Sound Advice Reviews
A pair of Broadway's bio-musicals and
Broadway currently hosts two musicals tracing the lives of real-life stars, both directed by Michael Mayer, and both productions have spawned cast recordings that we consider this week. They are the revival of Funny Girl, centering on Fanny Brice, and A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical. Then, two just-in-time additions to our Christmas list of holiday music: Harry Connick, Jr. mixes cool originals with warm readings of classics and then there's a quirky jamboree with The Skivvies.
So what do I feel about those involved with making a new Broadway cast recording of Funny Girl happen? To quote a line from one its songs, I say "They deserve a great big medal and a loud 'huzzah!'" (The number in question is "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" and that, without question, is just one of the highlights of this album, featuring extended dance music that is jubilant razzle dazzle.) As a longtime fan of the 1964 score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, I'm happy to have a new, high-energy version, especially after the rather low-flame recording from the London production several years ago. Of course, it's a daunting assignment for anyone to be in the shadow cast by Barbra Streisand, who, as the lead of the show and subsequent film adaptation, took the world by storm. But while there isn't that kind of electric storm to let lightning strike twice, but we get plenty of thunder and thrills with Lea Michele's committed, strong-voiced performance that also shows some vulnerability.
In this recording, the highly fictionalized showbiz saga of Fanny Brice finding stardom as well as romance (and heartbreak that comes with it) benefits from the inclusion of a few bits of dialog. The cast seems to embrace the style of traditional musical comedy flair with its mission to entertain and "sell" a number down to the applause button. Lea Michele shows plenty of pluck in the pleas for attention and seems wistful and wishful in the ballads. "Who Are You Now?," repurposed as both her brief opening number reflection and reprised to be a duet with leading man Ramin Karimloo, featuring their lovely harmony, is touching in both uses. And, rewardingly, he gets to sing a bit of "People" there, suggesting that his character has internalized the philosophy she had espoused in song so tenderly on their first big date. Along the way, each gets a different kind of affecting emotional mileage from "Funny Girl," imported from the film. Elsewhere, some tempi feel just a tad too strict or brisk to let us fully relish the impact of certain lines and emotions or to let a singer phrase more freely. Tovah Feldshuh and Jared Grimes bring personality and charisma to their contributions to the montage of "If a Girl Isn't Pretty" and their vaudeville-esque duet, "Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?"
As in the aforementioned London cast recording, the new Broadway souvenir rescues two numbers that had been cut back in the '60s: a minor but charming short bit called "What Do Happy People Do?" (sung by the chorus) and "A Temporary Arrangement" that lets Ramin Karimloo's character vent and rationalize. And he does so with fire (a fire lit with the assistance of four other cast members). Also appealing in this new Funny Girl are the instrumental sections: the bustling overture; the sparkling dance music in "Cornet Man" (compensation for the deleted verse once sung); and what's listed as a "Dream Ballet" which is a striking blend of "If a Girl Isn't Pretty," "People" and a bit of "The Music That Makes Me Dance." And all of the above is the music that makes me sigh and/or smile.
A BEAUTIFUL NOISE
Tale as old as time, tunes as old as songs from the 1960s, A Beautiful Noise and the beast called fame... yes, it's another rags-to-riches jukebox musical jammed with happy hits and songs sung blue. The original Broadway cast recording of A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical brings a warts-and-all bio of the rock and roll singer-songwriter, on some rocky roads and not always merrily rolling along. Will Swenson very impressively channels the star's distinct sound and strutting style, with its low-pitched growl, gutsiness, elation, and brooding melancholy. Included bits of Anthony McCarten's book lets us hear Neil Diamond's fraught conversations as he is pressured by his wives, parents, psychiatrist, and an impatient person for whom he's auditioning his early songs. It's Diamond in the rough times, long stretches on the road while those back home impatiently wait and he impatiently waits for writer's block to ebb.
Many of the biggest hits are here–three from the 1980 film The Jazz Singer as well as "Solitary Man," "Kentucky Woman," the earworm-y "Sweet Caroline," "I'm a Believer"–some paraded at full length, some just briefly dropped in (such as in a scene with demo singers at a recording studio). While the commanding Swenson is the main attraction and does the lion's share of the material, others get their turns, with varying impact. But the variety of voices and viewpoints is effective dramatically. Robyn Hurder and Jessie Fisher as the wives share a considerable amount of the lamenting about the strained marriages, and Mark Jacoby (who weaves in and out to speak as the older Neil) gets some singing spotlight on "I Am... I Said." Jordan Dobson makes a sweet-timbred contribution near the end, with a solo on "Shiloh," poignantly telling of childhood and an imaginary friend. There is also some prominent back-up singing.
Some less Diamond-invested listeners or those wanting unadulterated musical nostalgia may find the angst in the spoken parts to feel like interruptions that veer towards soap opera. But A Beautiful Noise is a piece of biographical musical theatre, not a Las Vegas-esque impersonation concert act. Bob Gaudio is the recording's producer and is one of three credited orchestrators (along with co-producers Brian Usifer and Sonny Palladino, the latter also serving as conductor and one of the band's keyboardists).
Luckily, Will Swenson had a head start absorbing the repertoire he's doing at the Broadhurst Theatre. He's been an avid listener and fan all his life, asserting in an interview that hearing an oft-played tape by Diamond, his father's favorite singer, is his very first memory. Now the talented actor is stirring musical memories for audiences and making some new ones himself via his strong performance evidenced on this cast recording.
HARRY CONNICK, JR.
Bringing joy to the world through his recordings of Christmas songs has become a happy holiday habit for Harry Connick, Jr.: He previously released three collections of holiday music, a DVD of a Yuletide-themed concert, and did I mention Happy the Elf? (It's a book, it's an animated musical he scored wherein he voiced the title character and Mickey Rooney did the honors for Santa Claus, it has an instrumental soundtrack recording, and it's licensed for stage productions.) Now make way for Make It Merry, the latest Connick concoction to explore the holiday with 13 tracks that include expressions of faith, festiveness, and funky feelings. The set is available exclusively as a digital download from Apple Music. A few items from past sets are revisited, there are originals, and he gets around to classics he missed the first three times around. His singing is alternately jubilant or in-the-moment intimate, to match the variety of moods.
The multi-tasking Connick, a long-established dazzler at the piano who has also released albums that are all or mostly instrumental (starting at the ripe old age of 10), plays many of the instruments himself. And when he is heard between choruses of "Jingle Bells" admonishing the choir to loosen up and step up their game, it's with a wink and a smile–because all those voices are his, multi-tracked to the max!
Although he can dash off both music and lyrics, as he did for Make It Merry's appealingly lighthearted brand new title song (written to keep himself busy while his piano was being tuned), the dignified melody for "Christmas Morning" had been composed ages ago by an esteemed musical legend. It was Chopin. Classics of 20th century material include that frequent go-to wish, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which sounds anything but perfunctory in this personal performance. The phrasing radiates empathy and the line, "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow," seems aspirational with its "if" caveat and there's the suggestion of an effortful stiff-upper-lip smile here and elsewhere in the well-phrased lyric when the voice exposes the caution in cautious optimism.
This is definitely one those rarer "something for everybody" sets where something reverent and simple like the carol "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" is as satisfying in its way as much as the zestful or slinky struts (such as "Papa Noel" with its Cajun roots, honoring the Connick home state of Louisiana). Perhaps that's because the guy is convincingly entrenched in multiple comfort zones.
As crooners like Messrs. Crosby and Cole in past generations piled up their prolific output of Christmas vinyl, this era's own "Mr. C." certainly does make the grade, with Make It Merry the latest excellent example.
Masters of the mash-up, smart in the art of the segue, The Skivvies irreverently hop, skip and jump through their madcap mélanges of holiday songs and old pop hits with abandon. Imagine yourself in full-fledged frustrated attention deficit mode, a remote control device in hand, for some quick click-click-clicking through music channels or radio stations. You briefly land on bits and pieces of Christmas/wintertime classics and pop oldies–cheer and cheese. That's the fun, frenzied feeling throughout Sleigh My Name when Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley, along with their singing guests and bandmates, steamroll through styles of music, as if playing a game of free associations tag so that one lyric cues another, via a common word or subject. Odd couplings of styles prevail, and several frequent changes of tone within one track make for head-spinning, comical collisions, with more or less six degrees of sassy separation per romp.
The chameleon-like Skivvies sing tenderly one moment and then, as if possessed, suddenly rock out raucously, ever turning on a dime. While they are joined by instrumentalists/back-up singers, they did their own arrangements and handle plenty of the accompaniment themselves, playing cello, ukulele, glockenspiel, melodica, boomwhackers, and bells.
And then there are the featured musical theatre performers guesting in several segments, such as an unperturbed Nathan Lee Graham stoically standing in for Nat King Cole for a much-interrupted mellow mood for "The Christmas Song." And Lesli Margherita's surname proves to be an irresistible temptation to cue a barrage of booze-centric songs led by her all-stops-out vocal rampage. When it comes to the religious aspects of Christmas, don't expect anything Bible-friendly in this pop-prominent parade; the story of the Madonna and the Virgin birth inspires–wait for it–never mind, you guessed it–superstar Madonna's song "Like a Virgin," featuring a vibrant Lindsay Nicole Chambers, complete with dialogue and labor. Also making notable contributions are Nick Adams, Randy Harrison, and Leslie McDonel.
With the spotlight hopscotching from the jubilant to the juvenile ("My Ding-A-Ling") to the Jewish holiday (Hanukkah gets a couple of shout-outs), it's a wild roller coaster trip. Much impact comes from the surprise cameos, so I'm loathe to be spoiler-specific, but will say that along the way on the Sleigh ride you'll hear cleverly placed snippets from a few Broadway scores, with nods to Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and "Frosty the Snowman." It's a party-ready recording, but be aware that the easily offended and tiny tots with their eyes aglow aren't the target audience; the f-word makes some appearances, Jesus appears inebriated, and there are not-so-subtle references to sex.
This jump-cutting journey with disparate songs jammed together–the more the merrier–offers a mischievously merry Christmas.