Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Everything's coming up Rose-Marie &
Roseanna Vitro (and company)
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here are a couple of almost-centennials to celebrate: the musical Rose-Marie came to Broadway 98 years ago, and now we can fully appreciate it in full. The 100th anniversary of the birth of jazz great Charlie Parker was in 2020, but a slightly belated birthday present begun in 2017 was wrapped up in 2021, and it's worth the waiting for the celebrating, with four excellent jazz singers and two different band formations honoring their beloved one and only.

Smithsonian/ Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project
CD and digital

Set in Canada, the 98-year-old Rose-Marie had melodrama, murder, a miner, a marriage, music, the mountains, and the Mounties. A motivation in the plot recalls the motto of their mission, "A Mountie always gets his man," but seekers of recordings of its score don't always get their Rose-Marie as first conceived. (By the way, the hyphen comes and goes, as does some of the evolving material.) There have been releases of renditions of some of the operetta-styled songs, often on LPs sharing space with another similar-period score or in another language. And two movie adaptations cut most of the score, added other numbers, and clouded our idea of the story by radically changing the plot and the characters and their names. (I suppose that was a step up from the first adaptation in the medium: a silent film!) Gratifyingly, if very belatedly, the folks at Harbinger Records / The Musical Theater Project and the Smithsonian Institute have come to the rescue. The latter organization's shelved recording of its full-length production finally sees the light of day now after 40 years. The 2-CD physical set comes with a booklet with some historical perspective and appreciation and several photos (just one of the cast we're hearing and several of the Broadway company of yore).

With a chorus (the Catholic University of America A Cappella Choir) and orchestra conducted by James R. Morris, it's a big-sounding affair in this treatment of the score that has music by Rudolf Friml and/or Herbert Stothart (with the more floridly ardent pieces owing to Friml's firm hand). Two men who shared the same initials–Otto Harbach and the younger Oscar Hammerstein II–also shared credit for lyrics and book. Although often labeled strictly as an operetta, its creators didn't use that term; while it has elements of that form, Rose-Marie is something of a hybrid, having lighter and bouncier numbers, too, more in the vein of a musical comedy. But oh-so-familiar operetta trademarks mark it as, at least, operetta-adjacent. There are earnest duets of love undying, a soprano with stratospheric high notes, finales for each act laced with reprises of main themes, hearty male-bonding marches, dainty ladies singing of dainty items ("Pretty Things"), misunderstandings, and near-misses in potential coupledom and other fates.

Those solidly built melodies stand out as the most engaging element, moving forcefully and felicitously as they're played and sung. Fortunately, we get the overture and entr'acte to just focus on their drive or lilt, divorced from their lyrics that are so tethered to the fashion of their time and dimension-challenged characters. The cast floats along and wisely does not strain in vain for depth and realism, nor do they wink at it as a genre past its shelf life. (Of course, in 1981 it was "merely" 56 years old.)

As Rose-Marie, Debra Vanderlinde has a flowing tone and those seemingly impossible high climactic notes that impress, although her character can come off as arch or emotionally monochromatic. It can be a challenge to make out many of her words if you don't know them. It doesn't help, of course, that some of them are written in, and dutifully delivered in, an accent; note the representative spelling indicator for the two-word title of the song "Lak Jeem"–in which she opines that other men aren't at all like Jim, her beloved. The role of Jim is handled with panache and vocal virility by the very able Ron Raines. Alas, his character disappears for long stretches (being sought for a murder you didn't commit can be an understandable reason to have to leave town/the stage). When he's around, much of his singing is relegated to one of the frequently reprised anchors of the score, the simple, sort of sing-songy title tune and the famous "Indian Love Call" ("When I'm calling you, ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo") that over the years became a target for eye-rolling mockery as operetta excess. (In the context of its plot function, its echo component used as a lover's signal, is not so silly.)

Those who only know the highest-profile portions of the original score, likely from exposure via Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy on screen and later warbling, will find dissimilar delights in the other material. There's fertile ground to dig into with things for the ensemble and the comic relief characters, like the guy who gets a song all about himself, "Hard Boiled Herman," the flirty "Only a Kiss," and the suggestive "Why Shouldn't We," plus the deft dance instructions stepping into satire territory with "The Minuet of the Minute." These are plucky and perky. Much credit for the breezier diversions goes to performers Mark Basile and Laura Waterbury. The full wedding sequence with the final reprises is quite the production and a worthy wrap-up.

Cast recording collectors may recognize the name Dona D. Vaughn. She sang as a member of the Vocal Minority in the original cast of 1970's Company; she's here leading the high-energy big Indian number called "Totem Tom Tom." Even before anyone spoke of being "woke," accusations of ethnic stereotyping were lobbed against this show. Entrenched in its old-fashioned style and sensibilities, its language choices may be too distancing quaint and purple for the resistantly uninitiated: its humor too tepid, its characters too two-dimensional. One person's "coy" is another person's "joy" and those who get it and love riding the wave of melodies that rise and fall with grandness and grace will willingly welcome back Rose-Marie.

Skyline Records

A dozen tracks saluting jazz sax legend Charlie "Bird" Parker and music he played and wrote (some based on chord changes of standards) make for an impressive multi-artist collection titled SIng a Song of Bird. Some of his compositions have had lyrics set to them in the past and are rolled out again here, but the parties involved rose to the occasion to fashion some of their own, too. The four long-careered singers on the bill–Roseanna Vitro (appearing on five of the tracks), Bob Dorough, Sheila Jordan, and Marion Cowings–have extensive credits including having played at Birdland, the club named for Parker's moniker.

Although many of the pieces are performed at a fast clip, reminding us of the fleet work of Parker on his instrument, the M.O. is to give a generous playing time. (All except one last for well over four minutes.) This allows plenty of opportunities for the band to shine and for the singers to display their skill at potential tongue-twisting races that would defeat many who would attempt them. There's some cool scat-singing, too.

Setting lyrics to percolating pre-existing well-known melodies that were composed/improvised, without the intention of being easily suitable for words and how they'd naturally scan, is a very special talent and challenge. As a self-imposed homework assignment to cement my appreciation, I went back to the source and parked the old Parker-led instrumental performances into my head before listening to each performer sing a Sing a Song of Parker item that had new words. The experience can start with the thought "How will anyone set a lyric to that?," followed up by being dazzled/surprised when first introduced to the match of verbiage, performance polish, and chosen attitude. For those who find unfamiliar wordless jazz works not so easily accessible, such side-by-side exposures might be more effective in reverse order.

Roseanna Vitro shines in her several appearances, including her treatment of a well-known melody that got a new title from Parker's original, longer nickname, "Yardbird Suite." Although there has been more than one set of words set to it, she sticks with the composer's own text (which begins "It's hard to learn how tears can burn one's heart..."). Elsewhere, lyrics she handles with panache were provided by the collection's producer, Paul Wickliffe, who is also her husband. (He also took up his pen to write the liner notes that detail her connections with the other people and the making of the recording.) His words are well served by her vocals (and vice-versa), with new titles offering cute homage to the original Parker names: "Steeplechase" becomes "People Chase" and "Scrapple from the Apple" becomes "Grapple with the Apple," acknowledging that "it's so overwhelming" with big annoyances in the Big Apple, like New York City's "crazy town" pace and claustrophobia, comparing it to a caged hamster running on its speedily spinning wheel.

Special authenticity is added with the polished presence of Parker friend/devotee Sheila Jordan; they had a mutual admiration and she was married for a while to one of his bandmates. Sounding terrific and authoritative, now in her early 90s, she brings back "Quasimodo," a Parker melody fused to her own autobiographical lyric that is a highlight of her live sets and recorded in the past by her. The two female performers pair for "Sheila, Jazz Child," a tribute within a tribute, with Mr. Wickliffe adding to Gary Brocks' original verbiage for the melody that began as "Cheryl."

The male singers' tracks satisfy, too. Marion Cowings gets bluesy and bold and he deftly dispatches "Now's the Time," a vocalese valentine to Parker penned by Jon Hendricks, the master of such fittings, back in 1959. Sing a Song of Bird's Bob Dorough performances were captured in 2017, a year before the hipster's death at age 94, and it's a pleasure to hear him dive in with devilish glee on "Audubon's New Bluebird" (née "Bluebird") and take a lead to bounce with his partners in rhyme and scat-singing on the tale of "The Scatter" (once "Red Cross"). He joins the two women for the collection's calm and very heartfelt rendition of the classic bittersweet British ballad "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)." It's an exquisite marvel that ends the outing, like an elegant nightcap to sip and savor.

Two different splendid instrumental ensembles, with no overlap except for bassist Dean Johnson, share the duties of playing with the singers, with appropriate emphasis on each group's alto saxophonists. Five selections spotlight Gary Bartz, including the one non-vocal track, a mix of "Koko" and the older song that inspired it–"Cherokee" by Ray Noble. The Bartz band also has pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Alvester Barnett. The sax man on the remaining numbers is Mark Gross, joined by pianist Jason Teborek and drummer Bill Goodwin. Added to this latter quartet is a guest on each of two selections: percussionist Mino Cinelu on "Grapple with the Apple" and guitarist Paul Myers on "Audubon's New Bluebird."

Sing a Song of Bird honors–and adds to–the legacy of the man of the hour. And, on its own terms, it's a joyful jazz summit.