And a little jazz - June 12, 2008

How about a change of pace as a break from all the current on-Broadway Tony buzz? Curtain up instead on ... Adding Machine—a musical that had its start 85 years ago as a straight play—and two more additions with great numbers: Broadway songs from 1962, and timeless jazz standards, including numbers like "Four."


PS Classics

You might think the elements in Adding Machine—intentionally screechy or drone-like voices, repetition, unlikeable characters, music that avoids legato, even a song that's mostly a series of intoned digits—wouldn't or shouldn't add up to such a satisfying and intriguing listen. But it does. Musicalized, Elmer Rice's 1923 cautionary, expressionist play has a new and riveting life—and afterlife—of its own. It's frightening, but enlightening. With the included dialogue, clarity, imagination-stimulating scenes that unfold with an in-your-face approach, listening to the cast album is like hearing a radio play. Because it's so uncompromisingly and artfully done in its depiction of the banality it holds up to the glaring light, it commands attention. The nasal, harsh, thickly accented voices ("twenny-foive cents") are indeed annoying, but what's grating becomes ingratiating, oddly enough, because it's done to the hilt. Rather than bore, the dull-as-dishwater conversations evoke sympathy for the smallness, the claustrophobia of the characters' ruts and mindsets. The economy and precision in the writing of Joshua Schmidt's songs and the sounds played by the band of just three pieces (piano, percussion, synthesizer) reinforces the severely limited outlook and hopes of the people.

Humor pops up in unexpected ways, as do sudden—sometimes tiny —moments of musical sweetness in the bleak, humdrum gloom. For example, an unexpected pure tone accents passing flashes of hope. In a much bigger way, there's the ever so welcome respite of the period-perfect romantic 1920s Tin Pan Alley-ish song, "I'd Rather Watch You," for the dreamy pining of the character Daisy (the engaging Amy Warren). As Mr. and Mrs. Zero, the hapless and hopelessly unhappily married couple, Joel Hatch and Cyrilla Baer skillfully and instantly zero in on the entrenched mutual misery of their couplehood and their reactions to their troubles. He's especially good showing bewilderment and consternation; as the complaining wife, she is uncompromisingly consistently sharp in her rants that are the blaming of the shrew. It works. Their scene that flirts with forgiveness and contrition is touching. There's excellent work all around, with Joe Farrell as the spooked and spooky prisoner quietly chilling.

With the "form follows function" sensibility of the musical choices, it's hard to argue with such integrity that so ideally matches tones and sounds to the desired effect. The "automatic pilot" or robotic ways of human interaction (even at a party), the haunting fears that hover threateningly, the cacophony of confusion, out-of-the-blue jolts—they're all here, and expertly handled. Color it gray. The oppressiveness and atonality and non-pretty voices are undeniably appropriate and effective, but won't be for everyone. Though highly stylized and allegorical, the proceedings feel like a nightmare whose underlying emotions and anxieties are all too real. Its message about the de-sensitization of humankind because of the machine age and societal conventions rings loud and clear through the anguished cries, whining and weariness, and overpowering, towering ghostly chants and chimes.

My only lingering uncertainty is if the impact will be diluted on repeated listenings, over time. Certainly not a "fun" listen, but so far my revisits have pulled me in quite a bit—it's that mesmerizing in sections—and allow me to find new details to appreciate in the arrangements and characterizations. Little ironies come to the fore as do some background and counterpoint details that might be missed the first few listens. The ambience and sort of Twilight Zone feel are so dramatic, with the rays of sunshine in the very dark clouds so distinct and precise on the recording. It comes as no surprise to learn the songwriter's earlier theatre experience has been as a sound designer. He's co-credited as sound designer here with Jeff Dublinske. Giving credit where it's very due, one must also look to the recorder-mixer Bart Migal and, of course, the album producer Tommy Krasker, whose track record for creating distinctive and remarkably rich sound for cast albums is remarkable.

The booklet contains several photos, a synopsis, a critic's essay offering perspective (warning to first-timers: it gives away the end in the first sentence), the lyrics and the sections of the libretto (by the 31-year-old Mr. Schmidt and Jason Loewith, whose idea the musical adaptation was). Helpfully, some key stage directions are given that further make this CD a self-contained dramatic experience. For a nightmare, the recording is a dream come true.


Original Cast Records

"Simply loaded with musical comedy" is how host-writer-anecdote disseminator Scott Siegel describes the year in question. Indeed, the number of enliveningly cheery songs is higher than on many in the Broadway Musicals of ... CDs, but it doesn't feel like a trifle or a trifle thin because there are so many juicy selections so delightfully performed. One is certainly the slitheringly suggestive "I've Got Your Number" from Little Me, which Scott Coulter takes on in slow-sizzle, slow-build mode. Recorded live three years ago this week, this Broadway by the Year concert in Manhattan celebrating theatre songs of that bountiful year has finally been released this week on the label that has taken over the series, Original Cast Records. Musical direction by Ross Patterson provides plenty of peachiness and pow with a quintet.

Most represented are Little Me and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with four songs each, and there are three from Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. The latter-named show provides two of the handful of serious numbers on the album: Brad Oscar's "Once in a Lifetime" thoughtfully and vulnerably phrased (sung unamplified) and the searing self-examination query "What Kind of Fool Am I?" given an impassioned cry of a performance by Scott Coulter, both greeted with vociferous applause. Most of the serious numbers are towards the end of the recording, with these two back to back, followed by the group number, "The Sweetest Sounds," the sole selection from No Strings, which is exquisitely presented, a good percentage of it a capella. Striking for glorious tones and harmonies and the yearning quality that comes through in almost reverent approach to the song, it's quite elegant. It's led by Liz Callaway, always creating standout and deeply felt moments in these concerts. This one is no exception.

Danny Gurwin particularly shows off his versatility: he does a broadly goofy "Love, I Hear" from Forum, impresses with his backward glance at "Once Upon a Time," warmly wistful/morphing into strong-voiced anguish—sung without mic—and is pure adorably shy gawky charm with "Real Live Girl." (The credits make it look like a vocal duet, but it was a dance duo with one spoken line by the real live girl.) Christine Pedi demonstrates her considerable comedy skills and bites into her material, a wham of a ham on "I'm Calm" and well partnered with Brad as they seethe through and pop the word "baby" in the sneaky, snarky "What's In It for Me?" from I Can Get It for You Wholesale.

On the rare front, there's the perky, perk-me-up title song from Nowhere to Go But Up performed with dash and splash by Scott and Liz. The Sol Berkowitz melody is relentlessly cheery while the lyrics by James Lipton kind of sarcastically advise that, hey, life is better than the alternative ("Once you're locked in that six-foot box, you'll have plenty of time to frown" And, later, "When your sugar daddy tells you the sugar's run out, don't take your gun out." ) From A Family Affair comes a cut song, "Mamie in the Afternoon, recycled with gender reassignment into "Arthur in the Afternoon" years later for The Act. New Faces of 1962 is represented by two never-before-recorded items: Felicia Finley winningly jazzes things up with "In the Morning" and the company has a field day with the then-timely "Moral Rearmament" that addresses everything from pacifism to Irving Berlin whose 1962 (and final) show, Mr. President, is also heard from twice along the way. Another political figure, Evita, will be heard from this Monday night when the concert series takes on the year 1979 at The Town Hall.



RCG Records

Once upon a time in 1973, a vinyl record appeared by a Nashville musician, The Legend of Sir Robert Charles Griggs on which he sang some countryish music. I'm assuming he hasn't truly been knighted, with that "Sir" being an image thing. Never transferred to CD, that was his one vocal effort. Years pass. But never say never. He's made a new album, this time with jazz musicians, and he has an appealing relaxed, lived-in sound and approach. And he certainly seems at home with jazz. Although he doesn't have an especially rich or pliable voice and it shows some rough edges on leaped-for high notes on "Sophisticated Lady," he's quite effective in laying out a song and mood. He doesn't shy away from challenging jazz tunes—he acquits himself impressively scatting through the Dizzy Gillespie classic "A Night in Tunisia" (very hip treatment) and Miles Davis' "Four" with Jon Hendricks' quick and tricky lyrics.

Songs he wrote are especially worthy of note. "In to Jazz" is very cool, a celebration of the love of the musical style, with lyrics that name-drop some jazz legends. This little treat could be any jazz lover's new anthem. Another original, the laidback and sly "One of the Good Guys" with its sprinkling of cowboy references and then taking a left turn wears well. "Young Man on the Way Up" (co-written with Bob and Vikki Harrington), a word to the wise from someone who sounds older-but-wiser, is more encouraging than preachy, striking a nice, supportive tone.

Familiar from the standard repertoire are the Kern/Hammerstein evergreen "The Song is You," "Laura," (with the rarely done verse, following which it surprisingly is taken at a swingy "up" tempo) and Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You." A major selling point here is the small group of top-flight musicians. Pianists Paul Smith and Alan Broadbent are aboard, for starters. There are generous solos, often featuring sax and trumpet. The singer co-produced the CD with his bass player, Jim DeJulio.

There's something real and really likeable about this man, making one wish some people didn't wait 35 years between albums and the next wait will be much shorter.

- Rob Lester

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