Sound Advice Reviews
Belatedly, Best of the Batch
We've typically had my favorites Top Ten Cast Recordings column comfortably in January. I'm indeed quite late this year, due to unusual circumstances. But it doesn't reflect on the enthusiasm I feel for these choices when I finally caught up with a growing CD pile and finally caught my breath, too. Here they are, in alphabetical order (I don't do a ranking) for the items previously reviewed (with recaps here) and those I hadn't touted before (full reviews of those to com). As always, it's an unapologetically personal list of scores that work with lasting power as recordings (among those submitted for review), regardless of the actual project's profile, commercial success, or issues and elements of productions not evident on what's been preserved for listeners' ears.
THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ
Review to come.
CLOSE TO YOU
With Burt Bacharach's music, as represented by many hits (especially in his 1960s heyday with a string of singles with Dionne Warwick as singer and Hal David as lyricist), one can't really overestimate the importance and impact of the detailed, tight arrangements and accompaniment figures. The composer was often the arranger/conductor and in the producer's booth. And the distinctively percolating rhythmic figures also contributed to making these elements seem indivisible from the basic melody line and lyric content these decorative elements were hung on. It was by no means a bad thing, but they could be thought of a more catchy, well-produced records. If production elements overshadowed basic material, it's like very cleverly, highly decorated Christmas trees where you almost don't see the trees for the foreground (shiny, distractingly distinctive delights). So iconic and polished, with recognizable signature touches, "cover" records trying different paths sometimes felt drained of energy and spark (or sparkle). I say all this to emphasize the thrill of re-discovery through the truly Reimagined re-inventing of material in the Close to You revue, represented by its London cast album. Coming to this songbook fresh, starting the ball rolling for this at age 22, the conquering hero is Kyle Riabko as mastermind and as one of several performers in the stage piece. No newbie to the stage, he's been in Hair and Spring Awakening. His voice is rich with emotions and is immediately and consistently compelling.
The risks of major changes pay off handsomely and the songs have "grown up," often revealing dramatic depth previously untapped to anything near this level. There's a theatricality and we are happily more focused on the emotion in the lyrics where once we probably were more inclined to bob our heads up and down to the beats and bounce. Note that the singers often do double duty as band members. The double disc devotes space to some demos showing alternate inventionsinteresting samples of Riabko's works-in-progress stage. And he's still close to Close to You, bringing the material to Joe's Pub in Greenwich Village this month (remaining show, February 19).
The outstanding The Landing is intriguing on its own merits, as well as evidence of the welcome fresh match for John Kander's music via lyricist Greg Pierce. The shoes of Kander's multi-decade prolific partner, the late Fred Ebb, are daunting ones to fill. On the basis of this often gentle and/or quirky worka set of three shorter pieces, recorded in their entirety with the dialoguewe can say that comparing the two wordsmiths is an apples versus oranges and, thus needless, task. Pierce seemingly brings out a more layered wistfulness and elusively bittersweet side to Kander's melodic gifts. The buoyant show-biz specialties with splash and flash are not what we get here. But in each story, with oddities most pronounced in a vignette about a talking brick, there are emotions that soar or sob through the plots. Loneliness, sometimes yearning and proudly unconventional people are ones we get to know in affectionate portraits and lively dialogue. Family is a focus. Humor is not absent, but it can be tinged with a lingering melancholy that tugs at the heart. The "title" tale has a metaphysical theme. The impact of the whole is cumulatively much more than the sum of the many parts. There are many very brief tracks. These can be more like mini-slices of life, rather than numbers that build and climax, Kander melody that tends to meander (at first hearing) and have no interest in being catchy and some lyrics that are sung conversation about seemingly mundane (at first hearing); they become endearing.
A small repertory cast fills multiple roles in each mini-musical, whose original (very original, I'd say) story ideas are also Kander/Pierce collaborative efforts. One of the actors is David Hyde Pierce, alumnus of the Kander & Ebb Curtains; and there's no need to trumpet or hide Pierce relationsthe writer is the performer's nephew. The lyrics in some instances are appropriately plain, functional, and not stuffed with attention-grabbers. Others are poignant, while still others are satirical digs at people and TV huckstering. Some indulge in playfulness and thick, fun rhyming (... And the fight and the rain/ And the night/ And the sin and the gin/ And the gang and the gun/ And the fun ..."). Smart and sophisticated even when seemingly silly or dwelling on humdrum daily life's minutiae, the lyrics gain elevation and mystique with Kander's knack of dressing them with emotional tugs and a sense of unresolved questions lingering in the air. I wasand amfascinated.
What a hoot! Here's a sweet valentine to old-school musical theatrewith spice. Hello, Dolly!, that terrific musical comedy about to return to Broadway again, was originally written with Ethel Merman in mind and the brash star to finally say "OK" to taking on the role she'd turned down to be the final Dolly of the original production to insure breaking the record for longest run. That part is true, and the rest (besides bits of Ethel's career references and using some other real-life characters of the time) is more than "fake news"it's a fantasy filled with LOL funniness. The invention of the team of lyricist/bookwriter/concert director Stephen Cole (a fan who became the legend's friend late in her life) and composer David Evans, it imagines what would have happened if another admirer, a stage-struck adolescent, met her idol when she was rehearsing Dolly! and was taken under her wing and into her world. The songs, an ideal balance of show biz pastiche and clever, original ideas for plot numbers with wit (and a change-of-pace tender moment where Merm murmurs thoughts about her own daughter who had died).
Merman's sass and public persona are on full display, as is a strong echo of her big singing voice/style/ticks (and her speaking voice, too), thanks to the appropriately bright bulldozer of a characterization by Klea Blackhurst. She's a mega-aficionado whose breakthrough cabaret act was a tribute to her fave and she's since taken on some of her roles in productions, including Dolly. A highlight for me is having Ethel's loving parents included as characters who have a hilarious number explaining how, throughout her life, their beloved daughter was always very "Loud." What makes it extra effective is that Anita Gillette and P.J. Benjamin portray them both as contrastingly very soft-spoken and shy.
The recording uses the cast seen (by myself among the other satisfied, laughing and cheering customers) at Birdland, but was done in a recording studio. It's a wonderful flashback to a chapter that, mostly, never wasand, with events like the inexperienced kid herself stepping into the role on Broadwayhighly unlikely, but highly likeable.
A NEW BRAIN
Treasured record label PS Classics brought us a new and fuller version of A New Brain, composer-lyricist William Finn's partially autobiographical musical about a very serious subject. Yes, as the title suggests, it's actually a protagonist's possibly terminal brain condition that the story revolves around. While it's not an obvious topic for laughs, both dark humor and character-driven comedy often share the spotlight between heavier moments. The fictional Gordon fits factual Finn descriptions as being a songwriter who is gay. And like a main character in the recently revived Falsettos, he has a significant other and some scenes take place in the hospital as he faces his sad and scary fate of likely death, in that case due to AIDS. The New York City Center Encores! cast brings a rich rendition of the weighty and witty material. Jonathan Groff is sympathetic and engaging as Gordon, whose success on a kiddie TV show with the head honcho also a playing a singing frogthe program's staris not his dream career. Christian Borle very delightfully does the bossy/amphibian honors, hopping in to replace the unavailable Encores!-cast actor, Dan Fogler.) Aaron Lazar is effective as his lover and Ana Gasteyer is a strong presence as Gordon's mom. Finn's feistiness in giving life to characters staring down death, without quite being able to put all other baggage on hold, brings out the very human complexities and flaws in each person, and the piece as performed with such commitment has integrity, is involving and gutsy.
In the world according to Finn's created play and playground, one can't expect the expected or idealized in people. Medical staff can be unsympathetic, a seriously ill man with loved ones devotedly at his bedside doesn't let go of his sarcastic side, and sometimes a frog is the wisest of all (at least in a dream sequence). So the payoff is that while getting swept up in the saga, we get some sober motivation in the category of carpe diem, as gravitas gives way to gratitude. We get a jolting reminder of the fragility of the gift of being alive on "borrowed time" that should be used well. It's potent rather than pat preachiness due to the command of language shown in the lyric-writingperhaps appearing at times to be quite dense or flip. Appreciation and examination are made easier as the words are all there in a booklet. This is true craft.
And A New Brain is valued medicine.
THE RED EYE OF LOVE
Review to come.
SHE LOVES ME
I know I'm in a rather big group of like-minded musical theatre buffs who have long considered Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's She Loves Me score to be one of the most satisfying, with its generous number of songs that are always super-satisfying to return to. There's marvelous variety in these superbly constructed items that allow singing actors to sink their teeth into and shine. One more cast album, thanks to the recent Broadway revival, is one more solid series of performances, thanks to the talents of this particular company. Once again we can relish Bock's appealing melodies, which are not rationed to just big moments; the incidental piece "No More Candy" that describes the "functional candy box" for sale at the shop where most of the characters work is a little gem of memorable music. Leading lady Laura Benanti aces this and the ballads with her silvery soprano, sympathetic and not syrupy or insipid. She's convincing when vulnerable and when assertive or defensive. Especially in the title song, Zachary Levi brings energy to the co-worker she's at odds withfor a while, anyway. Another very welcome casting choice doing a fine job is Gavin Creel as the stuck-up heel stuck on himself, and his creamy-smooth vocals make his courting number, "Ilona," soar. Nicholas Barash impresses me in his exuberant "Try Me" as the eager boyish member of the shop's staff.
The crispness of the orchestrations punctuating the music also bring out the Harnick rhymes and power of well-chosen words sitting on notes so ideally to give them color and emotionor humor. Well before characters fall in love, we have fallen in love with them and with care lavished upon the graceful material by the singer-actors. While quite respectfully approached, many numbers have nuances and attitudes different than what's heard in other versions, so it feels fresh instead of slavishly cloned or robotic. I don't love all choices and liberties taken as being ideal, but they are valid and defensible and this invigorating take on She Loves Me is rewarding and often rapturous.
TALES OF TINSELTOWN
Hooray for Hollywoodnot so much the movies of today, but the escapist escapades that were the 1930s cheer-me-up musicals in the Great Depression. Fluffy and fleet, films came off as innocent and carefree, calculated and formulaic variations on success formulas though they often were. With loving peppy parody and pastiche to emulate the excesses of the cardboard characters and the stars who played them and the powers that be behind the scenes, Tales of Tinseltown tickles and teases. Lyricist/ bookwriter Michael Colby with a big supply of clever rhymes and composer Paul Katz with period/place-evoking tunes have been working on and reworking this material on and off for decades and had productions; their belated recording hits all the right notes. High energy and insouciance are great partners here, too. The story of stars and movers and shakers in the movie world is often over the top in the best kind of way. But it's got more on its mind in presenting mindless entertainment whipped up by studio heads than just whipping up what could pass for the old "real thing." No, there's a point of view, a wise guy wink, a knowing exaggeration to mock with love rather than scorn.
As presented, the recording is a field day for fearless female singer-actors with entrenched comedy skills. The oh-so-savvy Christina Bianco gets and grabs a great showcase for her strengths. As the far-from-Hollywood farm girl plucked for screen stardom, she gets to be wide-eyed dreamy, determined, display her big voice, do impressions (of farm animals!), and punch up every punch line and milk jokes instead of cows. Klea Blackhurst brings her gusto and confidence to great advantage. Harriet Harris, that master of the sneer and snippy line readings of ladies with a superiority complex turns in another deliciously biting performance as a gossip columnist who loves her power. Alison Fraser, who was in one of Tinseltown's mountings, is just right as the veteran movie queen with attitude and a sense of entitlement. Remarkably, songs styles and absurd dance numbers are skewered and shown as ludicrously dumb, but are so catchy, crazy, or cute that they captivate despite being intentionally dopey. Wanna hear an all-stops-out production number that should have been stopped, when supposedly some misguided mogul thought a dance number inspired by the popularity of Tarzan movies would be a wise move? I rest my casethis is entertainingly nutty.
Review to come.
Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller are the songwriting team capturing the right tones and shades for this lovely, evocative, sometimes emotionally haunting adaptation of a fantasy novel. The Casey Nicholaw-helmed production's needed world-of-its-own and mysterious qualities come through in the recording. The main focus: What life is like for those who've had the opportunity to drink from a fountain of youth that works its miraclethe pluses and the minuses. The Tuck family didn't know this would happen, but a young girl they encounter does (Sarah Charles Lewis, enchantingly playing a character who is ever unpredictable, keeping us guessing). The big choice: Should she go for it and remain her current age for eternity? Would you? The charming-as-usual, charismatic Andrew Keenan-Bolger's embodiment of the good-spirited Tuck teen would be temptation that would be understandable for a first love that would never grow old. And the shining integrity and depth that Carolee Carmello brings to her roles makes the mother mighty worthwhile company. Her big spotlight number, "My Beautiful Day," presents a unique way of looking at time as does a piece that simply is called "Time" and sung movingly by Robert Lenzi. There's much ethereal and delicate beauty here, enhanced by especially fortuitously sympathetic orchestrations and vocal harmonies. But there's also room for an almost out-and-out vaudevillian turn and a menacing number for other folks that surprisingly don't feel out of bounds.
An unbelievably impossible world becomes something a listener is willing to accept as the show's reality because that world is created and explored. Actors inhabit their roles, and one buys into it, ready to not exactly step into this odd "reality," but curious and satisfied to observe it and reflect upon the Tucks' reflections and worries. The songs and how they're sung make this a listening experience that radiates beauty and unusual but worthy perspectives. Notably, what happens is that these perspectives so specific to the experiences we'll never have can affect us in subtle and unconscious ways because the feelings the Tucks have are still familiar, even though they're magnified. So the foreign specifics become generalized. Connection follows. Thinking we're at a safe distance because of the other-worldliness, the impact can sneak up and sneak into our hearts and minds. The power of this Tuck Everlasting effect is one that lingers on. To recapture it, a return trip to that world by listening again to the tracks is a heady experience I'm happy to head back to. May I point the way?
POLKADOTS: THE COOL KIDS MUSICAL
Review to come.