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Tracie Bennett as Garland; Terese Genecco; Frank Lamphere

Slam! Bang! Pow! Subtlety is on the back burner with two full-force women belting and burning things up and one fellow stepping heavy on the gas to be swingingly coolly hip or cavalierly flip. Dynamic singing comes from the star playing Judy Garland near the end in End of the Rainbow and Terese Genecco, a power-packed Rat Pack-throwback singer whose publicity quote describes her as the imagined "love child of Judy Garland and Dean Martin." And there's more than a little Dean in Frank Lamphere and his original songs, also echoing that era.


Masterworks Broadway/ Sony Music

It's a very odd kind of listening experience and agenda, putting one's ears, mind, and Judy Garland memories to the CD representing End of the Rainbow, a play about the icon in the clouded-over sunset of her life/career. Tracie Bennett is playing her with obvious full awareness of and attentiveness to how she did her famous songs in the 1960s—but without aiming to either duplicate her voice precisely (her timbre is not a clone) or put a new spin on the phrasing or arrangements. Consider this the "mission with a disclaimer," making for a neither-fish-no-fowl situation difficult to judge as one would for an impressionist or a singing actress consciously avoiding impersonation by not studying the model (as was the case with a young Barbra Streisand taking on Fanny Brice). Of course, the Garland sound and style are quite indelible, with others having done their take (women and men). So no one hired a Xerox machine or a drag queen or look-alike mimic, but an actress who's, after all, going after the essence of the star's performing persona and vocal style, with a sense of desperation and determination, but feeding on the desire to entertain and live inside the music.

Audience adulation and cheers and support, the exchange of electricity and, yes, love—so much a part of Garland's live recordings—is not present or attempted here, as there's no live audience, simulated or otherwise. The play sets the songs in the London nightclub Talk of the Town, and the existing 1969 live recording of her work there indeed includes several of the songs in the new album—and each has numbers not on the other. The songs heard in End of the Rainbow, all Garland standbys and standards, are here, with more added to make for a full-length album. (There's no dialogue.)

It's not just about presenting an approximation of the throbbing vocal sound and struggle. The full-throttle performance suggests the veteran entertainer going in and out of her musical comfort zone. Coasting through the tried-and-true tricks might feel more like a trial at times. The show biz axiom "Never let 'em see you sweat" is not in play as we sense Garland battling to give her all—pushing to triumph over tricky tempi or melodic leaps. Especially if considered out of context and not as a souvenir of a performance (in London and now on Broadway) that many have found magnetic, we wonder: Is it fascinating or frustrating? Are song stylings admirably re-done or redundant? Is this a coup worth keeping or just a curiosity piece? That depends on how intimately you know and value performances by Garland of these songs in that period. As one who has them imbedded in the brain, it's difficult for me to listen without comparing the performances—(familiar) phrase by (breathy or blasted) phrase. Sometimes the resemblance and recreation is remarkable, sometimes it misses the mark. The actress's English accent occasionally shows itself (such as on the word "can't" pronounced "cahn't"). And she's more rounded with her R sounds at the ends of words than Judy usually was on these numbers. Oh, all the trademarks are there: the pronounced vibrato, the voice that veers from tremblingly tentative to tumultuously titanic, the slurred words, the build and bombast, the digging into a melody and lyric, with much of the phrasing loyal to the original and the arrangements very much modeled on the old charts. Those arrangements sound bright and zingy for the most part, rarely tired, but there are times when they feel a bit thin or limp, less crisp or full, particularly on a few beginnings and ends. A large orchestra is missed for some sections, but the feel is remarkably rich, by and large, for a small group of 13.

Admirable though it is—and it is often impressive—it can be the aural equivalent of a pretty good, well-stitched, labor-intensive recreation of a unique designer silk dress made of a coarser fabric where the color doesn't quite match and the whole thing doesn't flow easily. So much feels studied and effortful. Tracie Bennett appears to have a solid, strong voice and she's shaping it to emulate the fragile side of Judy, the wistful side, the vocal heft that came from sheer will and the prodigious gift that had not fully exited. The human fragility and gathered strength sound far less natural, almost coming off as a singer who's lumbering through, sloppy rather than valiantly straining. The attempts at laying back or holding back, getting a bit behind can feel transparently calculated, like a grown-up racing with a child, purposely slowing down to let the kid "win." And when it works better, I am still very aware of the actress acting the role of the singer up against the demands of the song and striving for stamina or coloring words and details, wearing the Entertainer hat or playing the "little girl lost" card. What can be lost along the way is the story of the song itself—we don't get involved in the searching and finding and losing romantic love or the tour of "San Francisco" sights because we're observing one performer channeling another performer's performance style. The songs feel not like conveyed emotions and communicated tales, but a means to an end.

But at the end of The End of the Rainbow's play time, one has to acknowledge the unique experience's strengths, whether that be the accuracy of nimbly navigating the memorable many modulations in the arrangement of "Just in Time" or capturing, with more ease, the aching loneliness in a well-calibrated "The Man That Got Away." Garland fans will note the substitution of the name of one of her husbands for the words "a cop" in "When You're Smiling (the Whole World Smiles with You)." And, after all these years and exposure, and many a Garland imitator or wannabe, "Over the Rainbow" still works its magic in Tracie Bennett's invested, touching performance.


Bug Out Music

Cabaret news flash: Terese Genecco, who just celebrated the completion of three years of monthly shows at The Iridium (she's back on April 17), the night club next to Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre, has released her second album, recorded live at the venue. She recently was on another midtown stage, accepting two of the top awards from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, voted on by its members. Just "promoted" to the prestigious "Major Artist: Female" category, Terese nabbed that prize and the "Show of the Year" win (a new category this year). Although her acceptance speeches were gracious, her joy was analogous to the hip happy gratitude expressed in the slangy, swinging number she sang onstage, one also included in her new CD: "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." The Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn smile-inducer, introduced by Dean Martin, is representative of her vibrancy, verve and savvy showmanship.

High-octane combustible, she's a fireball with a bright, ebullient and blazing voice who knows how to come out of the gate at full-force (saying hello to the audience with Bye Bye Birdie's "A Lot of Livin' to Do") and then raising the heat higher and higher. The arrangements and playing of her "Little Big Band" (achored by pianist Barrry Levitt and drummer Ray Marchica) is sensational and invigorating, heavy on the brass to match her sass, as well as the expert guitar work of Sean Harkness (her partner in an Elvis Presley show and a MAC winner last year for debut and this year for his duo instrumental Christmas album with Mike Herriott). The CD includes the year's MAC Award winner for Special Material, the comical "Universal Truth" by William Zeffiro. Terese has great fun cheerily trotting out its punchy music and winking lyrics, about how falling in love can make anyone fall apart: "You sob and sigh and stare/ But she don't know you're there/ You're tossed, lost, star-crossed/ Welcome to despair ... When Cupid aimed, you didn't duck."

The splashy album with great "live" sound quality brings a listener into the room, ringside, and finds singer and band in top form, indefatigable and genuinely exciting, on a mission to entertain and succeeding with flying colors. Miss Genecco has imported a Las Vegas showroom non-stop showstopper pizzazz to New York City time and again. I've witnessed many editions of her early and late Iridium sets and other performances, and she's a dazzler with loyal repeat, satisfied customers. The CD offers ample evidence of why. "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" from the musical St. Louis Woman echoes and honors Sammy Davis, Jr.'s own arrangement/live version, down to elements of the phrasing, instrumental figures surrounding the treatment of the simmering Harold Arlen melody lines and even a slight lyric alteration to Johnny Mercer's reflections on restlessness. Mercer is also represented by his English lyrics on "It Had Better Be Tonight" to Henry Mancini's music that cooks up 1960s flavor.

I feared it might, on disc, come off as a bit exhausting. Instead it's exhilarating. But I should not have worried, recalling well her first recording, Drunk with Love—a tribute to Frances Faye, no stranger to Vegas—also a live album. This one is its worthy successor. Another nod to Faye comes with a recreation of a tour de force of hers: a full-out telling of the "done her wrong" legend of "Frankie and Johnny" and, well, she does right by her idol, diving in all the way. The folk song redux owes much to the classic Frances "Frankie" treatment devised by the fertile arranging/conducting mind of Russell Garcia who also dreamed up the special dressing for "Swingin' on the Moon" for Mel Tormé, wherein a myriad of song titles with "Moon" in them are rattled off at the end. Terese takes that on, too. (She got to work with Mr. Garcia over the last few years, and this month shares a Bistro Award with him, posthumously, as he passed away at 95 just a couple of weeks after participating—electronically—in a Garcia tribute also at Iridium, with Shaynee Rainbolt and Billy Stritch.)

We get two from Cole Porter: "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and "I've Got You Under My Skin," and she nails them both with confidence and flair. Somewhere between adopting and adapting, she "gets" these styles and attitudes and makes such songs comfortably her own. She's got them under her skin.


Late Night Records (EP)

Is there no end to the influence and nostalgia and admiration when it comes to The Rat Pack personified musically by Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra? It's a current-day Frank in Frank Swings and Rat Pack Jazz Publishing is behind these copyright 2012 songs. The subtitle here is Frank Lamphere croons five hip new tunes for swingin' occasions. Yes, only five tracks for this EP and Frank is not only the vocalist, but also the composer-lyricist of the attitude-y stuff and he produced the recording himself. He's accompanied by four musicians, plus a trumpeter sitting in on two tracks. And the solos and overall playing are nifty enough and nicely done.

In the quick-tempoed sections, a confidently brash Sinatra or Bobby Darin style is embraced, though not slavishly or self-consciously. He seems more modeled on the casual Dean Martin manner, especially in lazy, slow tempo where he slurs and sloshes some vowel sounds. (His full-length CD of a decade ago, Ain't Love a Kick, salutes some of these lasting heroes, all selections with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, and it's not surprising to learn he is indeed working on a show about Dean.) It's kind of fun to flash back to the sensibilities of the 1950s-1960s stuff without singing actual material from the era but, rather, new numbers. This brings us to Mr. Lamphere as a songwriter. The songs her have an easygoing way, stronger in melody than with the lyrics, which can come off as less artful, more tossed-off conversation that wouldn't send up flares for sharp wit or poetic images. (Examples: "Remember window shopping in the city?/ Or sunning at the beach? / What a tan you had/ Then that wild Las Vegas rendezvous" and at one point with two minds about proper grammar ("What a fool was I ... If you regret like me ...") all in the opener, the longest track at 4:47, "I Never Forgot." Still, one might easily be forced to sit up and take notice and grin a bit on a playful trifle called "I Like Your Smell," whose opening line compares a loved one's scent favorably to a "plate of spaghetti." Rhymes can seem unimaginative or imperfect (sad/bad; calls/wall; blue/you) or forced, and syllables can feel jammed into a line.

The highlight, "Chicago Is for Me," is a vivacious and likeably unpretentious valentine to the city where he's based; with reed player Eric Schneider echoing the notes for "Chicago"—and then soaring—it's an appealing tour. With a light, genial swinging sound that softens the cockiness he sometimes affects in attitude, it's a snappy affair and he seems happy to blatantly ape his forefathers in cooler-than-thou macho stance ("You should have sat me down, woman" goes a line in the farewell song with maybe a tinge of country and western, "That's How Our Story Ends")—but usually with a decided wink. "Go on your casual way" he suggests—and so he does, all the way. More power to him.

- Rob Lester

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