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Broadway Records presents
Broadway's Big Fish and big-voiced Joplin

Over the top, don't hold back .... The two have something in common. Well, maybe Big Fish is a bit much (which may be the point) and the real Janis Joplin on Broadway would be a fish out of water, but the Great White Way has a way of offering something for everyone. Here are two examples of going all out.


Broadway Records

A firm believer in "less is more" will have a hard time taking the bait that is the cast recording of Broadway's Big Fish. It's the story of a man who gets high on hyperbole, relishing related adventures, whether there's much reality in the enthused retelling or not. At times, it reminds me of those sweet drinks in store coolers next to the orange juice with prominent pictures of fruits on the label, but that the law requires being labeled "beverages" or "cocktails" and in small print it says "contains 5% juice." There's flavor, it's somewhat tasty, but oddly unsatisfying. Common sense perhaps dictates that many songs for such a play should likewise be extravaganzas, all stops out, without enough substance. But there are compensations. One is named Kate Baldwin who is, as ever, a pleasure to hear. Her "I Don't Need a Roof" briefly puts the hoopla and heroics on hold and is a blessedly simple, sincere declaration of love that is warm and winning.

Like a storyteller eager to convince and overdramatize, I felt Big Fish was working really hard and heavy to sell me; it was trying to blow me away with its pumped-up grandness and it felt overblown. Some songs build and build and build, with the instrumental accompaniment the willing culprit as they grow—swirling, sweeping, expanding, rising and crashing like giant waves in an active ocean. There seems to be a memo circulating that this kind of relentless pumped-up push-push-plunge of percussion and "pow" will carry us along on a roller coaster ride. If that's not enough, make sure the voices get stronger and, for added presumed impact, simply repeat a phrase rather than top it (e.g.: in "Stranger" we get, "But he's a stranger/ My father is a stranger" and "So I'll try/ I'll really try.") We heard you the first time. Fortunately, it's the wonderful Bobby Steggert singing, and his trademark earnestness goes a long way to saving the day. He's a great asset here. There are several giddy odes to a life of carpe diem and full-speed-ahead attack, often led by the tireless Norbert Leo Butz as the reality re-inventing dad, conniving to convince us to jump in. Life is a party—and a loud one—to him, so it is consistent more than convoluted. But parties should be more fun whereas here it feels forced.

I did give in somewhat as I accepted the score and story's entrenched sensibilities. And, yes, it can be exhausting, but Butz's character did finally wear me down (but almost wore me out). He's ultimately a loveable rascal, a childlike life-loving self-created and self-styled hero promising to "Fight the Dragons," tilting at windmills a bit like that fellow from La Mancha who fancied himself a knight in a musical about half a century ago. In addition to Steggert's accomplished mix of strength and a dignified emotional opening-up, Brad Oscar finds the happy medium between brash and blithe, and I like what he does with his too-brief appearances.

Looking at the photo-illustrated booklet's full lyrics, I find smart turns of phrase and heart in selections like "The Witch," whereas the shrieking performance upstages or obliterates it. Its philosophy and that of "Be the Hero"—the telegraphed opening production number—are honorable but oversold. Much of the meat in Andrew Lippa's lyrics and music is direct and crisp, and the songs don't need to be underlined, italicized and overly decorated. "Start Over" is joyfully life-affirming, a latter-day hopeful "Pick Yourself Up," advising "Tomorrow begins today." And Butz and Baldwin have a rewarding innocent of youthful attraction in "Time Stops."

Continuing with its theme of "Let's have more," Big Fish gets four strong players added for the recording to join the production's 13-member ensemble. And there's even more to the score, with a bonus track giving us a cut song for Butz and Steggert, "This River Between Us," which, tricks-free, more bluntly states the father and son's differences. It's a tear-jerker we get after the somewhat tear-jerker of an ending.

Maybe the pluses and minuses, for me, of this venture can be summed up in one of its own lyrics (from "How It Ends") for this often madcap tale about tales: "A bit insane/ A touch of pain/ Adeptly told/ But uncontrolled."


Broadway Records

Addressing the audience collectively as "man," Mary Bridget Davies playing Janis Joplin asks us if we know and dig her singing heroines. The role models and the women playing them give the show some more variety and perspective and when they team up, it's undeniably exciting. Besides being weaned on show music, I spent some formative years finding rock not such a hard place and admired Janis Joplin, whose recordings are still on my shelf, alphabetically waiting between Shirley Jones and Lainie Kazan for an occasional spin.

I am impressed with Mary Bridget Davies and her diligent on-target re-creation of the legend, the close copy of her timbre and style much of the time. It begins with an attention-getting spot on memorable trademark scream which sets off the first vocal. She's got far more than the gist and the joy, and, interestingly, is more successful bringing clones of the rough, gruff power yells and runs which would seem to be tough to sustain. The musical howls of catharsis and primal screams are nicely nailed, while some rare lighter stuff, like "Me and Bobby McGee," miss the mark in swatches and feel tired and tame. It's nice to revisit this material, to note the musical lineage from Bessie Smith and others. While the band may be too polished and polite for purposes of rocking out as a "full-tilt" outfit, they do yeomen's work backing up the women.

Oh, there's plenty of energy here. Davies has her engine running on high, attentive to nuances and switches in tempo. Sounding tired on such material would be deadly, but even with a paint-by-the-numbers careful re-creation, there's intensity and presence. Only occasionally does it seem to lag or lack inspiration. The connective spoken material included gives some flashes of the icon's appeal and down-to-earthiness (writer-director Randy Johnson is also executive producer, providing insider's liner notes, too). More of her boisterous humor would have been welcome. (Coincidentally, I was reading a Janis-focused chapter in record mogul Clive Davis's recent autobiography just before getting to this CD and got some additional insight into her joie de vivre and impact.)

A few instances of cuss words peppering her speech are here in the spoken sections. I wish there were more drama and less "idle chat" and "idol chat" to give us depth to the character's dreams and demons. Drinking and drugging aren't mentioned, nor is any real-life heartbreak which might have informed her insight into the blues she convincingly seemed to understand when singing. That doesn't seem to be the intent, making the narrative lighter and less of a draw on disc. Since Joplin died at 27, with a rather short but meteoric career, there is not much of a window to create a character arc or career growth. So, it is of limited interest as a musical theatre item. Of special note, though, is the debut of a song which Janis was set to record in what she didn't intend to be her last year, the ironically titled "I'm Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven," by Jerry Ragovoy and Jenny Dean. It's an exciting piece of material, a tour de force for the company. Here and throughout, the sound quality and balance are in the plus column, with vocals in the forefront.

Of the supporting cast offering their takes on predecessors, De'Adre Aziza's brief turn as Odetta is closest, while her Nina Simone gets a flavor of the uniquely mesmerizing singer, but the studied vocal has a drop or two of a Sarah Vaughan sound and a lot of the generic. Other stars serve as lead-ins to the "Janis" interpretations. Open-minded followers of theatre music will rejoice or recoil at her memorably liberty-taking takes on "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess and Rodgers & Hart's "Little Girl Blue." Meanwhile, Allison Blackwell gets more stage/record time as Aretha Franklin (some cool embellished climaxes abound). Nikki Kimbrough and Taprena Michelle Augustine also get their moments in the spotlight, while all four women provide some vocal back-up as "Joplinaires."

I enjoyed listening to this show and admire the integrity and talent. But with all recordings that boil down to impersonations that try to stick close to the model, the question always becomes unavoidable: When I feel like hearing the wrenching Joplin classics like "Piece of My Heart" and "Cry Baby" and others, I'm more likely to go to the real deal, who can't be topped or matched as a listening experience. It's far, far more visceral. It rocks harder, its blues are bleaker, and its rough edges have a sense of danger and appeal. But A Night with .... brings attention back to a quick-burning star and introduces her to younger audiences, which is a good thing.

- Rob Lester

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