Sound Advice Reviews
Spotlight on cast recordings
GUYS AND DOLLS
Maybe you think the material in the oft-produced, oft-recorded Guys and Dolls can't be mined to find a bounty of original nuances and twists that will surprise those who have much of the material locked in their musical theatre-loving heads. Can more fresh water be drawn from that old well that has brought forth many recordings since 1950? Well, in a word, yes. There is sparkle and fizz aplenty in the fun-filled new audio souvenir of the revival currently playing in London at the Bridge Theatre. Many reviews of the show have focused on the visuals and physical attractions–the immersive production has the closer members of the wrap-around audience as standees shepherded from one side of the stage to another, the set pieces with their neon light signs descending and ascending, plus some impressive dancing. As a listener who's well acquainted with the Frank Loesser score from numerous cast albums and cover versions, I was frequently impressed with the fresh takes and the creative touches and embellishments adorning these warhorses–in the singing, acting, and vibrant instrumental work–so by the time "I've Never Been in Love Before" came along, its line "I thought I knew the score" suddenly had another meaning.
Successful Guys and Dolls casting requires actors projecting plus-size comic personality and moxy. This version checks those boxes. Thus, the funny and brash stuff lands well, more rewarding than the protagonists' would-be voluptuous ballads which can feel restrained, a bit tepid, or "studied" in some sections. But there are some intriguing acting choices in the phrasing that bring color and specificity. While not soaring through the potentially sensitive and legato territory, Andrew Richardson delivers the requisite suave factor and confidence as gambler Sky Masterson, and he dutifully brings drive and edge to "Luck Be a Lady" as the men's chorus drills down on all that in aggressive echoes of the words.
Consistently entertaining is Marisha Wallace, a resourceful interpreter of the plum role of Adelaide in the plot songs and leading the pieces presented as numbers in a nightclub show ("A Bushel and a Peck" and "Take Back Your Mink"). Within one chorus, she varies her vocal sound to include belting, growling, cooing, wailing, and squealing, with lots of sass. She makes the role her own. And she gives two of her co-stars their best moments in duets she shares with them, complementing rather than upstaging Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah in "Marry the Man Today" or Daniel Mays as Nathan in "Sue Me." (It's a constant giggle to take in the evidence of their frustrations and affection as a couple who've been engaged about twice as long as all six of the major New York runs of Guys and Dolls.)
It's quite the generous feast, with 27 tracks that allow for some reprises, terrific instrumentals (including a dazzling overture, entr'acte, a mambo version of the title song, and the music for bows that samples many of the melodies), and the encore choruses of the showstopper "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," led by Cedric Neal with pizzazz and pow. Unfortunately, the CD version does not make room for the three affecting and disarming treatments that he and other male cast members harmonize on, which are available digitally. (These guys from the Guys and Dolls company keep the male pronouns in "I'll Know.")
For me, the most exciting element of this recording is the new set of orchestrations by the immensely creative Charlie Rosen. Full of detailed decoration, accents, flourishes and filigrees, little instrumental phrases and fills feel like miniature commentaries on words or statements that have just been sung. Individual instruments stand out, popping up in a parade of well-"cast," tiny seized opportunities as my mind's eye sees a vaudevillian slide whistle punctuating a joke or a quick run on what sounds like a xylophone's frolic. Conductor/arranger Tom Brady's 14-member orchestra plays the energy. It's a party.
The photo-filled booklet that comes with the CD offers reflections by Mr. Rosen with generous nods to the orchestrators of prior Guys and Dolls productions whose work he studied and learned from, as well as memories penned by the children of songwriter Frank Loesser and bookwriter Abe Burrows. (Lines of dialog are preserved as set-ups to some songs, brief enough so as not to derail the momentum of the fast-paced action.) This jaunty alternative to past cast albums of a classic score is respectful but by no means redundant, and it is fabulously feisty. It overflows with a great quantity of joy–more than a bushel and a peck.
WILD ABOUT YOU
Some formidable musical theatre names lend their talents to the world premiere studio recording of Wild About You (the third title in its history of numerous readings, workshops, and concert presentations over the last five years). One of the accomplished performers is also its composer/lyricist, Chilina Kennedy; she sings on three of the 12 tracks, including a duet on the rocking title number with Jenn Colella, who has been in many of the iterations of the project. (Other Kennedy connections include people whose credits overlap with her own history as a performer on Broadway in Paradise Square, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.) In all, fifteen performers participate, most appearing just once. Among them are Tony Award winners Lea Salonga, Jessie Mueller, Alex Newell, and Joaquina Kalukango. With only minimal context provided, no indication of characters, and lyrics offering relatively few solid clues beyond seeing that people are unleashing volatile expressions of emotions, the listening experience registers more as a series of singer showcases of charged contemporary power ballads and laments. A few calmer exceptions bring some tenderness.
Containing some selections first found on What You Find in a Bottle, Kennedy's solo album from about a decade ago, plus other material she wrote, a song cycle has grown into a production with a storyline. It concerns a woman named Olivia who is slowly sorting out her past, including a connection to her beloved son, while she is in the hospital, afflicted with memory loss. The eerily meandering opening, "Floating and Feeling," with Katharine McPhee, captures the woozy confusion. But we're more at sea to figure out who's who and what happened with most relationships. Eric Holmes came on board as bookwriter, but there's no spoken material on the recording to give context, the CD's packaging and press release about Wild About You give no detailed plot synopsis, and there's no list of characters. General impressions come through, but some of it feels bombastic or vague, so that it may not pull in those looking for traditional theatre songs that coalesce into a whole.
A core six-piece band is augmented by a string orchestra. Daniel Edmonds leads the band and is keyboardist/ arranger/ music producer. Wild About You's next incarnation comes with presentations soon in England.
WALKING WITH BUBBLES
Truth can be stronger than fiction. Actress Jessica Hendy sings and narrates an autobiographical one-woman show that is powerful, searing, and sometimes anguished (but ultimately resilient), drawn from her real-life experiences of shattered dreams and trying to move on. Walking with Bubbles tells how she struggled through a marriage to a man who developed harrowing mental health issues, followed by the break-up and challenges of single motherhood bringing up her son (nicknamed Bubbles), relocating, and halts in a theatre career. The recording is a mix of self-penned spoken material relating various incidents, including some happier early times, and songs based on her recollections and reflections, with music and lyrics by Brianna Barnes. Palpable despair and sorrow make this a tough trek–a fasten-your-seatbelts rollercoaster ride–but the vulnerability and catharsis can make you hang on and hang in through this tale of how she valiantly did the same. As a saga of sorrows and survival, it can be gripping and painful, but stay the course for the life lessons and perspective.
Jessica Hendy sings with passion and purpose, pulling a listener in, her resolute voice ebbing and flowing from pensive to strident, risking an earned shrieking sound at the most frantic, frightened moments. There's some skipping around in the chronology, so there's respite in talking and singing about an initially idyllic residency in "St. Thomas," and using present-tense verbs in narration makes the emotions from years-old incidents seem relived in a visceral way. Songwriter Barnes seems to have captured the mindsets and language style of this actress playing herself, as there is no big divide or gulf between the way the persona strikes us in speech versus song as they alternate. The content of the songs, while uncompromisingly emotional and not afraid to linger on wounds and woes, generally steers clear of melodramatic murkiness that might come with heavier melodies or dense accompaniment. The intimate instrumentation is just piano and/or guitar.
Dependence on some near-rhymes and repeating points made at the ends of songs make some lyrics less artful, but there are some admirably articulate passages and unpretentious true rhymes that flow nicely. Melodies are effective, too, capturing the various ups and downs of hope and faith. A pre-existing actual Christian hymn, "I Surrender All," is incorporated for a scene in church, astutely leading into the reaction-in-song "How Can I Surrender All." The wrap-up message about soldiering on to go through one's life story "One Page at a Time" might seem too pat and pat-yourself-on-the-back for fortitude after all the piercing slings and arrows, but there's a need for an optimistic mantra. The last two of the ten tracks are alternate versions of this and the opening piece, "Just Saturday." These are called "radio edits."
Pianist Alexandra Crosby and guitarist Nick Potocki are the accompanists, with the exception of the radio edits where the production's music supervisor, Jacob Yates, takes over the piano and the bonus track of an ingratiatingly cheerful title song with songwriter Barnes joins Jessica Hendy with voice and guitar. Walking with Bubbles can be intense, and listening to this sample of the show that played Off-Broadway last spring leaves one wondering about the details in the story that spans years. While navigating such treacherous waters risks drowning in self-indulgence/ self-pity/ self-congratulation, it's the long-term self-awareness that comes through, filtered by theatrical sensibility.
THE NEW PEGGY
Reality takes a coffee break in a quirky one-act musical set in an office where we meet Peggy, a long-tenured, underappreciated employee at her desk kept company by two singing companions with strong feelings of their own: her stapler and a manila envelope. Co-lyricists Drew Larimore (also the bookwriter) and J. Oconer Navarro (also the composer) bring a fanciful flair for an anything-might-happen atmosphere in The New Peggy, where a frozen potato can be a lethal weapon, feelings of romance and resentment can build for years or explode in a minute, an old-fashioned stapler mourns being somewhat obsolete because copy machines have built-in stapling for collated pages, and the expressed humor involving moving files can be literally pushing the envelope.
The immensely likeable Ann Harada is the title character of the likeably odd The New Peggy. We get our first impression of her in hearing just her part of a telephone conversation as she cheerily chirps in a self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing manner ("If It Wasn't for Me") about the credit she's really due for the success and happiness of her boss, for whom she's long harbored romantic feelings. Things soon become dark and desperate–and daffy–when pining Peggy finds out that the guy is cavorting lustily with Velna from the accounting department and they plan to run off together. The plot thickens.
With an irreverent air and some lurking melancholy under the madcap doings, The New Peggy is diverting in its over-the-top subversive style. Emboldened by the not-so-moral values of her inanimate friends, Peggy's sublimated hostility is animated as she's convinced that the time is "Now or Never" to do something very drastic. In this push-coming-to-shove sequence, Devin Ilaw as the rusting stapler and Deb Radloff as the envelope stuffed with resentment are a hoot. In another highlight, the two join Ann Harada in the charmingly catchy title song. Outlandishly loopy is Rachel Hardin as the imposing, heavily accented Velna (she's from Latvia), in full femme fatale mode, cloaking everything with the veil of danger, confident in all she does except being able to remember Peggy's name. Daniel Marcus ably completes the cast as the boss.
Evil doings, jealousy, lust, impetuous impulses, a taste for revenge and/or murder, singing office supplies–with A New Peggy, it's all in a day's work.