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The Prom and the Poems
(Renascence and The Shakespeare Project)
Reviews by Rob Lester

What better time than June, busting out all over with LGBTQ+ Pride and the theatre season's awards, to have a date to listen Broadway's The Prom? Nominated for several Tonys and winning a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, it's the story of a modern-day high school girl facing a no-go about attending the school dance with a same-gender partner. Edna St. Vincent Millay's affairs with women were the inspiration for some of her poems, although that is just one element of Off-Broadway's recent Renascence, which sets her work to music. Many have read between the lines of poet/playwright William Shakespeare's oeuvre to find more than small clues that he had his own same-sex attractions, too, but love by any other name will seem as sweet when sung by Deborah Shulman with The Shakespeare Project.


Masterworks Broadway/ Sony Music

Simply stated, The Prom is a fun listen. With the energy cranked up high, it's unpretentious and gleefully grabs you by the shoulders, demanding its determinedly earned grins, even if half-heartedly surrendered by worn-down curmudgeons. It's that kind of eager-to-please score. But the chefs cooking up the musical dishes are astute in balancing the cute factor, cutting their sweet concoctions with a dash of spice and a splash of snark to ensure tartness. The conflict, handled alternately with comic fizz and sincerity, involves teen-aged Emma who is thwarted in being allowed to bring a girl to the school prom. Frenetic, bopping Indiana teenagers and the adults of their school and homes meeting visiting hammy, brash Broadway performers make for an intentionally odd mix of colliding sensibilities.

Scored by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer, Elf), with book by the latter and Bob Martin, The Prom takes a page from teen-centric musical comedies like Bye Bye Birdie and Hairspray by charmingly providing clearly contrasting musical styles for the different age groups: youthful, bubble-gum bouncy and yearning material for the high schoolers and more old-school sparkle and sheen for the older generation.

Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma and Isabelle McCalla as Alyssa, girls potentially attending the titular prom as a couple, are quite endearing and sympathetic, believable in a show with many a cartoonish aspect. Their duet called "Dance with You" in its plain desire for that shared activity hits the spot in a direct and disarming way. Emma's memo to herself to calm down and "Breathe" in a tense situation within a crowd recalls the same self-help advice another young woman sings in In the Heights and works just as winningly as sung here.

Communicating their thoughts in real-life interactions in the same razzle-dazzle style they do as glossy, prancing entertainers is the winking way set for the four forceful Broadway veterans who show up as self-appointed heroes set on "Changing Lives." Their cue to do so comes as they are suddenly at liberty when their musical about Eleanor Roosevelt on the Great White Way goes the way of some flops: it closes right after opening. (Note to those who think nobody would consider a musical about that First Lady: I know of two—one recorded regional show from 1999 and an earlier, abandoned bio-musical by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.) Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, and Angie Schworer pull out all the stops to very broadly play these roles and belt their numbers to a fare-thee-well very well indeed. One can enjoy them as the best of both worlds (or either): delectable examples of old-school knock-'em-dead brio; or loopy parodies thereof. Either way, it's all pretty entertaining and enjoyable, especially in the set-ups where they're rather insensitive when they think they're anything but, and in the ultimate cheer-up command called "Zazz" force-fed by Schworer.

The orchestrations by Larry Hochman with the big-sounding orchestra building and building and building, bursting and bubbling over are the kind you (happily or dismissively) witness coming at you full speed ahead from a mile or ten away. Push comes to shove and we're pushed and shoved into the intended celebratory frenzy. You can visualize the waves and climaxing in dance steps if you're not tempted to jump up and get carried away yourself. Why resist? As we careen to what feels like a feel-good ending of hope and acceptance, it's happy place to land.


Broadway Records/ Yellow Sound Label

Setting established poems of a legendary figure to music is a tricky task. Is a fresh way to encounter them or a deeper way to consider them what we ask? Will melodies serve to enrich and illuminate or compete and distract from poems of considerable weight? In this case, the poems-cum-songs are just part of a play wherein we get set to "know" Edna St. Vincent Millay. Renascence thus presents challenges galore, and I'm glad to just review the recording, nothing more.

The aural souvenir of this show stands rather well on its own, apart from its raison d'etre as the document of the recent theatre production. Here, it's all about the beauty and power of both words and music, the latter courtesy of composer Carmel Dean; this is the composer's first full score for the stage to reach us, although her name is familiar as music director for Broadway's If/Then, American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody and works of William Finn. There are glorious orchestrations by Michael Starobin, brought to life by six strong singing actors. The play's actual spoken dialogue is not included and what's sung isn't quite meant to be a substitute for interactive moments of discussion or plot recounting events in Millay's life. (And it's just her earlier years that are the subject matter here.)

We've learned from jukebox musicals that endeavor to tell a story with pre-existing familiar words that it can come off as awkward and artificial, even ridiculous. It would stretch credulity that even the most gifted poet with a strong sense of colorful, image-filled language could be accepted rattling off such phrases repurposed as in-the-moment real-time thoughts. And letting the other, non-poet characters spout them and be presented as "owning" them would only be more more self-defeating and foolhardy. Without having seen the show or read the synopsis of its action, only a vivid imagination informed by intimate knowledge of the poet's life, mindset and attitudes would let a listener get anywhere close to fully filling in the blanks. Some cast members play a variety of characters (not all specified in the CD's accompanying booklet), with the men taking on some female roles, and the timeline is not strictly chronological.

If you love elegant language and unabashed naked emotion, drenched in music that is likewise passionately played and sung, you've definitely come to the right place. Renascence swims in anguish, gasps with fragile feelings, and surges with cries of triumph and tragedies. Depending on your appetite for high drama, some of the performances may seem brave and bone-honest or overwrought, laying things on too thickly upon an already hyperventilating poem with melody lines and orchestrations that have in themselves heightened the images and thoughts. An understated approach is not the main avenue, but there is a refinement in the seriousness of approach and attention to even minute details—from the actors' involved coloring of words and laser-beam diction, to the graceful precision of the instrumental work, to the classical nature of the orchestrations. The eight-piece orchestra sounds so gorgeous that I longed for interludes with just them. Geraldine Anello is the pianist/conductor.

Playing the poet herself, leaving no stone of thought or experience unturned or unexpressed with gravitas, Hannah Corneau has the burden of some of the most volcanic sections. When seemingly going for broke, her force-to-be-reckoned-with belted notes that sob and howl can, cumulatively, risk being on the grating side. But many other moments show more reflective sides, with steely sturdiness lingering. Her "Time Does Not Bring Relief" is heartbreaking. Katie Thompson, in her role as the mother, brings empathic encouragement and a grounded sensibility, especially effective on "Lament." Mikaela Bennett's soprano voice is rich, round, and full of a pleasing sweetness that enhances the tracks she's on. There's heft and command in the likable vocal work of Danny Harris Kornfield, who is called on for versatility. Donald Webber, Jr. offers a finely etched story that builds satisfyingly with "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" (and, yes, there's a harp in the orchestra!). Jason Gotay has a lovely, gentle quality I wish had more solo opportunities. Throughout the disc, stellar vocal harmonies provide many exquisite moments—definite highlights for those prioritizing beauty in sound.

Renascence takes its title from the same-named poem that put Millay on the map through a contest. It is remarkable to think it came from a girl not quite out of her teens, with its exploration of death and life, despair and appreciation. It's a fitting finale with language that demonstrates so many qualities of the poet's skill set. And the tapestry of its partnered music swells and compels attention over its imposing length (over 19 minutes when sung here as the final number, by the full company). An ambitious project, the 66-minute cast recording lets a listeners game for exploring deeply felt places have their minds and hearts be exported there: an extra-appropriate journey considering the name of the presenting organization: Transport Group.


Summit Records

The cover of her new collection, The Shakespeare Project, shows vocalist Deborah Shulman snuggling up to a big, gold-embossed volume of the Bard's works—and in her singing she also seems to be embracing his output, comfortably stretching out. I've very much enjoyed her earlier albums that have evidenced her as an intelligent, classy interpreter of standards and more, with jazz sensibilities. Adventurous and warm-spirited, flexible of voice, her ease with the great writer's work comes as no surprise to me. With co-producer/arranger/pianist, Jeff Colella, things are accessible and tasteful, and the general ambience is laidback; the music that's the food of love plays on without ever threatening to upstage the words.

The contents are a mix of sonnets and excerpts from the plays, mostly items that will be familiar to even those with a more casual acquaintance with the oeuvre. As did the singer/actress herself, I first encountered some of this territory in musicalized form when it was in the capable hands of the grand British jazz singer Cleo Laine with her late husband, composer/musician John Dankworth. They laid the groundwork in early recordings, but, of course, many composers have been inspired to think that where there's Will, there's a way to make his words sing. The Dankworth compositions only make up about half of what's presented (including his own original hip take on Macbeth, "Dunsinane Blues"), as others feature the music of either Arthur Young or the legends Duke Ellington and partner Billy Strayhorn. Colella himself capably took on musicalizing two of the sonnets: the familiar romantic choice that asks "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and the one that starts "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought..." First-rate jazz instrumentalists add delicate and cool touches, with outstandingly mood-enhancing featured work by Larry Koonse on guitar.

Ms. Shulman's comfort level with the material comes off as a given, as does respect for the blueprints set by the Laine/Dankworth high bar. But this is no slavish imitation. Consistently bringing out details, this isn't a showy showcase for the artists. It is often a case of restraint so that what is front and center: the text and the general mood of each piece. They are colored in subtle ways by the singer as she emphasizes key words by kind of sighing into them, giving a silvery spin with a light, high tone or lingering over a particularly delicious phrase. Accents come, too, from the instrumentalists and, with the no-rush/no-fuss approach, we can take it all in, the words have time to "breathe" as we are given time to absorb them, also, and to react and appreciate them and their architecture. In many notable instances, the deepest Shulman tones are especially impactful. Also in her tool-kit is a playful edginess for the sonnet that stays in the unpleasant symptoms of romance and its risks: "My love is as a fever."

Occasional liberties are taken in construction, like repeating a line from Shakespeare's original to help the music flow or to provide a more satisfying or full-circle conclusion rather than have a dangling-in-mid-air feeling, and thus all's well that ends well. With excerpts sampling several different plays (and a bit of double-dipping), you're bound to find some favorites favored with fresh musicality.

Shakespeare and Shulman are a good match. Should you be resistant and need to be "sold" on lending him an ear, she makes an ideal salesperson. And, if you're pre-sold, prepare to be presented with something sublime.

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