphins and The Mistress Cycle, which the composer amusingly referred to as a piece they've "been working on for too many years." The Mistress Cycle offers portraits of women who have been through the ups and downs of life and love, who may be worn down by it or are survivors. Talented singing actress Sally Wilfert presented two songs for a character named Tess who is not unfamiliar with stress, disappointment and betrayal. (The song title "Death By 1000 Cuts" should give you some idea!) Singer and songs effectively showed a variety of emotions, displaying the face one presents to others as well as the thoughts and feelings seething beneath. Robin Skye performed another selection from the piece, "Poor Girls," which I was disappointed to hear has been cut from the show. The number is excellent, a been-through-it-all perspective on relationships as the character addresses soon-to-be-disillusioned younger women who, like her, were "raised on Cinderella" and "taught to wish upon a star." It would work just find as a stand-alone song and Robin Skye performed it superbly, with a great combo of bitterness and sadder-but-wiser knowingness.
Rachel Ulamet, in a ...Dolphins highlight, and Michael Winther were also captivating and strong performers who serve the material well, the latter previewing a number from an upcoming production, Songs From An Unmade Bed in which he is the entire cast and each song has a different composer.
As always, it was a treat to see and hear Rebecca Luker, Broadway's soprano of choice, lending her shimmering tones and focused characterizations to two pieces, one from The Hotel Carter (lyrics by Stephanie Fleischmann). Get this: the main character works as a waitress at the Krispy Kreme donut shop, but she has a lot more on her plate than sugar-glazed snacks - she learns she is pregnant with The Second Coming of Christ. The songwriter wryly told the audience the show is "the bastard child of my canon - not 'experimental' enough for the experimental crowd" and not commercial enough for the musical theatre lovers.
In contrast to all that, she wrote both words and music for "Sea Prayers" when walking by a lighthouse in Maine with her husband, inspired by their sweet contentment. Michael Arden contributed a heartfelt and romantic interpretation of this effort, perfectly capturing the moment of the lyric's realization: "I want no more than this." Zeroing in on the ephiphany described in the lyric, he brought out a sense of joy and wonderment.
Jenny Giering has won several awards for writers of new work, including those from 2econd Stage, The Jonathan Larson Foundation, The Frederick Loewe Foundation and The Cameron Mackintosh Award. One of her songs, "I Can't Walk On," is included on the just-released CD NEO: New, Emerging ... Outstanding! from JAY Records. It's a safe bet to say there's much more to come.