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Three Very Different Musicals, Not Much Standard Happiness

Not much "happy" to be found here. We see through Sondheim sensibilities two often lonely apartment-dwellers dwelling on such attitudes as marriage being "Happily Ever After" in hell. The second couple finds their marriage to be Far from Heaven-blessed. And there's not much joy in the house of Borden with Lizzie and her axe.


Ghostlight Records/ Keen Company/ Razor & Tie

Once upon a time, decades ago, it was realized that the interest in composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim's work was sufficient to construct a two-person musical from songs cut from his scores. In 1980, Marry Me a Little featured material then new to most people. And there was a charming cast album. Now there's another charming cast album. The difference, besides the casts, is that anyone paying attention to Sondheim has heard renditions of a fair number of these pieces in other recordings.

A few pieces have been dropped and some have been added. In the intervening years, Sondheim's long-lost very early unproduced musical Saturday Night finally saw the light of day (and two cast recordings), so its title song and two others here feel more like known visitors. Opening the show instead is "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" from the TV musical "Evening Primrose," better known now that it had its own belated recordings in intervening years. Remaining are assorted cut songs, notably from Follies, and a number added to that score in London, "Ah, But Underneath," inserted.

What makes this hang together nicely as an album when played straight through is that many of the tracks melt into each other without the little silences between them. It makes them feel connected and, of course, the ordering of the selections helps as it does in a live performance. Having them all sung by just two characters, who share some perspective when they sing together, adds to the unity. And in union there is strength, for this is an increasingly strong recording which brings surprising freshness to familiar numbers because of the youthful, non-jaded attitudes projected by the two stars, the appealing Lauren Molina and Jason Tam. Enthusiasm and dewy first-time-experienced perspectives impressively shine through. Granted, some more mature lyrics seem not to be such a good fit. (Would a contemporary young woman really have the been-there/seen-that observational skills and high-gloss wit for "Ah, But Underneath"? Or would she use "fox trot" as a euphemism or part of her literal vocabulary?) Still, it's all quite enjoyable. One might sometimes wish Jason Tam had a richer, more resonant grand voice here and there, but with both, there's a sweetness and vulnerability that come through.

On the title song, they hit just the right balance of asking for the impossible with a certain desperate eagerness masked with self-delusion and an awareness that they are doing exactly that works impressively. When Jason Tam returns right after with "Happily Ever After" it's another shade of this crisis of commitment/commitment phobia. Fans know that both of these numbers was cut from Company for the eventual choice "Being Alive", but the solo does not feel like a rerun as a follow-up to the duet, for its self-convincing rue is done with another twist and point of view.

The "cute" duets never fall into coy territory, as a true joy embracing Disney-like wonder and want for romantic ideals is endearingly sugar-free. You believe that they believe. Variety in tone and coloring of words and notes helps to provide personalization.

John Bell's extremely skillful piano work follows many well-trod accompaniment figures and blueprints, but remarkably never feels ho-hum. His touch is sprightly and fleet, in the right spirit for each number. He Lauren Molina briefly appears instrumentally on cello (as she did when playing it and Johanna in the Sweeney Todd revival).

This is a welcome addition to the Sondheim saga, happily not redundant due to the bright and tender approach. On January 13, the singers and pianist Bell will be at Barnes and Noble on East 86th Street to perform some of the material for free to celebrate the CD's release.


PS Classics

It pays to listen a second time. And a third time. I couldn't get to the last couple of tracks of Far From Heaven even beginning a fourth sitting, always beginning again. There's a lot of sung angst and some small talk set to music. Hint: Sometimes small talk serves as a clue that characters are avoiding the elephant in the room or their time is taken with perky polite pleasantries or daily drivel. Point taken. Still, I found Far from Heaven difficult to immediately appreciate and be fully engaged by.

PS Classics is known for its loving extra care in all aspects of production, sound quality and bringing a real sense of theatre to cast albums. So, I was never in doubt of the high quality of the presentation, enjoying the lushness of sound, separation of instruments, attention to detail, and painting of moods. One unfamiliar with the story from the film or musical on stage will find judicious bits of Richard Greenberg's book, based on the 2002 film, giving the outlines of key plot points without having to rely on a synopsis—but there is one in the booklet, which also contains all the lyrics, credits, an essay of appreciation and perspective by theatre journalist Jesse Green, and 11 color photos, many full-page sized.

There's a tough act to follow when we're talking about a new score by the songwriters of the captivating and quirky attention-grabbing, and awards-grabbing, Grey Gardens, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. Far from Heaven is a quite different piece, although a case can be made for some similarities in sensibilities and underlying sensitivity and a feeling of being trapped, home sweet home being not so sweet behind closed doors. Here we have the story of a marriage being suddenly ripped apart and shock waves and gossip echoing, along with the sounds of denial and desperation.

Star Kelli O'Hara's vocals shimmer even more than usual and, through her housewife character in the suburban tale set in 1957, she gets to show a variety of moods, from blithe to burdened, hope and hurt. Acting with shading and the weight of denial and disbelief crashing a superficially sunny exterior, her work shines as her soprano sound does. Some melodies seem undeniably graceful, if a bit elusive, on first hearings. This is true even when they are matched to mundane mutterings or more tiresomely trite trouble-telling or chipper chit-chat.

With all the dressing in place for the main course of the score and story—attractive sounds, attractive sound quality, and professionalism (including, most certainly, Lawrence Yurman's superbly crisp musical direction)—what is missing? It's not talent or craftsmanship. One needs much sympathy for the characters' locked-in feelings and control and what's not said to "get" the point of all the conversation set to music. The children's complaints and parents brushing them off or rushing them off to school (with the same melody, understatedly delightful as it may be) seems on the surface to be not so much ado about almost nothing, but it has a point in the big picture.

When the characters are discussing their problems and predicaments, calmly or tensely, the oh-so-very-very frequent use of having them address each other by name within one song just irritates me. I can see some reasons, but it's way more than an "enough is enough" situation. Other kinds of repetition could be explained away by saying that things aren't sinking in, so they resort to restating points or questions. However, that doesn't make it something we want to hear. Arguments and tensions may well be suitable to a more halting or fragmented melodic approach, but just as songs on a CD, one wants more that soars or sweeps.

That the early picture-postcard perfect song about contentment in Nature, "Autumn in Connecticut," via O'Hara's buoyant soprano, should be one of the most melodic seems to hang happiness on a subject apart from human relationships. It does become effective when briefly reprised instrumentally to remind of the now absent bliss taken from simple pleasures.

Cast as the troubled husband, Steven Pasquale doesn't get much chance to show off the strong suit so evident in his solo CD—romantic crooning—but "I Never Knew" has some bittersweet beauty under the pain and regret. The jazzy jauntiness of his sung interactions with his officemates raises them from the blah of what's being discussed. Isaiah Johnson brings real dignity to his role as Raymond, the gardener/confidante/single dad with his own loneliness to shoulder, but one wants perhaps more colors and sparks. Nancy Anderson adds spice as a neighbor with her nose in everyone's business, with her heart sometimes in the right place despite being a victim of the myopic attitudes/prejudices of the time and place. While she, too, only gets to show a small percentage of her chameleonlike range, her character remains sharp and believable. In a small but featured role, veteran Mary Stout as a fussier, self-satisfied lady of the town is grandly entertaining.

There are many wonderful little fragments of melody and skillful examples of lyric-writing skill, and individual songs are more impactful when their full roles as parts of the puzzle and minor Greek tragedy are appreciated. There may be more function here than form—and a bit of formula.

The producer is Steven Epstein, with Tommy Krasker executive producer. The show opened at Playwrights Horizons in June of 2013, and the July recording names four "substitute musicians" (though not indicating what instruments they play) on a separate back page from the 13 orchestra members' names on the first page, under the list of the 18 cast members.


Broadway Records

The verdict of "not guilty" in the legendary axe murder trial of Lizzie Borden was reached in an hour. It takes longer to listen to this cast album, which is a highly dramatic two-disc affair. Listening straight through, there were many moments when I was mesmerized and felt the proceedings were gripping. At other times, my mind wandered or I felt the urge to giggle at the goings-on and how they sometimes go on and on, presented in a repetitious yet raucous rock way with screaming guitars and the thunder of a red-hot band. And then, every now and then, a disarmingly lovely strain or melody, accompanied by an achingly unadorned vocal plea appears.

Quite a few of the musical episodes are quite short, not much longer than a minute. Drenched in doomed, dark atmosphere to the maximum degree, it's oftentimes compelling and commanding of attention and curiosity as a swiftly moving gothic mystery can be. Resist Lizzie as overkill, if you will and can, but be warned that you may gamely give in and get into the gloom and doom and created claustrophobia.

The musical was presented at the 2010 festival presented by NAMT (National Alliance for Musical Theatre) and has been developed at Manhattan's HERE Theatre and the state of Washington's Village Theatre. The score presents its case without a chance to directly encounter the murder victims, the Borden sister's father and stepmother, or lawyers, police, or flocks of townspeople with opinions.

It is sung with great commitment and strong voices, almost exclusively by four women. Carrie Manolakos plays Lizzie with coiled or explosive animal ferocity, and Carrie Cimma plays the more subtly strong housemaid Bridget (she has the thankless challenge of having to "calmly" impart bad news and express her regrets about the unfortunate deaths of the previous day and then ask Lizzie's sister what she'd like for breakfast). Older sister Emma is sung by Storm Large, who has also been making a name for herself in reinvented daring "cabaret" performance circles. With an alternately sympathetic and imploding performance, she brings some fascinating desperation even to the backstory of the family. (She's also saddled with the odd distinction of delivering a song that single-handedly justifies the back cover's note "Warning: Contains explicit content.") Ryah Nixon, the most hauntingly interesting vocally, plays the friend/neighbor named Alice, who is harboring her own secret and hoping against apparently scant hope for things to brighten "Maybe Someday." Her sorrow and bottled-up feelings can send a special kind of chill infused with a kind of kinetic but calming balm of warmth.

A recording of a horror musical filled with threatening overtones, moans and groans must be contemplated for what it is. As an audio recording of a grim drama, complete with some sound effects and numerous bits of dialogue connecting incidents, it feels not unlike an old radio show meant to stimulate our imaginations and scare the pants off us.

This work is a collaborative effort, with individual song credits showing who contributed what in various combinations. Bookwriter Tim Maner is sole or co-lyricist, and Steven Cheslik-de Meyer has his hands in both music and lyrics. Alan Stevens Hewitt is co-composer, orchestrator and a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass and more) and is the recording's producer. He provided "additional lyrics" on a few pieces, including all the words to "This Is Not Love," one of the most literate and clear-eyed condemnations. It's also one that is more shaded, not showing its full hand.

For each line which is repeated and repeated (eight times we hear the title line of "I Gotta Get Out of Here," not counting sixteen additional times we hear just "I gotta"), there are an equal number of intriguing ones. Some are poetic, give pause, or have pith: "The pear is jealous of the rose/Because she hears all your woes"; "Mercury rises/ As the drops of stifled rage/ Collecting weight/ Begin to fall"; "My soul waits for the Lord/ More than the watchmen for the morning." Delivered with care, they come as welcome surprises.

I am doubtful that Lizzie lends itself to being a frequent-play fave, but it's potent on its own merits. Its rock elements and rocky roads appeal to that recessive gene in my musical taste which responds not to run-of-the-mill sturm-und-drang hyperactive wailing, but to the better, well-played scenarios whose rages are more sung than just screamed. Patience is sufficiently rewarded should you settle down for an unsettling listen.

- Rob Lester

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