Sound Advice Reviews
Cumming comes to Café Carlyle
The decidedly non-traditional, eyebrow-raising actor-singer Alan Cumming might not seem a likely candidate to be holding forth at the refined, posh Manhattan boite called the Café Carlyle, but the tony spot welcomed the Tony winner who Sings Sappy Songs on the resulting live CD. Another vocalist, Hilary Kole, sings snappy songs, "c'mon 'Get Happy'"-songs, and what some non-sentimental types might call sappy songs in a satisfying salute to Judy Garland, a true icon.
ALAN CUMMING SINGS SAPPY SONGS
The elegant, pricey, and serene Manhattan Café Carlyle of cabaret history is a far cry from the seedy gloom of the cabaret in Cabaret, the musical wherein Alan Cumming twice triumphed in revivals. The take-no-prisoners performer takes the stage with eclectic pop, rock, and musical theatre material, and the CD souvenir Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs presents the saucy Scot strutting his stuff.
There's a lot of separately tracked chatty patter about his likes and dislikes and adventures in show biz. He reveals what will happen to his TV character in "The Good Wife," lets us know that co-hosting the Tony Awards was actually terrifying, and tells all about being approached to do a condom commercial (he sings the peppy jingle called "Ecstasy!" which is credited to him and musical director Lance Horne). He also goes on at length about pal Liza Minnelli, his abusive fathercheekily saying there aren't enough songs about bad parent/child relationships-and other things. The talk is occasionally sprinkled casually with an expletive. Much is tossed off, including the rushed "Thank you very much" acknowledgments that make one think either he takes the applause for granted or doesn't feel totally comfortable with getting it. For some listeners, a little will go a long way. Is it TMI to hear about his affair with someone whose name he got tattooed on his body and all about the pain of getting it and getting it removed? You can easily skip over those tracks if you wish, and there is plenty of singing with 16 numbers.
Cumming's singing voice is a somewhat smoky or gruff one, but he clears the fog from it on some numbers. Still, it isn't especially rangy or powerful here. The husky quality can work to his advantage on moody pieces and add a lived-in feeling authentic sense that adds a hint of near gravitas to some pop fluff. Sharing his guilty pleasures without apology, he dives into material like "The Climb" which he raises to a surprisingly meaningful height by embracing its better lyric lines with energy, but gleefully taunts the crowd by smugly reading their minds about not expecting to hear a hit from the oeuvre of Miley Cyrus. Other numbers are from Avril Lavigne and mega-seller Adele, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. There are a couple of Billy Joel items and the fine work of Rufus Wainwright is represented, too. In a nod to his homeland, he trots out "Mother Glasgow," at first zipping through it and comically self-interrupting to explain the references in the lyric which would be unfamiliar to Americans. And then he surprises by repeating it sweetly with the gorgeous cello accompaniment of Eleanor Norton.
But when Cumming calms down and gets serious, he displays his theatre savviness and skill and can show his heart. While there's some fun in the pop, many will find the theatre songs most rewarding. The Threepenny Operaa show he worked in, in a brief revivalis represented with a potent "How Do Humans Live." I'm glad to hear "You, You, You" from the Kander and Ebb score of The Visit get attention, and Cumming treats it with respect. Noel Coward's classic "If Love Were All" gets a lovely reading that reveals a rare glimpse of vulnerability. And while snippets of three Sondheim gems are used just for brief, somewhat disrespectful comedy mashup effect to illustrate their similarity, he redeems himself with a committed and fierce "Ladies Who Lunch."
Lance Horne, a force to be reckoned with in his own right, provides rock star-worthy support on piano and additional vocals, with the help of Chris Jago on drums and guitar. They switch genres with ease in this mixed bag of styles. It's cabaret as part party, part gossip session, part high class karaoke with faves from his iPod that probably keep Alan Cumming humming. We also get a sense of what makes Alan Cumming tick.
The Judy Garland legacy lives on and we're at the point where she will have been gone the same number of years she was alive. The legend has grown and her influence on other singers remains; many of the songs she favored or introduced in films continue to be heard. Her death in June of 1969 at 47 only added appreciation with a bittersweet deepening of the songs' emotion. Such was her imprint and connection that many numbers still feel like her property that can be borrowed but never owned by others. On theater stages, the lady's life and career continue to fascinate, with then End of the Rainbow theatre piece with Tracie Bennett a few years ago and Chasing Rainbows, a bio of the early years coming to Goodspeed later this year with an eye on Broadway. On smaller stages such as cabaret rooms, tributes and impersonations are common. On disc in the last several years, musical theatre stars Linda Eder and Caroline O'Connor have released tributes with the famous material, as has Judy's own daughter Lorna Luft (who also penned a memoir that became a TV movie). Now Hilary Kole "goes there," meaning goes to the well-visited well, to partake of "Over the Rainbow" and other songs Garland introduced or took a swing at. And swing she does, this jazz-leaning big band singer whose first big job in New York City was at age 21 at the elegant Rainbow Room.
Happily, there's little sense of gratuitous sentimentality, needless redundancy, or pale shadow play at work. Imitation or heavily influenced/slavish styling would be folly, with Garland's own recordings on the market in plentiful reissue and even more recently rediscovered tracks released; her voice and songs are omnipresent as well as deeply etched in the consciousness of even casual fans. Hilary remains Hilary. The disarmingly delightful singing style and clear sound that have made her past work score points are still the assets here. Intonation and musicianship feel effortlessly secure. The increasing attention to more thoughtful, involved phrasing that has become more and more entrenched in her work in recent years continues to point to a more ready involvement with the story of a song. But the love for diving and dipping through melody and kind of surfing on its waves with skill has not been abandoned. Indeed, she sings with abandon and adventurousness. A slinky, sliding use of melisma adds to the looser feeling.
The superb and versatile pianist John di Martino seems to breathe with her, so attentive and simpatico is his playing. Refreshing, "alive" arrangements and the musicians playing them are definitively in an accessibly mainstream-jazz camp. Forget about musical settings evoking easy nostalgia or specific period flavor. There is sweetness and affection for the material evident, but it's a schmaltz-free zone. Hilary Kole projects a cozy confidence and joy, with pensiveness and perspective on ballads as opposed to fragility or neediness which could be part and parcel of the persona of Judy. There's no attempt at vulnerability or innocent girlishness on the early-career movie songs/records, nor conscious manipulation of her sound, no adopting of vibrato and all-out tempestuously torchy drama.
Inspiring the feeling immediately that we're on solid ground, the audition song that won Garland early jobs and was interpolated into a 1938 film for her to do, "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," is a first cut of the first rank. It's slower, slyer, witty, and adult. It's also the first of numerous examples that effectively spotlight the nimble, authoritative bass work of Paul Gill. Drummer Aaron Kimmel kicks things along in subtle and sophisticated wayswhen the singer gets to the crisply pointed-up word "zing!" we get a punchy little jolt of sound. Top-drawer jazz veteran sax man Joel Frahm is a welcome presence with his accents and additions that float through their own paths, especially enriching "Look for the Silver Lining" and "The Trolley Song" (which also has a lyric noting the "zing" of "heartstrings," but becomes a wilder ride with more musical side trips punctuated by the usual "clang-clang-clang"). This number by Hugh Martin from Meet Me in St. Louis is the CD's only example of picking two items from the same film score, with "The Boy Next Door" also getting satisfying treatment of a more traditional stripe, with romantic longing intact.
Mastery of her instrument and an ability to stay in time with "Just in Time"'s challenging high-speed chase and "Get Happy"'s scat and freewheeling romp are evident, but also impressive is the striking vocal control with superb intonation when she sings once through the Gershwins' "Embraceable You" a capella. The shimmering beauty of Kole's voice is perhaps showcased best of all with the inevitable Garland signature piece "Over the Rainbow," where her own arrangement of one of the most iconic and most-covered standards of all time is an exquisite finale. She lingers over the introductory verse that many omit, introducing a string quartet as elegance and yearning dance together dreamily.
Produced with loving care and attention to detail by Richard Barone for the cabaret label Miranda Music, the 15-track album doesn't just settle for the biggest Garland warhorses and movie trademarks from her prolific MGM years. They also profit by widening the net to include things she sang in her 1963-64 TV series, allowing space for a recent Broadway entry like Oliver!'s "As Long as He Needs Me" and the lonely post-breakup lament of "A Cottage for Sale." These two selections, not associated with the legend, are highlights that I find even more successful and more astutely delineated than other classics on the list.
There are a few errors in the booklet's text, such as miscrediting songwriters and stating that "Get Happy" was written for Judy for the 1950 film Summer Stock when in fact it had already been established for two decades at that point. But you won't find missteps in what you hear in the smart maneuverings of singer and band on The Judy Garland Project.
The album's New York City CD release celebration comes when ScoBar Entertainment presents its songs and singeraccompanied by the aforementioned sterling di Martino, Gill, and Kimmelon April 26 at The Iridium next to the Winter Garden Theatre.