Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

It's a Guy thing
(with a female presence)

Let's consider the male presumed perspective perceived by a woman playing—and playing with—male roles, from those women who dressed as men on stage. And then, an international all-male group goes Broadway with some female guests providing some star power and more than a touch of musical theatre class.


Original Cast Records

How does the recording of British Jessica Walker's one-person show looking at the histories of some female entertainers who came to fame singing male-perspective songs dressed in male attire come across? It feels like an educational and astute tribute, but is a non-stuffy, enthused lecture/demonstration/re-creation situation. Honoring the tradition of these women in "trouser roles," she lauds several women who did this and follows suit, easing into their material with both relish and respect. A mezzo-soprano herself, she is not out to come off as a man on disc (or on stage, with this show she's been touring with since 2010). And, she pointedly states, the British women who did these acts many years ago weren't intent on pulling the wool over audiences' eyes, "just" pulling on the male garb and attitude to entertain and make a point or win points with onlookers. So, sans visuals, with her obviously female voice and only rarely altering it in any major way, there's no confusion about intent. And the voice is an attractive one, fairly flexible as she adapts to material that ranges from Mozart to music hall rambunctious broad struts.

There is a lot of narration here, crisply and caringly unspooled, only sometimes tracked separately (some comes mid-song). Her own very palpable fascination with the subject matter and a sense of slyness help to offset the considerable verbiage. There are specific details and observations, putting things into historical perspective. Strangely, despite the trove of tidbits, there's not enough here to make us feel we have a real full picture of any of women or their characteristic uniqueness as performers, so they kind of blend together more as a "type." Jessica Walker speaks of them with dignity and admiration, not over-the-top worship or condescension or sensationalism, allowing her sated curiosity to become the listener's piqued curiosity. Some facts about their offstage lives (e.g., marriages and long-term relationships, agendas) are sprinkled in, but it's not always clear if a certain dignified reserve comes from wanting to avoid stereotyping, to honor privacy of those from another era or if it's just acknowledging that some some key details may be lost to history. There's a lingering elusiveness, but that mystery has its own pull. Walker walks a fine line, but does plainly mention one woman who married three times, and once to a female. Not knowing if the original stars had similar voices and performance styles, it is unfair to judge how closely she is to any of those focused upon. And the spoken material is often in the form of third-person reportage, rather than taking on personae as characters' dialogue or song intros as the performers. So, the songs that come up aren't so stamped with a tour de force impersonation game, but—as she says in the liner notes—her presentations "could be construed as a version of myself," stating that it is "a piece that explores my personal connection with the material," noting that she has played male roles in opera and musical theatre.

After initial listening to the background info, and digesting some facts about the kind of woman she calls a "pioneer," we can focus all the more on the songs. With many little-known to the average modern listener (just a few numbers were written as "recently" as the 1920s or '30s), we're given a lot of charming period pieces to charm and entertain us. Some of it will be familiar, such as a nicely phrased "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home," which has survived the years as a kind of seductive bluesy plea for reconciliation, and "After the Ball," a famed 1892 tear-jerker of a style quite popular in its time and which musical theatre fans know from its being interpolated into the score of the classic Show Boat. While presentationally formal and now quaint in its text, some remnants of the heartbreak of regret do come through toward the end. A music hall favorite, the self-assured "Burlington Bertie from Bow" is a pip in its down-to-earthiness (Julie Andrews followers may recall her performance of this delight in the film Star! and on a solo album).

Accompaniment is simply a piano. Originally performed on Jessica Walker's home shore of England with musical arranger James Holmes as her accompanist, the album features the sprightly and careful work of Joseph Atkins (who played U.S. shows at New York's 59E59 theatre's British festival). He contributed arrangements for three bonus tracks. These items are especially attractive, like a dessert after the big main course. A gorgeously elegant setting of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Come Into the Garden, Maud" makes me wish there were more long-lined legato elegance on the album instead of so many jaunty romps. For me, the aspects of Jessica Walker's honey-sweet voice are most captivating in this beauty. "If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)," put on the map memorably by Eddie Cantor, here gets a somewhat more sensitive side revealed by slowing down the frantic eager-to-please snappy Cantor-ization. The album ends with a warm nod to "Sally," a number associated with dress-wearing Brit icon Gracie Fields.

Successfully mocking the braggadocio puffery of men—all the more obviously ridiculous when sung by a woman, which is the point, and a well-made one—Jessica Walker shines. Whether a cocky cockney type or a would-be gentleman putting on airs, there's many a giggle in this gaggle of songs. "I Love the Ladies," which is 100 years old this new year, and a six-song medley which begins with the uber-bouncy "Why Did I Kiss That Girl?" ("why oh why oh why?") is a confection of conceit and cuteness. The title song and several others add interest, though I can't really say that I suspect this dedicated true-to-its-times approach would make converts of those who resist such fluff and historical stuff and long for more entrenched emotion or more laugh-out-loud lines of wit. Still, it's an interesting visit with the predecessors of today's gender-bending and drag artists and it's worth blowing the dust off some saucy posturing and considering it with hindsight.


Sony/Columbia Records

The male quartet known as Il Divo meets some divas on their new album. The material is Broadway-focused and the approach is grand, grand, grand: big, sweeping, swirling orchestrations and bravura singing of emotional explosive content and romantic heart-on-sleeve rhapsodizing. Looking for subtle understatement? You've come to the wrong place.

American singer David Miller, who was on Broadway in Baz Luhrmann's La Bohême, and his international mates Urs Buhler (from Switzerland), Sebastien Izambard (from France), and Carlos Marin (from Spain) recently brought this material for six performances on Broadway in November. They continue to tour internationally, and this album is as much Broadway Goes International as it is Il Divo goes Broadway, because there's plenty that is not sung in English. Their guests, however, stick to English lyrics, no matter what tongue the guys tackle, including some heavily accented English. But theatre fans probably know most of the English lyrics quite well, as all are very well-known pieces from the repertoire.

Those who don't like their musical theatre faves blown up to operatic expansive heights may shiver in dismay, but those who admire the musical drama growing to melodramatic heights and climaxes with little thought of holding back or needing to may indeed shiver with excitement. I did some of each. Wisely, chosen here are bigger-than-life theatrical moments in material that can stand up to broad strokes and power and pathos. They're not doing light frolicsome ditties. Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" fit the Huge Statement criteria. The four singers share the vocal honors, alternating solo lines, with group harmonizing within most numbers.

Lending historic authenticity by association, alumna of its original cast Heather Headley takes The Lion King's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" head on with the men, wringing every melismatic and crooning and bravura belting opportunity to its hilt, as they keep topping each topped moment. Can you feel the love? Well, we're feeling something and this musical arrangement's equivalent of a defibrillator takes no prisoners.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Mount Everest-scoped melodic ambitions are just-right grist for putting this stuff through the mill. Pop singer Nicole Scherzinger (The Pussycat Dolls) acquits herself nicely, featured on Cats's "Memory" with some freshness while the guys and the orchestra go for broke. She holds her own—no easy task! Kristin Chenoweth (whose name is spelled wrong twice on my copy) soars impressively with her legit voice on The Phantom of the Opera's "All I Ask of You." Obviously, this score is a good candidate for the all-stops-out formal fireworks approach. From the same musical, Barbra Streisand's shared vocal with the gents on "The Music of the Night" appears, familiar from her live concert where they were guests on this number, which she recorded on her 1986 Broadway Album with the original Phantom, Michael Crawford. And speaking of Andrew Lloyd Webber's anthem melodies, another British Michael musical theatre star, Michael Ball, is heard on "Love Changes Everything," bringing Il Divo in for some extra male bonding with the song he did in Aspects of Love. This is also from a live recording.

The 11-track version submitted for review was in a plain sleeve with no notes or photos and the songs are in a different order than I see offered elsewhere. The track ""Who Wants to Live Forever?" (a standard from the band Queen, which is heard in the West End musical We Will Rock You is not on my copy, but is available on Amazon's version, and deluxe packages including a DVD and even a calendar are also offered.

Although I can see how many will hear this as overblown and exhausting and overshadowing the sensitivity occasionally lurking (as in "Bring Him Home" from the soon-to-return again Les Misérables), it's tough not to be knocked out by the power and the strength of musical majestics: beauty within the bombast.

- Rob Lester

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