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Sound Advice Reviews

Chenoweth & McGovern's pretty singing
plus Pretty Filthy, a cast recording
Reviews by Rob Lester

"Pretty" is in the eye—or ear—of the beholder. Some of the adjectives in "I Feel Pretty," from the 60-year-old West Side Story—"pretty and witty and bright ... stunning and enchanting ... modest and pure, polite and refined, well-bred and mature"—describe aspects of outings by female vocalists Kristin Chenoweth and Maureen McGovern. In the case of the cast recording or Pretty Filthy, a musical about actors in pornographic films, well, it's pretty much a different story.


Concord Records

Although my review copy of Kristin Chenoweth's The Art of Elegance came with no packaging and without the two tracks found in the deluxe edition, there's plenty of art and plenty of elegance here to please the ear. This is a classy affair, with the musical theatre and concert star at her interpretive best. The chipper and comedic "cute" stuff is left on the shelf and she slides into a recording studio satiny sound with pensive phrasing and a reserved, kind of conservative approach. Maybe we should call it the "mature" side of the songstress. Some fans may miss the zip and vigor that can be synonymous with her persona, but the material here consists of mainly well-known classic love song standards of eras long past, heartfelt sincere stuff, and it's a straightforward and sincere approach that's appropriate. That being said, if you didn't know that this performer has a big, strong soprano voice of operatic proportions, you wouldn't guess it from what you hear on these tracks. But kudos to Kristin for a change in the Chenoweth presentation and we can all use some silk now and then. And plenty of very pretty sustained notes at songs' unrushed conclusions remind us of those mighty chops.

Three classics by the Gershwins are among the selections. Although all have been crooned innumerable times by many a vocalist, decade after decade, there is nothing tired or creaky in these lovely treatments. Affection for these numbers about affection radiates through the singing and accompaniment. As with the other ballads, there is a respectful sense of following the established general outlines and tempi of how these pieces are usually approached. So, while the many who know them intimately will find no cause for revelation or hearing a lyric with creatively adjusted emphasis, the recital is pleasing without feeling revitalized or crucial. It's another fine singer continuing the legacy and, for some younger fans of this star, perhaps, a worthy introduction to some of them via her work.

The ever-tasteful Alan Broadbent provides suitably plush but rewardingly uncluttered orchestral settings. We get pillows of strings, but also some spiffy rhythmic jauntiness and some adrenalin from brass accents on things like a playful stroll through "Let's Fall in Love." And sax star Dave Koz is featured on two cuts—the aforementioned cozy confession of a "Crush" and the very endearingly gentle "The Very Thought of You." The verse to the latter features accompanied by guitar and that simplicity at the starting point is an especially inviting and intimate introduction. (Three cheers for the very welcome inclusions of the verses on some of these recordings, as their engagingly conversational set-ups are anything but disposable in understanding the full picture of a song.)

While the ears are nourished by the sweet songs with the vocalist luxuriating in the serenity and contented mindset of a person in love, it's the sad laments where we get some even more impressive, involving work. The emotionally raw "I'm a Fool to Want You," introduced and co-written by Frank Sinatra in brokenhearted mode, has real guts and pathos. "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)" provides more convincing sorrow and loss with impressive phrasing. Pal Joey's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" stays more on the sentimental side, mostly eschewing the more rueful, jaded tone and the franker lyrics that censors objected to back in the day, although she keeps "...until I could sleep where I shouldn't sleep." Fortunately, this is another case of keeping the intro verse which sets up the situation with lines that reveal a woman who's woken up and smelled the stronger coffee ("He's a fool and don't I know it ... ").

One number will certainly ring a familiar bell with Chenoweth fans: "A House Is Not a Home," which was added to the 2010 revival of Promises, Promises she starred in, also makes an appearance. A change-of-pace item, the more spiritually leaning "You're My Saving Grace," is quite dynamic reaching into a well of deep feeling. Steve Tyrell is on board as producer, with the work here showing none of the slickness or amiable casual attitude his own swinging albums as vocalist are replete with. But a mutual comfort level with the Great American Songbook is the common ground. All in all, The Art of Elegance is quite the shining, glimmering accomplishment.


MM Music

Short of stumbling upon the balm in Gilead the Bible tells of, listening to Maureen McGovern's recent album is a fine recommendation as a calming and religious experience. You Raise Me Up: A Spiritual Journey booth soothes and stirs the willing soul. These effects come from the almost palpable commitment, the repertoire, vocal quality and arrangements (by the recording's pianist, and co-producer with the singer, her longtime associate Jeff Harris). In her liner notes, Ms. McGovern tells us, "My desire has been to record a spiritual CD, in these oh-so-trying times, that would feel like a warm blanket passed on from heart to heart." Mission accomplished!

For those who know a prior release called Works of Heart, collecting songs with a theme of hope—titled for her non-profit Foundation of the same name which focuses on those facing medical challenges—this feels like a more intense follow-up. Here, the selections are decidedly more specifically religious. That is, the words "God" and "Jesus" are frequently heard; titles like "Father Won't You Carry Me" and a Harris musical setting of the Prayer of St. Francis make it clear that a Christian bent is front and center, rather than a more vaguely generic "spirituality" tack some might take. But there's a difference between prayerful and preachy, and the work here can be described as the former. The concept of hope prevails. Amanda McBroom's "The Rose" is philosophical and contemplative rather than religious; it's sung with as much gravitas as the others. And a firm sense of confidence of belief radiates through the message of "Turn, Turn, Turn" ("To Everything There Is a Season") which was a pop hit in the 1960s, but comes right from the Bible.

Earnestness is where Maureen McGovern is residing here, but there is grace in both senses of the word, with a hushed reverence preferred over any temptation to become strident or shout hallelujahs. With tasteful instrumental accompaniment and arrangements that match the assured choice of reserve in the singing, the whole aural experience washes over the listener without risk of numbing sameness. Her voice is so magnificently rich that blandness or a feeling of "too calm" is hardly a risk, despite the perhaps unavoidable similarities in subject matter, perspective and messages. Smart variety in how the instrumentation is used helps change up the landscape. (We have guitar, mandolin, cello, violin, flute, sax, percussion and the bass of frequent McGovern projects—and the bass of Jay Leonhart, who has frequently been heard on McGovern projects.

Whatever the genre, the artistry of Maureen McGovern is always a joy to behold. Also a Broadway veteran, her concert work includes touring as part of 4 Girls 4 with musical theatre stars Christine Andreas, Faith Prince, and Andrea McArdle as well as going solo. If it's possible to be "gently intense," this recording is the one. Amen.


Ghostlight Records

It's billed as "a new musical about the other Hollywood," meaning the world of American pornographic movies and the people who toil there. Unlike the hell of Dante's dismal and dark Inferno, there is no sign warning "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." And hopelessness is not the hope of the endeavor called Pretty Filthy which it seems, seeks to make those who act in the films and the sex acts themselves rather matter of fact: neither glamorized nor despicable. A reality-based, humanizing portrayal is the agenda, as the show's material is the end product of months of research and interviews by The Civilians, the 15-year-old company whose mission is "investigative theatre."

A "Don't-blame-us" disclaimer pointing out that some lyrics and dialogue are "found" lines culled from verbatim comments from XXX-movie workers could be a convenient smug shrug excusing words that might seem artless, heartless, simplistic, or offensive. I find much of it to be surprisingly non-titillatingly tame, yet tasteless and mostly uninvolving. For something based on the on and off-set lives of real people, the many people presented in the 13 songs by eight actors don't come off as richly "real."

To be fair, there is not much of the 90-minute show's spoken material credited by Bess Wohl included in what's recorded, featuring the music and lyrics by the company's returning contributor and a founding member, Michael Friedman, whose work has impressed me in the past (Gone Missing, Love's Labour's Lost, Fortress of Solitude, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). The songwriter also co-produced the crisp-sounding recording with the Ghostlight label's Kurt Deutsch and did the effective and unfussy orchestrations for the four-piece band led by its pianist, Nathan Dame.

The performances were recorded shortly after the month-long run in early 2015 by this cast at downtown Manhattan's Abrons Arts Center, that actual production's time or place oddly getting no mention in the packaging, the 12-page booklet given over mostly to smiley color photos of the company. That stage presentation had its share of positive reviews, some expressing surprise that it had its share of humor and cheer. Much of that "humor" includes the kind of sexual double entendres and puns that might be deemed hilarious and witty if you're a sniggering junior high school boy who hasn't heard them all. A lot. Here, that overdose may be reached just with the many of the "Names" the performers sing about adopting and registering how they'll be billed.

Other numbers after this, the opener, allow the dramatis personae to variously comment on and complain about their chosen profession. There's a confession about being in a relationship with a cohort where their own screen personas are the elephants in the (bed)room ("Becky & Bobby & Taylor & Dick"), along with a newcomer's wondering "What If I Like It" and longtime participants with a few chances to reflect on how the industry has changed (or changed them). By far, the most effective and deepest selection is Luba Mason's powerful "Beautiful." The seen-it-all woman offers a wrenching but clear-eyed look back at her life, the "list" style of lyrics uses language economically, also disposing of what may be the typical or expected background and motivations for getting into the porn biz. Commanding respect and attention, dignity is achieved.

The very glib, game performers suggest an air of confidence with comfort and non-condescension that, fortunately, diminishes any lingering thought that it's exploitative rather than explanatory. There is evidence of talent and energy in the singing voices and ensemble work, and the melodies have variety and some craft. If male-bonding commiseration about erectile dysfunction as an occupational hazard or nostalgia for pre-internet sex footage are your idea of entertaining subject matter for songs, and wit and flair are immaterial, this material may be for you. For me, Pretty Filthy is not pithy and not filled with insights, but I'll hope for something more intriguing from the adventurous company and this songwriter next time around. To each his/her own.

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