Sound Advice Reviews
Brigadoon and Hundred Days
"Time is precious stuff," as they sing in On the Town's "Some Other Time." And we're told that "the days dwindle down to a precious few" in "September Song" (Knickerbocker Holiday). And Rent considers how to "measure a year" in "Seasons of Love." Love is definitely in season and time is definitely of the essence in two musicalsone classic, one recentwith cast recordings to consider listening to as ways of spending your time. Both are from Ghostlight Records.
Recorded and released in 2018, which marked the 100-year anniversary of the birth of lyricist-bookwriter Alan Jay Lerner, we can celebrate the latest recording of the show about the village that comes to life only one day each 100 years. Brigadoon is a mighty marvel of a score, full of rich songs by Lerner and his composer collaborator Frederick Loewe, whose most celebrated work, My Fair Lady, is currently holding forth again on Broadway, while Lerner's lower-profile musicals, mostly with other melodists, are enjoying re-examination at Manhattan's York Theatre. The unabashedly romantic fantasy of Brigadoon is resplendently revisited in Ghostlight's recording with the 2017 cast of a City Center mounting in the same metropolis where Lerner lived and diedalso where his male travelers were before and after their excursion to the misty, mystical Scottish village.
The sumptuous, respectful, but quite "alive" performances should please long-time admirers of the score. No, you may not find anything much that's illuminating in making you hear things in a new way. It's quite traditional and safe, without being stodgy or stuffy. To the contrary, it's vibrant and bursting with zest and sincere sweetness. The big, full orchestra conducted by the reliable Rob Berman working with Ted Royal's original orchestrations (with some additional work by Josh Clayton) sounds sublime and is a major plus in clear, detailed sounda huge asset that could be a deciding factor for those who have tended to buy more than one recording of this score in the course of the last 100 years. The 17-track souvenir has generous amounts of the dance music that is pure pleasure to hear. Missing from the original 1947 score, however, are a "Funeral Dance," the brief scene-setting sung narrative "Once in the Highlands," and the group vocal number "Jeannie's Packing Up." But what we have is, without exception, well done and well worth the re-acquaintance (or, for latecomers to the magic, well worth discovering; if you only know the movie version starring Gene Kelly, you might not know the songs cut from that).
Broadway's perennially employed Kelli O'Hara brings her luscious soprano to the lovely numbers for the character of Fiona, the old-school operetta-esque style allowing her to more fully unfurl the more "legit" side of her opera-trained voice than in some other roles. As Tommy, who falls in love with her, Patrick Wilson offers a more casual, scaled-back, and sometimes conversational approach. But when he opts for more vocal heft, the bigger sound is attractive; some will appreciate the choices as judicious calibration, but I would have loved more "big" voice on these grand melodies. However, the contrast does underscore the difference in their backgrounds: the more "old-fashioned" sound for the sheltered female existing in a kind of time warp against the modern-day, colloquial city dweller. Their duets on "The Heather on the Hill" and "Almost Like Being in Love" suggest sweet chemistry and peak sublimely. And their solos are certainly effective and quite convincing, too.
Stephanie J. Block is fun and feisty as the comic relief character of Meg, showing skillful attentiveness to some tricky, tongue-twisting and/or fleet (and lusty) lyrics without sounding labored. The words fly. Her two pieces, "The Love of My Life" about her numerous brief encounters with men and the longer laundry list of guests on "My Mother's Wedding Day," are done with spunk and relish.
Brigadoon's elegantly yearning "Come to Me, Bend to Me," highlighting its unabashed longing, is particularly strong here, with on-target vocal and characterization by Ross Lekites as shortly to be married Charlie. The chorus is generally fine and full-sounding, although occasionally a solo line will feel a bit overdone and perhaps in choral or even solo selections, those who don't know or recall some of the lyrics will have a bit of trouble due to the accents or language choices. (Aye, perhaps ye dinna' know what be meant?) But never fear, the lyrics and included dialogue are all in the booklet, which also has a plot synopsis, a historical perspective essay, and a slew of color photos.
The challenge with this musical is to trust the material, not wink at it, but rather to let us accept the hard-to-believe magical spell that makes a mysterious village disappear for a century at a time. Further, we must get swept up in the idea that the residents age just a day with each reawakening and yet are aware of all of this. The successful rendition, like this one directed by Christopher Wheeldon, eschews coyness and corniness, aiming to neither overdo nor run from its belief in the viability of its "impossible" premise or its promise that true love can come quickly and have the power it displays at the end of the show. As Fiona's unwavering faith proclaims in "Waitin' for My Dearie," the same simple statement must be the mantra: "For ye see: I believe."
Fear of abandonment, past traumas, and seemingly prophetic dreams combine to form fears that a newly met and besotted couple's romantic bliss will be short lived: just one Hundred Days, to be specific. The forecast: Death will come a-calling. Assuming the timetable is correct, should they part quickly instead of facing what would be greater, drawn-out pain? Or stay together, finding ways to relish each moment, pack a lifetime of memories into those days and weeks, celebrating everything (even re-assigning holidays to somewhere in the inclusive period)? The man and woman in our story choose to travel the latter road (but not without some bumps).
This presentation, recorded in a studio in front of a live audience (with some applause and laughter heard on a few tracks) feels like a psychological roller coaster with occasional pauses for humor or sly commentary. (I wish there were more.) Abigail and Shaun Bengson's characters being musicians, their meeting at a rehearsal and a "love at first sight" high-speed courtship (three weeks before marriage) make for history repeating itself in the plot. Passion and paranoia co-star in this high-stakes dramatic swirl of ardor and anguish. Don't expect easy-going casualness.
The piece has been described as falling into various genres/styles: rock opera, folk punk, and indie. It's certainly eclectic and fearless, alternately visceral and delicate. Still, there's not such a grab-bag as to make it feel like it's suffering from an identity crisis. Nevertheless, emotional crisis after emotional crisis come careening along, with rewarding respite of aching tenderness in the form of striking, gossamer harmonies. When feelings and worries escalate to the fever point (and beyond), Abigail's high-octane lung power can span the spectrum from whimper to cry of pain to intense wailing to primal scream. A little of the off-the-charts hurt-via-howling goes a long way, and there's more than a little, but it mostly comes off as genuinely felt catharsis rather than self-indulgent, attention-demanding posturing. Shaun's singing and persona are quite the contrast, being far more easygoing, calm and cool in comparison. But the mutual affection, both physical attraction and poetic devotion, radiate from both in soulful, unhesitating expression.
For me, the more subtle performance moments by any parties here are the most effective. Rather frequently, musical numbers stay in a hypnotic and ethereal zone. When that happens, it's captivating and the spell that's cast helps achieve the agenda the characters have set: to make time stretch, thoughts and feelings hanging in the air, in suspended animation. For a while, with more space and minimal accompaniment, we are mesmerized and frozen, rather than driven by throbbing sounds. Yes, less is indeed more when we aren't awash with dominant guitars (Jo Lampert and both Bengsons) and we stop stomping our feet or bobbing our heads to the aggressive beating of the drums (Abigail or percussionist Dani Markham) or fervent playing of band members' accordions, keyboards, cello, crotales (sets of pitched cymbals).
The lyric-writing craft is hit and miss, with some false rhymes or banal images weakening the art. Pithy lines (like "I will be your shade tree" in their wedding "Vows" and "I thought love was supposed to make things easier/ Now love is a 'Long Goodbye'") sit side by side with mega-repetition that adds little but being a bridge or filler (such as "Hey hey hey hey hey" or "Oh Oh Oh Oooo"). Sometimes it's a song's title that's invoked over and over: the title line of "Lift Me" is heard 16 times; "Lie Next to Me" repeats that four-word request seven times in a row. Included in the score is the attractive "Bells," the first song the couple wrote together, pre-dating the idea of this musical (it rhymes the town of Astoria with "Gloria"). Metaphors range from the rather elegant ("My Skin Is Made of a Thousand Doors") to the squirm-worthy image of comparing oneself to a "Three-Legged Dog" ("I'm a dog in a trap/ Gonna chew off my foot/ And leave it behind").
Shaun and (especially) Abigail Bengson powerfully dominate the proceedings, but their four colleagues do some heavy lifting, too. In the frequently haunting score, highlights include the title song, the ominous but magnetic performance of "Creature" featuring cast member/musician Reggie D. White, and "Marching in the Wrong Parade," confronting religious doctrine, with the spotlight on Jo Lambert.
The Bengsons have been developing the piece for several years and performed in each of its incarnations (including two in California, two in New York City, and their current tour which at this writing finds them in two Florida venues). Art imitates life to a varying degree, depending on which version of this musical you may have seen; it started out as more fiction and now the co-stars/co-songwriters, married in real life for more than a decade, have changed the lovers' names to match their own. If you're up for some downbeat drama, navigating harrowing experiences, or opt to be a more removed emotional voyeur, Hundred Days offers opportunities for emotional release. Please note that, while palpable pain could be the price paid for coming along, the path may lead to exultation and shared joy by the end of a Hundred Daysaccomplished for the listener in far less than one hundred minutes of play.