Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

The Tony Triumph, Tattoo in Tokyo, and Tribute Time:
Fun Home, Tokio Confidential, Andrew Heller

Our mix this time contains the high-profile big Broadway hit, a low-profile 2012 show, and a fellow profiling some Sinatra standbys.


PS Classics

The much-lauded Fun Home moved its home from off Broadway to on, collecting its latest prizes—Tony Awards—several days ago, and has an updated cast album. Some tracks have been re-recorded, a few smallish things are new to this version, and one song is lost. With another look at the show, with cast replacement Emily Skeggs as one of the three actresses playing central character Alison (as a college student), it was decided to release this combo of newly made tracks to join those brought over from the off Broadway version (also on the PS Classics label). Collectors will recall that a similar action was taken in the case of Grey Gardens. And you can tell a CD by its cover; to avoid confusion, the new one has a bright yellow background.

The attentive aficionados of this striking and moving musical who've been devouring the off Broadway album will no doubt note the changes with interest: Miss Skeggs has a refreshing and delightful take on Middle Alison. She sounds more youthful and more easily triggered to being flustered or exuberant. This adds a sweetly comic touch and emphasizes her growth and comfort level with herself and her lesbian identity as well as her independence. Her exultant "Changing My Major," as she revels in her attraction to the more composed Joan, is convincing as an impish and excitedly obsessed lover full of joy. The song builds in a terrific way, with an unencumbered naturalness. Her tone is bright. In the dialogue sections, interacting with Joan or her own parents or writing her coming-out letter and asking for a reaction, Skeggs' acting is distinctly different to each situation. And her voice adds a vibrant color in the group numbers.

With some additional dialogue recorded for the tweaked album, we can be a bit more immersed in the characters and their feelings. The longer patches of talk remain separately tracked. Lyricist-bookwriter Lisa Kron's plot synopsis in the booklet is also helpful for appreciation and context, as is the essay by journalist Jesse Green. And all the lyrics and virtually 100% of the spoken material included are there, too, along with numerous color photos.

Small Alison's song "Al for Short" has been eliminated with the Broadway transfer, so score-wise that's something completists will want to procure. Instead, the remarkable girl who plays the role, Sydney Lucas, has a number about resisting having to wear a frilly "Party Dress." It's a short piece, a combination of sung lines and spoken ones as she interacts with her dad (Michael Cerveris, whose Tony-winning performance is kinetic, nicely softened by the brief lullabye, "Pony Girl").

The trip back to the studio to update did not include recording the other two new cast members—the boys who now play Alison's younger siblings. While the names of the replacements are shown on the back cover with the cast in billing layout, the tracks feature the off Broadway cast kids, which is noted inside the booklet. In the seven-person orchestra playing Jeanine Tesori's emotional music, veteran Antoine Silverman is the new member on violin and viola. Upon reflection and repeated exposure, I have no reason to alter my very positive feelings about this almost-same score and the almost-same cast's excellence which I reported on in my original review 15 months ago.


(*with 3 members of off Broadway cast)
Broadway Records

The splendid soprano-actress Jill Paice (An American in Paris, Death Takes a Holiday) starred in a 2012 Atlantic Stage 2 production of Tokio Confidential in Manhattan, along with Jeff Kready (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) and Manna Nichols (the upcoming Allegiance). The other three cast members have been replaced by Australian singing actor Bruce Warren and two splendid Broadway vets: Telly Leung (also to be in Allegiance and recently in Godspell) and José Llana (Wonderland, Godspell, making his debut as Lun Tha in the prior revival of The King and I, a show which also explores a Western woman's adjustment to Asian culture in the 19th century). This piece, with music and lyrics and libretto by Eric Schorr, has now belatedly been recorded and recently released.

Despite some high drama and passionate emotions in the plot, the songs are restrained and quite subtle. Even when much is at stake, they can be super-delicate. A minimalist approach in accompaniment, even in the presence of tension or doubt, remains—even in the face of an earthquake and matters of life and death and complicated love attachments. The action takes place in Tokyo in 1879 ("Tokio" was then the usual spelling), where an American Civil War widow named Isabella (Paice) has traveled to see the beloved adopted country of her late husband. She meets an art collector (Kready) (characters are based on both real and previously presented fictional characters) and pursues her fascination with Japanese prints and tattoos. She soon agrees to getting a huge tattoo covering her back, knowing it will be immensely painful, could be dangerous, and will take months of sessions. She and the tattoo artist (Llana)—surprise!—fall madly in love. The story, told in a detailed synopsis that takes up most of the booklet, challenges credulity. (This is arguably one of those cast albums where the songs beg to be considered on their own merits, but there's a fair amount of dialogue included to remind us.) It must be taken in the context of the Buddhist religion's views of death and honor and the society of the era.

Warren appears as the spirit/memory of Isabella's deceased husband, Nichols is the artist's inconveniently still-current romantic attachment, and Kready's conniving and possibly heartless character is involved in a gay affair with a man named Akira (Leung) who befriends Isabella, but also spies on her. (U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant also appears in the story, but does not sing.) It's notable in the many numbers featuring the American woman and those with her husband, that there isn't as strong a musical flavor to distinguish itself powerfully from the Japanese-influenced style.

If one likes and gives into the loveliness of the delicate melodies and instrumentation, Tokio Confidential can often be an exquisite change of musical pace. A nine-member orchestra distills and punctuates the melodies, with Zak Sandler's orchestrations favoring some instrumental echoing of sung phrases ("Are You Prepared for That?") and crisp and rationed punctuation. Chris Reza may be the equivalent of baseball's Most Valuable Player, here on piccolo, clarinet, oboe, English horn, and two flutes (the flutes might be considered the signature sound giving us a recognizable Japanese flavor). Also crucial for color is the shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument which can ping with characterful sound or be strummed. It's played by Yoko Reikano Kimura. Chip Fabrizi is the tastefully effective percussionist; it's his studio, PPI in Manhattan, where many smaller shows have been recorded over the years, including this one.

Jill Paice's radiant voice is a major selling point here, as her committed and beautifully toned performance in the face of an odd storyline often dazzle. She's on 13 of the musical tracks, from the slightly grand ("Restless Spirits" with Warren) to the meandering and redundant ("If We Had Never Met"). As usual, the glowing and attention-commanding José Llana (going from seemingly arrogant to more sensitive) and Telly Leung are charismatic and captivating with their vocals and acting, even when faced with an uphill musical challenge to maintain interest. In "At Sea" Leung blends sorrow and wonder and his "The Jurisdiction of Affection" with Nichols' commiserating character has a special rarefied dignity that puts an intellectualist, rational slant on emotions.

If you want a respite from the roof-raising, belted show tunes, this is refreshing, but may be too much of a pretty good thing with its not-so-varied 21 tracks of songs and speech. Most tracks are quite short and pointed. (Ironically, "Beautiful Brevity" is one of the longer ones). Lyrics tend to be simple and direct, with some repetition that suits the form. You might find yourself hoping for more that have a wistful poetry feel or some more visceral letting-loose (even "Shifting Ground," when an earthquake occurs, is presented with calm acceptance of the inevitable ebb and flow of Nature.

This cast album is an acquired taste, certainly not for everyone. Despite its shortcomings and feeling long, it has moments that glisten.


DiamonDisc Records

It's Frank Sinatra's centennial year and the entertainer who's already had many tribute albums gets more. This recent one is from the deep-voiced Andrew Heller, whose CDs reviewed in this column in the past tended to the serious and earnest—with some grander Broadway ballads, Christmas standards, and country. He's also dipped into religious music. And now he's jumped on the Sinatra bandwagon. Happily, it works. The singer sounds loose and joyful in this brief 10-track excursion with mainly up-tempo selections of Sinatra signatures.

Sinatra My Way? It seems like a strange title when very purposefully using the genuine patented Sinatra arrangements, down to very specific details in the instrumental figures and orchestrations. On a couple of numbers, he even incorporates Sinatra embellishments, like his fondness for the word "ain't" not in the real lyrics, in "Witchcraft" (Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh) borrowing his replacement adjective "cuckoo," and ending with the aside, "You're a fine witch," even adding another "fine." So should it be called Sinatra, Sinatra's Way? Of course, it's also a reference to Ol' Blue Eyes' big hit, "My Way." But, wait a minute. Heller doesn't come off like one of those pale, awkward, or effortful Sinatra imitators. He's not mimicking the harder-driving swagger and swing, the ultra-confident attitude, or the uniquely bubbly bravado. His vocal sound is smooth and clean, with well-rounded tones, and he sounds comfortable, affectionate with the material. Granted, practically no one can really sound like he owns "My Way," since the English lyric is so tailored to the icon's image and autobiography. But the rest are quite appealing and surprisingly fresh.

I know these original Sinatra records intimately. Their arrangements and orchestrations are full of infectious and crisp instrumental figures that give them their backbones and accented flavorings. And those charts are here, conducted by two people: Chris Riddle, son of the late architect of so many Sinatra classics, Nelson Riddle, with a 27-piece orchestra that still bears Nelson's name, and John Mills, who is on flute, sax, and clarinet—and adapted the original arrangements with respect and verve. How great to hear them recreated with such loving attention to detail and zip. Nothing stale here. The admiration and nostalgia are palpable and punchy.

Things are a little lighter and not pushy. For example, "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)" is more easygoing than the showstopper build of the original. Cole Porter's "Night and Day" doesn't have the soaring solo brass that could cut through the band in concert in the old days, but remains zingy. "It Was a Very Good Year" (Ervin Drake) is less dramatic or melancholy without the many, many strings that arranger Gordon Jenkins loved to use. But the wistfulness and memory-swirling are intact.

This album truly feels like a tribute and the singer finds little opportunities to be suave, cheery, and refreshing even within these tight confines. I smiled a lot while listening. Toe-tapping may be inevitable, so tap away and let's have a tip of the fedora to all!

- Rob Lester

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