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Mary & Marlene: Special Singers

In the world of female vocalists, there are many types and here are two who have quite different appeal. Both are veterans as performers in their own fields. Mary Testa is a Broadway and Off-Broadway actress with a strong presence and strong background whose presence on recordings until now has been restricted to cast albums and concerts such as the Broadway by the Year series at The Town Hall in New York City which resumes this Monday. Marlene VerPlanck is a sublime-voiced jazz-oriented singer who, on the other hand, has released many gem-like albums over the years.


Sh-K-Boom Records

What we have in Have Faith is anything but a run-of-the-mill solo album by a Broadway leading lady rolling out a bunch of classic show tunes. Eclectic and adventurous, full of surprising twists and turns, Mary Testa's album with formidable musical Renaissance man Michael Starobin takes chances. Whether some risks will result in more of a pay-off or prove to be more of a turn-off will depend on each listener. Certainly it's not an album for purists (Carousel's "If I Loved You" is radically reinvented and paired with a piece far outside its genre which gets the prime focus: "Unravel" from the world of the artist Bjork).

While intensity is largely the order of the day, stage veteran Testa in her belated debut solo album is very much impressively the chameleon. She's a larger-than-life presence bordering on the ferocious that can induce goosebumps. However, the attack at times can risk the possibility of the personality and vocal power overwhelming the material. With Starobin's musical acumen and creativity, things feel decisive and daring, and the lady is up for the challenges.

What feels riveting and room-filling thrilling in person can sometimes hit the ear as shrill and claustrophobically enveloping on disc. Lusty and commanding, the earthy vocalist stakes claim on all her material. But, rather than opt for one-flavor steamroller style, there's more intelligence hovering and taking hold. The priorities listed in the mantra of "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" is infused with a gravitas true to its message, showing it can be delivered in this day and age with non-flippant directness. Absent its cliché sermon-like approach or mindless sunny bounce, its simple philosophy and non-materialism values emerge. "The sweet things in life to you were just loaned/ So how can you lose what you never owned?"

Michael John LaChiusa, the theatre composer-lyricist who has been a key figure on Testa's resumé, is represented by three tracks. With this, we're reminded of the broad palette of the writer as well as the breadth of the singer-actress's range. She immerses herself in each character, owning it from head to toe without the gear shifts being obvious or labored. Testa digs in and the most startling of Starobin's ideas can be riveting. His detailed and emotion-sculpting orchestrations have been key factors in characterizing and accenting theatre scores for many years (LaChiusa, Sondheim, Finn, to the recent Kitt/Yorkey powerhouses). He contributes involving and original orchestrations; the arrangements themselves are credited to both him and the singer. Instrumental congregations vary, keeping the album switching gears and grooves from track to track. While the sequencing of the numbers might have used some re-thinking for flow and build, this patchwork is richly textured.

Although it may be overexposed by this time, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is a suitable cool-down ending after much drama. But, in the hands of these two creative souls, it maintains its mix of morose lamenting and hope. For me, the album's highlight is the most touching interpretation: The story-song "Sister Clarissa" about a memorably devoted nun schoolteacher (by Michael Smith) is deeply etched in detail where the specific feels universal. It's superb storytelling with calibrated nostalgia and wistfulness. No corn involved. And, while not everything on Have Faith may be your cup of tea, I think there's enough that's involving and thought-provoking to be up there with the more refreshingly intelligent recent releases. And hooray for the musical stimulation and lyric interpretation that doesn't skim the surface.


Audiophile Records

While the liner notes trace the singer's career and make me realize that the new year will mark the 60th anniversary of her first recording session (!), the buoyant, piping sound of Marlene VerPlanck's voice might make a newcomer get to Google for verification. Her oft-mentioned clarity and superb intonation have made this veteran a favorite of musicians and songwriters as well as lovers of good songs. Known also for her taste in picking from the classics and seeking out new material from old souls, Marlene's work is welcome always. I Give Up, I'm in Love is no exception to the happy rule. Like other unfussy singers who don't wear the drama queen crown, and can't be accused of being self-indulgently showy, she might be too easy on the ears and emotions for some. I'm a very long-time admirer of her discs and live appearances, but VerPlanck might be said to be one who warmly embraces her material rather than throwing herself into it with abandon or intense theatricality. While her approach can be appealingly breezy or reserved, emotion comes through along with true skill, honed and decisive. There's such a supreme ease with musicians and tempi that the nestled-in teamwork shines while still feeling very much alive and spontaneous.

At times, the craft of the songwriting and musicianship (hers and the band members') seems more the main event than the full potential of a lyric's heart-tugging impact. Projected serenity and a distanced observation can make one's experience be not so much getting immersed in the specific story of the piece, but rather we are more aware that she is singing with great professionalism and aplomb. But, with such an artist with this kind of bright sound, excellent diction, and comfort level, the broader-stroked emotions suffice. While she and her arrangements might seem blithely offhand, they are always refreshing and don't get bogged down in bathos. While Marlene's version of Stephen Sondheim's "Good Thing Going" is not going to win the prize for bringing out its bittersweet regrets, the surprisingly cooler treatment, with even some head-voiced scatting, has its own charms. The same writer's "So Many People" is more of a revelation. It often comes off as the exclusive property of one kind of person—typically young, awed by the intensity of young love experienced as rare, dismissing the average man as being jealous or scoffing. With a less superior air, it's far more mature and truly appreciative of the revered relationship. No jazzy swirls and dips with this one.

Accompaniment comes from three sessions with different groups. There are small-group settings led by one of two pianists with past Marlene mileage. They are Tedd Firth and Mike Renzi (both with Ron Vincent on drums, Jay Leonhart on bass with Firth, and David Finck doing those duties with Renzi) and a big band headed by Glenn Franke, one of its trombonists. Two other big-name soloists appear on four tracks or prominent solos: cornet courtesy of Warren Vaché, or the tenor sax of Harry Allen. Arrangements keep things generally cooking and loose, with little touches like the end of Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen's spiffy "Sleigh Ride in July" putting the cherry of the sundae with a quote from the better-known "Sleigh Ride." The new casually declarative title song of the album is a lyric by Morgan Ames with a melody by the great Johnny Mandel. It's a little too heavy on "talking" the lyric with a chipper manner instead of singing the melody line for my taste, but it's fun nevertheless. Positioned as the first track, it might give the wrong first impression of a very laidback manner to come, coasting or clipped notes to be the order of the day. But one listen to some of the familiar pure high notes, as the marvelous voice sails and hopscotches, promises that all is well. In fact, one spectacular extended note at a song's conclusion is worth the wait and wading through a jaunty trajectory till then.

Happy is where Marlene VerPlanck seems to live musically. She projects someone with rose-colored glasses, sensible and bemused by life, forgiving of human foibles. Rodgers & Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" feels like it's all about the ebullient looking forward, not dwelling on past times when "Life was no prize." Still, it's zippy in its cheer more than being reverential about the perspective. Ronny Whyte and Frank Grant's "I Love the Way You Dance" also delights as being natural and focused on one aspect of attraction, rather than a generalized declaration of romantic hero worship.

The take on the Lew Spence/Sammy Cahn kiss-off/shrug off "So Long My Love" is quintessential VerPlanck style; no anger comes through, no hard feelings, eyes are wide open and absent of tears. Another Spence melody has a lyric by Roger Schore, the New York writer Marlene has turned to before. They're a good match. This entry, "You're Really Something to Write Home About," showcases his ability to be conversational and specific in a lighthearted way.

Marlene VerPlanck is very special and memorable—she's really something to write home about.

- Rob Lester

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