Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Welcome to the Nightclub
(Life Is a Cabaret)
Review by Rob Lester

How about a couple of trips to the world of nightclubs as settings for stage pieces? We turn a cabaret/theatre spotlight on two places: one imaginary address in New York City with a large cast of characters, and one a famed mammoth Las Vegas venue for a one-vocalist show recreating arrangements of old standards. Ladies and gentlemen, order a drink, relax, settle back, and please welcome...

JOHNNY MANHATTAN
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING

(2017 MICHIGAN CAST)

In a recently recorded show, the action happens in the middle of Manhattan, a bit past the middle of the 20th century, in the midst of a reunion of former employees and friends who return to their old midtown haunting grounds called Johnny Manhattan's. It took a while for the musical telling the tale to come to the public as a recording. I don't mean that it was in the latter part of 2018 that the release happened and the production represented is from September of the previous year. Johnny Manhattan saw the light of day (and stage light) briefly back when it was written— in the mid-1970s. It was a showcase production and the parties involved did their work and moved on. The piece was not picked up for a commercial run and might have been a footnote in the faded footlight parade of so many similar limited-run-exposure amiable entertainments by early-career theatre artists.

Now, thanks initially to the suggestion of an original cast member, it's been dusted off and given another chance. The production happened at, and was a production of, Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester Hills, Michigan, home state of its composer, Dan Goggin. He went on to other musicals, often with his own lyrics—most notably the zippy, fun Nunsense and its sequels. Back in 1975, he combined forces with lyricist and bookwriter Robert Lorick, who later went on to Broadway glory writing lyrics for The Tap Dance Kid (with composer Henry Krieger).

While not as consistently polished or solid as their later work, Johnny Manhattan is rather diverting and sparks to spiffy life often enough to show more than just glimmers of the potential that came to fuller bloom in their later work. And I strongly suspect that the songs are more potent in full context of the plot, with more knowledge of character interaction when old cohorts reconvene. Some—but not quite enough—specifics can be gleaned from the performances, and the three sentences giving the gist of the storyline, presented in the packaging of the physical CD, can be amplified by reading through the photo-filled souvenir booklet available online at the website www.JohnnyManhattanTheMusical.com. What is supposed to be a "big surprise" announcement, apparently the raison d'etre for the gathering, is not evident from what we hear or read; I assume it's in the dialog, but I feel the need of a plot-thickening payoff, spoiler alerts be damned.

Meanwhile, we are left with some pleasing pizzazz, lilting laments, and flashes of wit and/or snarkiness. While some numbers are more satisfyingly rich in originality and in punch than the thinner brews, there are turns of phrase that cause admiration for the work of late lyricist Lorick, who passed away in 2016. A few examples: Johnny summing up his perspective as "stubbing on my toe on yesterday, banging my head against tomorrow," and I also like the alliteration and double use of the word "world" in the song title "Where in the World Is the World That I Wanted?" Then there's the unsatisfied wife complaining that, despite taking marital vows to accept each other "For Better or for Worse," the deadening daily life can be summed up tersely in a defeated but bitter "I warm up the coffee, you warm up the car—and nothing else." And, mocking the "survival" skills of a now long-in-the-tooth lady, observers acknowledge that while "She Takes Very Good Care of Herself," that can't compensate for this bitchy zinger of a reality check: "She searched for youth, but never found the Fountain/ She's not over the hill/ In truth, she's over the mountain." Life in a less-than-hospitable New York City also comes in for a couple of gripes, and working in a nightclub seems to have a mixed reception from the employees and denizens, with that unreliable filter called hindsight.

Savvy musical director/arranger Michael Rice, whose fine reputation precedes him, is credited as music director and arranger, with the exception of percussion arrangements done by David Nyberg. More curiously, he is not listed as pianist (but is indicated as such in reviews), while the only instruments named are percussion and reeds, as well as the all-purpose but not always all-satisfactory for natural acoustic sound, the synthesizer. But melodist Goggin's felicitous tunes generally please the ear, whether providing pastiche brassy belters for seen-it-all, underappreciated performers in showbiz, or understated moody and bittersweet reflections or wannabe-chipper, or stiff-upper-lip protests cloaking something darker in looking at times gone by too quickly. The songwriters really click as a team with "I'll Sing Your Favorite Song," which piano bar singers will want to latch onto, as it's a whale of a wailing sit-atop-the-Steinway scorcher that incorporates the titles of what were cabaret standards at the time in which the show is set (1958, and most of the warhorses are still hauled out today). The tour de force du jour is the episodic tale of a perennially unsuccessful auditionee addressing "Mister Producer." (Apparently they didn't want to let a very good thing get away, as the number also appears on my cast album for a later Goggin/Lorick show called A One-Way Ticket to Broadway.)

The cast is game and glib, often appropriately showy and with edge. Sugar-coated personalities or rose-colored glasses in nostalgia for another era are not what's presented. Although we want to know more about his character, Jim Ballard makes a gallantly singing Johnny; he does well in showing some vulnerability, which is a major plus. I'm delighted to find reliable veteran George Dvorsky in the cast as the husband in the troubled marriage. There's also good work from another familiar name, performer/producer Jana Robbins. She is the aforementioned original cast member who thought to recommend a remounting three decades after the original. She now takes the role of the "Luxury"-seeking, age-denying grande dame who also gets a number titled "Oh, Those Johnnies" that we can see as a cheeky wink at the old melodramatic Kurt Weill "Surabaya Johnny" from The Happy End and its ilk. For "bigger is better" dazzle with extra points for passive-aggressive elements, Anne Brummel as that club singer and Ruth Pferdehirt as the gal with frequent flyer miles trying to impress that rejecting producer take high honors. In all, the cast numbers 14. (The likeable Scott Willis plays a playwright named Edward, and it seems to be a misprint that on one song the name listed is Howard.)

2 A.M. AT THE SANDS
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING

Broadway Records

"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." Wrong again! Splashy, big-band Las Vegas show pieces, the majority of them oh-so-closely modeled on Frank Sinatra's iconic renditions and tight musical charts, have escaped and been reincarnated—or should I say cloned in performances recorded in California, with "additional vocals" done in New York. But, yes, we may as well be nestled in a nice Nevada night at 2 A.M. at The Sands Hotel and Casino. The time check refers to Sinatra shows that were done in the wee small hours of the morning, due to demand and the desire for other performers to see Ol' Blue Eyes themselves after doing their own gigs on the Strip. Our sole singer is Andrew Samonsky, whose Broadway experience includes South Pacific, as the first Lieutenant Cable replacement, and the short-lived Scandalous. Tour credits include Disney work, the lead male role of The Bridges of Madison County, and, most recently, Come from Away wherein his roles include both Kevins who are the gay couple.

There's more than just the Frank stuff, but I'll get to that later. To say the performances of Sinatra repertoire are heavily influenced by the originals would be the understatement of the year—2018, that is, because the new year is way too new, and this album was released in the last month of 2018 (in fact, the same week that marked the 103rd anniversary of Sinatra's birth). In an effort to be as authentic as possible, six of Quincy Jones' arrangements for the Count Basie Band were dutifully copied, note for note, and, in keeping up with the Jones jazzamatazz, this show was recorded with the same number of musicians: 17. We longtime Sinatra fans who passed many hours hearing the legend's work, including his own official live album release with many of the old standbys here, recognize detail after detail. But dedication to blueprints and solid musicianship from pros still, in side-by-side tests, miss the electricity, even with an audience present for the premiere night, as it was.

While the band musically paints by numbers, inarguably strong and smooth singer Samonsky does not attempt an impersonation of the "Chairman of the Board" in vocal tone and timbre. However, he has done his homework in studying and then presenting the many embellishments and liberal artistic license the legend took in "Sinatra-fying" songs: lyrics' word substitutions and asides, back-phrasing, sustaining consonant sounds instead of just open vowel sounds, choices for phrasing and emphasis, and much of the assertively in-charge attitude. Right from Sinatra's own patter is the lengthy set-up telling the sad tale of the poor guy whose significant other has dumped him, and how he's in a bar ordering drinks: "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." This being the change-of-pace slow ballad allows our singing substitute to drop the finger-snapping, gleefully cocky attitude, and be sincere and gratifyingly makes for an acting moment that rings true-ish. Otherwise, a swinging Samonsky seems to be having a ball, and those with minimal exposure to the relevant musical forefathers might have more of a ball, and actually be at an "ignorance is bliss" advantage, including those more familiar with other vocalists' recordings of these very well-covered standards ("Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls, and "Fly Me to the Moon" among them).

The liner notes explain the structure of the show—summarizing some narration that includes showbiz lore, comments about events of the times, and how other stars were in the audience and might come up for a guest spot. But here, Samonsky sings their trademark numbers, too, without totally switching gears, making for distracting breaks in the initially established persona, kind of muddying the waters. Again, old arrangements and personalizations are the firm guide. The Tom Jones hit "Help Yourself" feels most out of place and is actually an odd choice, since the proceedings make a big deal about bringing us to the specific year of 1966 at the Sands Hotel (where and when Sinatra held court and was recorded) and "Help Yourself" came out in the summer of 1968. The other "guest slots" bring two performers closely associated with Sinatra for years as "Rat Pack" pals and co-stars in club and movie work: Dean Martin (his 1953 "That's Amore" memorializing that feeling you get "when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie") and Sammy Davis, Jr. (giving us the other serious moment, the Davis stylings for "Mr. Bojangles," the story of a down-on-his-luck dancer, complete with the whistling that bookended Sammy's version).

While we may indeed get the essence of Vegas showmanship and high energy circa 1966, the show fast-forwards to later-career Sinatra as a coda/bonus, deciding perhaps it's irresistible to leave out his association with Kander and Ebb's feel-good "Theme from New York, New York." As he does throughout, Andrew Samonsky gamely and securely brings in his closing vocal with brightness and bounce and vigor, following in famous footsteps, enough to respect the guy paying his respects; still and all, this will make at least some wish he did it "his way"—but we know that, obviously, was not at all the goal. At the end of the day, listening to this without the context of the show's text or visuals, it feels like a ghost wearing a tuxedo that doesn't fit perfectly, but the man can sing, and these are classic songs with classic arrangements.



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