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A Tale of Two Cities
And songs of two singers
who Speak Low and Smile

It takes more than a guillotine to end the life of the short-lived 2008 Broadway musical version of A Tale of Two Cities: it's come back on a grand scale as a televised concert, DVD, and now a studio cast album with some of its Broadway cast. Meanwhile, Broadway leading lady Ashley Brown (Mary Poppins) flies in with a solo album, while Sylvia Bennett brings her Smile. And these two share four of the same songs.


Tale Productions

Attend the tale of A Tale of Two Cities: composer-lyricist-bookwriter Jill Santoriello's ambitious adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel first appeared as a concept CD in 2002, had a disappointingly short run on Broadway in the fall of 2008 and came back last year, in England, as a concert with narration. Now a studio recording has been released with a 34-piece orchestra and a strong cast that includes performers who sang in the concert and/or the Broadway production (some of whom were also heard on that original 2002 album; some songs have come and gone since then). With orchestra and voices and emotions swelling and soaring and roaring, the recording presents a powerful case for the merits of this highly dramatic score. It's sung with some gutsy, dynamic and well-delineated—and just out-and-out knockout—contributions from James Barbour as Sydney Carlton, with lovely work from Brandi Burkhardt as Lucie. These are two of the leads from the earlier incarnations.

With the long-running and then-returning Les MisĂ©rables fresh in the ears and eyes of many theatergoers and critics, the similarly textured, similarly themed, similarly historically-set Tale surely suffered some wounds of comparisons of epic proportions. Adapting a sprawling novel—a classic—is a daunting task. Especially for those willing to dive into the Dickensian doom and gloom and matters of life and death where all can seem unfair in love and war, this score is a far, far better thing than you might think (or remember). Like some of its characters, the musical version has survival instincts and plunges ahead (a regional production, in fact, opens in Chicago this week). Thus, the title of the "bonus track" not a part of the original score as heard on the Great White Way, with music by Frank Wildhorn, "Never Say Goodbye," might seem to have a "bonus meaning": there's plenty of life in this show and the full-out production and performances—sometimes riveting, here and there relentless, occasionally ravishing, usually rousing and always richly delivered. (And before we move on, "Never Say Goodbye" is a powerful, traditional, heart-on-sleeve ardent number reminiscent of other Wildhorn work. It's a great showcase for the female lead.)

One might wish for more cases like "If Dreams Came True" or "Let Her Be a Child" where lyrics are more thought-provoking and have more eloquence. These characters shouldn't be bristling with sophisticated wit or spinning phrases of uncommon beauty. Some are guarded and often heavily burdened. Especially as so pointedly and poignantly phrased by James Barbour, better-honed lines showing his perspective about his character not being worth tears or caring about can make a listener care—even to the point of tears, perhaps. Some lyrics are more like dialogue set to music and there's a lot of plot and pain to cover and uncover. Interestingly, the trial-set-to-music works very well, imbued with attitude and some surprising splashes of sarcasm and strength of language choices. Though the songs have a preponderance of heavy, declamatory style, there are also numbers which serve as respite, with dark-but-jaunty comic relief and tender moments, along with tempo variety. When lyrics fail to thrill because they feel plain or depend on repetition for intended impact, the assertively dramatic melodies, with the exciting, pulse-quickening orchestrations and arrangements of Edward B. Kessel, do the trick without it always feeling like a trick. The intense emotions the cast consistently conveys with commitment are impressive, even if sometimes one might feel hit over the head, over and over, and maybe over the top, when the going gets rough.

It's big but it's no small fact that, even when it's exhausting (hey, there's always the "pause" button, unlike live theatre), integrity is omnipresent. There are impressive performances, from the steel-belted indicting railing vocals of Natalie Toro as Madame Defarge to the affecting vocals of Simon Thomas as Charles, alternately disarmingly sweet or fervent.

For those who like their musical theatre grand of scale with high drama played with high and mighty voices and bold choices: your cup runneth over. For those who are less enamored of amorous doings, personal and political angst and unpleasant peasant uprisings, you might find that A Tale of Two Cities has much to break your barriers. I, for one, when all was said and sung, pretty much surrendered.

This studio cast album is currently available exclusively through the website of the production, Additional music and video are there as well, and a concert DVD is also sold.


Ghostlight Records

Almost everything seems rather sweetened on Ashley Brown's debut solo album. Maybe it's her natural inclination or preference or maybe it comes from channeling Disney—in the revue of old and recent Disney songs On the Record, California's Disney Concert Hall's "symphonic concert re-telling" of Snow White, Broadway time playing Belle in Beauty and the Beast and the title role in Mary Poppins—that keeps more than "a spoonful of sugar" ever-present. Even the sadder lines of the first track, the title song on Speak Low, sound unbothered (when "everything ends too soon, too soon ..."; " ... Love, so brief ... and time, a thief ..." ). Likewise, the final cut of "I'll Be Seeing You" is presented as cheerful, despite its bittersweet or even lamenting lyrics, set up in the included introductory verse ("Who knows if we shall meet again?").

Most of the songs chosen have lyrics that present a more contented and simply serene state of mind, like "I've Got the World on a String," so she's apparently in her comforting comfort zone of justified joy and easy-going happy endings. Her love songs don't find love unrequited or complex or conflicted. You won't catch her getting lonely much in "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week," as it's lonely "lite" but bright. The tune has plenty of pre-existing bounce in its history as a lightly swinging hit for Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, when many lovers were separated by World War II, and the lyric promises a fully expected reunion. She glosses over any regret for being late to the party in finding out what love can be in the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On?" However, it is warmly sung, with the singer seeming very in the moment as she realizes and relishes the emotional and physical feelings of love.

When a lover and love and life are thought of as idealized, she can be fine and appealing, drinking in the dreaminess of "My One and Only Love" (a song whose first words are the title of the one that precedes it, "The Very Thought of You," but they are not done as a medley). There is a combo of "Smile" with "Make Someone Happy," although the latter number, sung in equal amounts, as she switches back and forth, is not listed on the back cover song list. (In the booklet, it is.) This pairing, with a maniacally over-busy arrangement, seems a mismatch, as the two don't address the same issues. The frenetic mix is a miss and diminishes the message of both lyrics.

Ashley does show that she is capable of bringing much more to the table as far as acting and insight with Rodgers & Hart's "Falling in Love with Love." Here, satisfyingly, she hits the nail on the head, sounding appropriately wise—sadder-but-wiser—convincing as someone who's loved and lost and understands the difference between being in love and just the seductive idea of love, and being fooled by that. And burned by it. Brava!

There are some top-drawer jazz musicians on the tracks—pianist Lee Musiker, bassists Jay Leonhart and David Finck, with Lawrence Feldman on woodwinds—although they don't get much room to stretch out or be subtle, even on the several arranged by Musiker himself. The two tracks arranged by Eldar Djangirov and with the only accompaniment being him (sympathetically and gracefully) on piano are among the best: "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Falling in Love with Love."

Despite the missed opportunities and approaches that didn't work for me, I do enjoy the timbre of Ashley Brown's voice and the positive, winsome ingenue energy that bursts through in tracks such as "If I Were a Bell."


Out of Sight Music

"Smile," "Make Someone Happy," "The Very Thought of You" and "I'll Be Seeing You" are also on Sylvia Bennett's CD, but the approaches are rather different. Sylvia tends to be oh-so-mellow, unruffled, low-key and calm, gliding across the melodies, phrasing evenly. The emphasis on rhythms, like the bossa nova, essayed this time out is a good idea. Acting a song or delving deeply is not her modus operandi. So, the focus and raison d'ĂȘtre is not the words or drama. She—and maybe we—can be content with the broad strokes of setting an overall mood and then enjoying the breeze of Brazil or seductively subtle swing and sway, with a bravo to Richard Bravo, percussionist. Her producer of a quarter of a century, Hal S. Batt, is in charge once again, contributing many tasty guitar accents.

I've reviewed a few Sylvia Bennett albums and there's something about her unpretentious, gentle, kindly, slightly burnished but clean sound that appeals to me, with Smile perhaps finding the best balance and tone yet. And I couldn't help smiling at the bonus track with the title song of Smile being sung in Spanish. It's endearing. "The Look of Love" also gets an alternate version, one labeled a "smooth pop version"—so much here seems so smooth and some bordering on that label of "easy listening," but there's more than that going on. "I'll Be Seeing You" has a dollop of needed wistfulness and longing. "Make Someone Happy" is attractive, somehow gently getting the point across, despite the fact that it makes you want to fox trot or something. Sylvia just sounds so content and the strings so soothingly swirling that you almost think whatever she's singing must be good advice. Her "The Very Thought of You" is a lush, romantic ballad, the phrasing more involved and nuanced than elsewhere. She lingers over words a bit, much to the good. Mike Levine's piano work is understatedly effective, a special pleasure at the beginning of "Fly Me to the Moon" when the spotlight is on singer and pianist.

Yes, my mind tended to wander when not fully engaged or emotionally moved due to the predictability that can come with the territory when the agenda is what it is here. Few surprises are thrown in, with much of the proceeding being stronger on snuggly ambiance than substance or subtext. But, for what it is, it's an unassuming and often ingratiating listen that might be right for a lazy afternoon in a hammock with a lemonade. A few tracks are livelier, faster-tempoed, and some switch gears comfortably and satisfying as they go on, but nobody breaks a sweat or breaks out of "polite" mode. But a cheery cha-cha never hurt anyone.

Whether basking in either version of the Bennett/Batt "Smile" or in "The Shadow of Your Smile," or various other cozy cuddles of music on the album, there's much smile-inducing on the CD.

- Rob Lester

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