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2's Company:
Let's do some twosomes


Sometimes it just takes two. We start with the madcap mystery musical comedy two-hander Murder for Two wherein one actor plays the detective and the other plays all the suspects. And diehard fans of NYC-based jazzy singers know it's no mystery that a "cast" of two—perfectly partnered singers and instrumentalists—can make intimate musical magic. Cases in point pair Karen Oberlin with guitarist Sean Harkness and Shaynee Rainbolt with pianist Donn Trenner.

MURDER FOR TWO
2013 OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records

After the gales of giggles abate, and you catch your breath, be impressed with the craft of the writing. All the way through this fun whodunit, I suspect you'll be entertained by the cast of two: Murder for Two is a tour de force swirl of silliness with Brett Ryback as a determined but frustrated sleuth seeking the truth of who shot the psychiatrist/novelist at his surprise birthday party. And the tuneful nutty cartoon is full of surprises as Jeff Blumenkrantz blithely barrels his way through the show as every single suspect present in the room. This includes the instant widow, three members of a boys' choir, and a bickering long-wed couple. This new cast album of the show is a self-contained entertainment bonanza as the plot thickens and the deliciously dopey humor and shtick are laid on thickly. Blumenkrantz's menagerie of males and females with motives, presented with varying voices (breathy, gruff, gushing, glib, heavily accented), sometimes converse back and forth as this comic chameleon presents a parade of loopy types. Like the investigator, none seems particularly bright, which makes for the best kind of goofball-propelled irreverent humor. In other hands, it could perhaps wear out its welcome, but wit and energy prevail with polish. Directed by Scott Schwartz, the breathless shenanigans never feel exhausting or dwell or dawdle too long on a gag. And the high energy performers themselves are also taking most of the turns as piano accompanists! (Obviously, this not-so-minor fact can't really translate to be as impressive in the audio-only disc experience; the non-stop action and aforementioned character-switching is more sensed as being in real time.)

The timing and chemistry shown by the stars is superb. Interrupting each other (or Blumenkrantz interrupting himself!) at just the right moment is nicely done. We feel them frustrating each other. Especially well played by these singing/piano-playing actors are situations where the pace gets so fast that it takes have a moment for the characters to realize what was just said doesn't make sense or was a slip of the maybe-guilty tongue. In one case, it takes a sec to not get carried away with the point that the knife was never found and remember the victim was shot, not knifed. In another case, in "Process of Elimination" when it's realized that everybody's probably still a possible murderer, it's a cute "Huh?" moment. And, in any case, who cares so much if the case is solved? We're being so entertained and it's so ludicrous that that's not what it's about. So, like a well-delivered joke where you know the punch line, there's enough spiked punch that it's a pleasure to taste it again.

More than just jokey, the work stands up to repeat plays to appreciate the methods to the madness designed by lyricist Kellen Blair and composer (and "relief pianist") Joe Kinosian, who collaborated on the generously represented book. (Longer dialogue chunks, where we meet each suspect in succession, are separately tracked.) There's plenty of pep and zing in the melodies and zingers and sass in the lyrics. Quick-tempoed toe-tappers are paired with lines whose rhymes blast out in rat-tat-tat-tat style to keep things appropriately frenzied. A couple of examples: Ryback's Boy Scout-like cop, trying to do what "Protocol Says" recites his mantra: "Be bold/ Keep your suspects well-controlled/ When you're in a pinch/ Never give an inch/ It can be a cinch/ If you follow each rule you're told." Elsewhere, we get: "Though theft isn't wholesome/ I stealthily stole some ..." in a song about ignoring substantial circumstantial evidence called "So What If I Did?" for a character named Barrette. That song takes time for tongue-twisting treats to boot: "He loved me, then left/ His Barrette was bereft/ But that's not a lead/ So leave me alone." Also delightful in their own way are the salutes to old-school musical comedy numbers celebrating interdependent pals or peers ("A Friend Like You" and "He Needs a Partner").

Three cheers for two guys who wrote this and the two guys who play it to the hilt.

KAREN OBERLIN (vocals) &
SEAN HARKNESS (guitar)
A WISH

Miranda Music

So simpatico are vocalist Karen Oberlin and her sole and soulful musician, guitarist Sean Harkness, that their new CD together, A Wish, is awash in rich but gentle intercommunicative musical storytelling. We feel them in the moment, listening to each other, supporting and encouraging each other, reacting to each other. These award-winning stars of the cabaret/jazz intersection are both at the top of their game in this consistently rewarding album of eclectic material. Things don't get slick or sticky—no matter that romance is the subject matter. Karen Oberlin's tenderly taken trails through love-struck land may have a whiff of cotton candy sweetness and light, but it's all believably imbued with thoughtfulness and a kind of awed serenity. And nothing in Sean Harkness's playing or approach has any trace of corn or predictability or plodding. I've seen these two perform on stages many times many times and think they are at their best and deepest here in combination, bringing out the best in each and other and these songs.

Although some material dips into idealized idol-worshiping love objects, and maybe the taken-too-cutely coy "Poor You" by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg pushes the fluffy side of the envelope, the CD is leavened with doses of real-life adult sensibilities. The first number, the Harry Warren and Al Dubin oldie "I'll String Along with You," comes across with more clear-eyed awareness than it might (OK, make that semi-misty-eyed). But the emphasis is squarely on acknowledging that the beloved one "may not be an angel" and that, after all, "angels are so few," making it more about a down-to-earth attraction than floating on air. It's solidified with the mature song from the musical The Yearling (Mickey Leonard/ Herbert Martin) that lets one appreciate what's great about a mate as "The Kind of Man a Woman Needs" after some decades of marriage mileage. Subtle partners are "My Valentine" (Paul McCartney's recent charmer introduced on his own album of mostly standards) and the wistful title song ("A Wish" here is that "I could be your valentine"). It's an excellent collaboration by formidable jazz pianist/composer Fred Hersch and singer Norma Winstone. As the vocalist yearningly laments the passing years, the guitar deepens the feeling of ache and loneliness in the mid-track solo. Hersch's sophisticated but soulful melodic gift is also represented with "Do You Think This Happens Every Day?" with a marvelously emotional and literate lyric. (Sample: "Love in the cycle of constant renewal/ Is rare as a jewel to hold.") The sensitive words are by David Hajdu, who happens to be Karen's husband as well as the biographer of Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn is represented by his "No One Knows" and when she intones that word "Love" in that line, it's done with a sense of weight and awe about the subject to come and the whole song feels like a jewel—one of my very favorite new items of the last couple of years.

With singer and guitarist sharing the responsibility for establishing moods and attitudes and sharing the spotlight comfortably, this chemistry works wonders. Standards like "More Than You Know" snuggle just as comfortably alongside the jazz and the folky contributions. There's Joni Mitchell's view of love ("Love") and Paul Simon's evocative "Train in the Distance" where Sean's voice is heard in the distance as a pleasing echo. The consistently pleasing recital ends with Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' ever-endearing "Remind Me," just one more thing that serves to remind me that all that is needed is two smart and tasteful performers to be each other's—and our—very welcome company.

SHAYNEE RAINBOLT (vocals) &
DONN TRENNER (piano)
TWO FOR THE ROAD

On my nights on the nightclub beat last year, one of the more memorable engagements (and musical pairings) was Shaynee Rainbolt singing with pianist Donn Trenner. Now it's a CD—and just as lush and rich, despite having a population of only two making all the music. The two are co-stars. A piano "introduction" embracing Michel Legrand's melody of "I Will Wait for You" lasts two minutes and 40 seconds, becoming symphonic and well worth the time.

Veteran Trenner's resumé includes working with show biz greats such as Bob Hope, for whom he was conductor for seven years. Hope's signature song "Thanks for the Memory" is a nice, graceful touch here. There's an even more personal recollection with the evocatively moody "Memory of the Rain" (written by Trenner and singer Helen Carr, to whom he was married) blending into the later pop song "Come in from the Rain" (Melissa Manchester/ Carole Bayer Sager). Like much here, they become art songs. But there are other misty memories lurking, by way of skipping and then catching up with, a generation. The two met only recently. When the singer was performing in California, among her appreciative audience members was Trenner, who'd known her parents years before and introduced himself. The two stayed in touch and ended up working together back East.

We're mostly in ballad territory here, and that's just fine. Well-chosen material includes some pages from Broadway, handled with aplomb: Cole Porter's "Down in the Depths (on the 90th Floor)" from Red, Hot and Blue ; "Lucky to Be Me" from On the Town, and Roberta's "Yesterdays." This reflection on days past is wedded to Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" and both get equal thoughtfulness and grace, and cementing the aforementioned "memories" idea, this time with some rue. There is moody jazz as well as movie gems, such as the song title song embraced quite warmly, and Irving Berlin's "This Year's Crop of Kisses"—verse included—with a dash of sprightly spunk. Genre and original sources or era when a number was introduced become somewhat irrelevant as everything feels quite timeless.

Living in the moment of the lyrics, convincingly conveyed, Shaynee has never sounded so consistently involved in the words and moods, communicating insight into story and ambience set up by the transforming Trenner touch. It's the kind of CD that reveals additional layers with repeat plays and is heavenly to have wafting through the air. Nothing showy here, nor splashy, but the impact is sweetly satisfying.


- Rob Lester


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