Sound Advice Reviews
New York, New York plus
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something for dancing to: That's what's on dazzling display in the well-handled score for the current Broadway musical production New York, New York. The "old" ingredients are not only the John Kander and Fred Ebb numbers presented in the 1977 film of the same name, but also songs cut from their shows or written for properties that never got produced. The "new" are some exciting pieces written expressly for the stage show, with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (and some credited to Kander). "Borrowed" are some selections that certainly were prominently exposed to audiences, such as "A Quiet Thing" from Flora the Red Menace and "Let's Hear It for Me" from the film Funny Lady. And the kinetic cast recording with its pulsating orchestrations might be almost impossible not to dance to. (The final track is a kicky karaoke-ready instrumental of the ubiquitous title song you can dance and sing with.) The sum of the parts is something exciting and brimming with optimism as those pieces from everywhere, with strong identities, blend–but retain their identities–like the assortment of people in the so-called "melting pot" city being celebrated and reflected.
The positive high energy rarely abates. Sadness, anger and frustration feel kind of like short-term conditions in the story as experienced through the songs. New York, New York is its own kind of 4-H Club: Happiness, Heart, Humor, Hope. With singing voices that are warm rather than red hot, Colton Ryan and Anna Uzele as the central romantic couple are likable presences, with a little sarcasm and cheekiness adding spice and surprise. Both convey a range of attitudes in their assigned material to display drive, vulnerability and perseverance. They are quite appealing together in "I Love Music" and when he proposes sweetly via "Marry Me" (recycled from The Rink) and she resists, but he persists. ("Are you crazy?" she asks. "Yes!" is his cute reply.) Numbers with Miranda's lyrics, such as "Gold" and "Light," percolate and bring focus to supporting players. Emily Skinner offers a measured, mature viewpoint when her character, in writing to her son who's not yet back from the war, reflects on how life is "Better Than Before."
Instrumental selections are a plus, especially with this splendid orchestra (enlarged for the recording with a few more string players) and the juicy orchestrations by Daryl Waters and Sam Davis. Some of these pieces tease with snatches of the famous title song (starting with the first track, and it's nice to hear in various guises, often more relaxed, instead of just the oh-so-familiar strict, upbeat tempo that will indeed come at the finale). The first listen to an instrumental track here titled "New York Concerto" will make some showtune-ophiles stop and realize "Hey, wait a minute. That's the melody used in Woman of the Year for 'Sometimes a Day Goes By.'"
The very full and satisfying banquet is followed by some "dessert" treats: bonus tracks of a few demos by the songwriters, sometimes singing lyrics that have variations. All the words, a plot synopsis, credits, a few Kander remarks, and many photos are in the digital booklet which we can assume will be produced in paper for the physical CD set coming soon.
Being swept up in New York, New York's sparkling cast recording and its life-affirming ambiance is a joy ride.
Autobiography with songs doesn't get much more intense than this. Heartfelt and achingly personal, singer-actor Matthew Scott's sharing of memories and feelings about his own father's life and death (28 years ago)–and about becoming a father himself–is an avalanche of love and emotion. The Jesus Year: A Letter from My Dad (referring to the age of 33 and the quoted contents of paternal writings found posthumously) was his live show that was heavy on spoken material revisiting his past pleasures and pain in detail. It may seem odd to experience as a recording made without the presence of an audience reacting. The longer tales might be TMI for those resistant to relating to uber-poignant recollections and mourning. The stories set up the songs with context, but spoken and sung segments are tracked separately, and thus it's easy enough to focus on the musical numbers which are plentiful and pleasing.
Pop music choices are most prominent, with three visits to the Billy Joel songbook. There's a nod to a couple of degrees of separation from Scott's time spent performing in Jersey Boys with the inclusion of the oldie "Our Day Will Come" which was revived by Frankie Valli. "Children Will Listen" is a natural fit for the theme of parenting for the performer who sang it, along with his co-stars, on Broadway in the revue Sondheim on Sondheim. This cautionary gem packs its punch with more warmth than worry here as the final thought.
Referencing a stage role from his youth gives Matthew Scott the opportunity to include the delightful "The World According to Snoopy" as a taste of the Larry Grossman/ Hal Hackady-scored show titled for that dog–the second to bring the Peanuts cartoon characters to the stage. William FInn is the other theatre writer whose work is featured with two appropriate matches handled with care (the story song "I Went Fishing with My Dad" and the dramatic "When the Earth Stopped Turning").
"Oh Very Young" by Cat Stevens lands in the sweet spot of Matthew Scott's voice. It's used twice, all too briefly. If only there were several more selections that showcased that quality so richly!
Extra musicians were added for the recording of the act. All of the instrumentalists are stellar. The string players (cellist Peter Sachon, violinist Antoine Silverman, and guitarist Sean Harkness, with Dick Sarpola on bass) enhance the most open-hearted moments. They join pianist Vadim Feichtner and percussionist Sonny Harkins. Orchestrations are by John Baxindine. The CD comes with a booklet that offers more commentary from the singer and a mega-effusive appreciation of him as an artist and person by Rick Elise, bookwriter of Jersey Boys.
The Jesus Year... is replete with palpable familial affection and connection, a sense of carpe diem, plus smiles and tears.
Full of specific characters and emotions, the plots, perspectives and performances in Other Lives: The Story Songs of Michael Colby bring variety galore. Tone ranges from earnest to playful, as attitudes shift from wistful to sarcastic, with the many singing participants who include elegant sopranos, belters, and low-key raconteurs. Relationships explored consider family connections and the dog/owner bond. As in the musical Working, with songs based on interviews with people who labored in all kinds of fields, some pieces let us in on the feelings behind the job descriptions (an elevator operator and those in creative endeavors meeting success or challenges). There are stand-alone pieces and numbers from musicals. Ten collaborating composers are represented in the survey of material with words by Michael Colby.
The proceedings are often as much a showcase for the performers as for the repertoire. Among the "story songs" are two that tell true stories, which makes them even more intriguing. In "My Best," Deborah Tranelli deftly inhabits May Muth, a multi-decade theatre veteran with Broadway experience handling on-stage roles and stage management. The melody is by Steven Silverstein, the most represented composer, with six songs. Mr. Colby himself charms with his wonderfully name-dropping autobiographical chapters of Manhattan hotel-centric life "Growing Up at the Algonquin"–which he did. The composer is Ned Paul Ginsburg.
In the contrasting category of over-the-top fictional fun, Klea Blackhurst cheers and charges through "Junior" (music by Larry Hochman) about a boy who keeps finding trouble and his mother who doesn't always keep her head, because she's overly devoted. Several other theatre veterans appear to good advantage, such as Sarah Rice, Stephen Bogardus, and Bethe Austin (she blithely addresses times with a dog in the proud proclamation "That's My Pooch!" with an appealingly sunny tune composed by a special favorite among the lyricist's partners, his wife, Andrea Colby). And the new generation shines–or rather, bursts–with bright energy from two teenage boys. Luke Naphat exults about romantic attraction possibilities in "Oh-Yo!" (Silverstein), and Joshua Turchin leads a peppy description of life as an adoptee being raised by two moms ("Carl's Song" from the musical They Chose Me! with music by Ginsburg).
Pianist Michael Lavine contributes accompaniment and stylings that complement and support the diverse material. Driving, delicate or decorative, his playing helps keep the focus on the stories–especially valuable with the plot-heavy tales where verbiage comes with volume and velocity.
This vibrant new offering is a studio set that re-creates the live presentations (two showings) that were part of the annual "Winter Rhythms" benefit series at Urban Stages in Manhattan this past December. This is issued by JAY Records, the label that also preserved lyricist/bookwriter Colby's scores for Charlotte Sweet, Ludlow Ladd (both with music by Gerald Jay Markoe) and Tales from Tinseltown: A Movieland Musical (music by Paul Katz). But while nothing from those shows is sampled here, Other Lives has other examples of those two teamings. And prior Colby collections' contents are almost completely different, too; 2001's multi-artist CD Quel Fromage only shares the comical "Since I Fell"; and the common ingredient in Cosmic Connections, the recent recording of Maureen Taylor's solo cabaret of Colby, is just the positive and vexing elements of holiday time ("Christmas Ev'ry Day," allowed two duet treatments: Sean McDermott and Dan Hoy both have a chance to sing about facets of the holiday with Megan Styrna). Miss Taylor is among the concert cast members here for her atmosphere-drenched lush solo of "Dream Park Lullaby" (another Silverstein setting). The titular group number of Other Lives has a catchy rollicking tune by Alex Rybeck and an irreverent lyric.
Come make the acquaintance of the merry, mercurial, motley crew.
Melting vocals and mellow vibes are major values that are on the asset side of singer Chloé Jean's collection called Fairy Tale Fail, made up of six covers and five songs she wrote herself. Drenched in silky stylings, even her melancholy moods and expressions of disappointment feel coated with some honey. The heat of anger cools with acceptance. If you can give in to this emotional climate change and share the sighs, you're more likely to enjoy the smooth ride that has drama implied or in the rear view window. On the debit side, some potential emotional peaks may feel unsatisfyingly muted in the gloss that is soft-focus R&B. Also, in the original numbers, some points are overstated and the inconsistency of whether to use pure rhymes, close rhymes, or no rhymes is distracting. Some lyrics get muddied or muddled in the melisma and the pretty but less than precise pronunciation, with the singer providing her own background vocals on some selections. While her lyrics aren't included in the CD packaging, they are easily found on her website.
Also on her website is a statement that the songs she wrote here "draw from her experiences in both heartache and love." The one that gives Fairy Tale Fail its title has words that reference the idyllic happily-ever-afters we're exposed to in storybooks as well as life's reality checks ("Life is delicious when you find the one/ After you've kissed a lot of frogs/ He grants your wishes and it feels like love/ Till he turns out to be a dog"). In her desire to return with her lover to "Where Love Began," Chloé Jean says she agrees with the idea that having money causes problems, a wise philosophy she credits to rap star Biggie Smalls, Jesus Christ, and her own mother. In six minutes of sung encouragement, she advises us not to be bothered by being labeled "Black Sheep" as we "aim high" seeking our own paths ("You're a child of the sun/ Don't let nobody hold your head down/ You were born to let your truth out/ Just remember what you're made of").
Then there are the covers. While the packaging gives space for Chloé Jean's photos, her thanks to family and colleagues, and identifies which of the tracks were written by her, the names of the other songwriters are nowhere to be found. (They are established songs, but whatever happened to giving credit where credit is due?) Irving Berlin's classic "Blue Skies" is done with some grace and just acoustic piano accompaniment, and it is the oldest (97 years of age); the most recent is the set's outlier in its mood, "Bad Guy," written by singer/songwriter Billie EIlish and her brother Finneas O'Connell. 2003 Grammy Song of the Year, "Don't Know Why," written by Jesse Harris, has a similar liquidy, laidback feel to the Norah Jones hit version, and is a lovely, smooth sail. The other three visits to music past all originated in the 1950s. "The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face)" evidences perhaps a touch of its simple folk song origins and more of its later soul/R&B incarnations as it starts in a sparer way and then gets adornments. The standard "Cry Me a River" has embellishments that eschew both the "cool" restrained approach and the underlying boiling resentment.
Far and away, the album highlight for me is a tender rendition of Tony Bennett's signature song, "(I Left My Heart) In San Francisco." With no frills or embellishments, it feels authentic and fresh, chalking up a win for the supporters of the "less is more" school of singing. The verse is arresting, done a capella, and the whole track continues to be compelling and convincing. (It's interesting to note that the singer has spent some of her years living in the Bay Area.) Norman Stachel's tenor sax adds a sublimely moody sense of longing.
Fairy Tale Fail is produced by Ray Obiedo, who is prominent as a member of the band (guitar and keyboards, plus bass on the title cut). Instrumentation varies from track to track.
The vocalist often projects an underlying spirit that can be strong and/or sensitive. And that's worthy of attention.