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one good Kern deserves another:
Gems of Jerome Kern's melodies

You can say that all musical theatre roads liltingly lead back to composer Jerome Kern. One hundred years ago, he'd already had his music in a number of shows that played Broadway and London and influenced many who came soon after. Here are two recent releases from PS Classics filled with his collaborations with many different lyricists: a solo recital by Rebecca Luker and a two-disc set presenting a six-person revue where she is among the cast. In both releases, well-known songs sit side by side with the rare, with much delightful listening at hand.


PS Classics

In any year, the gracefully floating and/or fervently strong melodies of Jerome Kern and the shining, flexible soprano voice of Rebecca Luker would have been a smart match. Her being cast in the ingénue role of the Hal Prince-directed revival of Show Boat twenty years ago (!) made that as clear as her bell-like voice. Lucky Luker admirers, I among them, had the memorable in-person pleasure of a rapturous all-Kern night with her (with arrangements and piano by Joseph Thalken) at Manhattan's nightclub 54 Below last year, and now that repertoire wisely has been preserved on disc in a studio recording. As the years go by, I have found that she has found more shadings in her voice; she phrases more thoughtfully and subtly, digging deeper into lyrics, illuminating more of their wit, heartbreak or yearning. And the voice itself remains a glorious one: silvery and strong, with notes that can thrill or be delicate as they linger in the air. But it's not all about being pristine—there's real character there, a personality that emerges, a knowing point of view informing her timing and presentation.

Two Show Boat songs shine in a medley, although "Bill" features its earlier P.G. Wodehouse lyric that Oscar Hammerstein adapted. The other classic from that score, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," soars. Later, "Can't Help Singing" simply glitters with the glee of someone who lives and breathes music, without sounding "precious" or like a self-indulgent showpiece.

The fourteen selections are quite varied, serving to underscore the versatility and range of both composer and singer. The more formal melodies with their elegant lyrics are embraced with no apologetic awkwardness or need to try to "modernize" their presentations. The sincerity and comfort level makes them seem a natural fit; presence prevents them from sounding stuffy or stodgy. Thus, "The Song Is You" radiates with celebratory involvement, rising to the challenge of making its lyric, "The music is sweet, the words are true" a darling understatement. She's equally effective whether bursting with joy, as in that number and title song, or making it sound like her heart is bursting with sorrow, as in the ultimate of laments, "Why Was I Born?" (rich with mournful wondering rather than just a wallow in self-pity). And her take on the tale of a gal who gives in increasingly to temptation as the days of a week go by ("Saturday Night") is a savvy comic delight.

Emotion is enhanced with the instrumentation (or lack thereof, in the case of the arresting a capella opening to "Once in a Blue Moon"). A small band, with some period flavor and understated restraint, and some exultant releases, makes its presence felt. "I'll Be Hard to Handle" is juicy in its playful strutting. I have mixed feelings about taking the dreamy ballad "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" in a brisker, lighter vein. While not exactly cavalier in its treatment, a more casual approach loses some of the idyllic mood for me, with the usually bittersweet mention of the time "when the kids grow up and leave" thus glossed over. Some may find this choice to be a refreshing change after so many reverie-loaded renditions. But I get my share of wistful and romantic elsewhere, and the wonderfully handled rarely heard numbers such as "Not You" and "I Am All Alone" make this album a must-have for Kernophiles or anyone seeking the little-known worth being well-known. The CD ends on a graceful if downbeat note with "April Fooled Me," with Rebecca Luker plowing the Dorothy Fields lyric for every bit of bittersweet 20/20 hindsight.


PS Classics

I'd like to have a one-way trip to the land where the good songs go, wherever that mythical place is, but we can be sure that a lot of the best of the "good songs" came from the prolific Jerome Kern. (Though he died at age 60 before starting on what was to be his next project, Annie Get Your Gun, he got an early start.) Named for a 1917 number (from Oh, Boy!, lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, who is represented by several numbers), the revue The Land Where the Good Songs Go reaches even further back—1905 and 1907—and includes lyrics posthumously added to melodies in 1956 and 1968. Here we have a swell double-disc set with a potpourri of numbers set to serve a story: some well-covered evergreens and some quite obscure and delightfully dusted off.

The story concocted is summed up on one page of the booklet, which also includes a longer, thoughtful essay on Kern, written half a century ago by Stephen Sondheim for other liner notes and adapted for this package. There is another page with comments on the genesis of this show, labeled a "revue" instead of a "musical" or "play," which perhaps suggests how skeletal or just functional the plot is: Three couples court each other and court danger when the men go off to war and, post-marriage, there's an attraction amongst them that upsets the neat pairings. The project began a little over a decade ago, and arranger/orchestrator/conductor David Loud, still the music master for the recording, had it done at Catholic University in 2004, and a NYC concert at Merkin Hall in 2010 preceded/inspired the disc, with five of the same six singers: Rebecca Luker, Matthew Scott, Heidi Blickenstaff and real-life married couple Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat (though Kate's character romances the other two men in the story). PS Classics' A&R director and delightfully versatile vocalist on many of the label's studio cast albums, Philip Chaffin, steps in for the absent Colin Donnell. Eight musicians—half of those on stringed instruments—accompany the very able cast.

The germ of an idea for the plot came from naming a character Bill and allowing the back-to-back Bill songs, Baldwin's "Bill" and the other two women's "Bill's a Liar" (1907 lyric by M.E. Rourke AKA Herbert Reynolds). If you're looking for major sightings of Kern's masterwork with Hammerstein, the elephant isn't quite fully in the room: the "Bill" lyric is heard in its original Wodehouse version before Hammerstein's changes (as also heard on Rebecca Luker's solo Kern album), and there is room for its melodies in very brief instrumental interludes, with "Make Believe" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" heard, the latter also inserted for comic effect briefly in another number as a song played loudly in a neighboring apartment. The most prominent Show Boat docking is a number not in the original score, but written for a revival that landed on Broadway just after Kern's death: "Nobody Else But Me" with Blickenstaff blithely rhapsodizing on her comfort with the guy who fits the bill for her more than her current husband, with Chaffin (as Bill) and others joining in affirmingly.

Some other pieces may push the limits on being oh-so-cute in a "period" way, possibly making it tough for some resistant to that genre. They are mostly clustered near the beginning, with some of the earliest songs (1905-1917) heard in the earliest part of the tale, and then three more very early ones end the first disc. But the cast has a ball with them, they are suited to such antiques, and their charm is evident, making me warm to "Never Marry a Girl with Cold Feet" for the three men and other silly frolics. The not-so-famous numbers are especially gratifying and, of course, easier to accept as part of a storyline (such as it is).

Rebecca Luker and Graham Rowat team well on their comedy numbers, sounding increasingly tipsy on "Ain't It Funny What a Difference Just a Few Drinks Make?"—first heard in the 1916 edition of The Ziegfeld Follies—and they seem to relish reeling off their robbery résumés in the combo of "We're Crooks" and the merrily mischievous "Our Little Nest." (These are from two different shows that debuted in 1917, both with Wodehouse lyrics.) A few arrangements might seem overly "busy" as they build and voices are added. While this sometimes makes me wonder if the gentler songs not intended to carry more weight can carry it comfortably; however, part of me gives in to the excitement For example, "A Fine Romance," which in its original presentation was subtitled "A Sarcastic Love Song," here is a weightier, the-honeymoon-is-over-and-you're-over-it lament: less funny, done more sorrowfully and with some more tension rather than with snarky frustration. And it hijacks the verse of another song to set it up ("You Know and I Know").

The vocal combinations are often rewarding, although an albeit pretty multi-voiced "The Last Time I Saw Paris" and the finale's full-group "Long Ago (And Far Away)" and unbilled reprise of the title song aren't able to unbridle themselves from the freedom-restrictingly even tempo and close group voices to deliver full attention to linger on the lyrics' potential for pensiveness. A few tracks' arrangements' busy-ness and builds might, at least at first, seem to build dramatically and crescendo musically by given with more gravitas or exuberance than their nimbly built but slyer, slimmer origins intended. Despite some such stretching of material, much of what we have is terrific, and I'm certainly as much aboard for the train station name-dropping in the nifty "The Subway Express"—quite adorable as sung by Baldwin and Scott—as I am for the gloves-off, handkerchief-ready tender treatment of "April Fooled Me" with heartfelt Heidi Blickenstaff. And while the classic "All the Things You Are" is a much-sung/much-recorded warhorse, this number (one many famous songwriters have gone on record as particularly admiring) survives and thrives with genuine freshness found by Philip Chaffin's open-voiced, rhapsodic treatment as he is joined by Kate as his mate.

This Kern-ucopia, with song pairings, arrangements and re-arrangements, and a classic like "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," gets into your heart all over again (finally a serious solo for attractive-voiced Matthew Scott comes near the end in this piece). But for those of us looking for some more buried treasures, discoveries like the spiffy, sprightly ("I'm Looking for) An Irish Husband" from 1913's The Marriage Market fits the bill and fills the gaps very satisfyingly indeed.

- Rob Lester

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