Sound Advice Reviews
One more Kiss Me, Kate!
In my ears at the moment: First, the perennial musical theatre favorite Kiss Me, Kate is refreshed by its newest cast recording. Then, a solo venture by a Broadway star who'd played the lead in that show in its prior revivalBrian Stokes Mitchell. And a singer-songwriter with the same first name names his new effort Names Vol. 1Brian Gari.
First heard on Broadway at the end of 1948, Cole Porter's score for Kiss Me, Kate is full of sturdy, entertaining songs. These numbers, which show us both the onstage and behind-the-scenes activities of a theatre company's musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, have stood the test of time in productions on stages, TV, and film. And so, there are numerous cast albums. The latest recording from the Roundabout Theatre Company revival that opened just about a year ago and ran for a few months, bringing some distinctively different colors that make it of interest. Orchestrations are new (this time with the panache of Larry Hochman), although, as with the 1999 revival, the dance arrangements are by David Chase, and veteran Paul Gemignani returns as conductor/music director. While the bar has been set quite high by starry and richly sung performances in other versions, these accessible and down-to-earth interpretations bring their own decidedly different and often compelling strengths that make it likeable on its own and non-redundant for collectors with earlier takes.
For starters, vocal qualities and projected personalities of the leads are different from what's heard typically in previous casts. Let's start with the central couple who love and feud: Will Chase has a less grand sound, a lighter timbre, but he has a kinetic comic manner that incorporates the requisite smugness, hamminess and flourishes. He's suitably feisty when the material calls for that. Kelli O'Hara has a grace and directness with phrasing that make her serious numbers more intimate, plus some sly humor. Then there's the added advantage of gorgeous soprano tones that make her part of their duet in the quasi-operetta number "Wunderbar" work as both parody and vocal showcase, whereas some predecessors were stronger with just one of those goals. While she may not quite seethe and simmer with abandon in the "I Hate Men" rant, the O'Hara characterization reveals sensitivity and hindsight that are especially welcome. Examples are her wistful solo section in "Another Op'nin', Another Show" and the Shakespeare-derived "I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple" partially rewritten by Amanda Green (who also tweaked elsewhere) to be gender neutral, such as replacing the word "Women" with "People." Her "So in Love" is calibrated to bring out emotion analyzed, not merely feeling passion and being a slave to it.
As the secondary couple, the breezy Corbin Bleu is all refreshing charm that buoys all the numbers he appears in, but Stephanie Styles' Lois travels in a different lane. Her characterization is done in a very strutting, cartoonish way, taking a page or five from the theatrical "dumb blonde" playbook. While it's effective to an extent, and the shifts from a Betty Boop-ish petulant squeak to a belty siren sound can be fun, it has diminishing returns and overplays the coyness. There are some deft and delightful harmonies with the supporting cast, especially in "Bianca," led by Bleu. The dance showstopper "Too Darn Hot," in which he is also featured, translates its energy and build well to disc. The expected surefire vaudevillian LOL moment, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (sung by John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams), falls disappointingly flat, feeling labored, its many choruses lacking variety.
The sound is bright, but not brittle, with the orchestra in very good balance with the singers, and the crisp orchestrations rewardingly bring out and emphasize details. The lilt of Cole Porter's melodies and the precision of his lyric craft are both well served. It's a swell reminder of a smart and spiffy score.
Calling all fans of theatrical singing with genuine star quality. Here's a recording by one of the current generation's stellar leading men that shows many facets of his talents and bursts with charisma and robust vocalizing. Brian Stokes Mitchell's Plays with Music is invigorating and commanding. There are many creative choices in the arrangements, many done by the singer and/or sensational pianist Tedd Firth (who orchestrated several with care and real flair). Instrumentation varies from track to track, allowing for a cabaret intimacy on ballads and a grand scale with robust excitement on bravura arrangements.
The collection has a bounty of show tunes representing some iconic writers and musicals, and a couple of other things, the compositions representing every decade from the 1920s to the one recently ended, with the exception of the 1980s. An interesting footnote: the music for one number actually was used in two decades. Cut from Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, "Flag Song"'s melody was recycled for "It's in Your Hands Now" in the oft-changed project that was last titled Road Show. In Mitchell's hands, the stirring melody and the older lyric about the urge for country-connection inspired by those waving American stars and stripes make this track a gripping highlight. "Flag Song," about the urge for country-connection that those waving American stars and stripes can inspire was later recycled as "It's in Your Hands Now" in the oft-changed project that was last titled Road Shows. Another Sondheim show, one that's back on the boards now, gets some attention, too, when Company's "Getting Married Today" is done with the actor doing all three characters: would-be spouses named in the lyric, Paul and Amy, plus the "Bless this day..." wedding singer. The latter, a church-ready soprano in the show, is recharacterized as a low-voiced, gruff, growling guy who sounds like he's sampled the reception's champagne and maybe a cigar. The lyric about dreaming of the ideal male mate remains unchanged when Mitchell sings about yearning for "The Man I Love," but in the verse for "Hello, Young Lovers," he substitutes female pronouns for the word "Tom." Throughout the collection, there are different personalities taken on, suggested by the different singing approaches: gentle crooning; ardent; bombast (Kismet's high-energy tour de force "Gesticulate"); and a stoic Stokes for Mack & Mabel's "I Won't Send Roses."
In his explanatory liner notes, the artist tells us that "Using music as the medium I become different people." He also mentions that he was born on Halloween, which he says might have sparked such fantasies; it could also be why he was attracted to a more recent story-song about a trick-or-treater by Elizabeth Suggs and Nikko Benson, "A Wizard Every Day." In any case, he delivers it with a lovely sense of mood and character, evoking both the child and the observer. He gets to the core of each song, making it his own even if generally following more familiar paths. An interesting choice is making Camelot's "If Ever I Would Leave You" by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe yoked to its original character of Lancelot by including the character-specific setup, the "Madrigal," with its stately melody and words in both French and English before we hear the familiar piece which would otherwise feel more like a generic love song of devotion. Nothing feels generic or casual on this satisfying scrapbook of theatrical pieces.
Upcoming New York City appearances for this versatile man include the lead role in another score with Lerner lyrics, Love Life (music by Kurt Weill), done by Encores!; a Ragtime reunion concert; and a night with Seth Rudetsky at The Town Hall.
When it comes to songs, communicating emotion and how our lives are touched and changed by encounters with others does not always require high drama. While cathartic belting, go-for-the-jugular lyrics and instrumental climaxes can be thrilling and often reliably impactful, there's a case to be made for the gentler path. When a writer and/or performer can connect with disarming sincerity, subtler tugs at the heart can make us relate.
The small-scale, self-penned portraits of Brian Gari on his latest collection, Names Vol. 1, are often effective in being sweetly engaging and generating more than a dash of empathy. The material is personal and full of nostalgia as he looks back on the journey of his times and those who crossed his path through a rearview mirror. Some are slice-of-life reflections with just enough detail to make them specific without being purely narrative bogged down by TMI. What comes through more than the story is a suggestion of the personality of the people surveyed andeven more sothe esteem in which they are remembered or the pang of missing those who have passed away.
Some of the many portraits are those from personal encounters, like potential girlfriends or a friendly waitress. When it's a more public person being saluted, some titles or lyrics make it clear who it is being discussed, and some are acknowledged with their full names in a "In memory of..." list below the credits. So it becomes clear that "I'll Say Goodbye to Marta" refers to actress Heflin and "What's a Party Without Arthur?" is about Gari missing songwriter Siegel (from the Broadway New Faces revues and Ben Bagley recordings) who'd befriended him. The story of "Vivian" concerns the woman whose initial named Vee Jay Records, and the clever song incorporates references to acts and songs that were part of that label's history, like The Four Seasons' hit "Sherry" and the early Beatles tracks. Invoking his full name in the title and lyric, there's no question whom "Phil Ochs" is about and it's nice to see this folk singer of original protest songs remembered. The MIA figure referenced in the easygoing shrug of "It Ain't Hank" is country legend Williams. As a singer, Brian Gari discretelyalmost shylyuses modest chops, but packs plenty of poignancy.
The one song Brian Gari did not write the music for is "Sue Ann," employing a melody by the great bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, for which he wrote a lyric (in English). The collection includes not only Gari's tender vocal, but two bonus tracks with appealing versionsone by Manu Lafer, the other by Maria Clara Laetrecorded in Brazil in 2018. The lyric skillfully incorporates titles of famous Jobim numbers as an homage. While some songs have understated, natural rhymes that are not a main draw, others show playfulness (the proximity of the rhymes in "Another Janet": "She liked my shirt. I liked her skirt/ Tried to flirt, thought dessert wouldn't hurt") or the pithy power of succinctness (describing why the determined city dweller in "Jean's Flag" wanted to hold onto her treasured brownstone: "It was her life... the world to Jean").
Energy-wise and stylistically, things stay in a rather narrow lanesame can be said for a similarity in laidback tempi, creating a sense of sameness. But that is offset somewhat by the distinctly different characters and the variations of actual closeness from minimal to much more. Gari and Peter Millrose share the credits for arranging, producing, playing almost all the instruments, and doing the background vocals. (Bruce Hoffman is added on pedal steel and wife Jeanne Gari does a bit of background singing, too.) The layered instrumental and vocal sounds create a kind of aural "mist" than serves to bring a sense of memories slightly clouded or diffused by the fogged filter of time's passage. It's appropriate to the mindset of the collection, as is the pop aura redolent of the 1950s/1960s on some songs. While the tales may be based on those experiences exclusive to this writer, the feelings and images evoked can be quite universal.