Sound Advice Reviews
Hello, Dolly! and Come from Away
"It's so nice to have you back [on Broadway] where you belong," Dolly. Here we have the audio souvenir of the revival of what was once Broadway's long-run champ, Hello, Dolly!, the ebullient musical whose high point is its title song where the titular character is welcomed back uber-exuberantly to her favorite eating spot. Contrastingly, in harsher reality, strangers thrown together by fate are welcomed and made to feel at home by their unexpected hosts in an original musical based on true events, as recreated on Come from Away's recording. While vastly different, each in its own way is especially life-affirming.
From "I Put My Hand In" to "Put your hand on her waist and stand ..." (the first line of "Dancing") to "Wave your little hand and whisper 'So Long Dearie' ...," I know Hello, Dolly!'s score like the back of my own hand. And I hasten to add that I've always loved it a lot, through numerous different recordings of the score, including those knockoff versions with a handful of songs, and a vinyl cast album pressed by a community theatre with a cast that brings enthusiasm as well as new depth to the meaning of "amateur." I coveted any sample of the score, whether it was Bobby Darin swinging one track on a disc or more than the lion's share with the LP Marilyn Maye Sings All of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! (she had played the title role and wanted to record more than just Dolly's numbers!).
I'm open-minded and find something to enjoy in most renditions, traditional and non-. So, why was it so very difficult for me to get into the new Broadway revival cast recording? I guess it's because I have been a fan of Bette Midler's high-energy, irreverent, brash work for quite a few years, too, and assumed her performance in the lead would be more along those lines. Anticipation is a dangerous drug. I listened as soon as the recording was available and was initially flummoxed and disappointed. I sighed, unsure of what to write, and vowed to keep listening until I could stop grumbling that her Dolly was so much more low-key than the hyper-fizz of her cheeky concert persona or the steamroller of her TV-movie performance of Gypsy in this role written in the hopes that Gypsy's original star, Ethel Merman, would introduce it. (Of course, Merman did finally play it, and I suppose I also imagined that seemingly vital Midler at 71 would be more in the mold of the recordings I've heard of Merman in the role at 62.)
Each time I've played the discand it's been a lotI appreciate it and Midler more. Here's the thing: The quality that makes the Midler Dolly strongest is restraint. Sound like an oxymoron? You have to listen carefully for nuances. Her phrasing is original, rarely similar. Rather than her command coming through by being LOUD, she's more subtly confident. While a smile is not something a recording can truly capture, close attention to line delivery often suggests a smile and a gleeful wink, enjoying the language and the character's assured stance and comfort in her skillswhether it be at matchmaking the lovelorn in "I Put My Hand In" or getting the shy clerks ready for "Dancing" or to blithely distract attention in "Motherhood." The fun comes in gentler ways and, while that isn't pulse-quickening, it's effective and respect-worthy as a choice. It's an acting job, and the double-edged sword of being a star with a long-established style is that some will cavil and some will cheerwhether the star fully immerses herself in the character without her trademark persona that endeared folks to her before, or whether she allows any familiar and expected tic, trick or schtick to stamp the performance. In truth, there's some of each. Her "Before the Parade Passes By" has elements of lament and drama leading to the ultimate notes of triumph. And she's all adorable charm sashaying through the title song ("Look at the old gal now, fellas" indeed!) and brings on the sass in the reverse psychology bidding "So Long, Dearie" to Vandergelder, the half-a-millionaire she doesn't want to bid farewell to at all.
David Hyde Pierce as the aforementioned rich man has a song retrieved from the original production's "cut out of town" pile. "Penny in My Pocket" was jettisoned back in the day when it was determined that the audience wasn't all that interested in the backstory of grouchy ol' Vandergelder, at least it didn't seem that way when the number was placed as the first act's finale when the present-day doings of Dolly and the other more endearing characters had their plots a-thickening. After the respite of intermission, when one might need to be eased back into the story, makes for a more receptive spot and audiences are more likely to know what's coming anyway. Pierce's rendition of the worthy number is entertainingly spiffy in its cheer and it is well worth the rescue. He is casually glib leading "It Takes a Woman," although the accent he's adopted is quite pronounced on some words and somewhat distracting. He's also credited for the "Motherhood" track and, while his character is in the scene, it doesn't seem that he is singing. (The lyrics for all songs are in the booklet, with indications of who sings which lines, and they also list the character of Barnaby as singing the second chorus, the one where Dolly sings in counterpoint.)
As the clerks off for an adventure in exciting Manhattan, Taylor Trensch (Barnaby) and Gavin Creel (the older but not much wiser Cornelius) are suitably lively and buoyant, singing with flair and bright personality. Less goofy or eccentric than some who've played Cornelius, solid pro Creel is the real deal as a believable lovestruck-for-the-first-time guy in a sincere "It Only Takes a Moment," keeping it sincere. Likewise, the object of his affection matches his sweet (but not too-sweet) ardor; as Irene, Kate Baldwin is lovely, floating through the Jerry Herman melody and lyric is the ultimate of grace and idyllic "instant" romance. Her earlier solo of "Ribbons Down My Back" sets up her character's yearning for such satisfactions, in spite of her avowed willingness to settle for settling down with Vandergelder who'd come a-courting. (In a reverse of my surprise at Bette Midler's lower-flame Dolly, I was fully prepared for Ms. Baldwin's rich and warm Irene, having seen and heard her three-dimensional portrayal in the same role regionally with an altogether different Dolly played by Tovah Feldshuh with an Irish brogue and sterner countenance.) Baldwin, Creel, and Trensch are joined by an appealingly bubbly Beanie Feldstein as Minnie Fay in the sleek and fun "Elegance" (added to Herman's score by Bob Merrill, who also contributed "Motherhood").
The ensemble adds full-bodied voices to the production numbers, but at times they sound (to my ears) too consciously precise, crisp and drilled at the expense of joy and suggested abandon. I'm not one to want to sacrifice diction, but at times I feel that these lyrics and rhythms I know so well are coming off like army maneuvers. On the other hand, you won't strain to catch words as can be the case in other recordings of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." The orchestra and orchestrations are more than acceptable, but they, too, are absent some sense of freedom and celebratory explosiveness. Would we ideally want a bigger orchestra or one with more percussive sounds and punch? As always, a matter of personal taste and a matter of how instruments are used and spotlighted. For the record, there are seven violinists, three cellists, four multi-tasking reed players, and five brass men, among half a dozen others. There is certainly sparkle and tenderness along the way. I would have welcomed even more instrumental and dance musicand more razzle dazzle, too.
Although the booklet is short on production photographs (grand total: 1), it is long on history of the showmore than 20 pages of tales spooled by theatre historian/reviewer Steven Suskin. Some have been famously told before, but many will find new things here to add to the appreciation of this classic score. The album should do the same, whatever your Dolly devotion of yore or now.
COME FROM AWAY
If, at the end of the day, what counts in whether we choose to hear a cast recordingbeyond the first listen to satisfy curiosityis simply wanting to hear the individual songs as songs, well then, Come from Away doesn't have the usual musical theatre impetus. It's an unusual item. First of all, the large amount of spoken material woven through numbers and in between them often overwhelms the amount of sung material. With most cast playing several characters, in snippets and overlapping speech, we can get lost in the mob scene. Who's who? Which actor is portraying that character? One longs for an annotated script, but also wonders if that would make it feel much less fleeting in acquaintance.
The fascinating fact that it's all based on real events and real people stranded in Newfoundland when their planes are diverted in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001 and were embraced by the exceptionally big-hearted locals there commands attention. That living record of history is ultimately more dramatic and demanding of awe and respect than any dramatization could be. How can a relatively short, intermissionless musical telescope the many stories of the passengers and their instant hosts at this moment in history of upset and uncertainty? The attempt is noble, not exploitive in the least, but quite the challenge. The real story upstages the stage version. But the recording can be confusing and not fully appreciated unless one has seen the show or researched it and the real story of marshalling the troops of volunteers. The more I learned, the more videos of cast and writer interviews I watched, the more I got it and this true tale of community caring and gratitude and dedication to putting it on stage.
The tragedy that sets the saga in motion is not so much the matter at hand. Songs and dialogue don't devote significant time to the shock of the initial attacks and immediate reactions and absorbing the news reports and gathering the facts as they come out. Not incidentally, there are some more direct connections to possible victims and the frustration of limited communications. However, "I Am Here," added late in the game for Q Smith's character lets her blazingly vent about the frustrations about being so far away from the New York victims. But mostly the musical focuses on instant community and comfort, practical needs for thousands of disoriented airplane passengers to have food, fresh clothing, and shelter in a town whose population suddenly hugely increases.
And in song and spoken words, we hear about it moment by moment. Little slices of life under stress whiz by, and the minutiae of supplying toiletries and toilet paper, disposable diapers, and fresh towels might seem so insignificant when the elephant in the room is rarely discussedwill the U.S. be at war? Is another attack imminent? Who were the perpetrators? What is the American government thinking and doing? No songs about these things appear and no debates stir the pot or plot, although while singing of gathering "Blankets and Bedding," the welcomeness of the distraction is acknowledged "because I can't watch the news anymore." The music throbs and the race against the clock is felt. It isn't poetry; it's nuts and bolts reality. The strongly sung chorale of "Welcome to the Rock" lets us meet the practical-minded, solid folks of Gander as they open their hearts and homes, learning what Blanche DuBois professedthat you can "always count on the kindness of strangers."
Married writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein have packed a tremendous amount of humanity in their dedicated, researched recreation of what happened, embracing the individuals with respect without making them plaster saints. Admittedly, one of the strongest numbers, unencumbered by the "interruptions" and focus-breakers other pieces have, is more about a character's backstory than it is the September days. It is "Me and the Sky," delivered powerfully by charismatic Jenn Colella as Beverley Bass, the real-life pilot of great achievement and dedication. The actress-singer rises to the occasion to deliver a laser beam of a performance with much shading and command.
To reflect the mix of cultures among passengers and the sounds of Newfoundland, different musical sounds and instruments abound, with fiddle and timeless folk-like melodies that might recall Irish traditional music at times. The local dialect is pronounced, the cast switching back and forth as they play the Canadians and the American (and other non-Canadian) roles, etc. Chad Kimball, star of Memphis, is one of the most recognizable cast names, playing one half of a gay couple, both named Kevin, but the show is very much an ensemble piece, and he doesn't get a full-out star turn; his appealing voice is nicely if too briefly showcased in a "Prayer." (Certainly moments to call on God for strength and understanding and mercy are appropriate uses of musical time in a show where everyone is under stress and in some amount of anguish and gratitude to be alive.)
If you come away from your listening experience with Come from Away somewhat overwhelmed by the enormity of the project and yet underwhelmed by the musical impact, perhaps you'll agree that element is dwarfed by the reality check. But don't let the worry about maybe having to relive the tragedy that is still so raw 16 years later make you avoid it. You may come away encouraged by "meeting" these inspiring souls who show the best of human generosity. Musical theatre, thankfully, has the power to illuminate that.