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Sound Advice Reviews

Heavenly Music from Philip Chaffin
and a Look Back at Hell (Hadestown)
Review by Rob Lester

A new vocal release and a musical theatre score, in quite different ways, bring us a bit of Heaven on earth. With a production of Hadestown opening this week in London, I'm reminded of its audio-documented score. So it seems like a ripe time to refresh ourselves on this work, inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld, which began its pre-stage life on disc in an even earlier incarnation than this live cast performance. The project has its eye on Broadway for next year. Singer Philip Chaffin's new vocal collection is certainly cause for cheer. Let's start with that.

PHILIP CHAFFIN
WILL HE LIKE ME?
A LOVE STORY

PS Classics

You might want to double-check your calendar, but it feels like Valentine's Day has appeared in November this year with the release of Philip Chaffin's brand new solo recording, Will He Like Me?. As programmed thoughtfully to chronologically survey the ups and down (mostly ups) of romancing, the repurposed material, largely from stage and film musicals, becomes a song cycle. And it's all decidedly sung from a gay male angle, with this splendid male vocalist choosing many a number wherein the lyric specifically refers to a male, with the word "Man" in three song titles, three more whose titles give the other fellow's name, and two more titles that include male pronouns, plus more that do similar identifications within the lyric. Virtually all were written for female characters in musical plays or films to sing about men. Some have long ago entered the world of standards and have been sung by many nightclub and concert performers and recording artists, so the associations with their source characters have become generalized. Others less often approached on recordings prove quite flexible, too.

The strong decision of approach by this out performer is to be applauded, but so is everything about the work here: glorious singing; in-the-moment intelligent phrasing; lusciously rich arrangements with strings that soar and swirl, atmospheric flutes, clarinets, oboe and, of course, piano; and satisfying variety in tone and color. It's the beat of the human heart that seems to be the implied sound coming through loud and clear—joie de vivre, for the most part, with heart skipping a beat or pounding with anxiety. We hear ten instruments, but there are just five players on hand. They're especially deft and marvelous handling the creative John Baxindine's arrangements and orchestrations and should be named and thanked: Entcho Todorov, Clay Ruede, Rick Heckman, Mark Thrasher and Richard Carsey (pianist as well as conductor).

I'm reminded of a collector's item LP on my shelf: it was almost exactly a half a century ago, around the time of the Stonewall riots, that another fellow struggled to get attention for his album on which he earnestly sang standards like "The Man I Love" and "Bill" and originals, as a gay man singing about his love for those of the same gender. Singing under the pseudonym Zebedy Colt for this and other work, Edward Earle Marsh's career included being a child prodigy pianist, acting on the New York stage and in porn (and other) films, and appearing on Ben Bagley's celebrated albums of rare songs by major theatre writers. In the intervening years, it's been more or less "standard practice" with standards covered by gay vocalists to take on the straight mask and sing of passion for the opposite sex or choose gender-neutral lyrics where the pronoun is "you"—or it's all about "me." The Chaffin choice is refreshing, heartening, and successfully "casual" as the breeze we feel is simply from the gentle and natural winds of change, not stirred up by a forced political waving of a rainbow flag. And isn't it more distracting when you're in the audience listening to a known-to-be-gay singer's recital or club act and, in the chosen repertoire is putting on a distancing front, taking the option to sing about his love for "Maria" or "The Girl That I Marry" when he's known to "have an eye for a guy"? And do you have the same break of believability with recorded vocals?

What actually makes this collection extra special is not just the honesty, but the sweet fact that this talented man singing is half of the couple that runs this label, PS Classics, having been the partner in life and business for many years with veteran producer Tommy Krasker. The two co-conceived the project and husband Tommy co-produces this time with engineer Bart Migal. The liner notes by the couple and by Kenneth Jones celebrate and explain what is also in real-life A Love Story, to borrow the apt album subtitle here. Maybe the aforementioned mate's name led to the selection of "Tom" (from Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again), but it's a fortunate and welcome member in the set, with a less old-school feel than most of what surrounds it. Viva variety.

This particular vocalist is so at home in his own musical skin and sexuality that any potential awkwardness quickly becomes a non-issue. And, while it's all embraced in a comfort zone, it's still a rare enough choice to be distinctively a key factor that makes your ears sometimes stand up at attention. But we're put at ease because of the Chaffin lack of any self-consciousness or over-emphasis. Feelings and mood and character are most important here, and, while the LGBT perspective is prominent, it's the dynamic and vibrant singing, thoughtful interpretations, and consistently winning instrumental settings that make the whole package so very rewarding and engaging. So, let's move on to some specifics among the 14 fabulously felicitous tracks.

Things start off with the wistful anxiety anticipation of a blind date that gives the work its title. Taken from the score of Bock & Harnick's She Loves Me, the insecurity of the protagonist creates instant empathy and, as a bonus, an extra internal rhyme with the replacement of just one of the original lyric's words—"girl"—when it becomes "the shy and qui-et guy. Those who've followed the PS Classics catalogue might note the return dips to the wells of songwriters their projects have celebrated in the past, such as this nod to the work of the wordsmith that made up a Kate Baldwin release. And there have been discs gathering the oeuvre of other writers with various artists participating, including Philip: He was part of a Jerome Kern set, with that composer here represented by his classic "Don't Ever Leave Me," its Hammerstein-penned pleading words elegantly restrained, rather than weepy. Here he gets his first (and lovely) crack at "Windflowers," which provided the title of a grouping of Jerome Moross melodies, a very early release by the label (its thoughtfully interpreted lyric is by John LaTouche).

Philip's last solo album celebrated the lyrics of Dorothy FIelds and three of hers are here: the little-known "But I Could Cook" (a collaboration with Harold Arlen, done with spunk) and two from Sweet Charity—a feisty romp through "Charity's Soliloquy" with a big dose of welcome humor and, written for the film version, the low-key and conversational "It's a Nice Face," which is combined with Carousel's "Mister Snow," who this time doesn't carry Carrie "cross the threshold," but it's a same-sex marriage this time and sounds at least as honeymoon-happy as usual, if not downright jubilant and lusty. That gives us a second Hammerstein lyric, of course, and his partner Rodgers has another melody graced, one with Lorenz Hart's words: "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" taken seriously as the eye-opener about what real love feels like.

Philip Chaffin's versatility is shown to good advantage, with faces of love that let him show the rush of romance, a little sass with a wink, and mood from delight and devastation ("Who Gave You Permission?" cut from Ballroom when this number from its TV movie predecessor was deemed too wrenchingly sad for the audience). But I think I like his work best when he's at his most rhapsodic and reflective at the same time; serenity suits him. You believe the simple pleasures inside that cabin where "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" and it's set up with the unusual but well worthwhile little gem from 1964's Broadway score What Makes Sammy Run? by the late Ervin Drake—"A Tender Spot."

In his fifth solo album, Philip Chaffin makes tender spots the destination worth visiting and re-visiting. And touches the receptive listener in his or her (oh, those pesky pronouns!) own tender spot. The whole endeavor is spot on!

HADESTOWN:
THE MYTH. THE MUSICAL.
2016 OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Warner Music Group

Hell hath no fury like the ire and fire of a hot musical, and Hadestown is burning with energy and sass and passion. Hadestown is a take on an ancient Greek myth that has inspired adaptations for hundreds of years, taking us to Hell via poetry, films, an opera by Offenbach's operetta, stage pieces (like, in quite recent years, the teen-centric modern spin the musical Jasper in Deadland), and much more, including Ricky Ian Gordon's song cycle named for the two lovers in the tale of Orpheus & Eurydice.

Although liberties have been taken with plot details, time frames, and earlier characterizations, the basic storyline remains: Eurydice dies some time after she and Orpheus wed and he, heartbroken but determined, must go to the treacherous underworld to see her and, hopefully, return with her. Of course, the devil is in the details, so to speak and the ruler of the subterranean residence is no pushover to deal with—or make a deal with. But we hope against hope and credulity that true love can conquer all.

Multi-millennium-old spoiler alerts aside, finding emotional involvement with plot, characters, and conflicts isn't the big attraction here. Although some themes and thoughts provoked from long glimpses from the [after]life down in the depths rise to the surface, the listening experience is more about the pull of the eclectic music. It's intriguing and often hypnotic. With compelling performers' voices and bubbling, gutsy instrumental accompaniment that get under your skin—to either slinkily seduce or unsettlingly chill—the recording is a feast for adventurous, accepting ears.

Composer-lyricist Anaïs Mitchell's work first was presented as an album in 2010, with herself and collaborators, including frequent musical companion Todd Sickafoose, who is billed as music supervisor for this version, which, further developed with the aid of its stage director Rachel Chavkin, has some pieces added and subtracted. A production is currently running in London.

Note that this is a live recording of a show mostly sung-through that runs over two hours, but the running time here is far shorter, clocking in at 74 minutes. In her liner notes, the writer explains that this presented some "tough choices," with selections not on the earlier studio presentation given some priority. (The physical copy is a single CD of 21 tracks.) With the project getting other productions and planned for Broadway, perhaps we'll eventually get the missing pieces or new changes that come along. As it is, there's quite a variety of musical styles within what has been tagged a "folk opera." Theatre history followers know what that debate that label caused in categorizing the landmark Porgy and Bess. Suffice to say, this musical melting pot can proudly boast of ingredients made up of blues, pop, call-and-response, calibrated wailing gospel, New Orleans Dixieland, ethereal balladry, funky grooves, and some tracks appropriately labeled as "Chants"—roots music, if you want an alternative term. Harmonies carry the day in many cases, being a prime attraction when things start to veer into the path of less interesting repetition or more plain-spoken lyric patches.

Instrumental playing is rich and vibrant, very much in full partnership with vocals. The seven-piece orchestra's music director, Liam Robinson, also the pianist/accordionist, and arranger-orchestrator Michael Chorney are full of inventiveness and layered ideas that stimulate and provoke, but do not upstage. (The aforementioned Sickafoose is credited with "additional/co-arrangements and orchestrations.")

The especially well-balanced eight-member cast brings a satisfyingly contrasting palette of vocal colors to the table. In the industrial factory environment of the toiling down below, Patrick Page as Hades himself thunder-thrills with his deep bass tones and command, without falling into cartoon-like cliché. On the other end of the spectrum, as Orpheus, Damon Daunno floats into feathery and falsetto sounds, legato and lovely, and often disarming. It's the kind of voice that can mesmerize with purity, but he also manages to be strong when needed. This performer, the choice as lead male in the just-closed new interpretation of Oklahoma!, here also excels in capturing the crucial mournfulness in his laments. As Eurydice, Nabiyah Be demonstrates versatility—fiercely challenging in one turn, sweetly demure elsewhere.

Amber Gray is an assertive Persephone (wife to Hades; can it be a thankless job being the First Lady of Hell?), offers a tigress-like possession of her role, and digs her teeth into the material whenever the solo or vocal lead in a group number comes her way, as in the invigorating and throbbing party-starter "Livin' It Up on Top" and "Our Lady of the Underground." Added to the original concept as a narrator/guide character, Hermes anchors the proceedings; growlingly gravel-voiced (in a good way) Chris Sullivan is one more force to be reckoned with. The bookending two versions of "Road to Hell," which he leads, deliver satisfyingly opposite flavors; the first almost assaultingly pounds and pulls us in with muscular performance from the get-go, while the finale version is a sad, slow rueful cry with palpable pain. At his side, and frequently present otherwise, are the pleasing and potent blending voices of the sort-of-sashaying Greek chorus of Fates: Shaina Taub, Jessie Shelton, and Lulu Fall.

Like the surround-seating at the New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan's East Village, where the production was recorded in front of an audience (2016) for this release (2017), the experience is certainly immersive. We feel the music performances enveloping us, with some tracks arguably demanding more attention via vocal sound or the engine of the instrumental architecture than the material itself. Your mileage may vary, especially on repeat listenings when you can focus on lyrics that might have been a bit obscured the first time (no worries, CD buyers—all lyrics are in a booklet that also has color production photos; the digital booklet also presumably includes at least the lyrics) or when the talented Mr. Daunno's high voice addresses and caresses your senses and could just as passably, as the old saw goes, be singing the phone book (he also did his own guitar arrangements). And the Page peacockish parade grabs focus more than the content of what he might actually be boasting or bellowing. But, as others have been rightly quick to point out, the oh-so-Trumpishly timely extra Mexico meaning of a taunting song called "Why We Build the Wall" makes a direct punch in the gut. (FYI, it was written back in 2010.) In taking in the strong performances, attitude sometimes trumps content and, in this case, it's not to the detriment of the quality of one's engagement.

Audible audience reactions are rarely distracting and applause and cheers seem well edited as not to feel abrupt or indulgent. The piece still flows well, despite cuts in dialogue and song, rather than feeling jumpy. It is odd to hear a character pausing mid-song to introduce by name—and get applause for—each band member in the genre of a stage show, and for a moment, we're simply at a concert with appreciative fans. I am more pulled out of the proceedings by the myriad of impure rhymes which are my long-time pet peeve in musicals created by those whose background is pop rather than the traditions of musical theatre lyrics, where perfect rhymes are traditionally de rigeur. Some are close-but-no-cigar matches, while some eschew rhyming almost altogether. In this aspect, and others, with Hadestown, the whole is more than the sum of any disparate, dissected parts. Indeed, the score is a wave of sound and style that successfully comes in some big energized waves and more gentle ebbing and flowing, with the cool-down tender statements of love or sorrow quite striking.

A key plot element of the old tale is about trust, with Orpheus warned not to look back at Eurydice as he attempts to lead her home—but those who experience Hadestown (on stage or on recording), I suspect, will look back on it with fondness and admiration for an adventurous but quite accessible score. There was also a staging in Canada and the current British production is scheduled to run into January.



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