(plus a young-at-heart octogenarian) - June 5, 2008

This week's column has not just some Tony nominees, but something for and about all ages: a new musical that takes a grown-up look at marriage from the views of two generations ... a focus on babies and new mothers ... kid-friendly Disney with some adult sensibility, too ... and a senior citizen who shows you're as young as you feel.


PS Classics

Even if you haven't already become aware that A Catered Affair is a mostly downbeat affair without oversized emotions or glamor, you get the idea immediately. The bride-to-soon-be of the story doesn't want a big, elaborate production and A Catered Affair isn't a big, elaborate affair that caters to the taste of those who want peppy Broadway pizzazz. Based on previous versions of the story (the 1955 Paddy Chayefsky teleplay and subsequent film) taking place in the Bronx in 1953, the characters are plain-speaking, non-glamorous folks, and when they sing, they express themselves directly with ordinary conversational language. That's the nature of the piece, though it may frustrate some that composer-lyricist John Bucchino is known for songs that show more insight, passion and depth, and star Faith Prince and others have previously played spunkier, fizzier, high-energy characters. There's a fair amount of dialogue included, too—before and within songs. This is a slice of life, a slice with little spice, but it has heart and integrity and the cast is often engaging and the performances touching.

The glum and the humdrum moods are brightened at times, that responsibility carried out by Leslie Kritzer when she gets swept up in the happiness and flush of love and/or marriage, choosing "One White Dress" or pleading "Don't Ever Stop Saying 'I Love You'" (sung gloriously with Matt Cavenaugh as her fiancé). The darker tone returns when the parents of the bride argue or grit their teeth through their day-to-day lives or looking back on their non-storybook marriage, but Faith Prince and Tom Wopat do so with dramatically convincing portrayals. Though I find his "I Stayed" in its unblinking accusation and self-congratulation to be lacking variety and nuance, it's a powerful kick in the stomach. In more subtle and multi-layered ways, Faith Prince mixes regret, resentment and her desire to guide and protect her daughter while dealing with everything else on her plate.

Harvey Fierstein, who is also the bookwriter, makes a dramatic impact as the gay uncle. In "Immediate Family," where his character is offended and hurt, and in some dialogue, his unique voice can be rough on the ears. The more intense ranting and vocally challenging aspects of his performance as audio-only can be hard to take (especially when wearing a headset). The gentler "Coney Island" is far more successful, and the life-embracing, warmer-toned memories it evokes provide a cathartic and encouraging message. It works.

Too bad there isn't more material for the talented and comical Kristine Zbornik and Heather MacRae, who briefly but entertainingly appear in the gossipy "Women Chatter" as nosy neighbors. This number is done with Lori Wilner, who elsewhere gets more time ably doubling as the groom's mother. Philip Hoffman as the groom's father likewise does nicely as Sam in the early scene that mixes dialogue with the effective group song, "Partners."

The small orchestra (Constantine Kitsopoulos conducting Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations) adds the subtext: bittersweet qualities, tension, and the yearning the characters don't always place on the surface. The orchestra sounds quite present and clear in this album attentively produced by PS Classics' Tommy Krasker, bringing this home drama to life in your own home. The booklet includes all the lyrics and spoken dialogue heard on disc, notes, plot synopsis and some photos. Though it's not an escapist musical, one can't escape the fact that it is human and moving, and that comes through on the recording.


PS Classics

Disney music and Kerry Butler seem like an inevitable match: the rosy feel-good songs with a child or child-at-heart's heart and the eternal ingénue. Now a mother herself, having adopted a young girl from Ethiopia, the singing actress currently in Xanadu still sounds young and naïve enough that she could easily be a teenaged babysitter singing to her charge du jour in the lullabye "Baby Mine." Energetic and spunky, she sounds as animated as the films that are the sources for most of the songs here. If such wide-eyed cotton candy cheer is clearly not your cup of highly sweetened tea, beware that you are in danger of going into a diabetic coma. Kerry does not have irony or singing the songs from the prism of a jaded, older-but-wiser persona high on her agenda, but those of us who have an ever-ready exposed soft spot for the soft side of the Disney canon will find pleasures here.

Feisty and old school frilly-feminine, she projects a cheerleader's goodwill and boundless energy and the dewy-eyed "faith" and "trust" from the album title. Children should certainly relate and have a great time; some adults with a bit of the curmudgeon tendency might look and listen past the sweet-as-a-gum-drop grinning energy and note an attempt not to just be a kid among kids. The adult worlds of reality and doubt rear their ugly but prominent heads in a few places: "If I Try" by Jonatha Brooke from the recent Return to Never Land and "This Only Happens in the Movies," written for the never-made prequel Who Discovered Roger Rabbit? by lyricist Glen Slater and composer Alan Menken (who contributes liner notes, as does the singer).

Hope hovers and Kerry discovers her not-so-inner child quickly and often enough, but the CD is hardly an all-naïve flashback adventure. The character song about a desire to escape from a troubled life to live in "Disneyland" (from the short-lived musical Smile by composer Marvin Hamlisch and Menken's frequent collaborator, lyricist Howard Ashman) softens the dramatic pathos heard on other recordings of it. With another Ashman lyric, she delights by going to town and nailing the comedy in a character song about a spoiled, used-to-getting-her-own-way and self-indulgent girl. It's "Call Me a Princess," a cut song from another Menken score, Aladdin. A fun demo recording by the lyricist was included in a box set of the team's work, The Music and the Magic and it's great to hear it done by a female with flair as she's fussing and flaunting her sense of entitlement.

Accomplished musical settings from two Michaels with strong Broadway and Disney credits are on hand. Michael Kosarin varies the orchestral brew, offering some grand settings and some with simpler accompaniment, and five of the dozen tracks have orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Some tracks are more in line with the originals, such as Pocahontas' "Colors of the Wind," while "When You Wish Upon a Star" is taken lightly and brightly, putting "fervent" on hold for a bit. Although the repertoire avoids the Disney scores that have been on Broadway, it's still a bit theatrical at times, with big emotions played to the hilt, and happy sounds as bright as a Broadway light.


Velour Recordings

As the famous saying goes, "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks." There are sweet charms galore and much soothing to be found—and even a little soft rock—in Melissa Errico's new CD. The collection includes songs from "Hushabye to the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" without the impassioned yearning and uncertainty—but with a ukulele charmingly and prominently played.) At the same time I was being lulled into relaxation, I was appreciative of the musical skills involved.

The musical theatre star whose roles have often required her to use her soaring voice and vocal power here manages to scale things down to an ultra-gentle breathy delivery and croon without draining all the emotion in her voice. Because of the feathery, whispery style, though, her Broadway and concert fans longing for soaring tones and high drama may wish to know in advance that this is gentle and tender, which is the point of its lullabying calm balm.

The good news is that it's lovely and loving, with musical accompaniment that has integrity and interesting ideas. Things don't get sticky or barren. The CD is not meant as simplistic sounds just for baby; material and performance indicate the experience and perspective of mothers whose worlds are more complicated. Melissa, who became a parent in 2006 and runs a mothers' group, sounds involved and thoughtful in her interpretations of even some of the simpler lyrics even while reassurance and nurturing take center stage.

Some traditional items have some extra lyrics beyond the ones we all remember. On "Rockabye Baby," (about the precarious nap "on the tree-top") she doesn't sing the danger-laced line, "Down will come baby, cradle and all" but substitutes a new option, promising, "Mamma will catch you, cradle and all." Without going self-consciously overboard to overcompensate for the repetition and simple-as-can-be melodies with plain rhymes, musical director Rob Mathes' ideas and choices for accompaniment add aural interest. He's on guitars and keyboards on most tracks. The album's tracks flow comfortably from one to the next, and there are changes of pace not so much in tempo but in musical flavors and lyric styles: folk songs, story songs, images of nature. This cuddly baby blanket is actually a tapestry of different threads woven together. The darling "The Wind Says Shhh," the sole song by brother Mike Errico (whose writing dominated her earlier album) is a highlight; he contributes an effective just-right blend of backing vocals effectively on this and the Beatles' "Good Night."

The CD ends with a livelier and especially sweet treat. The title song from the 1966 Broadway musical Walking Happy steps away from the lullabye theme as a P.S. to the endeavor. recorded in a way to recreate the low-fidelity sound of an old record, complete with surface noise, it's a marvelous jaunty send-off. Though many who'll be listening haven't begun to master the skills of walking yet, Melissa sure makes lyricist Sammy Cahn's descriptions of the kinds of gait sound worth striving for. (The CD's credits accidentally list him as sole writer, but the perky melody was composed by James Van Heusen.)

Whether or not youth is wasted on the young, this sincere and disarming effort should not be relegated just to parents and their crawling, crying offspring—it's the perfect companion for a summer night's walk, swing in a hammock, as well as a grown-up insomniac's prescription. Why should moppets and moms get marvelous Melissa all to themselves?

She's been around quite a while, but may be new to many CD audiences.


Suonix GnbH

She'll be 83 in September and has lived in Switzerland since 1949, where she taught dance, following a long performing career, which included singing, being a leading dancer with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, playing the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and being in the company of Duke Ellington's Jump for Joy. One of his trademarks, "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear from Me," is ably done on her new album I Live the Life I Live, and it proves she's very much full of life. After an overseas release, it's now available in the U.S.

The lady is remarkable and an inspiration. She's feisty and fabulous with her bluesy singing that includes some standards and a couple of original songs by her son Peter Wydler, a producer on the project. Arrangements are mostly by John Di Martino, a figure on the New York jazz and cabaret scene, who accompanied her at a recent appearance at Jazz at Lincoln Center (he is not on the CD, but there's a hard-swinging band).

Sometimes relying on talk-singing asides and even a bit of rap style for a bit, the lady convincingly wails, growls and barks out her blues with commitment and is hip and plenty of spunky funkiness. Whether surrounded by horns or strings (the accompaniment by these skilled musicians is splendid), she remains the center of attention. More exposed with just sax and bass for accompaniment on Peggy Lee's hit "Fever," she crisply and commandingly delivers the lyric and sinks her teeth into the sultry mood. Ms. Dallas reveals sensitivity and depth with her tender and evocative reading of the classic "Georgia on My Mind" that builds to a sensational ending. Equally impressive, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" also shows her sense of drama and is a great highlight, with a hauntingly lonely trumpet echoing the mournfulness throughout.

This is a very entertaining album named for the well-done assertive Muddy Waters declaration it ends with. It has many bright moments and only a couple of instances where the energy lags or things feel diluted or go on a bit too long. Mostly, it's a groovy, gritty affair with a little humor and a lot of heart and power.

... Until the next stack of CDs ...

- Rob Lester

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