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Leading Ladies Recorded Live:
Andrea McArdle; Faith Prince

The lights dim, the chattering crowd with clinking glasses quiets down, the announcement is made, and there's the welcoming applause. Now here comes the star. A cabaret audience is ready to get to know her better-through anecdotes, commentary, memories shared, songs up-close and personal in a new context. These two examples come from the new label that's brought us a flurry of such live albums, Broadway Records. Different types, Andrea McArdle and Faith Prince entertain their audiences, relating high points from their careers (with song samples). Included in both acts are things from Jerry Herman, the team of Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg, and something from Stephen Sondheim's score of Company.


Broadway Records

She's looking back at the 1970s and inviting us along for the ride. By the middle of that decade, Andrea McArdle was in rehearsal for a new musical based on a comic strip and would, before opening, inherit the title role: a show that's returned to Broadway again: Annie. She was just a young teenager from the state of Pennsylvania in a state of excitement and whirlwind success, but got to experience New York nightlife: the gritty and glamorous. That included the famed disco Studio 54, the location of 54 Below, a terrific nightclub approaching its first anniversary—where this recording was made, with the decade of the '70s as its reference point.

So, it's mostly about giving a big hug to all that, mostly suggesting the way things sounded then—remembering and rekindling, not re-interpreting or re-inventing. That can invite collective and recollective sighs, but pretty much eschews surprise. The enthusiasm of McArdle can be infectious, her ever-bright voice that cuts through the air and the band is full of zest and power. While there may not be much that feels "new" or nuanced, as she follows in familiar footsteps, the joy and affection she brings—along with her terrifically crisp and clear voice—makes this something enjoyable, rather than just "been there/ heard that." While some numbers feel like a skimming of the surface rather than digging in, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" may be the mantra. But a strong personality like McArdle can't just blend or be bland for too long. Thank goodness for that. But she and her musical director/pianist Steve Marzullo (part of a quartet) may have erred on the side of caution in sticking too closely to how we heard these pieces originally and famously.

"Rainy Days and Mondays" feels a bit casual, its lyric line, "What I feel they used to call 'the blues'," feeling not a very deep shade of blue, the referenced disquieting and unsettled feeling seeming described rather than dredged up or slogged through. Billy Joel's "Angry Young Man" comes off as more observed from a distance. However, the early Jackson Five hit "Got to Be There" ignites—with the belted high notes a young Michael Jackson once blared out energizing and even spine-tingling in the key used here. Now we're cooking.

Then we turn to theatre material: "Meadowlark," the Stephen Schwartz opus of a story-song from The Baker's Wife is often overdone—in both senses of the word. But Andrea excels here, starting gently, really unspooling the plot clearly while coloring it with the emotions remembered when the character heard the tale as a young girl. Her heart is heavy, but her tone is light in the beginning, rather than plowing through in a powerhouse manner and rushing. She chooses well her moments of passion and her moments of reflection, and it all works.

Broadway hits with music by the late Marvin Hamlisch are given appropriate and warm attention. The landmark A Chorus Line gets some gushing from the gal who was drawn to it and its subject matter. Although she speaks of being overwhelmed by it fondly in some early talk, his name isn't mentioned until later, when she gets to a number from They're Playing Our Song (a little combo of the gentle, self-chastising "Fallin'," in the company of a section of a more-pensive-than-fraught "Being Alive" from Sondheim's Company). And still later, she gets to a solid version of something from A Chorus Line's score: "Nothing." Her own days in Annie are mentioned several times in the included patter here and there and she does a section of its score's "N.Y.C." (not indicated on the song list and it doesn't get recognition applause as she goes into it). And, yes, she finally gets to "Tomorrow," which she recorded as an adult on her much-earlier first solo album. Also revisited are her days in the revue of the Jerry Herman revue Jerry's Girls, represented by Mack & Mabel's "Wherever He Ain't," splendidly feisty here.

For an encore, Andrea goes back to her starring role in the TV-movie about Judy Garland's early years, cuing a lovely "Over the Rainbow," lavishing some love on Harold Arlen/ E.Y. Harburg's perennial. It includes the introductory verse Garland didn't sing (though many others have). Throughout the album, Andrea McArdle still tends to project more vivacity than vulnerability, more determination and decisiveness than wispy wistfulness. Not that there's anything wrong with that.


Broadway Records

Sprinkled generously with her cheer and personal brand of adorability that puts her stamp of individuality on number after number, Faith Prince's nightclub act (recorded in Florida) is delicious. While Andrea McArdle is content to relive the 1970s on her live CD, Faith, in turn, turns to the next decade longingly with "Take Me Back to the Eighties." It's a parody lyric—new words by Cheryl Stern—to Cole Porter's homesick cure, "Take Me Back to Manhattan" (and she also takes us back to the original, if briefly, at a later point in the charming show that shows a pro at her best. Using her career to cue a casual cascade of songs she's performed in musical theatre, the act becomes more than just a parade of "And then I did ..." For example, Jerry Herman's "If He Walked Into My Life"—with mature warmth and reflection, then belting the latter part with panache—is set up by talking about her now-teenaged son. Company's "The Ladies Who Lunch" tips its hat to the original, indelible Elaine Stritch interpretation and a nod to Sondheim's 80th birthday year.

Even on recording, Faith's trademark quirky, bemused, smirky, confused reactions come though as this master colors and accents words with exaggerated emphasis, quick changes in vocal sound for specifically targeted comedic effect. A little laugh, a sigh, a squeal, a growl—they're all in her arsenal, brought out judiciously and precisely. The singing itself sounds strong and appealing. In Maltby & Shire's comical saga of the frustrated female doing a "Crossword Puzzle" (while missing her beau who's disappeared "with some floozy"), she really finds her own way with the number: taking her sweet time and sweet ways to really "land" a joke, finding little moments of frustration, and vocally changing the tones and styles for key words to almost act them out.

The talented and attentive musical director/pianist Alex Rybeck is at her side, singing with her a couple of times with aplomb. Their duet of the delightful, daft "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg shows them as an especially deft pair suitable for vaudeville's next comeback and it sure sounds like their enjoy each other's musical company, with each and every "la-la-la." (Rybeck was also with her for her Nightlife Award-winning duo act with Jason Graae, The Prince and the Showboy.) Notable here are two selections from Little Shop of Horrors: "Somewhere That's Green" and "Suddenly Seymour"—again with Alex chiming in, in a somewhat low-key and gregarious manner. (Faith was originally approached to do the original run, but couldn't get released from an industrial show, though she did go on to take over the role.)

The opening medley includes brief samples of her work in the revival of Guys and Dolls as the nutty Miss Adelaide. From zippy romps through theatre songs and more, her energy never flags or pushes, right up to the encore of the endearing "Bless Your Heart"—Rybeck's collaboration with lyricist Ira Gasman (The Life). And particularly interesting and effective is the inclusion of "Coney Island," which she was only able to react to in A Catered Affair (John Bucchino). This piece shows true drama.

Like her other solo live CD (Leap of Faith, 2000) and the recording of the nightclub revue of Mary Rodgers' work (Hey, Love, which—like this one—includes "I'm Shy"), this is a delectable sample of the special spunk and stylings of the special Faith Prince.

- Rob Lester

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