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Lerner & Loewe ... and Llana
Review by Rob Lester

"Got a dream, boy?/ Got a song?/ Paint your wagon and come along!" So goes the vibrant opening number "I'm On My Way" for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon, which recently got a bright new coat of musical paint with a concert production leading to a fresh, fuller version on disc. Debuting on Broadway as Lun Tha, singing "I Have Dreamed," in a revival of The King and I and ascending to the throne as the titular monarch for a time in the current production, you could say that José Llana has "got a dream" and many a song to revisit—from that score and much more—in his CD's career-spanning set list.


Masterworks Broadway/Sony

The musical Paint Your Wagon has reached the ripe old age of 65, but it is not ready to be retired to the dustbin of theatre history. Few have been in a rush to refurbish, reconsider or re-record this saga of the American gold rush of the 1850s, but there's gold still shining in this solidly crafted score that has more to it than its obvious features of robust male-bonding airs, subplot of youthfully wide-eyed romance allowing for sweet ballads, wanderlust, and the other kind of lust. While Paint Your Wagon's characters and tone may seem to be painted in broad strokes, its beneath-the-surface features still have relevance. Characters of various ethnicities and backgrounds allow for issues of prejudice and acceptance to be addressed, with family values and male/female relationships explored, and timeless themes of Nature, survival, loss, and Fate all considered in the story.

Although the tenderness and wit that Alan Jay Lerner demonstrated in other work was richer, and his adeptness at putting cleverly rhyming words into the mouths sophisticated folks is not appropriate for this project, his language choices are certainly worth lingering over as we pore through the lyrics provided in the booklet. And, especially with the generous sampling of instrumental music and the superb Encores! orchestra conducted with attentive skill by Rob Berman, the Frederick Loewe melodies' architectures are especially well served and brought to the forefront. They are full of life here, bursting with brisk energy on the lively tempoed pieces, and the ballads are elegant without sentimental goo or gushing.

The score has never been so fully embraced or expansive on recordings. The original Broadway cast album was in mono sound, and although the days of 1950s vinyl cast recordings boasted what was called "long-playing" records, their playing time was typically too limited to include some "incidental" numbers, reprises, or orchestral selections. Such was the case with Paint Your Wagon back in the day. A London cast—co-starring real-life father and daughter Bobby and Sally Ann Howes as the key characters of dad Ben and offspring Jennifer—only had highlights recorded, some in medleys. The belated movie version (1969), which starred the unlikely singing cast members Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg, did not use the full score and added new songs by Lerner with melodies not by the then-retired Loewe, but composer collaborator Andre Previn from that year's Broadway entry of the Katharine Hepburn-starrer Coco instead. While the anticipated attention of the film generated a flurry of record albums at that time (studio casts, instrumental versions, and choral groups handling the material), they concentrated on the 10 main pieces or a bit more.

So, after a virtual vacuum since those days, this 29-track compact disc—full of vocal and instrumental reprises, with entr'acte and dance music—is most welcome. Beyond the variations on the main melodies, "smaller numbers" are more than trifles or also-rans. The "Trio" is a treat—and a trick, as its lovely lilt and sweet harmonies belie the vitriol in the prayers of a Mormon man and his two wives. "The Strike" shares a melody and mood with an earlier number and there are three visits to "Rumson Town" to update the ups and downs of the townsfolk, all sung by the lead character who shares the town's name.

Keith Carradine as central figure Ben Rumson brings his easygoing, folksy charm and warmth to the prospector typically described as gruff and grizzled. Inescapably likeable Carradine certainly brings a softer, sympathetic portrayal and an endearing quality. Thus, Ben's remembrance of his much-missed late wife, "I Still See Elisa," does not come off as a tough guy's unexpected vulnerable moment, but the tenderness still is effective and Carradine retains the gentle and ageless light touch Broadway fans may recall from his titular role in The Will Rogers Follies. Alexandra Socha is a real delight and major asset as Ben's daughter Jennifer. She's feisty and funny, restless and ruminating—and rhapsodic when Cupid strikes his arrow. Her antsy and frustration-filled explosions of questions and curiosity, "What's Going On Here?" and "How Can I Wait?," are zesty bundles of energy and bright singing. The comic sensibilities she shows in these blossom fully when she gets one of Lerner's particularly playful word romps "All for Him," in which the character shows off her "knowledge to spare," gleaned from books, absorbing facts like "Alexander, they tell me, was great/ Mozart wrote a sonata at eight" and fine manners ("I can dine like a queen/Without dropping a bean").

Justin Guarini as Julio, the ostracized Mexican man whom Jennifer fancies, is restrained here, clearly miles and genres away from his star-making pop "American Idol" beginnings. For this 2015 concert production which had a brief rehearsal period, his accent is labored and distracting in his earliest appearance, burdening the would-be/should-be glorious "I Talk to the Trees" and weighing it down. But, fortunately, it's not as heavily lobbed on once he gets to other material. Another solo, "Another Autumn," finds him gratifyingly reflective and more at ease, bringing understated sentiment to this sublime piece. And the lovers' duet "Carino Mio" finds a graceful balance and hits the sweet spot. A bonus track also pairs Mr. Guarini and Miss Socha, nimbly skipping through "What Do Other Folks Do?" wherein they wonder how other people live their lives and handle their blue days. It was a cut song reworked for Camelot nine years later as "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" which has the same general concept and structure.

Nathaniel Hackmann leads the score's mighty "They Call the Wind Maria" and acquits himself fairly well in his solo singing that could use more abandon and underlying connection to convincing the listener that he rues being "a lost and lonely man ... Not even God can find me." Alas, the male chorus does him no favors in support with their bland and lumbering unison repeats of "Maria! Maria!" that mar the track and are the nadir of the otherwise impressive and thoughtful performances.

From a "Can Can" to the ode to a can of popular eats ("Hand Me Down That Can of Beans") for the hungry male chorus, in finer fettle, there's plenty of life and love left in Paint Your Wagon. Lerner had continued to tinker with his own book for the show in later years and a production running this month in Seattle at The Fifth Avenue Theatre and starring Robert Cuccioli has a revised book and reshuffled score, and includes numbers from the film (which had then-new plot incidents itself).

Certainly this recording is one more reason to cheer that this show, as well as the oeuvre of its writers, will continue to live on long after its creators have exited the stage. This week marks the 30th anniversary of Lerner's death (Loewe, mostly retired, died two years later). But with Lerner's widow Liz Robertson (his eighth wife) preparing a cabaret show honoring him, My Fair Lady directed by original star Julie Andrews (in Australia this summer and then, who knows?), Gigi a very recent Broadway visitor, and last year's most recent national tour of Camelot, we know their songs and shows are still very much in the air and will remain with us.

Yellow Sound Label

Come join the glorious-voiced José Llana for a rewarding journey down his personal memory lane of theatre career highlights and other favorites and you'll be glad you came along. His new album, Altitude, is a winner. Although the ever-appealing actor has appeared on quite a few cast albums by now, this recital is not merely a retread of things he recorded on those discs. The company is familiar, but there are degrees of separation and a chance to record songs for the first time. The arrangements, most by Matt and Cody Owen Stine (some of these based on earlier treatments and orchestrations by others), are invigorating and theatrical. The work by musical director/pianist Kimberly Grigsby is top drawer, and her own arrangements of two classics from the theatre are major highlights here. She's joined by a small but mighty group: Jack Bashkow on woodwinds, Pete Donovan on bass, Kevin Garcia on drums, and guitarist Simon Kafka (who accompanies beautifully and arranged a disarming and very engaging "She Is More" by AnnMarie Milazzo from Pretty Girl Dead). In fact, all the tracks are distinctly involving, with the soaring singing sounding thoroughly in the moment and thoughtful.

Three numbers from Adam Guettel's intriguing look at mythology, known in concert as Saturn Returns, demonstrate Mr. Llana's deft mastery of challenging and twisting melodic lines and emotional storytelling. While he was included on the recording of this material and the concert, he didn't get to record these particular numbers himself, as the disc based on the concert featured the talented songwriter himself as vocalist, among others. It's great to hear the Llana versions and to be reminded of the mesmerizing material, especially when so dynamically performed and artfully accompanied. These near-art songs are balanced by lighter and zippier things.

Going from that sublime to the ridiculous (in the best, funniest sense of the word), the singer-actor tops his own performance on the cast album of William Finn's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with his tween angst-ridden tale "Chip's Lament." He dives into the character piece with fresh energy, channeling youthful frenzy in his vocal tone and phrasing. He mines the LOL potential in this loopy piece, suggesting to my pricked-up ears that he refined and remembered the nuances and embellishments that can be found and polished in a long run.

There's some vocal company on the CD, too. Three castmates from Here Lies Love provide background vocals here and there. From that show, there's also Ruthie Ann Miles. She was his stage wife in his roles as leaders of two nations. As Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, they co-starred in Here Lies Love. They join forces for the rather rambunctiously celebratory "Child of the Philippines" and he ends the disc with the score's "A Perfect Hand." She's been one of his wives in The King and I in the current revival, but as he did not open the show as the monarch, he did not get to record that character's numbers. It's a pleasure to hear his personal take on "A Puzzlement" wherein he finds fresh ways of injecting personality and vexation into the familiar lines, but eschews high drama and mega-frustration for this disc. It's a Grigsby arrangement and her ideas contribute freshness, too. When he played Tuptim's lover Lun Tha in the revival in the 1990s, he was in the opening cast, so he recorded the duets with his co-star. But here, he nostalgically reinterprets both as solos in a medley and the feelings of wary, furtive lovers and their yearning to be together in "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" still ring true as the emotive interpreter's vocals ring out.

Another past role was as Gabey, the sailor on leave On the Town and on a mission to find his dream girl seen on a subway poster. He was in the terrific production some years ago in Central Park, and I fondly remember watching his thoughtful work and noting the show's wordsmiths Betty Comden and Adolph Green in the audience, also watching admiringly near me. This disc's rendition of Gabey's ballad "Lonely Town" is touching—once again—and his aching vocal dancing with Leonard Bernstein's elegiac melody is marvelously moving. Another calibrated performance comes with Stephen Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little." I've heard many versions of this, and was surprised how effective this still can be in caring hands. Unlike many versions, the desperation and anguish and denial are not overcooked and feverish. With José's more reasoned approached and this other Grigsby chart, we get to pull back for a more considered and mature perspective, proving that it need not be a rant, but has a real reservoir of tenderness and even innocence.

Some non-theatre items further prove the artist's versatility, not that it would be in question otherwise. But the Llana legato sound on something like Billy Joel's "Lullabye," a.k.a. "Goodnight, My Angel," demonstrates his ease with classy pop material and one can easily imagine him multi-tasking as a successful recording star bringing a golden sound to varied material.

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