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A new Chocolate Factory & three romantic vocal CDs

What could be better to look into this Valentine's week than a musical giant box of candy in the form of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and then a few albums of romantic classics? One includes the inevitable "My Funny Valentine" by Rodgers & Hart, two include their "Where or When," and two feature the up-close-and-personal "The Nearness of You," while all three have something by Irving Berlin. We find Love Lost and Found, Lost in Romance along with the simply-stated invitation, Let's Fall in Love. But, first, let's fall into a vat of chocolate.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
2013 LONDON CAST

Watertower Musics

Often rollicking and rambunctious, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's latest musical incarnation is alternately madcap or marshmallow-mushy soft and sweet. So, what do we get with its messages valuing creativity when it comes "Second Nature," that something very special is a case where it takes faith; that "It Must Be Seen to Be Believed," and where the good guy (and the polite one in a sour bunch) wins the ultimate prize? We get quality chocolate that's actually good for you. The referenced songs are highlights of life-affirming and life-embracing attitudes which are deftly witten and performed, both highlights adding weight to the confection and crazed cacophony elsewhere in the score. Based on Roald Dahl's classic novel, already musicalized for a film score and then recently as an opera, this wild and warm version succeeds brilliantly on disc. Composer Marc Shaiman's musical styles and tempi smartly capture the personalities and energies of the various contrasting characters, and his lyrics co-written with Scott Wittman are full of fun and mischievous merriment. (The 27-track CD's accompanying booklet gives the sung and spoken words, bits of plot synopsis as we go along, and photos indicating a grand and lavish production/set.) The Hairspray duo again brings major fun, flair and some sarcasm to the stage, while parading their pastiche with a taste of Dahl's irreverence that can seem devilishly cavalier, and no shortage of selfish characters. As in his Matilda, charging through British and Broadway playhouses, the playful Dahl sensibility is not without its darker side and willingness to paint some children and their adult guardians as less than innocent and kindly.

Seemingly a hyperbolic Mad Hatter-ish loose cannon himself, Willy Wonka is portrayed in a superb tour de force performance by Douglas Hodge (La Cage aux Folles's flamboyant Zaza in its revival). Taking the role as his own, fearlessly, he shines, especially in the super-fast-paced delight in which he gets ahead of his tongue and mixes up words and then almost instantly corrects himself ("Strike That, Reverse It"). Rather than being exhausting, it's exhilarating. Bustling, bossy, and brash, he's in full command throughout, and quite effective when he lets down his guard and shows his sentimental side.

In the show, the children's roles are each shared among three or four youngsters, and one lucky lad or lass gets to do it for disc. Jack Costello is consistently warm-and-fuzzy on target as title character Charlie (the movie version made Wonka the titular one, but it's the same tale) is the epitome of optimistic, appreciative, well-behaved child. He's caringly family-oriented, non-complaining despite hardships, and his songs bring out those points: gentle or peppy. Contrastingly, there are amusingly nutty, noisy numbers for the four spoiled kids and their parents who, along with Charlie, win a group tour through the amazing factory. Seeking candy but instead hilariously getting their just desserts for their greed, their fates are also terrifically turned to song and dialogue (David Greig) in spot on, concise moments. And their parents are entertaining, too, especially the heavily accented, polka-ready mom from Bavaria, the yodeling Mrs. Gloop (Jasna Ivir) who embraces the reality of child obesity in "More of Him to Love," explaining the situation "So mit strudel he'd canoodle/ How he loved my pretzel pie/ He ate the whole kit and caboodle/ And grew wide as well as high"), as does her son who can eat 50 Wonka chocolate bars or the animals the family raises (pigs, of course) at a sitting. The young actor on the recording joyfully joins in, singing with relish ("I enjoy a healthy meal/ Yes, my outside's soft and flabby/ But my inside's made of steel," Jenson Steele proudly proclaims.) Frantically making excuses for her own little sociopath violent-prone TV/video games addict child, Iris Roberts is a hoot as the tightly wound suburban lady trying to be gracious for the inquiring media. And so it goes, with the two uber-bratty girls even more coddled and enabled.

Unnecessarily, as I hear it, the powers that be insisted on borrowing the lovely "Pure Imagination" from Leslie Bricusse's earlier (film) score for the story. As long as it's here, it's nice to hear, and the familiar endorsement of wonder is indeed wonderfully sung by Hodge and young Costello. It doesn't upstage a very competent whirlwind set of splashy and spunky songs by Shaiman and WIttman, which is balanced here and there by their own sensitive sensibilities, such as is heard in the wistful "If Your Mother Were Here" and the torch-passing "A Little Me." Their work is a satisfying treat that does the trick.

BARBARA LEVY DANIELS
LOVE LOST AND FOUND

No one will accuse Barbara Levy Daniels of being a self-indulgent drama queen with her Valentine heart worn on her sleeve. It took me a while to find my way into Love Lost and Found, its first few tracks making me think that the proceedings would be so offhand as to be diffident, maybe for the sake of being different. The second piece, "Say It Isn't So," feels approached so coolly that the singer might as well be referring to some trivial news about a cancelled picnic rather than the hearsay that her lover had turned cold and had "somebody new." Barbara Levy Daniels' voice is perhaps misleadingly small-scaled, her sometimes laconic delivery with emotion revealed as if rationed and notes not sustained or resonant. But there's more going on than perhaps meets the ear at first. Is she being subtle, affecting a self-protective stance, or just registering for classes in the once-popular Cool School of jazz vocalists who briskly made their way through songs with rarely a tear or exultant joy on display? Sensitivity comes with "I Got Lost in His Arms" from Annie Get Your Gun, this ballad by Irving Berlin (who also wrote "Say It Isn't So") does show out-and-out vulnerability and contentment. While such complete investment in lyrics is uneven on the CD, it has other things to offer. Since the selections are all familiar standards, it's obvious on most tracks that something else is a priority: She tends to find new shadings in lyrics by shifting the emphasis of the usually stressed words. Bending notes to do so, rather than lingering over words, she shifts the focus, often in surprisingly refreshing ways. Where we're used to a verb being emphasized, she leans on a noun or vice-versa. Pretty soon, it becomes intriguing, a subtly alternate universe of meaning in some classic songs, artfully so rather than gimmicky or forced. This seems to be her strong suit.

Besides the underplayed but oddly commanding approach, what brings this recording to a high level is the superb work by the musicians in a quintet. Pianist/arranger John DiMartino, always an inventive and often cerebral pianist, is at his best and most interesting here. In big and small ways, he accents, supports and compensates, his solos and accompaniment always fresh and involving. He's fascinating to listen to and follow. Cornetist Warren Vaché adds much to the moody moments, atmosphere a specialty. There is real teamwork here.

"Where or When" sustains interest by leaving space between sung phrases, suggesting she needs the time taken, pausing to indeed be trying to figure out what's going on in the déjà vu situation. And, at the end, she lets her voice briefly float up into some purer, higher notes that reveal more range than was shown before this 10th of 13 tracks. It's followed by a take-your-time (almost five minutes) stroll through "The Nearness of You," where I appreciated her judicious changes and unique takes more and more.

LYN STANLEY
LOST IN ROMANCE

A.T. Music

In the best moments of Lyn Stanley's debut CD, Lost in Romance, she's at her best when she really seems to be lost in the velvety moods of romance. At other times, she doesn't come off as lost in the lush, but cautiously tip-toeing, studied in her phrasing and enunciation-with, I suspect, the best of intentions to get a handle on the song at hand. Being relaxed and natural is easier said than sung. Case in point: most of "The Nearness of You," with its tender and somewhat quaint verse included ("... My heart's in a dither, dear ...") is appealing. Its intimacy is intimated by a cozy approach that occasionally seems tentative. The track is enhanced by the fine and graceful shaping by pianist/arranger Tamir Hendelman (one of a few sharing those duties on the CD). But then there are the distractions. On this classic, why change Ned Washington's lyric from "if you'll only grant me the right to hold you ever so tight" to "if you only ask for the right to hold me ever so tight"? Such liberties are taken in a bigger way on George Harrison's "Something"; a wholesale lyric approach change from referring to the lover in the third person to addressing that person directly in the second-person form ("Something in the way you move ..." "I don't want to leave you now" which then blend together with the existing lines that were in the "you" form, like "You're asking me will my love grow ...").

When her voice opens up, and Lyn Stanley throws some caution to the wind, things sound more natural and free. But, without an overall specific personality or style approach coming to the fore, she sounds like she's trying to be a chameleon, trying on musical costumes from a random collection that don't all fit. There isn't much comfort in "Too Close for Comfort," as she becomes literal, switching to a sudden whisper on the word "soft" in the line, "Be soft, be sweet." The looseness of the jazz musicians on such tracks only underscores her stiffness. But there are rewarding respites: her take on "Fever" is refreshing, owing much less to the famed Peggy Lee approach that most singers fall into. She has her own brand of sultriness that can come when she's laidback. A nicely languid "You Go to My Head" suits her well. There's also some vocal strength in her work; I'd like to hear her belt and see what happens.

Album producer/sometime arranger Steve Rowlins' approach to Follies's "Losing My Mind" is rather schizophrenic, going from an uninvolved report of activities to a melodramatic anguished whisper at the end: "You said you loved me!" On this and other numbers, an annoying and persistent, quick click-click-click percussive beat on some numbers mars them, resembling a metronome's beat or the kind of beat that would be a guide for a karaoke-style accompaniment. It's stated in the packaging that the singer is a competitive ballroom dancer and tracks are being re-edited and shortened to use as possible accompaniment to such contests. Maybe this priority/sensibility explains some of the odd choices and strict rhythms. For an emotional lyric, as many of these standards are, it seems a misguided notion.

The album is bookended by its highlights—songs about dancing: Irving Berlin's "Change Partners" and a pleasing and graceful take on the Van Heusen/Cahn "The Last Dance" (with the rarely heard introductory verse). These emphasize her other interest, which perhaps should have been the consistent theme for the album. Otherwise, Lost in Romance too often presents a songstress in search of a comfort zone. When she lands there, it's a good place.

NORM DRUBNER
LET'S FALL IN LOVE

In his fourth album of Great American Songbook oldies, Norm Drubner settles into an affable, decidedly unpretentious style. The modest-voiced balladeer has a nice way about him and sincerity and an appreciation/respect for the classic material informs the outing. Hardly groundbreaking in approach, the fellow comes across as Mr. Nice Guy who is comfortable, but not to the point of showing off and calling attention to himself, as vocalist or persona. You can guess that he loves to sing the great songs and is easy to have around. Drubner's pleasing timbre reminds me of a very young Rod McKuen, a gentle presence unafraid of being a true old-fashioned romantic. What is first and foremost is—in a word—sincerity.

Music director/pianist Nick Bariluk leads half a dozen colleagues in arrangements that follow in a traditional mode but have their own sweet freshness. But the whole endeavor is pretty low-key, though certainly pretty. It's nostalgic without feeling forced or manipulative in the least.

Opening with Irving Berlin's "Isn't This a lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain?)" instantly establishes him as an ingratiating gentleman who'd welcome romance. Of course, the title song takes it the next convincing step, as he asks, encouragingly but without being pushy, "Let's fall in love/ Why shouldn't we fall in love?/ Our hearts are made of it." And his heart does seem to be made of it. While this relaxed recital suggests a summer day in a hammock with a lemonade more than anything setting off sparks or bursting with originality, it's pleasant and unforced. The dreamy Drubner sensibility is perhaps at his finest with the two Rodgers & Hart numbers: a wistful "Where or When" that steers clear of its metaphysical mysteries, and the Valentine's Day standby, a devoted "My Funny Valentine" that could make you smile with your heart.


- Rob Lester


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