Sound Advice Reviews
....& now it's time for pairs....
Dynamic duos and powerful partnerships are in our sight this time. The "double vision" lets us see intriguing people on both sides of the ampersand, starting with a London cast album of Bonnie & Clyde, the musical that considers the personalities of the famous robbing twosome. Then we have paired presentations by singers and/or musicians (sometimes with a "supporting cast" along for the ride).
BONNIE & CLYDE
When the notorious real-life partners in crime and love, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, showed up as musical theatre protagonists, it may have seemed a big ask to think the murdering robbers could steal our hearts. With a score by composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Don Black, and Ivan Menchell's book, Bonnie & Clyde took a chance, took liberties with the facts, and some theatregoers did (and do) take to it. Its latest reincarnations have been in England, resulting in a strong new cast recording that reminds us of the emotional tugs, flashes of humor, and diverse musical styles incorporating tastes of country, blues, gospel and pizzazz. After its first productions in California and Florida, there was a very short Broadway run at the end of 2011 and it has been produced around the world. Listening to the involved performances of this West End cast evidences the songs' seductive appeal. (As some readers will know, this is not the only musical to focus on the couple.)
Upon reflection, one does not have to be fully sympathetic to the motivations that pushed the characters to do wrong to be pulled into their web of impulsiveness, despair and desperation. It helps that the songs don't glorify or gloat about holding up or gunning down people; the gory details are relegated to the plot synopsis in the digital booklet.
Frances Mayli McCann and Jordan Luke Gage are engaging as the titular characters, calibrating their vocals so things generally build rather than blast or moan at one level in a song, peak too soon, or peter out. Pretty tones flatter the ballads and slinky sections, as well as spotlighting the unguarded and loving moments. His solo ballad crooned to–and about–"Bonnie" is disarmingly lovely, with the melody's high note as the sweet icing on the cake each time it comes up. She's convincing in Bonnie's devotion to Clyde and singing of clinging to dreams of becoming a movie star like Clara Bow in a few numbers. However, there's appropriate use of steelier, tougher qualities when passions and frustrations heat up. The chemistry between these two actors comes through in their shared numbers as does the development of the storyline's love relationship. Their joint efforts on "The World Will Remember Us" and "Too Late to Turn Back Now" crystalize the mindsets at specific turning points.
High-octane male struts come in a couple of duets between brothers Clyde and Buck, both of whom have been in jail. Buck is portrayed with gusto by George Maguire, although those songs seem to be all about vigor, lacking variety. Jodie Steele gets a better showcase as Buck's wife, Blanche. Her material is the most diverse and she rises to the challenge: her heartfelt longing for an idyllic home life in "Now That's What You Call a Dream"; the stand-by-your-man acceptance of "You Love Who You Love" (bonding with Bonnie); the leading of "You're Going Back to Jail," which is irreverent; the participation in a reverend's gospel number ("God's Arms Are Always Open").Dom Hartley-Harris as that man of the cloth sings up a storm, rallying the followers. Cleve September is compelling in the interesting role of a man tasked to hunting down the law-breaking duo but having a lingering attraction to Bonnie.
The original Broadway cast recording of Bonnie & Clyde was the first full-length release when Broadway Records made its grand entrance into the marketplace with founder Van Dean 11 years ago. The label also issued a recording of a live concert with cast members giving a different musical spin to some of its songs and other Wildhorn material: Bonnie and Clyde and a Whole Lotta Jazz.
When more than one production of a musical gets a cast recording, non-completist potential customers will want to zero in on the differences before making purchase decisions. FYI, the B & C cast recordings are mostly similar in characterizations and musical accompaniment. John McDaniel's arrangements and orchestrations for the nine pieces are employed on both, (an "although additional orchestrations" credit is now given to Jen Green). The Broadway disc had 21 tracks while the new one has 28, allotting room for reprises which, if you follow the plot, truly add dramatic impact and emphasis. Some are extremely short, including an instrumental, but they effectively underscore attitudes and reactions. The repeated appearances of "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" have made it my favorite thing in the score rather than feeling like overkill. Its last rendition is a bonus track rendered quite appealingly by the two people who played the title roles at some performances, Barney Wilkinson and Lauren Jones.
There are lines of dialogue interspersed in some places here where they weren't present before, and vice-versa. For example, now we get to hear spoken interruptions that become a little argument in the beginning of the song "Bonnie." The earlier disc and the jazz set had something the 2023 issue does not have: a cut song, "This Never Happened Before." Another missing element: the London mounting abandoned the opening scene's use of separate performers to play Bonnie and Clyde as children.
And this musical continues its afterlife and finds new fans, with a United Kingdom tour beginning in February.
JACK JONES, FEATURING JOEY DEFRANCESCO
"Wandering rainbows, leave a bit of color for my heart to own" is one of the things on the "wish list" in the lyric of "This Is All I Ask," one of the 15 selections sung superbly by Jack Jones on a new collection. Well, there's more than "a bit of color" in the many vibrant and subtle hues and shades evident in the veteran vocalist's palette on ArtWork; additional tints and tones brought out in this glowing collaboration with instrumentalist Joey DeFrancesco (organ, trumpet, sax) as the star player in the orchestra. The repertoire is a mix of material new to the prodigious Jones discography and a good deal of revisiting ballads he crooned as far back as the 1960s. Choices from the latter category are anything but redundant, as the phrasing is especially nuanced and actorly, the perspectives are mellowed with maturity and the sophisticated new arrangements by John Clayton that are rich with emotion. He conducts an orchestra with a huge string section, a dozen brass players, pianist Tamir Hendelman, drummer Jeff Hamilton, and more.
Some surprises are here, even for those of us who are very familiar with the songs and Jack Jones' records. For example, "This Masquerade" incorporates a segment of the torch song "Angel Eyes" and there are instrumental nods within other arrangements. Instead of singing "Is That All There Is?" as a story-song told in the first person, there's a spoken intro about Peggy Lee, who had the hit with it, and it's presented as her experiences, sympathetically, but with the distance of being narrated as the tales of the disappointments that "she" went through.
While "Fever" (another Peggy Lee signature) is appropriately sizzling and "At Last" is a joyful celebration, most of the others–by design or default–feel philosophical, as bittersweet reflections alternate with hope. Lyrics are mined for drama that feels "lived in" with some individual words and phrases coming under the microscope to be granted new emphasis. That happens in various ways, such as when Jack Jones artfully employs a pause, a wry chuckle, or chooses to speak more than sing some notes that are attached to drama-laden words. Accepting the post-breakup status of being "Free Again," his reading captures the sense of being stunned and stung more than liberated.
In "She's Funny That Way," he nails the grateful surprise about being the object of someone's affection. "If You Go Away" is a classic example of making a song into a three-act play, mood-swinging from fatalistic despair to potential jubilation and back again. Don McLean's "Empty Chairs" is poignant and vulnerable, with its wistful realization striking me now as deeper than its plain language would suggest ("Although you said you'd go/ Until you did/ I never thought you would"). Intimacy reigns, with sotto voce passages suggesting close-up hushed confessions so different from the big-voiced and smooth crooning of the earliest decades of his long career.
Joey DeFrancesco's participation makes for true partnership that enhances the proceedings, whether it's his prominent time in the spotlight with robust organ sounds in the lengthy instrumental break during "Fever" or more subtle atmosphere-enhancing playing of muted trumpet or tenor sax weaving through other numbers. Sadly, he passed away one year ago, shortly after ArtWork was recorded. Will Friedwald's background info in the booklet includes appreciations of his career as well as the oeuvre and skill set of Jack Jones, who adds his own commentary. There are many photos of the recording session there, too. The only unfortunate element is that there are more than a few typos and mistakes in the track list's songwriter credits, which also leave out some co-writers and attribute Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" to somebody else. He's correctly named in the liner notes, although the song's title is wrong there. Of course, what counts is that, otherwise, the liner notes are terrific, as are the notes being sung and played–and in that regard, ArtWork is heavenly–riveting and recommended.
ANYA TURNER & ROBERT GRUSECKI
Quite a few years ago, while shopping, I ran across the first two albums by Anya Turner and Robert Grusecki and bought them on instinct. I didn't regret it. Back then they were billed more briefly as just Anya & Robert. Listen to this married couple perform the songs they write on any of their nine recordings and the down-to-earth, direct-from-the heart, warm personalities projected and I bet you'll feel you can be on that first-name basis with them.
Radiating sincerity, with some humor as the spice in the sweetness, Mid-Century Modern is a prime example of the approachable, direct M.O. that she (vocals) and he (piano and some vocals for duets) specialize in. Their songs here are a mix of sharp observations on modern life, nostalgia, simple pleasures, unabashed affection, melancholy, and what feel like soothing lullabies for adults. There are only ten tracks on Mid-Century Modern, but some items are rewardingly deep or breathtakingly touching. Their lean, less-is-more way of writing and performing is classy and smart. Sometimes the humor is more modest than LOL, but it can be pointed and sly. Restraint can reap rewards.
Let's look at a few excerpts from the highlights:
"Watch the seasons roll by/ Like the clouds in the sky/ Never questioning why/ It's enough for me/ Life is quiet and sweet/ Kick a can down the street..." is a serene picture of life in a "Small Town."
"Ev'rything is going well/ As far as anyone can tell/ But ev'rything is shot to hell" and "Splish, splash/ Life's a dash/ To flim, flam and grab the cash/ And turn out tons of trash..." are revelations in "Our Little Secret."
"They prowl up and down/ The streets of the town/ And they sniff and they snort and chew/ They howl and they hiss/ And they fawn and they kiss..." describes the members of a "Weird Little Club" they disdain.
Not everything feels like a natural fit and one or two things go down like weak tea compared to the richer brews. However, Anya Turner and Robert Grusecki have the aura of honesty and lived-in wisdom whether they're facing and embracing heavy emotions and realities or breezing through a light-hearted tune. Physical copies of this recording can be ordered through their website, which also has the lyrics for these songs and other info on the work of these gentle spirits.