The musical menagerie this week starts with Dogs: The Musical, about canine companions ... and as companion items: some fine feathered friends taking flight in song and other creature comforts of song.


Man's best friend is celebrated in Dogs: The Musical, bred in South Carolina. It has some catchy melodies and some humor, plaintive and sad numbers, with a perhaps surprising sense of earnestness in many lyrics that is the strongest impression. These different styles don't always blend well, making Dogs kind of an odd mixed breed of a musical. This cast album features five people who have performed in the show and three others. The material is not always best served by some of the singers. Their characterizations are not very detailed or polished and the broad-stroke approach misses opportunities for bringing out nuances in comic and dramatic potential. A few are oversold. I found myself listening past the performances to focus on the songs themselves, which I like more.

Among the better tracks here are the opening sung by —surprise! — a cat with a superior attitude (the funny Kristi Hood) and a trio, where she's joined by two dogs being professionally pampered, "A Standing Appointment at Groomingdale's" (one is named Gypsy Rose Flea). Most of the characters are dogs, but there's a human owner, too. The serious pieces tend to be quite heavy, addressing a dog who is abused, death and loneliness. The brevity of a dog's life span is the subject for "Seven Times as Fast." Although some of the livelier songs and lighter lyrics might suggest children's theatre, the show's website stresses that Dogs is not recommended for children under 10, largely due to the more serious subject matter unleashed. It's no walk in the park. It's also stated that the intent is for the feelings and issues raised to be more universal - to apply to people, too.

Lyricist-librettist Paddy Mahoney Bell collaborated on the music with composer-arranger-keyboardist Dick Goodwin, who is part of the five-piece band. With its more somber moments and thought-provoking agenda, the feel is quite different from another similarly titled musical show on the same topic, Dawgs!, with songs by the Sherman Brothers, using mostly material from their pre-existing scores. There are touching bits here, like a real sense of a dog waiting and waiting for its owner to return and another's yearning for trustworthy companionship. People who are longtime dog owners/ dog lovers will possibly find some special connections here, and there's some razzmatazz and easygoing spunk with appeal if you simply like a sprightly tune. It's is a rather uneven listening experience, but with its pluses.


Lookout Jazz Records

It's a pleasure to report that Cynthia Crane's latest album, recorded live, captures her warmth, her humor, her smart way with a song and her very direct communication with an audience. Hers is not a big voice, but it's lived-in, full of personality and energy and she uses it well, with especially crisp diction and thoughtful, attentive phrasing. She knows what she's doing and her enjoyment is evident. She doesn't just sing songs - she really shares them and their stories. She calls herself "a saloon singer."

Cynthia's repertoire is well chosen and interesting. It includes some rarely heard show tunes, like the title song from Pousse Café (Duke Ellington/ Marshall Barer) and Greenwillow's "What a Blessing (to Know There's a Devil)." There's also a generous sampling of well-done comic numbers, including Jay Leonhart's global warming zinger, "Goodbye, Miami," and the late John Wallowitch's sly "I'm 27." The serious-minded songs serve as respites from the spice and wit, though these are ultimately not quite as rewarding. However, Dave Frishberg's lament about a changing America, "My Country Used to Be" is powerful and proud and brings out something in her that is absent elsewhere. Interestingly, it's more of a tear-jerker than the sad love songs.

Recorded at the now-closed club Helen's in April, Cynthia is accompanied by Tracy Stark on piano and Boots Maleson on bass, and they make a good, tight team. Only occasionally does one wish for a fuller sound. A few of the arrangements are the work of pianist Mike Renzi with whom Cynthia recorded several of her earlier albums.

This is one live recording where the talk between numbers really adds a lot. Not only well thought out and concise, it often personalizes the songs and is entertaining - for example, the song cue, "Well, love is terrific when it's going well. But, when it isn't, it's a good idea to have an exit strategy." No exit strategy is needed for this album; it's a little world I recommend entering and enjoying for the duration: acerbic humor, humanity and good musical instincts.


Inimitable Media

Becoming a ubiquitous presence as a bassist accompanying many a cabaret and jazz performer in New York, Ritt Henn is also an intriguing singer and songwriter. Of course, he is on bass here as well as singing, and his main musical companions are John Putnam (guitars), Joe Mennonna (keyboards) and Dennis McDermott (drums) with other guest players and singers. Ritt's songs vary greatly from bluesy to whimsical to introspective to rockers, with lots of jazz touches. Nothing here would resemble a traditional show tune, but they have characterization and stories.

His gruff-but-tender voice, pleasingly off-center sensibility and articulate but naturally flowing lyrics remind me a bit of Randy Newman. Ritt wrote most of the songs on his own, collaborated on two, and does a fine cover of the Isley Brothers' "Work to Do" with back-up singers.

There are some striking turns of phrase in his lyrics, with a nice sense of humor and language, like, "In the heat of the midday, I will be your shady tree" (in "House in the Country") and "The dust balls have established residency/ My house looks half neat when you wink" in a song called "Maintenance." The most tender and simple is the romantic but down-to-earth "Just Another Glimpse of You," an instantly loveable love song, with a melody that charms.


She bills herself as the "hybrid songbird" because she enjoys, performs and is influenced by a variety of musical styles. Ava Victoria is a songbird who can belt, coo or trill sweet or hot. She soars with some Broadway songs; Kickin' Up Life kicks off with "Life Is" from Zorba, immediately establishing her take-charge competence on this anthem of carpe diem. Other show tunes on this, her second CD, include terrific performances of two Jerry Herman numbers, a joyful "Just Go to the Movies" (A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine) and a powerfully noble "I Belong Here" (The Grand Tour). She's quite affecting on more vulnerable ballads, too. Witness "It Never Was You" and "Once Upon a Time," where tenderness prevails without any sticky sentimentality.

Clear-voiced and clearly comfortable in various moods, Ava puts a listener at ease. Not just a singer, she accompanies herself on guitar on seven of the twelve tracks and co-wrote two, with a little help from the Bible on "Are You Ready Now?" Instrumentation varies from song to song, with three different pianists and guest musicians variously playing cello, trombone, Celtic bodhran, etc.

I'd missed her first album, Hybrid Songbird, but got both of them earlier this year. Though I haven't fit this CD into a column until today, I listened to both right away and kept them around, going back to them more often than most. They are initially exciting and wear well. (The first is two-thirds show tunes and is excellent, too, with some of the same writers represented: Herman, Weill/ Anderson and Kander & Ebb).

The Beatles' "For No One," changed from the third person narrative, is beautifully done, with great feeling and a consistently focused sense of storytelling. My only disappointment of the known songs is "Here's to Life," as it just isn't as effective to me when sung by someone who sounds so young rather than the older singers who have gravitated to it, bringing a wealth of life experience and perspective. Hard-won battles don't come through on her more serene reading of this.

Ava has a very attractive, controlled, emotion-filled vibrato that's very effective on the ballads and she sounds like an authentic folk singer/ troubadour when she puts on her folk hat; she can choke back a tear at times, too. Hybrid and high class, she's got a lot going for her.


PlanetMonk Records

With a broad wink toward their material and seemingly boundless energy, what a happy and quirky change of pace it is to listen to the vocal threesome The Fabulous Pink Flamingos. Songs from the Lu'au Lounge is the debut album of this Bistro Award-winning group that has played venues including The Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. Like the theatre's fictional group Forever Plaid, The Fabulous Pink Flamingos present themselves as forever glad and cheery, poking fun at the corny excesses of harmony vocal groups while at the same time being the very model of the best aspects of the blend. They sound great: vibrant, soaring and sunny. The boys are joys whether playing it sort of straight with Hawaiian pop ditties, playing up a dim and clueless attitude or playing things for laughs with a wacky juxtaposition of material and approach (try the '90s bubble gum hit by boy brother group Hanson, "Mmm Bop" on for size).

The party gets started with a powerful Hawaiian punch on "Hey Baby! (Shake Those Hula Hips)" and there are more goofy novelty numbers done with exuberant brio, like "Princess Poo-Poo Has Plenty Pa-Pa-Ya." It's deliciously silliness but they don't skimp on the musicality. The voices, separately and in harmony, are clear and refreshing and tangy. They seem to have energy to burn. Their four-man band led by David Snyder matches the singers for energy and flair, and of course there's a ukulele. The spoofing and goofing would become tired if Lee Cavellier, Ron DeStefano and Jared Vesely weren't such able singers with harmonies that just ring in such a sparkling way.

This is a great party album, but maybe not one most people will have in constant rotation. The spoken commentary and sparring interplay can be forced and a bit tedious but sort of fits in with the daffy doings, and some is necessary for establishing the attitudes and personality. The Fabulous Pink Flamingos' act, conceived, written and directed by Russell Taylor, puts the "Ha!" in "aloha."


Spike Up Music

There's good news and bad news about this next item, as I heard it in person and on the resulting disc. Recorded at the Laurie Beechman Theater on 42nd Street in February, the set Starfish and Coffee is named for a song by the artist formerly known as Prince. The artist currently known as the more-pop-than-cabaret singer Jasper Kump is somewhat different from the artist who won me over with his debut album and his early New York in-person shows. He's stretching musically and, well, sometimes the stretch marks show. Reggae? Soul? Rock? It's certainly a mix. The repertoire is songs he loves from his own CD collection, as he says over (and over again) in his rambling, gushing and repetitive patter which might well have been edited for CD. Most of the talk is tracked separately or put at the ends of tracks, so it's fairly easy to bypass.

The raw material of the original versions doesn't always do Jasper a favor or suit his persona. Not all have the dramatic potential or structural variety that might make for more engaging listening. "A Long Walk" by Jill Scott is simply long and melodically tedious; several of the numbers start off promisingly enough and then just become purely repetitious, too often staying earthbound. On the bright side, a successful sense of intimacy comes through on the first sections of Seal's "Love's Divine" and Howard Jones' "What Is Love," their simpler beginnings more winning and convincing than their development. There's some attempt to pump things up throughout the CD in the playing by versatile pianist Ray Fellman (who did many of the arrangements), bass player Lou Tucci and drummer Steve Singer.

But what's good is really good and just makes the rest seem frustrating in comparison. Fresh spins on childhood favorites work: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and "Bein' Green." Jasper's one show tune choice, "Can't You Just See Yourself" (High Button Shoes) is upbeat and jazzy. Most interesting of all is the disc debut of Jasper Kump as a songwriter, with two contrasting and promising samples. "Hey Jesus" is a touching plea with real vulnerability and then he shows his humorous side with a bonus studio track, "Bitter, Party of One."

I much prefer Jasper's charming and energetic debut album from 2005, Sunday in New York. It showed him off better - letting him more fully and consistently use his real skills at conveying more complex emotions. It also found him singing with bursts of joy and optimism, both in shorter supply here. However, his likability and love for entertaining definitely come through, especially because of the live setting.

Finishing up our pet sounds, we don't have three little pigs but a Wolfe that purrs prettily rather than growls or huffs and puffs.


Sounding generally confident for a young woman on her debut album, Laura Wolfe could be a real contender. Her first album is a winner. Taking on a dozen old standards, she sings them with zip on the up-tempo numbers and wistfulness on the ballads. She's very well supported by a quartet led by pianist/ arranger Ron Snyder. He provides some interesting touches like incorporating strains of "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" in the vocal of "Where Can I Without You?" and doing the same with a bit of "Moonglow" in the sultry-smooth "East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)" that also features tasty flute work by Damon Zick, who is on sax elsewhere.

Occasionally, Laura seems too obviously careful with the way she attacks a phrase where it could be smoother or just more relaxed. There are some high notes that she seems to back off from, not hitting them with as much strength as would be ideal. However, she generally has a very good handle on the melodies and sense of the lyrics, as demonstrated in her lovely a capella first few lines of "My One and Only Love." Another strength is avoiding melodrama, for even though she sings with real passion it's thoughtful consideration of situations that comes across, rather than wallowing in puddles of emotion. This is especially true in "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." Her phrasing is quite fresh in the very often recorded and performed classics.

Laura wins points for often including the neglected verses to these great old songs. The California-based singer, with some experience in cabaret, theatre and dance, is someone I'd like to hear more from soon. She sounds invested in the material, projects intelligence, and has a very attractive sound.

As the year winds down, and the Christmas songs fill the air, I haven't quite gotten through all the stacks and tracks ... but am thinking back on the year and the task of picking the top CDs in cast albums and vocals we list each January.

- Rob Lester

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