Sound Advice Reviews
The Wizard of Friendship, Fanny Brice, The Flasher!
Let's start off our trio of reviews with the recording of a madcap musical adventure starring the members of Lewberger, the comical singing trio, as themselves. After a raucous ride with this contemporary group, there's more laughter–in songs and scenes–this time, from decades ago, with the funny Fanny Brice. (There are a couple of glimpses of her serious side, too.) And a funny thing happened in the early career of Rupert Holmes, the singer/songwriter whose work has also been on Broadway; 50 years ago, he collaborated on the score for an X-rated movie, and its soundtrack album has been reissued for the first time.
LEWBERGER: THE WIZARD OF FRIENDSHIP
Fasten your seatbelts for a wild and wacky ride. Lewberger: The Wizard of Friendship is a cheeky, frenzied affair with humor and plot twists that can be creative or crass. The members of the comedy band called Lewberger–Keith Habersberger, Alex Lewis, and Hughie Stone Fish–wrote the piece and played themselves in the show called The Wizard of Friendship that played Off-Broadway earlier this year. The story imagines that there has been a major falling-out among the bandmates/buddies that is so intense that it actually breaks the heart of the Wizard of Friendship and the guys are tasked with repairing the pieces of his heart–and their relationship. Their treacherous travels cause them to land in the Land of NoFriendia, then in a strange forest, a haunted house housing an orgy with monsters and skeletons, and then at a barbecue. It's a mixed bag of anything-goes joyful goofballery and some juvenile jokes about sex and sex organs, along with some deft vocal harmonies and cleverness.
Other protagonists are voiced by guest stars on this zippy cast recording, but in the New York production those roles were taken on by members of the ensemble. They are major assets. Wayne Brady is agreeably grandiose in his turn as the titular Wizard, while Alex Brightman brings to his featured role the edginess, boisterous persona, and panache that made his star turns in Beetlejuice and School of Rock similarly sassy. Strutting as the "Giant Bird in a Man Suit" is Dashaun Wesley. All come across as being game for the same loopiness radiated by Lewberger. One brash or quirky song follows the next, played broadly, yet there's often a kind of endearingly chipper sweetness present, even in the most lowbrow elements of the hijinks. Is it an infectious "guilty pleasure"? For me, often enough. Some will roll their eyes, some will roll with the punches and may give in to the mayhem's merriment.
Those who are well aware of the financial and artistic risks of mounting and marketing musicals in New York City's professional theatre will especially appreciate the winking opening number (before the story itself begins) that addresses the challenges. This outwardly blithe burst of entertainment professes that "It's a Stupid Idea (to Put On a Broadway Show)." Others may prefer the adolescent-adjacent gross-outs, the grinning ode to "White People Taco Night," or the plot-specific encounters–with or without the expletives. (There are also a few very short spoken segments.)
Singing brightly and with glee, Messrs. Habersberger, Lewis (who's also on guitar), and Fish (the keyboardist) have developed a strong following with their online presence in addition to their concerts. I admire their "go for it" decision to forego doing a streaming special and pull together a theatrical event with costumes and chorus, with a storyline and stylistic touches that show a fondness for fanciful fairy tale and musical comedy genres. Even if The Wizard of Friendship is uneven, its oddness has charm and LOL moments.
Attention, please. This season's meeting of The Fanny Brice Appreciation Society is now in session. The soon-to-end Broadway run of Funny Girl, the musical loosely based on her life, and its soon-to-begin North American tour has sparked anew interest in the star of yore. Fans of Fanny (1891-1951)–whether they have been longtime devotees, recently became admirers, or are soon to join our ranks–have much to relish in the performances culled for the collection called Rare and Unreleased Recordings. True to its title, the tracks are not the most famous or frequently reissued versions of the Brice trademark repertoire, but the presence of that signature material makes for fewer–or smaller (but rewarding)–surprises for the previously initiated listener.
The 18-track survey is a mix of songs and spoken material. There are a few sketches featuring her impudent, loudmouth child character Baby Snooks and the adults vexed by her. While much in this cornucopia is broad comedy, with ethnic humor and schtick aplenty, there's also the serious Brice balladry and a couple of things that rely on neither extreme to engage us. Thus, it's a nice mix that showcases the star's range. Modern engineering brings clarity to the ancient material, with only the very occasional sound of an un-banishable tiny snap, crackle or pop.
What we might consider the prime "usual suspects" in a Fanny Brice set also represents songs used in the 1928 movie she starred in, My Man. One segment on Rare and Unreleased Recordings is the audio from a film trailer that has the chatty comedienne doing a shameless plug for it and launching into just the first part of its title number (which she'd first performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921). Another track is a complete rendition of this lamenting torch song, and it's a splendidly nuanced version that doesn't overplay the sympathy card to risk descending into dirge-like deepest despair. Other Brice treats on this set (which are also in the film) are strong, assured performances of the loopy "I'm an Indian," the playful "Second Hand Rose," and two with lyrics by her third husband, Billy Rose: one adorns Fred Fisher's melody, "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Be Happy with Somebody Else)," and the other is a little life lesson telling us that "If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)" with words co-credited to Mort Dixon and the music by someone who's the subject of a play currently on Broadway–Oscar Levant.
A track listed cutely (albeit unclearly) as "Mr. Morgan appeals to Miss Brice" turns out to be patter with Frank Morgan that segues into a friendly Frank/Fanny duet on "You Appeal to Me" (Harold Spina/ Walter Bullock) which Ethel Merman sang on screen in Happy Landing in 1938. Morgan's apparent struggle getting into the swing of things at first recalls his indelible befuddled persona as the title character in The Wizard of Oz, so that memorably loveable quality seems baked in.
Although the writers of songs and sketches aren't listed in the packaging, there are some mentions in the enthusiastic spoken introductions by the album's producer/curator, Chip Deffaa, serving as a personable tour guide through the world of Brice. Never too verbose, it's a fine new way to share the tidbits about singers and songs are usually relegated to multi-page booklets accompanying his other many releases celebrating and dramatizing figures from the early part of the 20th century, such as Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, and earlier projects presenting Fanny herself or actresses portraying her on cast albums of a stage piece he scripted, One Night with Fanny Brice. And now, we have a new chance to spend part of one night or day with her.
Musical archaeological digs sometimes turn up intriguing things from the most unexpected places. A pornographic movie is hardly the first place one might guess would be on a map to buried treasure. However, the tracks on the soundtrack album that includes some of the material recorded for the 1973 movie called The Flasher! is worth the surprise-filled listen. If you're wary of (or hoping for) lyrics that reference anything overtly sexual or the humor that was also part of the scenes, note that there's not really any such evidence to be heard. It's the very early career participation of someone from the pop and theatre worlds, Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Curtains), that precipitated my interest in procuring this item I was previously unaware of. This is a first-time reissue in any format, currently available only on vinyl.
There are eight numbers, with a playing time of about 28 minutes. There are five tracks with vocals, sung and written by members of a band by the name of Pool-Pah. With the exception of "Kahmura," all were in their repertoire before the film project came about. Not all the music from the motion picture made it to the LP or its reissue; two Holmes compositions are MIA, leaving just the three shortest tracks here representing his compositions, all instrumental. However, his notable multi-tasked involvement also consisted of being the arranger and conductor, playing piano on his "Flasher Theme," doing background vocals on "Kahmura," and his double-tracked clarinet on the attractive "April's Witch." His composition "Sour Soul," on which he is the organist, is so redolent and typical of the funk genre of the era that it was sampled as part of recordings by more than 15 latter-day hip-hop artists.
Pool-Pah's lead singer Lenie Colacino has a high, pleasingly plaintive voice that captures sensitivity well. (Later in the 1970s he was cast in Broadway's Beatlemania as Paul McCartney, a years-long gig taking him from place to place, and later offshoot Paul-centric projects that have continued into the present, but his timbre here also reminds me a bit of David Gates, soloist and member of the group Bread). Other members of Pool-Pah were brothers Bruce Handelman (bass and trumpet) and Seth Handelman (guitar and sax), Billye Arrington (guitar), and Rick Stabile (drums). Moods range from wistful to the vulnerable and visceral "Laughter and Pain" written by Seth Handelman at age 18.
A curiosity rescued in reissue from the status of musical/film footnote and cult or obscurity status, the short and eclectic contents don't make for enough weightiness to be heralded as a long-lost masterpiece, but this flashback to The Flasher! is cool and welcome.
The extensive liner notes by Joe Marchese of TheSecondDisc.com are a window to a time gone by. They include recollections by Holmes and Colacino and background info on the crossed paths, whims, and executive decisions that led to the movie's creation and revisions. There was an acronym and acrimony: as to the former, the original title was Forbidden Under Censorship of the King and the acrimony refers to trouble in porn paradise and the record business. The most hard-core scenes were initially cut in favor of comedy. The trimmed content was restored and more was added when the actor playing the flasher, Herb Streicher, got more exposure from his role in another movie released in the meanwhile, the notorious Deep Throat (Streicher had changed his name to Harry Reems).
Pool-Pah disbanded shortly after a one-night live presentation of this material at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan. Somehow, the folks at Greene Bottle Records, having signed the group with hopes of other projects and released the soundtrack on their label, didn't know the genre of the movie. Upon being clued in, the company pulled the plug on the promotion campaign. The Flasher! may have been a flash in the pan, but I'm glad to belatedly catch up with its catchy tunes and '70s ambience.