Sound Advice Reviews
As part of a larger project of digital releases to preserve and promote the ouevre of musical theatre songwriter Michael Friedman, who passed away in 2017, recordings of four more of his scores are here. The shows were stage projects developed and presented by the adventurous, culturally conscious company called the Civilians, founded by Artistic Director Steve Cosson in 2001. The eyebrow-raising material can jump from feeling unabashedly bold to oddly touching, with some songs grandly stylized and others like naturalistic in-the-moment thoughts and memories.
CANARD, CANARD, GOOSE?
Canard, Canard, Goose? was the first project by the Civilians company. The playing time of this playful presentation totals all of about ten minutes with its six tracks. The mood and M.O. are established by "The Civilians Theme Song," which glibly states the group's confidence ("Do we rock? You betcha!") and their mission and methods ("We decide on a thing, we interview strangers..."). The "thing" that time was the supposed untold story of the geese seen in the feel-good movie Fly Away Home. The title of the film and its star are incorporated in Michael Friedman's lyrics and his music runs the gamut: saucy pastiche with a French accent; the jaunty joy of the geese singing as they're winging along, accumulating their frequent-flyer migration miles; and ballads bemoaning the troubles and tribulations of the flock. Especially effective is the disarming lament about being "Lonely," so plaintively delivered by Andrew Kober and Grace McLean, two of the six performers singing on the other tracks (the rest are group numbers and include Jonathan Raviv, Maya Sharpe, Kristin Stokes, and Colleen Werthmann). Quirky and musically accessible, the songs and performances are a mix of goofiness and surprising sweetness.
ADVENTURES IN REALITY:
Adventures in Reality: Songs from the Words of Real People (Mostly) culls numbers from various projects by Civilians company members, including pieces musicalizing the texts of interviews and letters. Sources include letters of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, experiences of participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests, and people reflecting on their past experiences.
Hewing to the verbatim sources, Michael Friedman doesn't paraphrase things to substitute rhymes or create tight or repeated refrains, but there is some inventive usage of musical punctuation and pauses to create emphasis. Words or phrases that reoccur in the material are seized upon to highlight, providing a sense of structure. Still, some of the selections can feel like rather a slog: rivers of words rushing by in stream-of-consciousness cascades. Endearing characterizations in performance triumph over voluminous verbiage to make the potentially dull deficit a definite plus. Examples are Lauren Molina, who disarmingly discusses and digresses from a character's points about items in the art museum ("Like a Virgin") and Jackie Hoffman nailing the nutty, pushy persona of a woman with a knack for finding mates for others ("Little Match Girl").
Nick Blaemire provides some welcome respite of pretty-voiced poignancy in his honeyed vocal longing for the past in "We Were Giants." Also included is a collaboration between Friedman and John Guare, with the latter's lyric for "Three Sisters" that is a blast ranting about Chekhov and his characters in the play of that name and the city of Moscow. Mary Testa is a hoot, going for broke in this more musically satisfying romp.
Listener Advisory: Those who are uncomfortable with vulgar language (including the N word) and frank talk of sex will be put off by a few tracks on Adventures in Reality. Not merely gratuitous, there is empathetic humanity at the core of those Reality checks.
IN THE FOOTPRINT:
In the Footprint: The Battle for Atlantic Yards' songs by Michael Friedman are based on interviews with people with varied perspectives about real estate development in the titular section of Brooklyn–and the way life used to be in various parts of the borough. Fondly name-dropping those neighborhoods, specifically mentioning their businesses, streets and ethnicities are all very much a part of the mix as property values and valued memories blend. The singers thoughtfully coat some vocals with palpable nostalgia for presumed better, cozier days of yore.
The rollicking "Kickin' It" is a jolly opener that is sung invitingly by Akron Watson, and the music and rhythm evoke an old-timey style. In a more jaded mode, Colleen Werthmann amusingly–and with verve–offers "A Word of Advice" about not letting others know what one's rent is and reflects on what's gutted and gone, semi-reluctantly admitting her admiration for "The Arena" built to house big events.
The eight tracks are all very short (only two get beyond the two-minute mark–and just barely). Yet it's enough to give some flavor of the mixed blessings and mixed feelings when one's old stomping grounds are replaced with the shiny and new, but some folks will get priced out. The Battle for Atlantic Yards doesn't directly reflect the tougher stances of a battle, being kind of paved over with lighter thoughts and melodies. Still, there's something more unsettling lurking beneath the surface smoothness.
MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, first produced in 2012 and 2013, is an ambitious, dark saga with lyrics and script by Anne Washburn (a fair amount of dialogue is included), and the original music is by Michael Friedman. The action takes place at three different points in a post-apocalypse future. Although the premiere cast recording has 16 tracks, only five of them run longer than 100 seconds. The reference point is an episode of the animated TV series "The Simpsons" which shaken survivors of a widespread nuclear disaster discuss to distract themselves from the horror, in later scenes re-enacting a version of it as members of theatre troupes.
While some tracks prominently feature fine ensemble work with harmony singing in various styles, the standout solo performer is Maya Sharpe. She gets a lot of singing in a bright, piping voice when enacting the role of that resourceful boy Bart Simpson, leading two versions of "Say Goodbye" as well as the cheery warning about "Messing with the Simpsons" and the strong anthem of hope, bravery and survival simply titled "Last Song." Keeping calm and carrying on against the odds is the underlying theme, and that's spiced with sarcasm and theatricality.
Interpolated music includes bits of Gilbert & Sullivan numbers used in that "Simpsons" episode, quotes from the ominous instrumental theme from the movie Cape Fear (which inspired it), and the TV series' theme.
Being a devoted fan of the cartoon and knowing more of the story of this play and its three distinct segments may not be prerequisites to appreciate the score of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, but it might help. Either way, it's an unusual and scrappy journey. Enjoy the ride.