How I Spent My Summer Vacation, chapter 1: First stop this week is in LingoLand. Following that trip through sophisticated lingo comes a game of bingo, a kind of holiday from serious thought. Then, come along for romantic trips hosted by a singer from Canada and a Broadway leading man returning home to the Philippines.
Kenward Elmslie's facility with language and his unusual word choices make his finely crafted, open-hearted work a joy to examine. When the delicate words are attached to beautiful melodies, they soar. Give the material to skilled singer-actors who can handle it and you have pure pleasure both for the ears and the soul. The cast album of LingoLand, in plain lingo, is great.
Some selections from this cross-section of a multi-decade career may strike listeners as esoteric, but very accessible comedy is also present for balance. Combined with character songs, poems, and operatic and musical comedy numbers, it all underscores the man's versatility. This 2-CD souvenir of a 2005 staged production also includes several additional pieces that didn't make the final cut. It's all done with loving care to detail by all hands, masterfully produced by John Yap. Some of the songs will be familiar to theater fans and have been recorded before (on albums of songs from The Grass Harp, Lola, Postcards on Parade, Miss Julie and the Ben Bagley-produced record Kenward Elmslie Visited.) Mr. Elmslie is a significant and very involved presence, performing a few poems, sharing anecdotes and singing a few songs himself in a pleasing manner. He also shares recollections of his 31-year relationship with artist Joe Brainard, giving us a glimpse at the private man behind the work.
One Elmslie musical deserves special mention. The York Theatre Company, which produced LingoLand, has a special affection for The Grass Harp, the lovely musical based on a Truman Capote story, and has presented it three times. Its most recent concert version, in 2003, featured Jeanne Lehman and Jason Dula as siblings. Both excellent performers are in the cast here, revisiting that material ("Chain of Love" for her, "Floozies" for him), among other things. They are also reunited with that production's music supervisor, Jack Lee, and its director, the York's James Morgan. This especially delightful score with music by Claibe Richardson is generously represented, including cut songs; "Brazil" gets new lyrics that parody the Bush administration. The only disappointments are that "If There's Love Enough" was used as closer, and the brisk pace robs it of some of its impact; and "Yellow Drum" is only heard instrumentally. A brief dialogue scene is also included.
Singing and reciting alone and in various combinations, the company is quite versatile. For example, soprano Jane Bodle deftly navigates the serious aria "Memories" from the opera Miss Julie (music by Ned Rorem) and switches gears for a comic rant against a "One Night Stand" (a litany of put-downs, with a melody by Richardson). Lauren Shealey shines, too, in a wide variety of styles, including a chance at "Love-Wise" which was a pop hit for Nat King Cole. Steve Routman leads the company with a powerful "Who'll Prop Me Up in the Rain," one of a handful of songs with Mr. Elmslie's own melody. Multi-talented conductor-keyboardist Matt Castle sings on some group tracks, (notably "Love Song" from the opera The Sweet Bye and Bye, music by Jack Beeson) and did the vocal arrangements with Jack Lee.
With short poems plus music of so many different styles and composers (in addition to those mentioned, Steven Taylor, Stephen Dolginoff, Doug Katsoros, Andrew Gerle, Thomas Pasatieri and Joshua Rosenblum), this is a patchwork quilt. But it's like a quilt you might want to wrap around yourself because it's warm and wonderful.
Like the rules of the game bingo, the musical about people who play it is pretty simple. Bingo won't tax your brain, but this CD is a lightly entertaining way to pass the time. The plot is as flimsy as a cardboard bingo card and the songs are at best bright and cute. A collaborative effort by bookwriters Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid plus David Holcenberg, the songs are shrewdly performed by a skilled company. They may be playing the ladies who play the game oh-so-seriously, but the cast embraces the silliness of it all while affectionately portraying the Bingo devotees and their female bonding.
In this small cast, two musical theater pros named Liz have standout numbers with clearly drawn characters. Liz Larsen is funny and sweet as Honey, a woman who wants to win a man's heart more than she wants to win at bingo. Strong-voiced Liz McCartney is a smash as the dominant leader of the motley crew, feisty and fervent in her passion for the game. Admirably, she takes the show's serious moment ("Swell") when her character loses friendships and makes it both touching and thrilling as she wails her lament of loneliness. Performances of "Under My Wing," featuring Liz McCartney with the cast in a catchy celebration of friendship and the finer points of bingo and "Gentleman Caller," Liz Larsen's lilting, lowbrow love song can both be seen in clips from TV performances at the show's website, www.bingothemusical.com. The audience interaction at the live show where spectators were given bingo cards, markers and snacks was jolly and the script had some clever moments, but the CD experience has its charms, too.
Special kudos to Klea Blackhurst, who is a welcome burst of spunk and spice. Her character takes center stage near the end, just when things need one extra boost. Klea scores and knows just how much to push comedy and voice. Bonding through bingo, Janet Metz, Beth Malone and Chevi Colton add flavor and good spirits, too, as does Patrick Ryan Sullivan, the lone man on board. A campy musical theater indulgence, "Ratched's Lament" is a very over-the-top presentation, a slice of an imagined musical adaptation of the drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest called Cuckoo! The Musical. (Beth's character is an actress.)
Much of the punch and clarity of the sound should be credited to multi-tasking Steven Bishop: he's the orchestrator, musical director, one of two keyboard players and did the keyboard programming, as well as producing the album. It all zips by in under 36 minutes, and though it's a trifle, it's a cheery one. If you're looking for a more intense musical about a game, you'll have to settle for Chess. If fun is the name of the game, try Bingo.
Give me 30 seconds of your time and I think I'll be able to convince you that Adi Braun has a voice you'll want to keep hearing. You can tell right away with any track on her new CD that she's a pro and that she has a sound and style that's luxurious and luscious. This vocalist has a confidence that leaps out. After finding success in her home base of Canada, her music is now being more widely released in the United States, and her new album has been picked up by LML Records. It's called The Rules of the Game and by "game" we're not talking bingo! It's the game of love in these selections, and sometimes lust. Adi is comfortable presenting her sensuous side, and it doesn't come off as overly coy or calculated. She has a velvety voice and can also bite into words like "I want your love," in "Love Me or Leave Me," or "kama sutra" in the album's title song, or ... well, almost any line in her sultry "Honeysuckle Rose."
Adi can take things sweet and slow or sassy and swinging; we get the best of both worlds in the lighthearted Cole Porter song "You Do Something to Me." It starts super-relaxed and builds and picks up tempo until it's a bursting celebration. A very different theater song, the serious and searing "Lonely House" (Kurt Weill/ Langston Hughes from Street Scene) is well within her abilities, too, evidencing her dramatic flair and control. She does a lovely and thoughtful job with Ann Hampton Callaway's wise life lessons set to music, "You Can't Rush Spring," and gives a nod to fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot's "Beautiful," which is prime prettiness. These tracks hold up better on repeated listenings than a couple of the others that aren't quite as strong.
Whether turning bluesy, burnishing a ballad or breezily taking a scat chorus, Adi is at home and impresses. It's worth noting that she's the daughter of two professional singers and has been singing for some time, having started with classical music. She has one earlier album, Delishious, available; it also contains a mix of theater, jazz and pop. Adi has the good fortune and good taste to have the same rhythm section on both albums: Doug Riley (piano), Steve Wallace (bass), Terry Clarke (drums) and Perry White (sax). They are top musicians, and they get to stretch out on the jazzier tracks, but there's nothing on the self-indulgent or abstract side, nor anything to make jazz-phobic music fans quiver.
New Yorkers can see Adi up close and personal as June comes to an end. She will be singing in a free mini-concert at 6 p.m. on June 28 at Tower Records/ Lincoln Center's "Any Wednesday" series. The next two nights, she'll be at Danny's Skylight Room twenty blocks further south. Meanwhile, her albums can be sampled at her website, www.adibraun.com or at www.CDbaby.com. She's a winner.
UNDER THE RADAR
This singer is by no means a new name to musical theater folks. I've been a major fan for some time and hoped he might put out a solo album. I was surprised to discover he did exactly that, but it was hidden in the non-English section!
Jose Llana has a simply wonderful voice - it can be achingly tender, towering or suited to character-driven comedy. This does not come as news to those who have enjoyed his performances on Broadway or heard him on the resulting cast albums: the revivals of two Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, The King and I and Flower Drum Song, or his newest resume addition, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (Theatergoers may have also seen him in Rent or On the Town). On Jose, his first solo album, his voice is as involving as it is when he's playing a character in musical theater. Only three tracks are sung in English, but that is no roadblock to enjoying this album.
Jose was born in the Philippines and has chosen to honor his roots, so most of the songs are sung in the language of his first home. (He was raised in America.) Fortunately, it's a language full of beautiful sounds and open vowels. Most of the songs selected have very pretty, long-lined melodies or powerful sections with sustained notes, so there's a lot to enjoy without knowing what in the world is being sung about so passionately. I like to assume from the emotion in his voice that he's singing about love (I'll be very disappointed if the songs are about doing the laundry or the price of gasoline). Unfortunately, there are no English translations included. "Kailangan Kita" is one number that has strong singing, but also some quiet moments and is enhanced by Jerome Nunez's violin playing. Instrumental accompaniment prominently features guitar on several tracks, the player being either Noel Mendez or Rudy Lozano. Singer Sarah Geronimo duets on "Nais Ko" and Regine Valasquez is his partner on "Iduyan Mo."
Much as I enjoy the whole listening experience, I can't help but take additional pleasure in the three English tracks. They're all especially emotional and very vulnerable in their lyrics, heart on sleeve style. And Jose sings them caressingly and with an open heart. "You Are My Song" and "Let the Pain Remain" are confessional and build dramatically. But it's the album's opener that is one of the year's perfect tracks, the kind I keep on "repeat play" because everything works. It's called "To Love You Once Again" and is written by Louie Ocampo and Freddie Santos. It suits Jose's voice ideally, with a graceful but simple melody full of high notes he sings in his head voice. The lyric's topic is what a lover would do if he could change his life, and it's just soaked with romantic idealism.
Jose's website, www.JoseLlana.com, is brand new and features information on his latest roles (he's in a new opera), his coaching work, song samples and a blog.
But for now, it's time for me to say paalom na po. That's Tagalog for "goodbye," I've managed to learn. But music is the universal language, and more of that coming up all summer.