Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

And now, please welcome to the stage ...
("Live" Recordings)

Although there's no substitute for a seat in the audience, watching and hearing performers in the moment, in the thrall of musical and person-to-person connection, a live recording can be enticing and revealing. Listening from the comfort of your own living room or riding in your car or through headphones while seated on the train, the experience may sit differently with you. Souvenir of remembered attendance or first-time "substitute" exposure, it can be the thrill of "I feel like I'm there" or the shrug of, "Well, I guess you had to be there ... "


Original Cast Records

I'm in the fan club of folks who appreciate and are moved by the more visceral and engaging experience of hearing a vocalist fill a concert hall with the pure human voice, without technology of amplification or electronic "help" and sound tricks. Witnessing this in person, with performers on their game, it can be intense and almost magical, a direct current like no other. A recording of such a concert might seem to miss the point and certainly requires a different kind of listening and mindset. Basic audibility in the concert hall, even in the back of the balcony, has to be the priority. But at what cost? It's a trade-off in the following ways: In order for that November audience to hear all voices and all the lyrics, the accompaniment had to be scaled back. It's often skeletal to the point that we miss hearing more interesting and fuller accompaniment figures or just having more players for Broadway material. Listening live, one is more willing to give that up just to be able to hear and have less struggle for singer and audience. Is it the same listening at home, especially on repeat playings? Not so much! Likewise, a live audience might be impressed, appreciative or relieved that they really can hear every word and not be thinking about the nuances of phrasing and coloring of words that can't be transmitted in these broad strokes. The home listener may have a different agenda. Accompaniment here is just three instruments: piano (Ross Patterson) and bass (Randy Landau) plus the wise choice of the often satisfying third instrument, the violin of Joe Dennison.

In the highlights of the Broadway Unplugged 6 album, there are satisfactions. There are also problems. This November 2009 event was the sixth no-amplification concert presented at The Town Hall in New York City (not all have been released on disc). The more frequently presented companion series, Broadway by the Year with its The Broadway Musicals of CDs, have also included some off-mic performances as a successful change of aural pace. This time, there are more bumps in the road and the sound mix and clarity on the CD is uneven, as are some vocal performances. If one is willing to forgive some frustrating things, and listen past some audio "fog," there are still rewards aplenty to be savored.

The opera-experienced John Easterlin and Sarah Jane McMahon obviously have an edge, and fare especially well, their rich and powerful voices a blessing and a wonder. Their operetta-style selections, constructed in the days when writing for the unamplified voice was the order of the day, are winners on all counts. When they duet on "Deep in My Heart, Dear" from The Student Prince it is especially dazzling.

Other strong moments, where drama of the vocal production matches the drama of the involved communication of the lyric, include Terri White's moving rendition of "Mama, a Rainbow" from Minnie's Boys. Unwavering in its commitment and connection, which are evident from the first phrase, it's also spine-tingling. Tenor Bill Daugherty's voice rings out wonderfully. He's the entertaining Sancho in a Man of La Mancha segment, duetting and in comical counterpoint to sturdy-voiced William Michals, an audience favorite in The Town Hall shows. Dynamic Daugherty, turning serious, is arresting and sympathetic in the plea of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" without veering into mawkish soap opera; daring to be in-your-face serious and sorrowful, he nails the notes and the emotions. (Of course, it helps that he'd been singing the same number regularly in a revue of the same name; there's something to be said for adequate or extra preparation and living with material.)

Emily Skinner scores in two contrasting assignments: a rich and warm soprano embrace of the yearning Peter Pan lullaby "Distant Melody" and injecting some welcome looseness of approach and a playful wink into Chicago's strutting "When You're Good to Mama." 12-year-old Kelsey Fowler, from Mary Poppins and Grey Gardens, brings a refreshingly uncloying simplicity to "Tomorrow," the Annie anthem too often shrilly belted to a faretheewell by other girls.

On other tracks, there are a couple of "oops" moments where singers flub lyrics (they'd be the right words in another spot of the song) and where they just don't sound secure with the material's muscular needs unmiked. Push comes to shove; at times, notes are delivered via a difficult birthing process but the lyrics suffer from neglect. It should be pointed out that there are some tracks where something goes amiss, but then they're back on track for a good spell. While sometimes clarity of voices and The Town Hall's remarkably good acoustics are in full evidence, there are some maddening cuts that more resemble muddy bootleg recordings.

While the repertoire covers a wide range of material, well-known Broadway songs—some that became oft-recorded standards—dominate, so there isn't much here where the compensation would be rarity. Still and all, fans of certain theatre singers and songs, not previously presented in this way, will find some interesting new ways to hear and admire them; for example, Marc Kudisch is notable blazing through "Let Things Be Like They Always Was," a serious and effective endeavor from the score of Street Scene by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes.

Spoken introductions by host-creator Scott Siegel, tracked separately, are kept brief, just announcing the songs, sources and singers, with an occasional comment about the year and if an old musical was miked. With 23 numbers, with songwriters from the Gershwins to Guettel, and some fine performances, one can't complain of a short program, even if shorter than usual in high points than is customary for this concert series.


Lookout Jazz Records

Full of sparkle and fizz, biting into the lyrics with relish and delivering the wry and sly lines like well-aimed arrows, Cynthia Crane hits the mark time and again in her latest live album. It's one of the rare live cabaret recordings where the talk is really worth preserving as it's well thought out, to the point, sets up songs well and is entertaining rather than rambling or stating the obvious. The personality comes through with life-loving optimism and uncompromised sincerity underneath—and woven into—all the humor, whimsy and self-deprecating jabs and the jeers at societal and political attitudes. The set list is eclectic and suits the performer's sensibilities, with a few numbers reprised from earlier CD outings. She has a way of shining the spotlight on the dubious and duplicitous aspects of human nature, skewering them without sounding high and mighty. As the title indicates, she's ready, willing and able to confess her "maybe it's just me" kind of puzzlement and personally perplexed perspective on things.

Those looking for vocal purity and belting power can look elsewhere. Crane is a communicator, a peppery and pointed one, with a likeable sound and a heart and perhaps hard-won wisdom that shine through. She's funny. She dives into material. She's endearing, whether singing an unabashed valentine to her husband of many years with Rodgers & Hammerstein's "I'm Your Girl" or comically cataloguing coupledom's carping and claustrophobia in Company's "The Little Things You Do Together." In the latter, she gets a sparring partner as terrific pianist Paul Greenwood spiritedly joins in with some vocals. He, along with the only other musician, talented bassist Boots Maleson, are longtime collaborators of this savvy songstress. The teamwork is tight, but somehow feels loose and off the cuff in much of the show. Nothing feels phoned in or distracted. She has great fun with Noel Coward's extra lyrics to Cole Porter's "Let's Do It," showing nifty comic timing on the many jokes. Dave Frishberg's "The Hopi Way" lets her get zany as she sings about repressing urges to burst and criticize in the interest of pacifism/spirituality.

The singer gives herself just as fully and convincingly to torch songs and ballads, with the well-crafted "You Believe in Me" (Zina Goldrich/ Tom Toce) a treasure in its craftsmanship and delivery. The lyric lets her make fun of herself for having "two left feet" and being mushy as "Cream of Wheat"—just one of the charming rhymes—while expressing her appreciation for the unconditional love of a partner, expressing awe and delight each time she sings "you believe in me" so convincingly and lovingly. It all makes you believe in her, too.

Cynthia Crane is a nominee for the cabaret world's MAC Awards which are held on Tuesday in Manhattan.


Harbinger Records

Like another Barbara C. (the one currently on Broadway, Miss Cook), it's a joy to find this piano jazz veteran of age 80+ still so vital and commanding, with show tunes or other material. Opening her latest live recording with the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim "All I Need Is the Girl," the energy and joy are immediately evident. Though known for her elegance and wide-ranging jazz vocabulary, Barbara Carroll's work is accessible to those not versed in jazz. Lovingly presenting melodies but also ready to explore and expand them, the respect for the writing is ever evident. Listening to her over the years, I often come away with new appreciation for the specifics of a melody's construction: a chromatic progression, heightened awareness of a particular juxtaposition or transition that may not be the most repeated or prominent, but a musical choice so worth savoring. She reveals the gem-like precision and beautiful choices sculpted into excellent songs by not rushing through them or drawing attention to her own skill set instead. Not much feels stuffy with Miss Carroll, even if making a light number feel a bit classical; only once in a while do I feel things are going on too long and I'm getting restless. "How Could You Do a Thing Like That to Me?" is a bit over-extended for me, its ingratiating little melody maybe not the ideal candidate for being stretched to well over six minutes (the disc says 7:06, but timings here include the applause and occasional spoken comment). However, on this date at Jazz at Lincoln Center's room, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the longer exploratory numbers with traded solos among band members are nicely balanced by some short-and-sweet pieces.

Duke Ellington takes a big chunk of the program, the title number a collaboration with Billy Strayhorn being a perfectly executed prize. It's just two minutes in length but covering much emotional territory and an example of economy without feeling at all compacted or rushed. Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom" is another worthy entry, another pleasure to hear. Rather than the customary blaring big band sound of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" or murky moody navel-gazing contemplations that "Mood Indigo" or "In a Sentimental Mood" can be, these more tasteful but still emotional treatments are excellent displays of the winning balanced choices.

There are only two vocals here, with Barbara Carroll's crisp, modest voice with its trademark sly insouciance. One is a likeable number by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh you may not know, "I Wanna Be Yours." The other is the old standard "How About You?" updated with a reference to our current President instead of F.D.R. There's a certain charm and comfort zone on singing lyrics, such as the one near the beginning of this Burton Lane/ Ralph Freed oldie, "I like a Gershwin tune/ How about you?" Apparently she does, as she weaves George Gershwin's Prelude in C-Sharp Minor into "Lonely Town" from the musical On the Town, a number she's recorded in the past, but very rich and full of haunting qualities this time around.

The engaging and skillful Ken Peplowski on sax and clarinet is quite dominant on some of the several numbers where he, as guest, joins the trio. Noted: The pianist graciously gives him much of the spotlight, but for those who are mainly eager for Barbara and her piano grace, flair and flourishes, this may seem like too much time in the back seat rather than being the driving force. In the selections here, bassist Jay Leonhart, longtime partner and a leader in his own right, gets less focus and solo time than on other outings. However, as always, he's a versatile and invaluable partner. Drummer Alvin Atkinson is the tasteful kind of player than suits the Carroll way, not showy, and that's just fine. And any time Barbara Carroll gets behind the keyboard, it's a pretty safe bet that the music will be treated well and will be a treat to hear.

Always the pro, always a pleasure, always making us appreciate both the melody and the musician, whether in the studio or live, such as her Sunday brunch shows, through June, with Mr. Leonhart on bass, at New York's Algonquin Hotel.

- Rob Lester

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