Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Songs by Alan and Stephen, Stephen
and David, and David's lyrics for Nancy
Reviews by Rob Lester

Alan and Stephen are Messrs. Menken and Schwartz whose stage version of their Hunchback of Notre Dame movie score gets a cast CD with a studio cast. Stephen and David are Messrs. Cole and Evans who wrote a new musical about an imaginary chapter in Ethel Merman's career. The other David is Mr. Zippel, one of Menken's past Disney film collaborators, whose lyrics are graced by Nancy LaMott in a posthumously released compilation.


Ghostlight Records

In case you've been secluded in a bell tower away from the world for 20 years, you've been aware that Victor Hugo's famous novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," like his "Les Misérables," was musicalized. But you might be surprised how much the 1996 Disney animated adaptation of the hunchback's plight has grown in its stage incarnation to sounding closer to the hearty Les Miz in its drama and grand singing. With additional songs by the film's original team of composer Alan Menken (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics), the cartoon's "cute" factor was greatly diminished when the creators went back to the drawing board and back to Hugo. The musical has grown up significantly, just like the generation of kids introduced to the story as brighter, lighter fare and who might be a big part of the target audience who'd have a soft spot for the nostalgic tug, but ready for a more serious and less sweetened approach. Hunchback is now earnest and intense with high drama in its pounding blood and throbbing musical climaxes-within-climaxes.

The expanded and darker treatment first found its way to the stage in Germany where it ran for three years, and a German language cast album materialized thereafter. Finally, back in English and tweaked, it came back to the U.S.A., first on the West Coast (La Jolla Playhouse) and then across the country to Paper Mill Playhouse for a run that began one year ago today. This new cast album, while branded a "Studio Cast Recording," indeed features leading cast members of these two recent American mountings, and a 28-piece orchestra. The sound is big. The style is big. The emotions are big. The singing ensemble is big. And, while many of the strokes of character still seem painted with broad strokes, too, there are some welcome human-scaled and thoughtful sections, too. However, the proceedings are thicker with gloom and harshness, with much of the film's Disneyfied sugar-coating and comic relief characters removed and the plot's ending more loyal to Hugo's harrowing happenings. Hope and lightness may be scant, but you can't say that the whirlwind of musical activity lacks grandiose strokes or rich atmosphere, creating its own world.

The gifted Michael Arden turns in a shaded performance in the title role that is compelling and committed. He uses a quite different sound for hunchback Quasimodo's speaking voice (awkward and murky) than for his singing, which can be strong and soaring and full of passion. This is tempered with a vulnerable quality that puts the afflicted character's loneliness and frustrations into high relief, accented magnificently by some high, pure sounds now and then. The ache and loneliness are palpable and when he gathers emotional muscle it can be thrilling. While, in construction, his character's establishing "I want" song, a longing to experience the world "Out There" beyond his confinement, has telltale signs of too-familiar formula, the ardent singer-actor gives it a full-blooded yet tender-toned reading. In short, he makes it work with a cliché-slaying sincerity and determination.

One of the numbers added for the stage version, "Made of Stone," is made to order for the unabashed fierceness and underlying pain a thoughtful performer like Arden can combine into a true tour de force roller coaster ride. Both accusatory and cathartic, it is a climactic highlight. While the other characters come off as less three-dimensional or bordering on being merely functional, his portrayal does not settle for falling into stock mannered ways to push predictable buttons, such as overplaying the obvious pity card.

Booming-voiced Patrick Page is natural casting as the formidable Frollo, the dour and seemingly cold, calculating captor of our hero who's kept isolated high in a tower, and he plays it grandly, but without resorting to hammy showboating. Ciara Renée, as the magnetic gypsy Esmerelda, brings both flair and heart to her performances. Her "God Help the Outcasts" plea has a grace that steers clear of getting weepy. Andrew Samonsky is appealingly heroic-sounding as he enters, singing of "Rest and Recreation," and his duet with Miss René, "Someday," is a satisfying standout, with the feel of a classic.

Some of the new material is plot-advancing without being plodding, and adds more sturm und drang. "In a Place of Miracles" is especially stirring. While listening to the disc as episode follows episode, with much sung narration now handled by the ensemble, often taking turns with solo lines as is done in Sweeney Todd, it seems like a lot is happening, but some plot points plod and the more detailed information doesn't easily stick in the mind. The contrasts in the solo voices may well seem more striking than what's being stated. Timbres and tonal colors are far from bland or generic; many are distinct.

While the photo-filled booklet gives all of the lyrics and the included dialogue, it isn't indicated which member of the large company, playing a perhaps unnamed character, is singing which line—or even that something is a non-unison line. (And a part of me is curious to know which of the competent female voices is the composer's daughter, Nora Menken.) William Michals, with two brief solo sections in two named small roles, nevertheless stands out with his resonant deep tones familiar from frequent concert appearances and elsewhere.

Telescoping and musicalizing the famous novel with its numerous incidents and moralizing is no easy task. Others have proffered musical treatments over the years. A decidedly dense cloud cover rarely dissipates. While the production number "Topsy Turvy" brings some relief, it also has a near-maniacal slant with the repeated title phrase grating. Much here will strike some listeners as sinking in its own weight of melodrama and thickly-served musical dressing, while others who like their tragedy bold and big will not complain. But whether the oft-told saga sags or sails for you, I think the earnestness is impactful and the vibrant-voiced cast and string-laden orchestra bring a tapestry of sound and fury that is something big and bold to behold.


JAY Records

Hello, much-missed mayhem and Merman .. and good ol' Musical Comedy—it's so nice to have you all back where you belong! Filled with affectionate jabs at life on the stage and backstage (without much back-stabbing), we've got the bright, bouncy story of eager, wide-eyed 12-year-old Muriel, a major fan of Broadway's Ethel Merman.

In this sweet but never ever cloying fantasy, Muriel (the solid and likeable teen Elizabeth Teeter) meets her idol at the time the living legend is preparing to take over the title role in a smash musical originally intended for—but turned down by—her: Hello, Dolly!. She did so in reality, becoming its final Dolly and breaking the long-run record for musicals. Inserted into that actual chapter is this imagined episode where Muriel (maybe) gets the chance of a lifetime to be in the show because Merman is taken with her and she's taken under the superstar's mighty wing. Impressed that "the kid" really does know "All About Ethel," as one number demonstrates, the lady set to dazzle as Dolly makes her admirer Merman's Apprentice.

As art imitates reality, the irrepressible Klea Blackhurst is the brash Merman; as a kid, she herself greatly admired from afar (Utah) the luminary. And she plays her to a T (That's T as in "terrifically," too). She blithely bulldozes her way through the role with aplomb, embracing the Merm's tough and crass sides with a sense of unapologetic fun, while making us fall hopelessly in love with her moxy and playfulness. This is done with affection and wry awareness, whether the performer is belting or bellowing in speech with unlabored Ethelisms: the growl, the VOLUME, the vibrato, the glibness—with gusto galore.

Blackhurst, who has her own Merman tribute show and CD, with recent stage experience in key roles once played by her role model, makes this casting one of the best and most obvious "fits" since Cinderella easily slipped one foot into that glass slipper. She gets authentically Ethel (or exactingly exaggerated) words to sing and speak from the skillful scribe Stephen Cole, with the same agenda of knowledgeably embracing and celebrating—and gleefully poking fun at—the icon's ego and "colorful" vocabulary. Cole was and is a mega-Merman follower and got to become her friend and hang out with her in the last "scenes" of her life. The treasured experience and familiarity pay off in spades, with the larger-than-life personality parading proudly as this alternate-universe version of 1970 Broadway takes off.

The lyrics and dialogue name-drop and fact-drop biographical bits so that the adventure becomes a lesson in all things Merman and is sprinkled with "inside" references that will tickle those in the (theatrical history) know, but not be obstacles for the casual observer. Running bits include winks at Mary Martin, the press, fickle fans, and the manipulations and greed of producer David Merrick (played to the hilt by Bill Nolte, with Brian Charles Rooney and Eddie Korbich adding panache as the inner circle members). Lyrics have an ideal marriage partner with the melodies of David Evans, with energetic and catchy numbers that include major and subtle homages to everything from Cole Porter's "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" to the famously long-held open vowel in "I Got Rhythm" to a touch of the staircase-descending vamp from Hello, Dolly!'s title number. Pastiche abounds, but does not overwhelm. "Chums" for Merman and her peppy apprentice recalls Merman career duets of "Friendship," "Let's Be Buddies," and "Mutual Admiration Society," but is a zingy number on its own in the tradition. And they set off joyful sparks together on the musical's infectious title song.

An inspired idea for a song and backstory point comes with the introduction of the famously boisterous and ear-splitting-voiced singer having parents who are oh so sotte-voce and sweetly unassuming. As Mom and Pop, the endearing and comically on-target Anita Gillette and ingratiating P.J. Benjamin sing about bringing up baby, their once-docile tot who was very, well, "Loud," as the song says. These pros make this an especially satisfying highlight. The rollicking score pulls off a welcome and crucial coup in finding its heart and revealing a side of the usually guarded and tough-skinned Merman persona with a yearning ballad wherein she addresses her deceased daughter, "Little Bit." The songwriters and their impressive star nail the plot point's potential and succeed in making the moment work in a non-mawkish way that also interestingly informs the whole relationship of Ethel and the motherless Muriel.

The disc from JAY Records was recorded in a studio shortly after the very entertaining and well-received concert presentation in Manhattan at Birdland. It sounds splendid. Everything about this show clicks. Can a full production be far behind? While the busy Miss Blackhurst is dusting off Hazel, another musical project she's been attached to for some time, playing its title character, Merman's Apprentice is not on a back burner. Mr. Cole, who co-directed the concert cast with Amy Burgess, and provided the CD liner notes, has more than hinted at appearances soon to come.


LML Music

Ethel Merman would endorse the mantra that Frank Loesser had posted prominently: "Loud Is Good." David Zippel turned it into a clever lyric for a story song—with Jonathan Sheffer's melody—and cabaret singer Nancy LaMott delivered it in style with just the right cheery sensibility. The two were friends, meeting and clicking when both were still struggling on the cusp of opportunity and success. Since the singer's untimely passing twenty years ago, just after beginning to achieve wider success and national exposure, her small but sublime body of work on disc released in her lifetime has been supplemented by the release of material from the "vaults." On CD and DVD, concert and demo recordings have been issued, featuring alternate versions of songs on her studio albums, but plenty of other titles, too. She was well suited to the smart and/or tender lyrics of Mr. Zippel, whose various composing collaborators represented here are also well served with her marvelously rangy and emotive voice.

Theatre fans will find her demos of songs written with Cy Coleman for City of Angels and with Marvin Hamlisch for The Goodbye Girl to be very rich and characterful renditions. Her phrasing was intuitive and brings out many aspects of these distinctive numbers. The moody ambiance of City of Angels is in full bloom on these atmospheric early readings of the torchy "With Every Breath I Take" and "Lost and Found." And Nancy's self-deprecating humor and expert timing sells "You Can Always Count on Me." The underappreciated score of The Goodbye Girl is highlighted by the ease with which she slips into the wistfulness of "How Can I Win?" and brings a portrait of a sensitive and struggling person. She illuminates the lyric's honesty and the unforced Hamlisch grace in his melody.

Another Hamlisch/Zippel curiosity is a number they called "Let Go," written for the film Frankie and Johnny. Zippel's lyric was majorly overhauled and mostly replaced, the song title tweaked, but the basic idea and structure remained. Here, we get the original version which was tossed aside. The singer's supportive spoken explanation of the situation, lambasting the movie's final product, comes from one of the live recordings that were, thankfully, made during her numerous engagements and that will continue to emerge. Her fan base understandably continues to grow.

In addition to alternate versions of songs (sometimes on the same CD, as in this one's double dipping on "Let Go" and "In Someone Else's Arms"), the 21st century releases may contain duplicated titles released on the original studio albums. This album being a collection of Zippel's fine work gives space to two items from the LaMott Christmas album and a couple from his first recording, Beautiful Baby, so her fans may well have some of these tracks. But there's plenty that had never been commercially released and it's nice to have these included to emphasize the range of the lyricist's work.

Other collaborators include David Friedman, the songwriter and producer who continues to spearhead the release of these recordings. The two Davids combined their funds to get her first album made (and teamed up to write the epiphany-like and humbug-banishing "Just in Time for Christmas"). Some of the numbers were part of a revue of Zippel's work called It's Better with a Band which Nancy was in for its early New York City incarnations.

At the end of the day, it may be her feathery vibrato on ballads that sets her apart, a delicate bird-like image, but gathering strength on some arrangements to build excitement and power that feel like triumphs of the human spirit. Nancy LaMott's work always rings true and sincere, making her heartfelt interpretations classic and immediately accessible. There's both an ache and a burst of joy in much of her work that bring a listener close as a trusted friend and confidant. It is not an exaggeration to say that her singing was exquisite and that she is revered by lovers of cabaret.

Two weeks ago, she was posthumously entered into the new Cabaret Hall of Fame at the Metropolitan Room in New York City (along with cabaret legends such as Bobby Short) in the opening gala night of the International Cabaret Festival presented by Cabaret Scenes magazine in whose own Hall of Fame she is also enshrined. And the annual cabaret honors, the MAC Awards, will again this year, on the 29th of this month, present its members' voted selection of outstanding cabaret CD of the year, now named the LaMott/Friedman Award. It's always a pleasure to hear the superb singing voice of Nancy LaMott.

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