Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

a Chaplin on the stage ... and
a klezmer/karaoke Fiddler on the Roof on disc

Let's consider first the cast album from the brief Broadway run of a musical based on the life of Hollywood's immortal figures, with a heartfelt score. Then, the Purple Heart Award for going above and beyond the call of duty goes to a duo-disc set of strong appealing "guide vocals" and accompaniment tracks (to learn, rehearse, use as a pre-recorded klezmer band for a show or karaoke or auditions) for the score of the show which once reigned as Broadway's long-running musical.


Masterworks Broadway/ Sony

Sometimes all a movie needs to captivate, to quote a Mack and Mabel lyric fondly referencing Charlie Chaplin, might be "one little tramp with a cane." Naturally, that musical's co-titular character, film director Mack Sennett—who worked with Chaplin—also is featured in Chaplin: The Musical, giving us, in one key sequence, a close-up on the development of what would become the classic Little Tramp character and his endearing shuffling walk. The Chaplin cast album walks us through the star's early life and the early days of Hollywood, bringing a legend crisply to life courtesy of Christopher Curtis's songs and lines of dialogue from the musical's book co-written with Tom Meehan. It's a whirlwind of activity and moods (from jolly to tense to bittersweet) with some catchy songs along the way. He's proved to be an intriguing but complex, tough figure to make work as the centerpiece of a musical, as other projects—such as one spearheaded by and starring Anthony Newley—didn't make the hoped-for splash.

This musical version gives us glimpses into Chaplin's motivations for storytelling and a curiosity about passersby and how they present themselves, encouraged ("Look at All the People") in childhood by his mother, and harvested in a landmark career of noting behaviors and recreating them, bringing sympathetic people to life, even without audible dialogue. We also see the personal side of relationships with women and the lure and price of fame.

The 20-track album, with Rob McClure engaging and consistently sympathetic as the title character (as an adult), is generally episodic, as a bio-musical often is, but the score with melodies and themes reprised gives a unifying feel. However, the other players thus have their major moments in the limelight clustered in the beginning, middle or end. In the early part, and then not heard until the looking-back final segment, prominent are the mother, played with gusto and warmth by Christiane Noll, and Charlie as a child, ably portrayed by piping-voiced 9-year-old Zachary Unger, who was also heard briefly as the son in last year's Encores! recording of Merrily We Roll Along. Showing up only when act two begins, midway on the disc, is the Hopper nemesis, with Jenn Colella effectively blaring and bristling and taunting on four of the first six tracks from the second act. Then, when we get to the 15th track, it's time for the big, old-fashioned idealistic romantic ballad for Chaplin's last wife Oona, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill—"What Only Love Can See"—soon reinforced as a reprise, in duet with McClure. Right after that, it's time for the wrap-up. Erin Mackey sings lushly and somewhat precociously wisely in this swelling song about the power of true love as Oona, who was only 18 when the middle-aged Chaplin married her.

Often rollicking, sometimes busily bustling, with a kaleidoscopic kind of activity of some bigger number, there's energizing spiffiness to the orchestrations by Larry Hochman, with additional work done in that department by the formidable Jonathan Tunick and Michael Starobin. Dance arrangements are by songwriter and musical director/vocal arranger Bryan Perri. There's also room for some plaintive numbers for McClure when things go sour in struggle or exile, but the emotional colors throughout are fairly broad. Subtlety does occasionally come into play, allowing the otherwise very happy/very sad seesaw to have a less "either/or" identity and tempo tendency. A sense of hard-sell push and economic forcefulness on perhaps too many pieces is exacerbated by the reappearances of major melodies and lyric thrusts. This makes the show on disc start to feel like almost everything will be telegraphed and then recycled. However, largely thanks to McClure's committed performance and a capturing of the era and a love of film-making as an art form, charm and charisma save the day. Affection for "This Man" is apparent long before the near-end song of that title. The rise and fall are, of course, informed by our own affection for and knowledge of the man of the hour.

While it has some frustrations in encapsulating a multi-faceted life, and feels rushed or glibly simplified, the score has many attractive moments and is sung with professionalism—hard-edged when appropriate, hardiness when invigorating, and a fair helping of heart. This noble effort's goals might seem somewhat transparent at times, but it's an enjoyable listen that doesn't go in one ear-or era-and out the other. Some still flickers and lingers in the limelight and embraced history.


Stage Stars Records

Born 154 years ago this week, writer Shalom Aleichem brought us the stories set in a long-ago czarist-run Russia with Tevye the milkman and his daughters which became the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which has lasted quite healthily itself, with a major initial Broadway success and revivals (the last of which was in its final previews nine years ago this week with new orchestrations by Larry Hochman, the main orchestrator for Chaplin). Worldwide hit Fiddler had its first West End production open 26 years ago this week and the show is on tour now, too. So what else is new? Well, also this month I have been listening to yet another version of the oft-recorded score. With its background tracks caringly designed as accompaniment for aspiring singers of its songs, this one is special, though rich in the "Tradition" of the original musical.

From the reliable long-historied label for such things (and very able, theatre-experienced performers doing the "guide" demo singing in full character), Stage Stars Records, this is a joy. The accompaniment here is with a small klezmer band, in that traditional old-world style so appropriate to the old-world Jewish story, and their fiddler (violinist) is Jeremy Brown, who brings great skill and pathos and verve. He's joined by players on accordion, trumpet, and another musician doubling on flute and clarinet. It sounds terrific, making it a surprisingly listenable instrumental disc. The reason? There's quite a bit of the melody lines on what would normally be basically functional just to sing along with. The only caveat is that there are gaps of mini-silences for dialogue rather than underscoring sometimes, and some numbers feature brief sections where a repeating bass underpinning vamp is more prominent than melody.

Music preparation and programming is again by David Negon. Depending on what you might seek out the package for, the main attraction may well be the separate disc with vocals. Each disc has the same 16 numbers, ranging in timing from 2:02 to two that go well over seven minutes (the opening and "Sunrise, Sunset"). So, included are numbers not initially/always included on the many recordings of the score: "the "Chava Ballet Sequence," "The Rumor/ Gossip," and the two pieces combining dialogue and bits of songs for "Tevye's Monologue" and "Tevye's Rebuttal" when his daughters dare to make their own decisions and matrimonial matches.

As usual, the cast features those with New York and regional musical theatre credits, some also known in the cabaret world, and new studio cast members of the Stage Stars "family" overseen by longtime producer Stephen M. Pearl. Playing Tevye is someone whose voice I know well from his prior work, though I probably would not have recognized his voice as he's using it differently, so fully into character is he. It's cabaret and Stage Stars frequent participant Miles Phillips, also known for directing acts of some of the other participants over the years. His Tevye is feisty, forceful, wearing his heart and conflicts on both his sleeves. His taken-seriously characterization veers toward the more cerebral and burdened, less broadly comic and jovial than we sometimes hear. Still, he has his bouts of ebullient abandon to balance that.

Also returning is Jason Wynn, who scores nicely in the shortest item, but one of its brightest spots: "Miracle of Miracles," where a supposedly unsuitable suitor is begrudgingly approved by Papa Tevye. In "Now I Have Everything," Rob Langeder, another veteran, shines with similar panache for the same reason. Stacie Perlman is nimble and commanding as oldest daughter Tzeitel, a good match for the role, as evidenced in her participation in "Matchmaker." Sweet-voiced Christine Hope brings thoughtful phrasing to the role of Hodel, and "Far From the Home I Love" includes some nicely dramatic dialogue for her and Tevye from Joseph Stein's book, also represented on other tracks for song set-ups. Sarah Downs does sound very youthful to be long-suffering wife Golde, but it's a little refreshing to hear a more golden soprano voice gracing the Jerry Bock melodies, and she wisely scales back her operatic voice.

Throughout, Sheldon Harnick's character-specific yet somehow universal lyrics ring true all over again, although in a few places things feel a bit too generic and smoothed-over or with effort showing. For example, "Anatevka" is missing some true heart-wrenching flavor and needed hesitancy as the ensemble sings. And some humor doesn't land or feel natural, despite the performers laughing here and there in celebrational moments and amusement in "Matchmaker." But, by and large, this is a lovely and pensive rendition of the songs.

Getting back to the instrumental/karaoke value, what a smart decision to go the klezmer route, rather than a Muzak synthesis so many such albums feature—and indeed numerous karaoke sing-alongs have been on the market over the years for this particular score. It sounds often refreshed and revitalized here. Nice work, after so many sunrises and sunsets have gone by and many a studio cast album made. Raise the Roof and sing along, if you're so inclined.

- Rob Lester

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