Sound Advice Reviews
Musical comedy songs with pizzazz;
Let's listen to three intriguing collections. First up, we've got an overview of the well-crafted show tunes of Ron Lytle, with a bevy of swell performers. Then, two solo vocal recordings: Maxine's Linehan up for the challenge of honoring the career of Petula Clark in a live concert and Aaron Myers with his power-packed Pride Album.
A newly released and sweet 16-track sampler of talented writer Ron Lytle's musical comedy oeuvre is a playful plateful of tasty appetizers. These tasty treats can make listeners hungry for the full meals that are the scores for all these shows that give spiffy spins to beloved fairy tales. But each likeable rendition, plentiful of pizzazz or poignancy, belting or just buoyant, will likely stand on its own, as long as you know the gist of the long-known inspirations listed.
The Once Upon a Time Step collection features a mix of new recordings and performances preserved for the same-named film, created and shown when the live-theatre drought caused by the pandemic prevented the customary productions of any of these works by the longtime house playwright/tunesmith at East Bay Children's Theatre in the San Francisco area. And may we pause now, cued by the name of that company, for an important alert: The sometimes maligned category "children's theatre" is not the ideal genre-specifier in this case because of the limitations it often is saddled with. The Lytle lightheartedness has appeal for all ages who appreciate the brio and bounce of big-hearted and splashy show tunes. Being young at heart, admiring old-school musicals, and favoring hummable tunes can make you an ideal audience. I'd say "Sit back, relax, and enjoy," but you're more likely to sit up at attentive delight, or even fall off your chair, laughing at times, tapping your toes, or even breaking into a time step.
What a bonanza of wit and warmth and a few honey-coated life lessons! I feel gleeful but guilty in not being able to single out every artist and every selection. Suffice to say there is not a clinker among them and they show affection for ancient source material, but it's hardly slavish in a way that would favor sugar over spice or spunk. For example, there is no shortage of sass or sauciness when Jessica Coker asks Snow White "How Do You Like Them Apples?" It's ripe for being a ready-made showstopper in its brassy build and bite.
Attractive, crisp but simple melodic lines by Lytle as composer are a gift to himself as lyricist to embellish. Relish the ability, indeed the facility, for fun internal rhymes that at times put sparkle, speed, or punch on a line. Take the case of that beanstalk climber Jack, looking like food to a hungry giant, lamenting his lot, "feeling sore and hot/ Awaiting my undoing in a stewing pot," in his number summarizing "A Really Rotten Day," the lyric whirling to its final line with its zingy string of words rhyming the key adjective "rotten" with "never-to-be- forgotten," "stomach-knottin'," and the quirky topper "broccoli without the gratin"! Performer Oscar Tomosada, as Jack, has a knack for remaining charming while also being panicked and sarcastic.
When it comes to smiley panaceas for feeling down, musical comedies have had their easier-sung-than done/ one-action remedies, such as the spry "Shakin' the Blues Away" by Irving Berlin and Jerry Herman's sly update, "Tap Your Troubles Away." With "I Laugh My Worry Away" we can guess that Mr. Lytle admires those writers (and for more than just those particular upbeat prescriptions). Singer Tania Johnson has the requisite pep and polish to sell the advice on handling a "dreary day" and "weary way."
The talent of this writer is also on ample display on two earlier cast recordings reviewed in the column in past years, and among the solid performers here are a few heard on those. The studio cast recording of a terrific Lytle score is ripe for rediscovery at this time of year, The Man Who Saved Christmas. Jordyn Foley, who created the role of Dorothy in the writer's revisit to the yellow brick road revisits the same-seasoned Christmas in Oz, investing the ballad "I Remember Oz" with saccharine-free yearning and she also shines as another fairy-tale icon with "That's Why Cinderella Is My Name." Chris Vettel carves out his own tender characterization as an especially caring and appreciative Geppetto, addressing Pinocchio and the meaning of love in the crescendoing ode to the "Little Boy" (who "could bring such enormous joy"). And merry Michael Mendelsohn is on target with irrepressible joy celebrating "Fabulous Shoes" (Count the "eye" rhymes in this one quick line: "Every eye will try to spy my fabulous feet."). In another fabulous fashion statement, he is half of the counterpoint two-man dazzler, "Clothes Make the Man," addressing the dressing of the famously underdressed and gullible Emperor. That vain ruler is played by John Erreca, a cast memberand the conductorof the campy Oh My Godmother!'s cast album. He also gets Once Upon a Time Step's most plaintive turn among the 16 samplings, with "How Could Anyone Love Me?" embodying that poor Beast famously paired with a certain Beauty.
The sprightly and spot-on orchestrations were provided by Mr. Erreca, Matthew Chilelli, Stefan Kristinkov, and Will Arundell, the last of whom sings the vaudeville-ish hoot "Hello, You Fellows!" as the title character of The Great and Glorious Mr. Toad on this great and glorious gathering that I've been addictively playing and playing so much that my face hurts from smiling.
Sticking with what you know and love and with what works is not bad advice, especially if you're a performer and find an audience that keeps loving it all, too. What does the object of singer Maxine Linehan's ongoing affection and tribute, hit-maker/concert artist Petula Clark, do? She keeps on keeping on with the tried and true material that keeps the customers satisfied, returning to it for live shows, releasing live and studio sets revisiting and polishing a lot of the same numbers. And so, following her lead, it comes to pass that vibrant-voiced Maxine released a Petula-centric CD ten years ago called What Would Petula Do? and has now released another recording, also called What Would Petula Do?. Don't be confused. Although all 11 selections from the earlier issue, including the cute custom-made title tune, appear on the new collection, it is not a reissue of the old studio performances. No, this is an even more kinetic and focused live set, notably expanded to also feature seven more songs, a testament to the staying power of both women and the material.
The set was recorded in Paris. That's one reason that some singing is in French; the other is that's what Petula would do and does, having spent much time in Switzerland and France and recording in multiple languages. Included patter is almost non-existent, virtually nothing beyond a few captured words to say "thank you" or "merci." But the performer has much more gratitude and perspective expressed in her liner notes.
I've been fortunate to have seen both artists in person and to listen to their recordings, which, along with the passing years, has increased my appreciation and respect for both and only rekindled the nostalgia for Clark's string of solidly constructed pop hits of the 1960s. Those which both casual and die-hard Clark followers would probably agree are the must-have usual suspects among the biggest chart successes are here, like the signature smash "Downtown," "I Know a Place," "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love" combined with "You're the One," "Call Me," "Don't Sleep in the Subway," and "Colour My World." Notably, all these were written or co-written by Tony Hatch. The smoothly spun vocals never feel forced or phoney in capturing the Clarkish qualities; effortful it's not, from all indications. Joyful it is.
There's a fine 12-piece orchestra, with conductor/orchestrator Ryan Shirar (her skillful usual leader) joining them on piano on five numbers. The musical settings respectfully acknowledge and recall the architectures and tempi of many of the biggest brain-ingrained pop hits without getting close to the close-copying that would sink things into dreaded karaoke/clone tacky territory. And we're less hit over the head in these arrangements, absent slick recording studio tricks that pushed a record into becoming an earworm-infested smash, with its fade-out last moments and reinforcing background vocals. "Call Me" is effectively cozier and less casual, to good effect. But the musical comfort food of these catchy, feel-good songs are not the entire banquet or its most impactful entrees at the end of the day.
More theatre songs come to the rescue for those seeking more depth in this latter look at the fuller Clark career, re-thought and directed by savvy Scott Siegel, who has a long Linehan association. She has graced numerous concerts he has presented, such as the Broadway-themed series he recently reignited at Feinstein's/54 Below in Manhattan. The selections from stage and film scores include nods to some of the roles Petula has played, all delivered with impressive command and grace. So we get a lovely, non-gooey treatment of the title song from The Sound of Music. Then there are towering treatments of that devastating cry of denial, "Tell Me It's Not True" from Blood Brothers and "With One Look" from Sunset Boulevardassured but minus melodrama. A second big Andrew Lloyd Webber diva-designed melody is on tap, too: "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" (its first half in French, as Petula recorded it back in the day). As a plus, to pay respects to the city where the concert was held, there's the classic and convincing "I Love Paris" from Cole Porter's Can-Can score, with the introductory verse moved to the middle. (Individual instruments in the orchestra are used especially effectively here for color.)
Sampling the superstar's movie career, there's an enchanting, thoughtful "Old Devil Moon" (Finian's Rainbow) and from Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a romantic "Walk Through the World with Me." It's indeed very nice to again walk through the world of Petula Clark music with Maxine Linehan as our well qualified, gifted guide.
There's strong medicine from a sensitive soul on The Pride Album, a collection that's quite commanding and compelling. And it's aptly titled for its sturdy stance. This fourth release from Washington D.C.-based singer/pianist/songwriter Aaron Myers is unshrinking and unblinking in addressing targets related to racial prejudice and politics, exemplified by his own potent and pointed "New Jim Crow." In this and other thought-provokers, he states his case without resorting to ratcheting up the material's evident emotions to overwhelm it with a delivery of roaring rage, rants or vehement venting. Instead, he gains our sympathy by showing the humanity and hurt, not just the scars. And when fuel is added to the fire, it sometimes comes from the intensity of the small but mighty band.
A major highlight and lesson in discretion comes with "Make Them Hear You" from the score of the musical Ragtime. While it can be a fierce anthem or defiant call to arms, Myers never gets pompous or preachy here. Not at all. Rewardingly, and seductively, the baritone begins his entreaty with gentle determination, incrementally muscled, that persuades in a way that never lets the intrinsic pleading becomes plodding or grandstanding. (And while the liner notes credit composer Stephen Flaherty, it's an unfortunate oversight not to cite his collaborator Lynn Ahrens for the stirring lyric.)
We get an ingratiating and galvanizing injection of hope and resolve with the old spiritual "Down by the Riverside," with Aaron Myers genial and jaunty, warmly and creatively embracing this timeless intention to "study war no more." An opportunity for unrelenting lamenting is interestingly approached when taking on "Moanin'" from the 1950s. At first, the unexpectedly out-of-character brisk tempo seems to bring an almost glib matter-of-factness in acknowledging having a list of aired grievances as old news, a part of daily life, here robustly resisting its potential for self-pity. Then, with added words, there's a specific and long litany calling out reasons to be upset, naming Blacks killed at the hands of police, the Proud Boys, both U.S. political parties, and more.
The majority of the tracks are Myers originals ("Lonely" is co-written with his bassist Kris Funn), so note that a couple of song titles are not the oldies listeners might otherwise be expecting: "Let's Fall in Love" is not the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler standard, and then there's "Please Take Care of You for Me" which has the same or almost the same title as several songs across many decades inspiring the same directive and vice-versa of the pronouns in question. But Myers makes his own alternatives in a decidedly contemporary style that mixes smooth, suave R&B with jazz flavorings. Voice and style are attractive, although my patience is tested when he atypically acquiesces to indulging in overstatement, having the line "I've got my pride" intoned more than 30 times within the number called "Pride." But, since it comes at the end of a 12-track recording that I listened to in sequence, he'd already won me over with his heart and soul and pride, including the instrumental "Return to Spain," in tribute to the late Chick Corea, the heartbreaking "Don't Ask," and, above all else, that resplendent rendition of "Make Them Hear You" which I'd willingly let myself hear any and every day.