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Sound Advice Reviews

Focus on Females—Three Cast Albums
Review by Rob Lester

Let's look at three musicals that look at female protagonists with very different relationships explored: an estranged mother and her teen-aged daughter in Miss You Like Hell; the music business in Session Girls; and real-life ice-skating competitors Tonya & Nancy. Notably, the writers are primarily women, too (with the exception of the music and additional lyrics for Tonya & Nancy, although its earlier version had a female composer).


Ghostlight Records

While it certainly will feel ripped from the latest headlines, the story of an undocumented immigrant with a scene at the U.S./Mexico border, with parent and offspring separated by a wall, Miss You Like Hell is a project that began as a straight play by its bookwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, who shares credit for the lyrics, and was shaped into a musical over several years. Co-lyricist and composer is singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, and the score reflects her own history as a performer: varied styles, undeniable assertiveness, a cornucopia of musical influences, with comfort levels abounding in all guises.

Timely indeed it is, but the story is more about being embraced by family and other people than it is about being accepted by a government and its policies. Both goals have their challenges, so you might say that this tale of a road trip by a long-estranged mother and daughter is an uphill journey with expected bumps in the road. With two strong-willed females who feel the pain of time lost, the potency of the present, and the giant question mark that is their future, the tensions and hopes are both high. You may well find yourself sympathetic and invested and, like me, rooting for both protagonists as we hitch a ride on their emotional roller coaster voyage with some extreme highs and lows. It often feels like a feel-good kind of exploration of feeling sad, with catharsis and understanding seemingly promised on the horizon. But this is no sugar-coated fluffy musical that lets us easily relax. To finish off with a final metaphor about the travelogue, fasten your seat belts!

In general, the material grew on me the more I listened. As the determined mother Beatriz, for whom deportation is a definite possibility, Daphne Rubin-Vega's voice is as distinctive and laced with both memorable melancholia and command as it showed itself to be once upon a time, back to her days as Mimi in the high-profile Rent. She's often forcefully fiery here, with lyrics that allow her character to describe herself in the first piece as a "Lioness," ending with "I call upon the feminine divine/ You back me up, bitches." In a more poetic moment, she muses that "The distance of love is the cruelest of borders." This is in a kind of lament where she says that, unlike her American-born daughter, she's always cautiously looking "Over My Shoulder."

Feistiness runs in the family—or is caused by family. If 16-year-old Olivia isn't always doing that in worry of being caught, but she does have a chip on her shoulder, and that's something self-protective as a result of the years of not having a mother in her life. In fact, she has an online presence in which she proclaims to her followers that her mom is dead. This is another strong-willed personality, but the vulnerability is just under the surface and detected early on in the disarming performance and notably clear-voiced singing of Gizel Jimenez. When she recalls some "Sundays" from her much younger days when Mom was around, we are as taken in by her charm and sweet recollections as we are pulled in by the catchy but simple melody in its happiest sections. The captivating Miss Jimenez is impassioned in her rendition of the musical's title song. When she grabs power and confidence, proclaiming that "Now I'm Here," you can almost hear the sound of road-blocking wooden barriers in an obstacle course being knocked down one by one. Cue the Olympics event-sized triumph cheers. In numbers like this one, sometimes things feel like overdrive and oversimplified and transparently manipulative, message-heavy. Yes, we hear "Now I'm here" or its cousins in verbiage, "Here I am" or "Here we are" 18 times in the lyric. But it's hard to resist the victory laps' celebratory joy.

And with a show whose opening song had a kind of Greek chorus and protagonist (the mother) acceleratingly repeat the self-empowering mantra "You can do this" 16 times, we are prepared. (And reminded, when "Lioness" is reprised, for 16 more of the same.) The urgings, platitudes, balms and reassurances continue, whether in the overloaded word pile of "The Dirtiest Deed," employing an encouraging echo ("You're still here"), the perhaps too-pat slogan "Life fights for life," more supplication ("Be with me, ancestors") and, sticking out, the more informal phrase ("Here on earth you gotta get your groove on"). But somehow it more or less works if we can allow ourselves to ride the wave and get swept away with the urgency and triggered zeal.

The music appropriately throbs and temperatures rise with hopes. The band with rhythm and strings led by Cody Owen Stine (piano and accordion) lets the music rise and fall and push-push-push us ahead, with a few numbers curiously stopping suddenly with a kind of whimper rather than building to a crescendo, almost as if someone pulled the plug or unexpectedly hit the "Pause" button. Nevertheless, that disconcerting disconnect can still make us reflect on what we just heard. Freeze and consider. A grand finish can sometimes be just too much when the point has been made crystal clear already and the final lines aren't new thoughts or realization, but just reinforcement or repeated words.

If we listeners stayed in the vehicle as voyeurs non-stop with testy teen and potent parent, it would get claustrophobic, so this is wisely more than a two-person story. As the parent/offspring bond struggles to shine through, blood being thicker than water and familiarity breeding not contempt but edging evermore towards understanding each other, perspective also comes from others. There are eight other cast members, each playing one part, with plenty of ensemble singing, but some have far more prominent singing solo parts than others. Delivered by the characters of a gay male couple, the show's delightful "charm" song is a cutie; the guys (Michael Mulheren and David Patrick Kelly) deliver the very good goods leading "My Bell's Been Rung," a kind of old-school fun change of pace from the more contemporary and intense ambience. And Danny Bolero manages to make a selection extolling, of all things, "Tamales" and memories connected with them a recipe for successful sweetness and tenderness. Latoya Edwards also shines as Pearl, who sings the praises of an idyllic "Yellowstone" in a dreamier kind of respite; she also gets a chance to confront Olivia in dialogue, in one of the examples of four-letter vulgarities appearing on the recording, but fitting the motivated moment as it's spit out.

The tapestry of musical genres and propulsive swirls of instrumental and vocal sound and the palpable longings, joys, and heartaches so deftly delineated by the involved-sounding company go a fairly long way to keep the patient and empathetic listener engaged. Singing is often either striking or soothing, the feelings relatable—and all that can make up for some frustrations and make return trips to the musical wells worthwhile. The underlying passions bubble up to the surface and as these two strong "lionesses" tangle or roar, you may find yourself almost crying out "You go, girl!" one minute and wanting to be a family therapist the next, wishing all the while for closure, safe harbor, and a fairy-tale happy ending. No fairy godmother deus ex machina with a magic wand bringing forth a valued visa is likely to be around the next hill in real life. But who knows what tomorrow brings?


Broadway Records

If you put "session girls" into a search engine, you'll end up with a bunch of web pages about females involved in wrestling. That's not the activity for the protagonists in the musical Session Girls, although they're tough as nails (the hardware kind, not the ones that get manicures) and you might not want to get in the ring with any of them. We're talking about recording sessions in a music studio, where many of the characters toil and squabble when the saga, recorded live with quite a bit of dialogue, doesn't drag us through the soap opera-esque of their lives away from the mics and sound board. I've spent several sessions of listening to Session Girls, trying to "get" it, and I have to honestly report that the enthusiastically laughing and applauding Feinstein's/54 Below audience heard is having a far better time than I did. I remain mostly underwhelmed and not drawn in. But there are some engaging and entertaining tracks that make this one of those frustrating mixed bags. A more consistent tone would help, but some of the selections are rewarding if thought of as stand-alone songs.

Music, lyrics and book are by Mia Moravis, whose background includes being a co-producer in musical theatre and a judge for the Emmys and Grammys, as well as writing pop songs and being involved on the producing end with numerous releases by the prolific label this score appears on, the invaluable Broadway Records. She also co-directed the evening's official premiere of the work, along with Michael J Moritz Jr., the musical director /pianist /orchestrator /arranger and they, along with Brandon Loewit, are credited as the recording's producers. Moritz is joined by four other musicians, bringing us a rhythm section completed by the usual guitar, bass, and drums and also a reed player, Joe Graziosi (identified in the writer's included spoken welcome, but not the booklet credits, as "music supervisor.") In that intro, she says the idea for the show was "born ten years ago," but the song copyright dates span 1986-2018, with the fine print co-credited to the late Tony Halinkovitch for one number, "Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore," one of the more diverting numbers among the numerous strutting stances.

Lyrics are not included in the booklet (and some are a bit difficult to catch in more cacophonous sections), although we get a helpful synopsis and numerous photos of the concert reading cast, often with eyes cast down to see the material on their music stands. Things seem to proceed fairly smoothly, with no apparent hesitations; characterizations seem overly broad rather than tentative, and more nuance and vulnerability would make them more relatable. That being said, at the end of the day, some of the showier renditions with flourishes and hamminess are ultimately the most appealing, assuming you're willing to sacrifice believability.

Lisa O'Hare channels a kind of sneering, leering and condescending attitude, with a sort of faux operetta voice, in a haughty "I'm a Producer (and You're Not)." But, fun as it is, it feels rather out of place with the more contemporary sounds and casually-set-to-music dialogue. But this self-satisfied brag about producing doesn't produce the kind of wit or joy that would make you confuse it with something from The Producers any more than the laboring, preachy "You're Never a Shoo-In" would stand up to the breezy, comical "I Was Shoo-In" from Subways Are for Sleeping. And the pat ending, "At Least We've All Got Us," where all is conveniently forgiven after the plethora of insults and accusations, can't convincingly shrug off the resentments and razzing, despite the plot twist with happy news. The wrap-up feels like a band-aid when a listener might find some of the preceding mantras less than fully persuasive for people who seem to be set in their ways. (An example is the sung advice that "We Should All Just Be Excellent"—easier sung than done.)

Jill Abramovich, playing the role of the of the studio singer who coats her money-making throat with too much alcohol (replacing the concert's originally announced Lesli Margherita), is competent, but we don't discover enough of the character's motivations or backstory, nor reasons for her "party" behavior, manipulative tactics, and lack of work ethic, except to cause friction among her co-workers. In the aforementioned patch-up mea culpa/turning over a new leaf promises ("At Least We've All Got Us"), she promises to be "sober" (which is part of one of the not-few instances of false rhymes when it clumsily "rhymes" with "over"). She does get a cousin popping in (Emily Padgett), occasioning a twice-heard pleasant country music ditty, "I Got a Key." Studio session producer Joli (Lauren Worsham) has a reasonably pensive moment confronting her single life with "The Empty Chair."

For me, the recording's highlights are two items that are head and shoulders above everything else—the kind of things that make one wish everything could have come closer to that level, and that all is not lost. Yes, potential is gloriously here. Brian Charles Rooney, as the studio owner, is elsewhere saddled with some awkward material to present a pompous parading of smugness that recalls some of the roles that would be assigned to Jack Cassidy decades ago. But he finally gets a real plum opportunity for panache and buoyancy. It's addressed to a Broadway producer who shows up, the happy excuse for a fun cameo full of welcome bursts of high-octane energy by a merrily moonlighting Robbie Rozelle, usually contributing graphic design, notes, or other duties for the label (he's now A&R Director). The plucky, zingy showstopper is the sly wink of a surefire element to make a musical a hit; the title is "If You Want to Make Dough on a Show" wherein the lyric advises to "put a kid in it." My other high-points track is a far gentler choice done with delicate artfulness: it's Megan McGinnis hitting a quiet home run with the very lovely but sad "I Dreamt of You." ("And now a spectre looms around us, trying to steal you...I am shaking as the universe is trembling").

The cast is completed by Oyoyo Joi and Bart Shatto as two cellists who are a couple absorbed with their careers to the detriment of a possible marriage, Jeff Hiller as a "Delivery Guy" who turns out to become something quite different, and Ryan Andes as the studio engineer to whom two of the session girls are attracted, allowing for even more tension in a story that has more than its share of it as we plod along from snip to snipe to gripe.

I think there are flickers of golden fun and frolic, and the cast puts out much gusto. But, as presented here, it just doesn't hang together and the characters aren't people I'd be longing to hang out with. Let's recall that it's a first effort as a musical for this writer and this was its initial unveiling. Maybe smoother sailing for its maiden voyage is ahead.


Broadway Records

If you're OK with some mix of rock, schlock and mockery that others might think of as insensitive (since we're dealing with a musical that's dealing with real people, a busted knee and busted dreams), a dose of ear-splitting screaming electric guitars and wailing vocals, plus a heavy dose of crass words, stand by. Here is that guilty pleasure kind of tabloid exploitation set to music. Just about a quarter century ago, much attention was paid to the intense rivalry between two competitive and driven Olympic ice skaters that escalated to the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction event of one being attacked by guys hired by the other's estranged husband. The fascination with Nancy Kerrigan of the almost-broken knee and Tonya Harding with the broken skate lace, and tears of both doesn't seem to want to die. Television brought investigations, made-for-TV movies, comedy sketches, sitcom references and other parodies, and talk show interview spots, plus there were dance pieces, songs, plays, a West Coast musical, and a recent motion picture (I, Tonya) that brought it back yet again.

Playwright-lyricist Elizabeth Searle has been working on various incarnations of the story, first as a one-act chamber opera with composer Abigail Al-Doory Cross, and now, with a different composer, Michael Teoli, who contributed additional lyrics and arrangements, co-musical-directed, and sings the role of Harding's bodyguard in the recorded concert presentation recently released. This version has gone through some changes, has been produced in an annual musical theatre festival series in Manhattan (NYMF), as well as skating into the hearts of theatre fans ready for something brash in the cities of Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago.

Like Session Girls, Tonya & Nancy was also recorded live at Feinstein's/54 Below, has Michael J Moritz Jr. on hand (this time directing alone, but co-music director with Teoli), and features Lauren Worsham, this time in the major role of our swirling Nancy, sharing the "ice" and icy relationship with the hard-hearted Harding played by Ashley Spender. Both women are formidable and strong-voiced tough cookies. In one of the more glibly politically incorrect insensitive moments, Kerrigan's memorable filmed and re-played ad nauseum cry of pain and self-pity heard 'round the world, "Why? Why me?," becomes a song that veers between operatic aria and howling scream of anguish. If there's an art to mean-spiritedness, the glibness here makes a case for its gleeful execution, and this musical perhaps has the knack of making that whack work.

Nobody's trying to be delicate here, as no character is given a sympathy pass. It's not for the soft-hearted or those who avoid dark satire. If it were not a true story, would it be effective? Would we care? Do we care after all these years? Well, there's some sharpness to those old skate blades still, and the cast, band and songs are full of gusto and fire. With the crasser, over-the-top characterizations, there's an implied strong permission to laugh freely at the single-mindedness of obsessiveness and the simple-mindedness of the attack squad (referred to as "Dumb and Dumber").

Veteran Nancy Opel anchors the show, acting as narrator addressing the audience and playing both skaters' moms. She's a hoot, especially as the impatient, short-tempered foul-mouthed Harding parent who is the ice version of the stage mother from Hell. Her big number, "This Is It" is a knockout—a pro pulling out the stops, and she tops everything else. As Tonya's erstwhile husband Jeff Gillooly, Tony LePage's "Jeff G" gruff and howling solo is pretty harsh on the ears (maybe it's the influence of all that time spent in the cast of Broadway's Rock of Ages), but his later number, "When You Wake Up Sleeping in Your Car in Estacada," is far more pleasing. And for some reason hearing the surname "Gillooly" sung in lyrics tickles my ear. Some members of the NYMF cast return to the project in the ensemble that's made up of Heidi Friese, Tatiana Lofton, Ryan Mac, and Jason Pintar.

There's a fair amount of the narration and dialogue included on the recording, between each and every one of the 15 sung pieces, separately tracked and individually titled with sum-ups such as "Jeff's Got a Plan" and "What Did Tonya Know?" (the $64,000 question long debated by many). It all makes for a fairly fast-moving show that wisely broadens the timeline of the infamous Olympic events to also include a flashback to the early training years and references to the legal outcomes and a "Where Are They Now?" denouement. (A whole sequel could include the episodes of Harding working as a boxer, Kerrigan on TV's "Dancing with the Stars," their later lives as moms and, perhaps inevitably, sitting in the same room for an uncomfortable televised face-to-face, and their reactions to the many dramatizations and their attempts to move on and have quieter lives.)

This is a kind of wild ride, with lots of audacious, semi-outrageous tomfoolery sprinkled with a few surprisingly poignant moments. And if you can get past the bravado and posing, there's also food for thought about our society, competition, the burning desire for winning at any price, and ego. And that's all worth thinking about—especially when set to music.

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