Sound Advice Reviews
Revival cast of Parade, John Pizzarelli, Hailey Brinnel
First stop on the musical tour is Broadway, for the riveting recording of the revival of Parade. Then it's time for collections by singers who are also instrumentalists and both happen to include the same two songs from the 98-year-old No, No, Nanette: John Pizzarelli and Hailey Brinnel.
One hundred and ten years ago this week, in Georgia, a murder set in motion the swirl of accusations, investigations and confrontations dramatized in the musical Parade. The currently playing Broadway revival brings forth the third cast recording of this powerful score, following the original from 1998 and a 2007 London production. Once again, the listening experience is often uncompromisingly unsettling without feeling exploitative or relying on a monochromatic musical palette.
The cast's well-delineated performances bring out the emotions fueled by–and reacting to–desperation, prejudice, selfishness and corruption. They are attentive to Jason Robert Brown's lyrics which, like people in courtroom trials, serve to persuade, indict and judge. Vitriol from seemingly heartless characters is relieved by heartfelt moments presented by actors playing kinder souls. As the plot thickens, even listeners who know the history and/or the songs can be swept away by the power and respites of poignancy, just as the public at the time was swept up in the media frenzy and assumptions. Mr. Brown's melodies pulsate and surge excitingly, as he commandingly conducts the orchestra himself.
Ben Platt is sympathetic but restrained as defendant Leo Frank, a pained man drained of strength and confidence. His overall gentle spirit projected in songs doesn't match the supposed stoic, uptight affect articulated as "I know I must seem hard/ I know I must seem cold" (in "Leo's Statement: It's Hard to Speak My Heart"). He maintains a quiet gravitas and when the music and words rise to more fevered pitches, his vocals can rise to the occasion with some heft. But Micaela Diamond as wife Lucille does the heavy lifting in making things approach soaring and catharsis in their key bittersweet duets "This Is Not Over Yet" and "All the Wasted Time." She imbues the character with the requisite dignity and dedication.
This new cast recording is not a clone of the earlier ones. Besides the notably quite different kinds of voices among those in the role of Leo, there are other changes. The three have varying amounts of dialog incorporated in spots (the British version had the luxury of being a two-disc set). If you only know the 1998 version, you may have missed out on things added since then, present on the London recording and this one. Manoel Felciano leads the rallying "Hammer of Justice" with maniacal determination (until it abruptly stops). The song "Big News" for the overzealous, scoop-seeking reporter is absent. But "Great Big News" remains and the role's current interpreter, Jay Armstrong Johnson, knocks it out of the park, making this drooling strut a high-energy highlight. Sean Allan Krill is a vibrant presence as the governor making small talk and potentially big decisions while dancing to and commenting on the catchy "Pretty Music" (a number with lyrics somewhat different on each recording).
Among others turning in impactful work are welcome veterans Howard McGillin and Paul Alexander Nolan and two people making their Broadway debuts: Eddie Cooper and Jake Pedersen, the latter as a boy displaying the contrasting moods of the easy-breeziness of wanting a date with the soon-to-be victim for "The Picture Show" and then sorrow and rage at her funeral. Choral work is sterling. Bookending the show, the unquestioning ode to "The Red Hills of Georgia" with its martial drum beat and proclaimed pride is especially striking and stirring, becoming haunting. Indeed, much in this piece is haunting and hellish–even when melodies dare to entice as outwardly delightful and bouncy (a "Cakewalk" that follows a verdict), irresistibly invigorating, or gorgeous in their aching melancholia. With a capable cast and the power of its music, Parade is an unforgettable well-aimed punch in the gut and tug at the heartstrings. Wincing, how can we look away?
Like seeing the sun shining when you open a window or good news when you open an email, the appearance of a new recording of John Pizzarelli singing and playing guitar is always a welcome, appreciated event. Stage & Screen finds him accompanied by two bandmates–pianist Isaiah J. Thompson and bassist Mike Karn–and some selections are purely instrumental treatments. The pièce de resistance of those is a nimble nine-minute suite of numbers from the musical Oklahoma! that is full of both vim and affection for the classic. And throughout the collection's vocal tracks, all three men shine with instrumental breaks that are integral to the material, expanding and embellishing moods, such as the teamwork and turn-taking on a romp through the opener, "Too Close for Comfort." Are we having fun yet? You bet we are!
The well-established Pizzarelli panache is all over the sparkling set, with the serenity implied in his phrasing, bursts of bubbling-over joy, and his trademark hat trick of zipping through series of musical phrases on guitar while simultaneously matching them vocally with wordless syllables, with dispatch and aplomb. While the youthful "aiming to please" persona of an energized entertainer does remain (that mission's accomplished terrifically with Kander & Ebb's plucky "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup"), there's much more. Over the decades, his singing has become more nuanced on love songs, as evidenced on a thoughtful reading of "Time After Time" wherein the genuine appreciation of a relationship rings true each time the lyric reflects on being "so lucky." The gregarious guy with the grin can also be the smiling, sincere soul. He seems to relish words and images, whether it's the picturesque "Swiss Alp as the sun grows fainter" in "You're All the World to Me" (which, on film, once drove Fred Astaire up the wall to be dancing on the ceiling) or Jason Robert Brown's playfulness in the list song "I Love Betsy" from Honeymoon in Vegas as he rhymes a Manhattan museum's acronym, MOMA, with "New Jersey's ripe aroma" or the word "fiancée" with the name of the singer Beyoncé.
The 98-year-old musical No, No, Nanette is represented twice. In listening to the instrumental of the score's "I Want to Be Happy," you may have the words in your head and want to sing along, but good luck trying to keep up with the high-speed race. For a laidback and sweeter taste of imagined happiness from that vintage show, it's sampled vocally with a tender ballad version of "Tea for Two" that brings out the full romantic potential of its description of an idyllic, simple life.
Another old chestnut getting warmed up with a reflective rendition, crooned pensively, is Rodgers & Hart's 1937 "Where or When." And, concerning where or when you can see the busy trio in person, celebrating the release of Stage & Screen, their current engagement is at Birdland in New York City through Saturday (April 29). Then they take off on a tour that will bring them to numerous venues in five other states before the end of May.
As I ponder and plow through the panoply of female vocal recordings sent to me for review, often finding pleasures in the discs and downloads, I wonder: "Where does this seemingly unending supply of talented young singers come from?" (Not that I'm complaining!) In the case of bright-voiced Hailey Brinnel, the short answer is that she comes from Pennsylvania. A finalist in the Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition, she does double duty in her performances as she's also the trombone player in her band. Additionally, she wrote the music and lyrics for two of the numbers on her second release, Beautiful Tomorrow, and is the producer. It also shows off her versatility in handling different tones and tempi: tricky tongue-twisting fast showpieces, a languid ballad, a straightforward spirit-raiser, and a mournful bluesy folk song with roots in the 1800s ("Wayfaring Stranger"). The lady can confidently scat-sing and she sure swings when she picks up the trombone and picks up the pace.
There is pep galore, with the uber-optimistic "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" (written by the Sherman brothers as a theme for Disney attractions) marching along with a recipe for unadulterated happiness that might include more than a spoonful of sugar, but doesn't cloy. Dusting off the ancient No, No, Nanette nuggets yields fun, too, with a slinky "I Want to Be Happy" and the quick-percolating "Tea for Two" reinforcing the blithe, carefree mood. So do the originals; "The Sound" is a head-spinning, fleet flurry of words and notes and the other is tongue-in-cheek cheer and sass ("I'm starting to think 'I Might Be Evil' because I'm certainly no good"). However, when mature material comes into the set, Hailey Brinnel acquits herself handily, such as taking her time with the pained reality check housed in "A Cottage for Sale."
Pianist Silas Irvine is a major asset, creating interest as his fingers seem to dance or fly across the keys and, happily, he gets ample opportunities to show that on many tracks. Hailey Brinnel always more than holds her own, whether singing apace with just the spare accompaniment and groove provided by bassist Joe Plowman on "Candy" from the 1940s or on other cuts where she dives into dense, dazzling band blasts with her trombone joining the piano/bass/drums trio (with guests on trumpet and sax on some tracks).
The ten-track Beautiful Tomorrow is a harbinger of more success to come. I suspect that a great many bright and beautiful tomorrows are ahead for this artist.