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Life ... and Live!: Laziest Gal..!

A never-recorded-in-full Broadway score by iconic writers is woken up from a many-decades long sleep, like the village of Brigadoon, instantly coming back to perky, energetic life.  Life Begins at 8:40 's sudden re-emergence is a major treat, historical and hysterical.  8:40 PM (once the traditional Broadway curtain-rising time, thus the title) is nowadays the time shows get started at the cabaret room Feinstein's at Loews Regency, and we have a live recording of one of their presentations, Jane Krakowski's Laziest Gal in Town.


PS Classics/ Library of Congress

And now the cheering begins for Life Begins at 8:40 .. or, rather, begins again, as this bubbly Broadway bonanza of song and silliness was well-received back in its day—1934—and ran for 237 performances.  Some of the songs have been recorded over the years, but quite a few have been in that "long-lost" category musical theatre fans long to hear.  With a score by Broadway giants Harold Arlen (music), and E. Y. Harburg and Ira Gershwin (lyrics), this is a major excavation worth major exclamation points because of a lot of good news:  The unfamiliar songs are not at all of lesser quality compared to the ones we've heard, as some might have feared, nor are they just quaint fillers.  Most are delightfully unusual, specific set pieces—just not the kind of stuff that your typical singer would pick up when making a studio album or doing a one-person nightclub act.  And I'm happy to report that these buried treasures won't be of interest only to hard-core completist collectors and the curious: they are performed with panache and relish and a major slice of ham appropriate for the broad humor.  Originally performed by Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger and other performers known for personality and pizzazz, there's a lot for this expert new cast to sink their experienced musical theatre chops into.  And do they ever!  Much of the zip and period flavor comes from the terrific work by the orchestra—two-dozen strong—with conductor Aaron Gandy deserving a deep bow of gratitude.  They have the original orchestrations of three major figures in that field: Hans Spialek, Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker, with additional work by Glen Daum. All is right with this world.

Note that this is a Broadway revue, not a book musical.  Therefore, each number is a stand-alone piece, so we don't have to be concerned about not "getting" some context that would be in a plot.  There are some now-obscure references and some name-dropping in lyrics that are dated, since time has a habit of marching on, but there's a helpful list of them with explanations.   As the PS Classics label often provides, we get a booklet with history and perspective, all the lyrics and credits, and some photos from the 1934 production.  A joint venture with the Library of Congress, which presented a concert of the material in March several days before the recording sessions, this reliably dedicated record company presents another labor of love, without the "labor" showing.  It sounds like everyone is having a ball.  What a joy to dust off old songs and not have them feel dusty.

It's no surprise that the more familiar numbers sound swell, like "You're a Builder Upper," which we've heard Barbara Cook and Jessica Molaskey do in very recent times, with an Ethel Merman attack still planted and ringing in my ears.  Here we get it as the duet it did begin its life as in the show, followed by a generous-in-length (and spirit) instrumental section.  The singers are Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone, who sing with zing and zest and seem to specialize in a charm and sweetness on the album that elsewhere often has sharp and wacky attitudes on display (someone has to be the innocent, optimistic juvenile type).  Other pieces picked up over the years include "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block," a cheery plea for patience as expensive dreams of travel have to be put on hold during the Depression, led sunnily by Miss Stone and Graham Rowat; it's one of the numbers where a chorus joins in. And there's still fun in "Fun to Be Fooled," another sweetheart of a song that has been done over the years; this time we get it with a big dose of grace and gallantry by Kate Baldwin and Philip Chaffin (who doubles as the label's co-founder/A&R director).  Those who know (and, likely, treasure) the Ben Bagley-produced series of Revisited albums of the great tunesmiths' lesser-known material have heard quite a few of the 8:40 numbers preserved there.  Otherwise, many will be new and some are recorded for the first time here. 

Brad Oscar gets some marvelously splashy material to dig into, and they are comical home runs.  He takes the nutty, showy, intentionally vague paean to "Things!"—whatever those "things" may be, who cares, as long as he is playing the self-important performer making ado about nada.  Taking the material of Bert Lahr, the bar set quite high already, Oscar grouches and goofs through his shtick with expert comic timing.  Faith Prince is a knockout bundle of mad nerves, with laments of frustration (reminiscent of her to-the-breaking-point "Adelaide's Lament" in Guys and Dolls) on the romance-failing single woman's bemoaning "I Couldn't Hold My Man" and—even funnier—"My Paramount-Publix–Roxy Rose."  There, sick and tired of being a follies-style glorified girl dressed as a flower, she's venting at the nearest co-star (Graham Rowat grandly rhapsodizing).  Taking full advantage of the lyrics, she snaps and snarls, chewing and spitting out consonants to display her rage. 

There's great teamwork on the CD, with the "C'est La Vie" segment lampooning Noël Coward's Design for Living ménage a trios and the "Quartet Erotica" with once-considered ribald authors strutting their stuff and stuffed to the gills with ego and tomfoolery.  The finale, "Life Begins at City Hall," is a big pile of political satire, complete with the Roosevelts and two New York mayors lampooned, pastiche and reprises (a Commissioner of Reprises is appointed), the full company in full flower.  Rebecca Luker's luminous soprano brings some respite from the frantic frenzies with the score's atypical pretty piece of nostalgia, "It Was Long Ago." 

It was long ago that this treasure chest stuffed with melody and madness graced the Great White Way, but it is great to have it all on one disc so spectacularly done.  Thanks galore to producer Tommy Krasker for another masterful rescue and relish effort.

DRG Records

What year is it?  Listening to Jane Krakowski's solo debut CD, I often feel I am living in the era of "personality records" on the 1950s and '60s when movie star glamour gal/sex symbols (and some hunks) cut albums, hoping to translate the appeal of the eye to the ear.  They were often given material meant to cement their established image and allure. (Some proved to be vocally challenged, or their short-leash material intentionally kept them type-cast.)  Some of Laziest Gal is breezy fun—it's not meant to be deep or diverting beyond playful posing—which can be successful in its way, but when eye candy becomes a steady diet of musical cotton candy, it's not very filling or fulfilling as tracks stack up to fluff and fizz.  Perhaps this show worked better in person and perhaps if a studio album were done, she'd reign in some excesses of attitude and Marilyn Monroe-ish characterization and give us more voice (which she has), emphasizing musical values.  Some lines are spoken, tossed off, rather than sung here.  On disc, whether played straight or tongue in check, a little bit of the purring, breathy sex kitten routine goes a long way.  Likewise, doubling up on the wink-wink double entendre.  Some will find it darling and direct and enjoy the holiday from more serious or emotionally heavy fare that can populate cabaret.

Jane Krakowski has skills and can sell a song and present it to an audience wrapped up and shiny but not so newish as in "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."  Some fans will feel the heat, some will think the familiar fare feels re-heated leftovers or over-heated.  Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman have recycled Rodgers & Hart's "Zip" from Pal Joey to add a different kind of zip.  They took the melody and offered a whole new set of lyrics name-dropping today's celebrities and their follies and foibles, and make it about obsessively opining through technology ("Tweet").

What really irritates me most on this live recording is the star's very frequent giggling during the gig. Some could have been eliminated in editing.  She giggles with apparent delight, she giggles during performances of songs, in reaction to her own comments or audience applause for a number or mentioning one of her credits.  It comes across to me as an "aren't-I-cute?" thing.  Gushing, sporting almost "teen-speak (calling out "O.M.G.!!!" and calling her elegant nightclub's audience "you guys"), at least she doesn't play the grand diva; she's audience-friendly.  In her patter on this live recording, she acknowledges her resume.  She tends to be given roles of women using seductive, rather than deductive, reasoning to deal with life. Does she take the opportunity of the cabaret genre (to play "herself") to break out of the box or break the mouldy mold or break into song with a big and brassy voice or display a sensitive, thoughtful persona?  Quite the opposite.  She reinforces the past exposure and indeed plays it up.  Sometimes to the hilt.  Sometimes with self-mocking, cliché-mocking or cliché-milking humor.

Much of the set list is just variations on a narrow theme, and includes one of the numbers she did when she played the temptress in Damn Yankees, done in character: "A Little Brains, a Little Talent".  When she finally seems to be switching gears to sing the standard "I'm Old Fashioned," it's really just a bait-and-switch gimmick to segue into an Eartha Kitt specialty about a gold digger, the no-apologies tale of the supposed "Old Fashioned Girl" who just seeks "an old fashioned millionaire."  Coy can cloy.  Though it's too little, too late, "Let's Face the Music and Dance" drops the affect and she takes a chance to play it straight and belts a little.  The ominous potential of the material isn't really approached, but it's a relief if you've overdosed on the fluff and strutting stuff.

The band is ably led by pianist/arranger Michael Kosarin.  There's nothing earth-shaking here with the musical settings, but certainly solid.  Jazz bassist Jay Leonhart singing a companion vocal line, mostly non-verbal, on one number ("My Handy Man") makes it refreshingly more hip and controlled where it would otherwise drown in libido-laden waters.

This kind of styling and posturing, especially from someone I have known to have more acting and vocal range, frustrates me and seems, indeed, to make her appear to be like the "laziest gal." But others will be tickled; it sounds like the crowd that night was. A "choice" is just that, and this actress commits to hers.

- Rob Lester

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