Sound Advice Reviews
Something Rotten! & Something Beautiful
If music be the food of laughs, play on, CD player, play on! Something Rotten!'s original cast album is something to enjoy again and again. And the more you're a fan of touchstones of the razzle-dazzle snazziness of musical theatre while acknowledging its excesses, the more you'll note in the mix of smart and smart ass here. A pair of brothers named KirkpatrickWayne and Kareyprovide their characters, who include a pair of brothers named Bottom, William Shakespeare, and other Elizabethan citizenry, a bounty of unbridled whacky songs. If winking at the audience were an Olympic event, the writers and cast gleefully making much of each golden opportunity would have a shot at winning a gold medal.
Conflict and contrast are set up early on, with the Bottom siblings polar opposites in opinions about reigning playwright Shakespeare. Brian d'Arcy James is a bundle of seething animosity as Nick, rejecting the icon and mincing no words as he explodes, "God, I Hate Shakespeare!" and nails the tone of fed-up frustration. Meanwhile, brother Nigel is a fawning fan, John Cariani nicely playing the needed sweeter calm.
A parade of parody marches almost non-stop with its silliness at the forefront. The leading players lead this parade, marching in step with the tone, with different personalities and vocal colors to prevent redundancy. The heavily used ensemble has lots of spunk in its spotlight moments and snide asides that acknowledge the function of a musical's chorus members as commentators. The full potential of this musical mayhem is brought out and accented with the savvy arrangements by Glen Kelly and splashy orchestrations by Larry Hochman (with additional work in this area by Bruce Coughlin and conductor Phil Reno). The well-stuffed barrel of fun nearly bursts.
While often more on the sophomoric than sophisticated side, the humor is nonetheless welcome like a wise-cracking, show biz-wise old friend. There are numerous "Did they really go there?" moments and some jokes you might see coming, but expected company can be satisfying. And there's something almost gratifying even when it's, as Sondheim wrote, "something familiar, something peculiar ... something for everyone" in Something Rotten!'s creators' determination to leave almost no stone unturned in their "Anything for a laugh" quest. Remarkably, it's not exhausting; and when it comes to more crass turns of phrase, they aren't all that pushy about pushing the envelope. There's a method to the madness, with zingy pastiche numbers skillfully crammed with references to musical theatre traditions and mini-quotes that include bits of music from The Music Man, a vamp from A Chorus Line, a line from Dreamgirls sung by an egg in the musical Omelette (think Hamlet).
Despite the booklet's track list page having a cartoon character saying, "Warning: All songs are show tunes!," it's not all just a sole musical comedy style. The proceedings present equal opportunity spoofing, turning on a dime to turn on a gospel roof-raiser, a spoonful of jivey hip-hop, a rhythmic tap dance challenge, and an especially playful mock rock cock-of-the-walk self-indulgent strut for Shakespeare (the spot on Christian Borle) as worshipped celebrity. In the ode to the Bard's bodaciousness and starry clout called (what else?) "Will Power," he quotes his own work, and works the crowd into a frenzy worthy of Evita or Elvis, concluding by alluding to the motto that (what else?) "Where there's a Will, there's a way." While this number multiplies the tickling of our ears with close rhymes in "I am the Will with the skill to thrill you with my quill," and there's plenty of evidence of wit, fearless satire, and clever rhymes in many numbers, there is also some sloppy rhyming. Examples abound: The hard T and softer D sound starting a syllable don't rhyme, as in meetings/readings or pewter/Tudor or incredible/unforgettable or said it/get it; a syllable without an S at the end doesn't rhyme with one that has the S for plural, as in gold/holds or band/hands or /; and other near rhymes, such as syrup/Europe and fans/demands and persimmons/lemons and spark/start. Settling for these lazy close-but-no-cigar choices for the characters' voices make for rust on what is otherwise shiny work. Ironically or as acknowledgment of this failing, in the duet for fellow fans of good writing delightfully done by Cariani and Kate Reinders ("I Love the Way"), we get this: ""Every time I hear a perfect rhyme/ I get all tingly/ Because I know that to find a perfect rhyme is not an easy thing-ily."
Arguably, Some of the lyrics that dwell on one main thing (an idea which may be given away, alas, right in the title) overdo the jokey idea at risk of beating it into the ground. This gives the impression that the lyricist or performer is just so self-satisfied that he can't get too much of a good thing. But it can be overkill, making for the lack of a "topper" kind of surprise for the end. You might feel this in "Hard to Be the Bard," Nick Bottom's vow that "Bottom's Gonna Be on Top," or the moral of the story first espoused by Nigel, pre-quoting Shakespeare, "To Thine Own Self" ("...be true"). But the loopy doings offer so much campy pleasure and fiercely energetic goodwill that much is forgivable in balance. And balancing the rowdy male-heavy tomfoolery, the distaff side is well represented by Heidi Blickenstaff likeably advocating to let a woman in on the work in "I'm Your Man." Her bright belt is a big plus as she urges, "There's no problem that's too big/ When you're married, that's the gig/ So don't be a sexist pig!" This early song is so strong that we miss her participation later when all we get from her is a reprise of this.
The addictive album highlight for my co-addicts of musical theatre may be the explanation of what "A Musical" is, as a buoyant, irrepressible Brad Oscar as Nostradamus explains the then-foreign and future format to a disbelieving d'Arcy James as the perplexed fellow reluctant to embrace it, despite the self-referencing showstopper doesn't stop doing. In Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell's dialogue, it's defined thusly: "It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops and the plot is conveyed through song." Then (how can it not?), the dialoguemid-sentencesnaps into sung words. It's "something more relaxing and less taxing on the brain." Though Something Rotten! can hardly be described as "something more relaxing," the cheeky mix of anachronisms and sarcasm is certainly a frisky romp working hard to please and tease.
The art of cabaret singing is known for its intimacy in singer-to-audience communication and connection. In Something Beautiful, filled with love songsmany from moviesBob Mundy is a fine example of that close-to-you style. It's his strong suit, it seems. The vocalist, who's performed in New York clubs and worked as an actor and pianist, can croon ardently and tenderly, and his voice takes on a hushed, breathy sound that emphasizes the "just between you and me" confessionals. Sometimes that quality kicks in just when you'd expect a familiar song's melodic trajectory to require the unleashing of more power. It takes some getting used to, but, with repeated exposure, one concludes that it works for him and his selections. Mellifluous Mundy is not necessarily holding back out of necessity, but choosing an approach that emphasizes keeping a more mellow mood. Sometimes when he belts, the sound is unsettlingly harsh. While more of a mood-breaker than a deal-breaker, this is most distracting on parts of "Isn't This Better?," the plaintive Kander & Ebb number introduced by Barbra Streisand in the Funny Lady film. Its original opening line, "I loved a man," is tweaked, and the song is rethought to be addressed directly to a lover so that asking if life now is "better for him" becomes "better for you."
Likewise, another pronoun switch and distancing is with the James Bond movie title song "Diamonds Are Forever" (music by the John Barry with lyric by Don Black, whose name is accidentally left off the album's credits), making it about those glittering jewels prized by "you," not "me." I guess diamonds are only a girl's best friend because "Unlike men, the diamonds linger." The point is still made, maybe just as strong when cloaked as cautionary advice rather than bitter and materialistic lesson learned for one's self.
Mundy's ruminations on love and life come through so strongly in his tone and approach that, even when he twice essays things in another language, the perfume of ardor comes through. In French, he takes on "Voler la nuit" and, for some Spanish, there's the ol' warhorse "Besame Mucho." But his heart is on his sleeve appealingly no matter what language is sung. Unabashedly sweet and filled with feeling, without being cloying, his graceful vocalizing is convincing with the Johnny Mercer lyric that was belatedly added to David Raksin's haunting movie theme from Laura. We can almost see that "face in the misty light" and see her and the "train that is passing through."
"Ordinary People" by Frank Wildhorn and Brenda Russell is a satisfying highlight, the singer finding nuances and shadings, making the inevitable ending words not at all pat. It's one of those Wildhorn melodies that doesn't need or get overstatement to be musically effective.
Two Richard Rodgers melodies first sung in pensive moments in vehicles for Julie Andrews are paired. From TV's Cinderella, there's the Rodgers & Hammerstein "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" which she shared with her prince, and by Rodgers alone, added to the film version of The Sound of Music is "Something Good." As also demonstrated in "Isn't This Better?," all these ballads show that there's more to the Mundy persona as singer than just feelings, as all three lyrics require more exploration of feelings beyond being lovestruck.
Leslie Bricusse as co-writer is twice represented, with two tracks from motion pictures: "Two for the Road" (adorning Henry Mancini's melody) and "Pure Imagination," written with Anthony Newley from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and glommed onto the recent otherwise original stage score). "Two for the Road" isn't as tenderly treated as it more often is and "Pure Imagination," which can perhaps be best when not breaking the mood of endless wonder and mystique, still survives fairly well with added rhythm and movement. The arrangements co-crafted by the singer and musical director/pianist Dan Kaufman for the small band are a mixed bag. Some are gratifyingly simpatico, while others seem to follow a jarringly different agenda and flavor in the instrumental breaks. The spell breaks sometimes. Mundy's tone as serenader comes off as serious and wistful (never weepy), but the accompaniment and instrumental interludes can veer away from what's been established. The most successful tracks related to this issue are the ones featuring the trumpet work of Dominick Farinacci. His playing feels more on the same page and enhances and expands the ambiance most interestingly.
For mature reflections on relationships, Bob Mundy's Something Beautiful is an ear-pleasing album in the tradition of male vocalists devoid of archness or irony such as Johnny Mathis and John Gary. And, diamonds aside, who can't use a regular dose of such old-fashioned loveliness and belief in lasting love? All it takes is "pure imagination" and a sweet voice to convince us that having once done "Something Good" can lead to life that can often be Something Beautiful. And now, a collective sigh.