Sound Advice Reviews
Gentlemen of song–Live and in person
Please welcome a parade of gentlemen in recordings of their live performances. One features four fellows who have played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera (and they have a female guest). Another release has a dynamic duo caught in the (nightclub) act. A two-disc set brings us a solo singer with standards, pop songs, and originals, with three instruments (alternating bassists, plus himself on harmonica). All three live sets were in New York City venues.
THE FOUR PHANTOMS
What could make uber-devoted admirers of The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway's champion of long, long runs, more deliriously delighted than leading off a concert starring one Phantom? What would they say to four, for goodness' sake, on the same stage? The next best thing to biological cloning or clamoring for a rewrite of the old saga of an opera house haunted by identical quadruplets could conceivably be a concert with some sturdy-voiced, stout-hearted men who've played the iconic title role in various productions (more than 6,000 performances is their combined total). These veterans of the famed masked role are Brent Barrett, John Cudia, Franc D'Ambrosio, and Ciarán Sheehan. And let 'em not just harmonize with each other, but also have chances to sing with a soprano who has played the famous show's female lead. The recording of The Four Phantoms In Concert, Live at Feinstein's/54 Below is a fine musical feast, whether or not you consider those selections from the 36-year-old musical the icing on the cake (the cake being the full set list, the majority of its grand numbers not from that score).
As far as the meaty material from their common resumé item goes, there's a teaser entrance with all the men giving the crowd a bit of the title song, which they sing in full with their guest soprano later (they also share "All I Ask of You" with her). And the four men also do "Music of the Night." Pleasing the audience, it's all polished, solid and professional, not pushed over the top or tired. Kind of what you'd anticipate (droolingly or non-droolingly) to experience with their vast experience with the roles. But they all get to do plenty more, separately and together. What fills out the music of the night is not full of filler.
Each Phantom alumnus gets to introduce another and each speaks briefly to the audience before the first solo. One degree of separation from the evening's raison d'être is its sequel, Love Never Dies, as John Cudia presents a splendid rendition of "'Til I Hear You Sing," before Brent Barrett reprises his frequent role of Billy in Chicago with a spiffy "All I Care About Is Love" (with a little help from his friends). The other two men take on solos not written for musical theatre. Franc D'Ambrosio, who was on the screen in one of the Godfather films, sings that franchise's theme song, "Speak Softly, Love," with grace in English and Italian. And Irish-born Ciarán Sheehan is, naturally, a fit for the immortal and poignant "Danny Boy."
Kaley Ann Voorhees shows off her high notes and gets pretty high marks for versatility as she duets briefly with each man, including "Tonight" from West Side Story, as she did in Prince of Broadway. She also makes herself at home with the responsive audience with "Home" from The Wiz. Like some of the performances in the concert, this feels more like, well, a concert-style take, showcasing voice and a "presentation of song" to entertain, as opposed to a detailed, deeply invested and involving characterization in the context of the specific role. It can be a choice that suffices when one isn't trying to step into Dorothy's famous shoes of Oz (as in this case) or when a group shares singing duties on something written originally to be the point of view of one specific person in a storyline (even if he has two personae, as in the moment they all take on "This Is the Moment" from Jekyll and Hyde). But exciting voices and harmonies have compensating pluses.
The accomplished Ryan Shirar (piano, music director, orchestrations) does remarkable work in the thanklessly daunting assignment of coming up with an instrumental palette that doesn't sound distressingly pallid when competing with a theatregoer/cast album customer's memory of how something sounded with a big Broadway orchestra. He has fewer colleagues than those singing on stage: just Marc Schmied (bass) and Jeremy Yaddaw (drums). But the small team is an effective one.
While heavy on anthems and serious stuff (in addition to the above set list, the four musketeers take on "The Impossible Dream," "Bring Him Home," and Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd ode to "Pretty Women"), they have more relaxed male bonding with another Sondheim piece, "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along, which is reprised at the end, and the carpe diem message in "The Best of Times" from La Cage aux Folles.
And so ends this audio souvenir, one of many in the series of Broadway Records' releases documenting nightclub acts at Manhattan's Feinstein's/54 Below. Listen. Enjoy. Applaud. No tipping required.
BILLY STRITCH and JIM CARUSO
Here's the old news: The well-honed chemistry between Billy Stritch and Jim Caruso is evident when they sing together, when Mr. S.'s contribution is restricted to piano accompaniment for Mr. C.'s solos, and when we hear their breezy banter between songs. Here's the latest news (also good news): One of their many stage-sharing nights, which occurred back in February of 2019, was captured for posterity and pleasure (although it wasn't released until the beginning of this year). Their frequent musical colleague, the estimable bassist Steve Doyle, joins these gents (but with no big moment to solo).
The Sunday Set: Recorded Live at the Birdland Theater includes two selections with titles and lyrics name-dropping that Manhattan venue that is their regular playground. There's one such Birdland-branded solo turn for each vocalist. Stritch suavely unspools the jazz classic "Lullaby of Birdland," finding his happy place; contrastingly, in Caruso's case, it's about "living with the blues" and missing those romantic happier times "Lovin' at Birdland" (Barry Manilow/ Adrienne Anderson).
Even those fairly well acquainted with Caruso, often the cut-up and clown spreading quirkiness in singing and hosting Birdland's weekly open mic and other events, may be surprised to hear him take on all-kidding-aside teary, weary ballads. While it's not his strongest suit, he holds his own on this track and with his sizable contributions to the shared big medley of sorrow-soaked "Saloon" songs associated with Frank Sinatra. The other side of the medley coin presents the side-by-side chums in cheery mode for a movie-derived mash-up of two old-time, all-time Disney delights about whistling: "Whistle While You Work" and "Give a Little Whistle." It's irresistible fun: bursts of bubbly good spirits, with no cloying or cutesy artificial sweetener in the ingredients.
Two songs that date from 1933 are also on the list. Taking us two blocks south of Birdland's address, the two men take a joyride along "42nd Street," originally from the movie of the same name. (Broadwayites will recall that when the revival of the stage version made its way back to the Great White Way, way back in 2001, this same Mr. Stritch was in the company, in what he has mock-seriously referred to as "the small but pivotal role of Oscar the rehearsal pianist"). The other 89-year-old number in The Sunday Set sets up a Stritch switch to tender sincere reflection for his solo on the Gershwins' Pardon My English rhetorical question, "Isn't It a Pity?" It's endearing, as it should be.
The downbeat moments on the recording are sufficient presence of a "pity party"–in the best and most cathartic, audience-empathy sense of that shared experience–but much recalls their festive, upbeat, upstairs Cast Party peppy atmosphere for years of Monday open mic nights at Birdland. Do consider bringing the party home.
PAUL JOST QUARTET
Intense, inventive, and intimate–those are suitable adjectives to describe a series of performances at a Brooklyn venue by Paul Jost and musicians, culled for While We Were Gone: Live at Soapbox Gallery. Applause is not included at the ends of songs, but we do hear some appreciative clapping when instrumental solos reach dazzling heights of showmanship. Mr. Jost's spoken voice is heard not in comments about himself or the material, between numbers, but in some prominent commentary. (His no-holds-barred remarks about the January 6th events at the United States Capitol open the second of the two discs in the physical format.) And sometimes his delivery of lyrics of the mostly well-established songs include some spoken lines muttered (or sort of sputtered) for dramatic effect, lingering in languid introspection. "Everybody's Talkin'" (one of several selections that were on the singer's earlier recordings) rides a rocky road from uncomfortable frustration to increasing anguish to despair and breakdown.
Prominent in the effectively employed Jost voice are gravitas and a bit of gravel, the husky sound suggesting life lessons learned. His sound is somewhat redolent of Randy Newman, the singer-songwriter whose works he rewardingly takes on in two cases (two of the cases where approach is closer to their original/usual airings): "Marie" and "Feels Like Home." Projected throughout all the outings is a non-contradictory combination of fortitude and vulnerability. The heart worn on the sleeve can be a broken heart or a hopeful one. But the vocalist can unleash strength and keep a fleet pace, too. At other times, the scope of volume and flexibility is startlingly wide, displaying elasticity as he attacks phrases with power or ventures into speedy scat-singing. The challenging jazz outing "Centerpiece" becomes a pièce de resistance, conquered with seeming dispatch and energy.
Among the pop, originals, and standards in these livestreamed gigs are a few Broadway ballads sharing the subject matter of reflecting on time gone by (a lot or a little) and how that changes perspective: "Young and Foolish"; "I Didn't Know What Time It Was"; and "Some Other Time" (that last one getting a pensive treatment of the Bernstein melody and the lyric by Comden & Green, although in the credits, unfortunately, one lyricist's name is spelled wrong and the other is missing). Time seems to almost stand still when confessions and catharsis get the pored-over-ever-so-carefully M.O.
The approach to these and many other selections in the collection avoids shrugging off regrets; moods are darkened and dwelled on, observations are mulled over. Still, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" does indeed inhabit the sunny side: fiesta-frisky, brisk and bright. It's all quite the compelling showcase for the band and vocalist (Jost also plays harmonica here, but his early years in music and recording found him mainly as an instrumentalist). There are more liberties taken here than there are in the Constitution's Bill of Rights. Much is rethought and embellished, with melodies stretched like taffy, lyrics occasionally ornamented or slightly adjusted, like the word "man" simply deleted each time the title line is sung in "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)." The musical weather report in the Brazilian "Gentle Rain" is hardly consistently gentle, kicking into more torrential territory.
Oh, there are many adventurous, lengthy jazz flights of imagination from all parties. Pianist Jim Ridl can provide understated atmosphere, painting a film noir soundscape or evoke a smoke-filled 1950s coffeehouse as a backdrop when Jost's more lugubrious dissections of lyrics resemble that era's beat poets' sharings. The pianist can also blast off and his accelerating, exhilarating, muscular playing feels like an Olympic feat. Keeping right up with him in each tempo and tone is drummer Tim Horner. The gigs featured one of three able players on bass: Dean Johnson or Lorin Cohen or Martin Wind.
Often heavy but haunting, Paul Jost and his band go their own uncompromising, surprising and distinctive ways, boldly steering old songs in new directions.