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Looking at The People in the Picture and
2 people singing passionately (Musical accent: French)

Although CDs are an audio medium, the three discs surveyed this time conjure up visual memories and emotions as well. Whether or not you saw Broadway's The People in the Picture, experiencing the cast album, with its bits of dialogue and high drama feels like an old radio play meant to spark listeners to "see" the action as the protagonist's memories similarly appear. Then, two ultra-romantic, sensitive vocal albums, sharing sensibilities and a few songs, with a "merci beaucoup" to French flavorings. Melodies composed, arranged and conducted by France's masterful Michel Legrand make up Melissa Errico's disc, and Lee Lessack takes the French word for singer, Chanteur, as his CD title, compass, and reference point.


Kritzerland Records

Although there's plenty of feeling in what we hear and imagine seeing with The People in the Picture, the more jaundiced listener may sense someone knowingly pushing emotional buttons. And, while we are picturing these people or picturing ourselves in their trying situations, we might also recognize the clunking sound that come when suddenly someone pulls the rug out from under us or the banging sound as we're hammered over the head with well-intentioned and oft-true axioms, philosophies, tragic reminders of history's scars and, oh yes, broad comic shtick. Bookwriter Iris Rainer Dart supplied the lyrics for the froth and the tears. There's some careful craft, but at times some have the subtlety of a you-see-it-coming punch in the stomach or you-see-it-coming intended side-splitting belly laugh. At least on disc, it's an up/down/up/down again jostling ride as we move from track to track, and the lead character drifts from her alternately fraught or cozy 1977 present to her suddenly-reappearing World War II-era memories, alternately frightening or frolicking. Ever lurking, casting a shadow, could be the other shoe about to drop or a storm cloud ready to burst and then set up to come back with a silver lining. When we're overwhelmed with tragedies and regrets, it may be a cue for a spunky, bouncy tune from the feisty Jewish theatre troupe. The memo at that point may be to "send in the clowns" so we don't dwell on the pity party. But, once presumably getting required respite, it's back to a big helping of angst mixed with guilt (three generations questioning why they went through everything "For This" in the present) with a side order of comfort food, chicken soup for the theatrical soul. The separate parts are often self-contained and effective when experienced separately, but that might be working at cross purposes to the intention.

The instrumental prologue pulled me in with disarming, instantly evocative and wistful mood set, like a motion picture score's theme that economically establishes time and place. Settle back? Not on your life! We're off and running to the second track, the delightful (but with an edge) troupe's briskly bouncy anthem, "Bread and Theater." They tell us of the joys and values of performing, with the forcefully reinforced statement that without the former item in the title they might be hungry, but without the more vital latter item, they could not survive at all. This lively number—like most of the score—has music by Mike Stoller, most celebrated for some rock and rock classics written with Jerry Lieber (who recently passed away), their songbook anthologized for stage presentation as Smokey Joe's Cafe, though they wrote some more sophisticated, thoughtful cabaret numbers recorded by Peggy Lee and others. Artie Butler composed the music for four major songs: the urging melody for leave-a-legacy obligations, "We Were Here"; the melodramatically drawn-out "Saying Goodbye"; the comic "Ich, Uch, Feh" about communicating with with inflections in such sounds; and "Remember Who You Are," the adviso about Jewish roots, despite such things as Hollywood homogenizing/Americanizing of celebrities' original surnames.

Donna Murphy nobly anchors the show; we hear/see her character in her younger days as the determined, tirelessly persevering performer Raisel and as the aging, still determined grandmother. The chameleon-like actress strikes again. Disc-buyer beware: We don't get much of a chance to hear her vibrant singing voice at full power and in its beauty. It's buried in a grandmother's mutterings and sternness, or the broad-accented vaudeville-like antics. As in her role as Lotte Lenya in Lovemusik, she burrows and disappears (impressively) into an accented character not meant to be a belting or sizzling vocalizer. Her solo, "Selective Memory," is the score's highlight and the serious moment that rings most true and unmanipulated, all the more powerful for that reason. We empathetically experience a senior citizen's failing memory and the worry that comes with the awareness of the day-to-day vagueness but recalling richer times of her great love clear as a bell.

There are earlier times in Poland, rallying others with the love—and necessity—of performing and bearing witness. Her mission in later years is to pass the legacy and the lessons on, living with her daughter and granddaughter ("Child of My Child"). Raisel and daughter Red are poles apart in perspective and how they see the past and priorities, with Nicole Parker as Red getting little relief from her burdens and blaming. Veterans Chip Zien and Lewis J. Stadlen are well-cast bright lights in the company as troupe members, delivering such songs as "Remember Who You Ar" with savvy show biz flair and ease with the pastiche style. Alexander Gemignani gets to partake in some of the grand goofballism and also a little earnest singing.

And it's reliably expert Paul Gemignani at the helm with the orchestra, with Michael Starobin's orchestrations, the instrumental ensemble for this short-lived Broadway musical augmented with what's billed as "additional strings" for this recording. Sometimes marred by and mired in soap opera, the recognizable common big life struggles and survival skill sets are at the core of this. While our eyes are intentionally diverted by musical splash and mayhem, we're forced to look at the real open wounds and woes, too, and nothing can gloss over grief and the ugliness of World War II's upheavals, aftermath and Antisemitism. The People in the Picture posits that the less killable human spirit can remain very much in the picture, too. It's foolishly unwise to argue with that, but be advised that this is a heavy-handed approach that can be laid on as thick and soupily obvious as those thick Yiddish accents, with diminishing returns. Still, there are tasty treats and tidbits in this Kosher meal, and that napkin may come in handy to wipe away some genuinely induced tears.


Ghostlight Records

Picture this: a vocalist setting her sights on singing composer Michel Legrand's famously lush, rhapsodic, passionate dramatic melodies tenderly and intimately, knowing that "gentle agenda" comes with the accompaniment of a 100—count 'em, 100—piece orchestra he scored and conducted! (He's one of the 100 on piano.) Is it a remarkable "must be heard to be believed" achievement where low-key, private ruminations are sung, co-existing with but not upstaged by a gigantic symphonic whirlwind? After listening over and over to Melissa Errico's, and thinking it over, my answer is a decidedly firm, "Well, sorta." In a way, against all odds, it succeeds in letting low-key vocalizing share the stage with high-intensity instrumentation. Sometimes, this odd division of labor works—and works wonders—and sometimes one's attention is distractingly divided. Although her stated objective was not to be "too theatrical," by mostly reigning in her known musical theatre-honed sound, Ms. Errico still remains ever the emoting actress. Some may want to hear "more voice" from this singer who they know has a glorious, big voice that could soar and throb, musically going with the flow rather than against the grain. Not that the uber-emotional and romantic melodies need any extra passion "push."

With 10 of the 15 lyrics by the ever-sensitive, literate, image-friendly Marilyn and Alan Bergman, the singer's plate is plentiful with phrases and philosophy for an actor to hold up to the light or magnifying glass, for examination and emphasis. She revels in them, at times seemingly doggedly determined to slowly, methodically underline and highlight so many words within a lyric that one wonders: can anything stand out when everything is given such loving prioritizing and prizing? (This is seen in "His Eyes, Here Eyes.") We can see in our mind's eye the lovers holding hands on streets and in cafes, and the lyricists' frequently invoked references the sights of seasons and nature. On the singer's part, the flowing legato of the musical line can seem to be sacrificed in order to crisply attend to—or linger over—valued vocabulary, rhyme, ideas, incidents in story songs.

Naturally, it's more challenging to find illuminations in songs that have burned in the spotlight (and listeners' memories) for years, like "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" But Legrand keeps the music playing and playing and it's easy to get swept up and swept away, whether one chooses to ride the wave instrumentally or get up close and personal and analytical with the singer or, hopefully, both. The "why?" dichotomy of using small voice with huge orchestra may be the first and prominent impression, but it's not as simple as that. Listen. Sweet-voiced Melissa is always easily singing the pitches, even if she is doing so conversationally or as if confiding in a diary or in sotte voce lullaby mode, recalling her prior lullaby album. She's inherently and/or intentionally musical, apparently breathing music, as if effortlessly, even though she may be clipping phrases and rationing her chops as a convert to a strict Less-Is-More cult. When she does sustain notes at the ends of phrases or come back after the orchestral break with more heft, allowing for real "build," it is welcome and marvelous. Don't give up hope for a grand finale with full-throttle vocal power. It does come at the end, with "Celui-la" sung in French (as is "Dis-moi"), a catharsis Legrand wrote the day after John F. Kennedy's assassination; the melody will sound familiar to those who know an English lyric version known as "Now and Then," recorded by musical theatre leading lady Maria Friedman. This last track is exciting on its own and may also make some wish this approach had been employed much more often before. Another treat near the end is having Michel Legrand make a warm, loose and strong "surprise" singing entrance late in the track of "Once Upon a Summertime."

The CD is a nice mix of more recent, rarer pieces and old familiar songs that have been covered by major American artists who've recorded in collaborations with the composer-conductor (Jack Jones, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan) or Bergman collections which often become partial de facto Legrand sets. In the less-plowed territory, "Maybe Someone Dreamed Us" and "In Another Life" (both with Bergman words) are warmly embraced, worthy entries and are highlights, the words spun out quite flowingly and with involvement that isn't overly cerebral. Less satisfying are a few of the more frequently done pieces that come off as somewhat calmly emotionally removed than with high stakes. Produced by the lauded veteran Phil Ramone, co-produced by Richard Jay-Alexander, this project was years in a stop/start/on-hold cycle of planning and prep and pre-recording, with Legrand and Errico meeting and rehearsing first years ago (they'd first met when she starred on Broadway in Amour for which he was composer). The orchestral backings were recorded separately back in 2005, well before the final vocals were recorded. A long-gestating labor of love, however much the material has been rethought, restrained or reconstituted, Legrand's and the lyricists' hearts are on their sleeves and those telltale hearts beating are the loudest sound of all in this mammoth project.


LML Music

There's a healthy slice of Michel Legrand's work in Lee Lessack's album, the latest project for this love song-loving vocalist looking toward France. He takes on "Pieces of Dreams" (also known as "Little Boy Lost") with a sympathetic approach for the lost soul, as well as three songs also plucked by Melissa Errico for her Legrand project: "I Will Wait for You"; "The Windmills of Your Mind"; and "The Summer Knows," the last combined with a fifth Legrand choice called "Between Yesterday and Tomorrow." This meaty philosophical piece is from the abandoned song cycle written for Barbra Streisand (her version was eventually released on a box set). With the exception of "I Will Wait for You," the mentioned songs have lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Lee is no stranger to unabashedly romantic and ruminative lyrics like theirs or the other writers represented on the album.

The CD's title is the male version of the more often invoked word for female nightclub/cabaret performers, "chanteuse," as the French verb "to sing" is "chanter." His stance and style evoke pictures of a boulevardier or a fellow with a spotlight over his wearied shoulder, a tear in his eye, and a glass of French wine in his hand. He sings almost everything in English, though the roots are very much français. The other choices are not especially esoteric or unfamiliar to a casually aware English-speaking audience as giants are represented and some songs have crossed the ocean in English versions. So, if you're betting there are the usual suspects of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Bécaud, and Belgian-born Jacques Brel, you're quite right. Lee dives into the French stream—the deep end—and is more than comfortable floating in those romantic waters. I would have enjoyed a few more adventurous choices to broaden my horizons, but these are tried and true songs that have clung to American shores, favoring the 1960s.

Sorrow and struggle are worn like medals as rites of passage and loss and loneliness are accepted as going with the territory of romantic entanglements. Fervent and focused, proud to be fragile, determined to be strong enough to survive the next go-round with full-flowered love as life force as a goal, he soldiers on. Some variety in tone and tempi prevent this from languishing in ballad-heavy languid swampland (although the anthemic "If We Only Have Love" about more than just romance doesn't come til the final track). Some are more convincing than others: For example, on the Aznavourian samplings, "She" plods a bit and doesn't give us a sense of a specific person, but "Yesterday, When I Was Young" has some required rue and self-flagellation.

The fearless immersion in both sorrows and anticipation are commendable, as are the wide-eyed wonder or tear-dried, steely-eyed grit, but—for me—he sometimes leans too frequently on certain vocal trademarks. (I won't call them "tricks," as I feel his big romantic heart is in the right place and he's coming from a true place and a singer's artfulness.) I hear too much dependence on breathy, hushed tones and suggestions of sighs to paint a picture of awe-struck ardor or pondering life's mysteries (not just the whys and why-nots of romantic love, but nature's changes and the mechanisms of the mind—those windmills, you know). A gifted singer—chanteur—with golden tones in his higher register and depth and power when he chooses to go for "big," his vocal instrument in its legato loveliness and ringing strength are not used to fullest advantage on most tracks. Internalizing thoughts and some lamenting of emotional internal injuries makes for more contemplative crooning and some less-thoughtful-than-usual brashness here and there. I'm more of a fan of each of his previous albums; it was his first album's distinctive and pure unadulterated sensitivity that caught my ear and engaged me.

However, when nights are long, and lights are low, and you're ripe for contemplative renditions of artful, mostly classic, French imports, well, this catharsis and thoughtful recital might be the right audio companion. Come to think of it, the beginning of a new year is a time to be looking back and doing some thinking with a new perspective. This material with such a dedicated delivery man might be just the thing. And may the new year find us learning from such reflection and all enjoying the time "Between Yesterday and Tomorrow." May it be a rosy picture. Happy New Year ...

...and this column will return for its next installment with the top ten of 2011's cast albums, previously reviewed or not, and the same plan for vocal CDs the week after that.

- Rob Lester

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