Sound Advice Reviews
Fear and tension may not be laughing matters in real life, but it's a different story in the musical theatre when a fraught-filled story is dished out with irreverent humor and a merry mega-wink. Consider two quirky, campy shows: after a promising start, each made its way to Broadway in the mid-1970s, only to manage a quite modest run, but a long afterlife was ahead. Both are satires of specific genres, with plots involving action indoors on a stormy night, when shocks and an odd mix of characters including a butler and a young romantic couple provide chills and chuckles.
If you've been searching for some escapist frothy fun, here's a clue: Look no further than the JAY Records studio cast recording of the spunky spoof of multiple-murder mysteries, Something's Afoot. The genre-teasing comedy is played broadly and boldly as the actors parade stock character "types" while delivering some super-catchy melodies fitted with breezy lyrics filled with spiffy rhymes. This solid writing, Dan DeLange's decorative orchestrations, and the overall affectionate treatment offer ample evidence to assuage suspicions that Something's Afoot might be dismissible as a derivative extended sketch. This whodunit is done with playfulness and panache.
Helping with context and creating humor as a bonus, the recording includes bits of dialogue; the book is by the same trio who penned the songs: James McDonald (who wrote the liner notes), David Vos, and Robert Gerlach (additional music by Ed Linderman). Some might say it's a bit of a mystery why this tuneful cartoonish mystery parody never had a cast album when the musical has been frequently produced for decades. True, when it came to Broadway in 1976following several presentations elsewhereit only lasted 61 post-preview performances, but it had a much healthier London run after that, was aired on TV, and has seen many a mounting, becoming a popular choice for community groups, et al. Passing years have shown that the targeted reference points remain ripe for ribbing (conveniently claustrophobic settings with strangers thrown together, clichéd plot twists like long-held family secrets, snobbishly arch aristocrats, and unlikely love at first sight cuing bursting into rhapsodic song).
Danger in the form of death is at hand and "Something's Afoot" we're told in song by the story's folks who are literally "the usual suspects" of such tales. (However, "the butler didn't do it," they point out, once he himself is knocked off.) Silliness aims to reign supreme, but some performers rein it in more than others. That's fortunate, as having too many servings of same-seasoned ham serves no good purpose. In the long run, feisty energy trumps wackiness. Top marks for not going over the top (yet somehow topping herself with each succeeding number) go to Susie Blake. With irresistibly infectious pep, as the amateur detective, she makes the most of her bouncy material, whether marching into the fray to champion the need to bravely "Carry On," pointing out all that's oh-so "Suspicious," or acknowledging her role models as she admits "'I Owe It All' to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlie Chan..."
Conflict, attraction and jealousy abound and are bound to cause woes for a not-so-homogeneous mix of folks of different ages and classes at a fancy home away from the city. We may be a bit reminded of the premise of "A Weekend in the Country" sung about in A Little Night Music, also debuting in the 1970s. Here, in the opening number called "A Marvellous Weekend," the unsuspecting invitees enthuse about, "...a marvelous weekend in the country air/ ...invigorating,/ glorious and stimulating,/ casual, not irritating/ celebrating, rusticating..." Hear the harmonizing grand gathering of savvy players, including familiar figures with West End musical theatre/ cast recording creditssuch as Sally Ann Triplett, Graham Bickley, and Julie Atherton. (Some collectors this year got a taste of this score with a few selections sung by others on the latest in Original Cast Records' Lost Broadway and More series).
Two regrets of this reviewer are about what comes in short supply: First, a favorite veteran, Jim Dale, only has a cameo speaking role. And, because the melodies are so engaging it's a shame we can't relish them on their own as instrumentals, what with there being no overture or entr'acte of length. Still, the orchestra conducted by JAY Records' frequent maestro Craig Barna sounds terrific as the tunes roll out in this romp, with lyrics getting crisp attention by the cast, especially tricky ones like, "I cannot appear to hide my fear/ For I admit to having qualms/ When the moment's tense, I've no defense/ Just perspirating palms" (from "Carry On"). One of the simpler sets of words has special meaning as we reel from a tough year and look forward to a better 2021; it's called "New Day" and is heard in two versions. The first is begun by a character appropriately called Hope (Laura Pitt-Pulford), exulting "Here is the new day we've waited for/ It's a new day, yours and mine/ We'll start a new life on this new day/ And a new sun will shine." Revealed now in all its grandly goofy glory, Something's Afoot shines brightly all around, too.
How do you make a score that's already one hell of a hoot even more merrily out-and-out outrageous? Let loose the fearless high energy of The Skivvies to strut through The Rocky Horror Show's tongue-in-cheek posturing, with carte blanche to liberally or quickly quote other songs whose lyrics share key words. They're like gleeful kids splashing in puddles. Then generously extend the party invitation to invited guests who are a bevy of talented musical theatre colleagueskindred spirits willing to pull out the stops in showstopper showpieces. This cult favorite that became its own unstoppable force, with international productions and cast albums galore, not to mention a much-attended movie, is as madly alive as ever with The Rocky Horror Skivvies Show's showboating personalities.
As satirical homage to creepy B-movies, the saga is populated by such memorable theatrical citizens as a mad scientist, a zombie, and a hunchback handyman, peppered with a little murder and sex. The well-exposed work of Richard O'Brien (music, lyrics, book, original cast member) is in good hands, but this is no slavish fan club retread. For one thing, endearingly and daringly woven into many of the songs are hijacked bits of everything from hits of Lady Gaga, Elvis Presley or The Doors to sampling post-Rocky Horror musical theatre fare such as Les Misérables and The Light in the Piazza. (To give away too many, and indicate in what numbers they're inserted, would be to spoil well-planned surprises.)
In person, as indicated by the name The Skivvies, entertainers Nick Cearley and Lauren Molina have the attention-grabbing gimmick/trademark of performing in their underwear and having bandmates and guests do the same. By extension, the concept informs the approach to "stripped down" musical accompaniment that may not be a lot more than ukulele and kazoos (and her cello, memorably with her when she was Johanna in the 2005 John Doyle-directed Sweeney Todd). But don't get your panties in a bunch by thinking that to be special they need to be seen undressed for success, with limited garments and limited accompaniment. Their first audio-only presentation, with several musicians upping the ante in lieu of scanty garb, it's so clear that their joy, adaptability, and command of material come through.
It's not surprising that they seem especially at home and at ease, since they had played the key roles of the young couple, Brad and Janet, in a production of The Rocky Horror Show once upon a time and the arrangements are theirs. They capture the innocence and adventurousness of the characters. His strikingly plaintive voice and genial affect complement her take-charge powerhouse vocalizing and adopted squeaky-cute persona. Whether in the spotlight or sharing it with others, they rock Rocky Horror. Driving guitarist/singer Rob Morrison is especially effective when he takes center stage vocally with "Super Heroes."
The guest performances become an embarrassment of riches, although no one seems to show the slightest sense of embarrassment with the many outsized, wild characters. Will Swenson is a laugh-out-loud treat, owning and milking "Sweet Transvestite," Nick Adams nails "The Sword of Damocles," and an accented Alison Fraser is a master of comic resourcefulness making "Eddie's Teddy" a major highlight. A full show in herself, chameleon Christina Bianco in "Floor Show/Rose Tint My World" devastatingly clones the sounds and style excesses of an array of pop and Broadway divas.
While the recording's loopy and go-for-broke bravura moments score, a couple of thoughtful, moody moments prove the potential and potency of lurking tenderness. These come with Michael Cerveris going to a vulnerable spot with "I'm Going Home," and Alice Ripley revealing a wistful, thoughtfully considered reading of the reprise of "Science Fiction Double Feature" (could nostalgia and a personal connectionher history of having been part of this show's Broadway revival 20 years agohave colored this sublime take?)
Underwear dress code forgotten, never under-powered here are The Skivvies and their special guests.