Sound Advice Reviews
Following Tradition! with Fiddler and The American Songbook
"Sunrise, Sunset/ Swiftly flow the years/ One season following another..." and some whose memories go back a bit more than 50 Broadway seasons may be amazed that it's been that long since Fiddler on the Roof first came along, but it's back and there's another revival cast album to consider. Also covered this time are some solo CDs from singers covering mostly familiar fare, much going back even more years, as some of the same writers keep coming up: Kern, Fields, the Gershwins, Ellington, Berlin, Van Heusenso showtunes and movie songs are often represented. But the singers are strikingly different from each other.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
In our little village of Anatevka and the musical that contains it, the indestructible Fiddler on the Roof, it's all about tradition! For the show, one tradition has been: a new production and a new lead actor can lead to a new cast album. My shelf is full of them and my head has long been full of the music, the original 1964 Broadway recording indelibly memorized, despite rarely giving it a spin in recent years. I'm always open to interesting and different approaches. The new 20-track cast album brings a bounty of music, including some satisfying instrumental interludes with reprises that bring unity and expansion, admirably conducted by modern-day reliable veteran Ted Sperling. Sound quality is excellent throughout, with a pleasing balance between orchestra and singers, often putting the instruments prominently in front without drowning out or competing with the vocals.
Of course, the new stars invite inevitable comparisons to their predecessors. Danny Burstein, as our central figure Tevye the milkman, is not as brash and broadly comic or commanding as originator Zero Mostel; he's more "life-size" than larger than life. On the other hand, he's far "cuddlier" and warmer than the burdened and gloomier Topol in the film version (he also sings the role on another cast album). Burstein is ingratiating without pushing himself on you, although he's more conservative "coloring within the lines" and reading the lines in familiar ways more than hoped. But when he thinks outside the box and finds a fresh take, such as in some choices of emphasis and amusing expressions of frustrations in "Do You Love Me?" and "Tevye's Dream," he has more "new" in the nuances. His "If I Were a Rich Man" feels like a poor relative of other versions, not going for the glee when potentially wallowing in wealth (getting lost in the escapist "If" of the fantasy) and also perfunctory rather than blissfully relishing the reverent extended attendance in synagogue, the lyric calling that "the sweetest thing of all." A versatile singer who can spin an attractive legato line, I find his heartfelt rendition of "Chavaleh" to be perhaps the highlight of his work here. The introspection works. Elsewhere, he's cautious and less colorful, more cerebral than celebrational, shortchanging that potential.
Many of the others do work that is, disappointingly, more capable than colorful. Happy exceptions are Jessica Vosk as the raging Fruma-Sarah and Adam Kantor as Motel the tailor in a bubbly and suitably awestruck "Miracle of Miracles" that enlivens the disc. He also shines in the bonus track of the cut duet with Alexandra Silber kvelling over his much-desired "Dear Sweet Sewing Machine." Andno surpriseAlix Korey is a hoot as bossy busybody Yente the Matchmaker. In this part that some may forget was created by the late Bea Arthur, because little of the role was heard on the original vinyl album, the brassy Korey is, to borrow her character's phrase, "a perfect match." She gets to do the gossipy dialogue leading up to the group number "The Rumor" in which she continues to gloat and spreads not-so-good news with thick strokes. But other tracks point up puzzling blandness, especially in the choral sections that seem to bring out crisp, clear diction at the unfortunate expense of energy, passion, or personality. "Now I Have Everything" feels sloppy, with a final sustained note that sticks out like a sore thumb and was badly in need of another take or auto-tune.
Strong compensation are the generous swaths of instrumental music reinforcing the late Jerry Bock's sturdy melody lines that prove versatile when sampled and re-shaped in incidental reappearances, and the mighty bonus track of excerpts from "Fiddler on the Roof Variations and Cadenza" created by John Williams and featuring the great classical violinist Itzhak Perlman as our superstar stand-in for the show's titular Fiddler. And, while much of the accompaniment follows the basic lines of the original blueprints, Ted Sperling's new orchestrations freshen the familiar brew, with flavor enhancement notable via more klezmer content (clarinetist/flautist Andrew Sterman the lead player) and some bright work from the strings. But two synthesizer players don't make up for a cluster of real live musicians I'd long to install if I were a rich man (21 other players join the synth men).
Maybe because they are so well known by now, and quite crisply delivered, Sheldon Harnick's masterful yet natural-sounding lyrics aren't included in the booklet, but his new essay of history and "Reflections" (two pages) is. Now past 90, having outlived his composer partner as well as creative collaborators bookwriter Joseph Stein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins as well as many of the original cast, he writes that his memories of the show's first performance are clear. Also clear is the continuing power and relevance of the show and its songs and themes.
As we recall the original production and this 50th anniversary revival, we can honor the continued activity of Mr. Harnick and the musical's original producer, Harold Prince, who's helming a show surveying his body of work starring uch performers as Tony Yazbeck, who has his own new solo album (see below). Without the perspective and lessons of shows like this and another Bock/Harnick/Prince gem also in revival on Broadway, She Loves Me, our knowledge and understanding of the history and traditions would be (cue this show's title music), as Tevye says at the end of the opening number, "as shaky as a fiddler on the roof."
The PS Classics label, that reservoir of rich music beautifully selected, recorded, and packaged has scored yet another coup bringing us a modern theatre star in a rewarding solo debut. This time it's Tony Yazbeck in a studio recording based on his recent nightclub act. While it might seem at first a bit questionable, daft, or coy to include patter without the presence of a live audience, don't judge 'til you hear it. Wonder of wonders, it works. And it makes listening to the disc more intimate, not pretentious or arch. That one-on-one feel of communication from performer to us, the listeners, neatly balances the "big" moments and justifies the style of confessional ones. With dancing being a big part of Mr. Yazbeck's justifiable claim to fame, there was tap dancing in his act and you'll hear the tapping on the disc. Again, you might think that that ain't much to write home about without the visuals, but it sounds so energized and the musical accompaniment is so striking that you might be swept away.
Like many autobiographical cabaret acts, we hear about the early years, being told those tales of childhood dreams from someone who knew at a young age he wanted to be on the stage. So we're nudged along this particular paved memory lane about dancing lessons and practice, practice, practice while Mama from "the floor above" urged him to keep at it as he honed his steps down in the basement. Unsurprisingly, musical movies inspire following in the tapping footsteps of Fred Astaire, so we hear some of the icon's movie numbers, such as George and Ira Gershwin's intoxicatingly frisky "Fascinating Rhythm" and no fewer than five Irving Berlin-written gems, delivered with gusto and tenderness: "Let Yourself Go," "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Cheek to Cheek," and "Change Partners." Speaking of partners, he's joined ably at various times by Melinda Sullivan, his wife Katie Huff, and one of his co-stars from the recent Broadway production of On the Town, Clyde Alves.
Of course, Mr. Yazbeck would unlikely have been asked by a savvy theatre-based record label to preserve his club act in audio (but not visual) form if he weren't also a quite engaging and competent vocalist, rather than a top dancer with a passable voice with some personality. He's got plenty going for him vocally, and the triple-threat's acting skills personalize the material and evoke strong emotions. In his role model/fantasy/memory segments, he projects both the yearning to perform like his idols in the classic numbers as well as the content of the songs themselves as stories and expressions of feelings. His "Pure Imagination" has a true sense of joy and awe.
For me, the material entrenched in movie musical magic or with solid musical theatre stage roots works best, as compared to the latter-day pop/folk/rock material, while it can be a sometimes intriguing change of pace to broaden the musical horizons. For example, to me, two super-hits from the 1960s, Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and a page from The Beatles' songbook "Got to Get You Into My Life" never quite feel stamped with a distinctive point of view, though they serve the autobiography. But a delightful and underappreciated/underexposed theatre piece from the same decade is a glove-like fit and an inspired choice, fully realized: from the Charles Strouse/Lee Adams score for Golden Boy, it's "Can't You See It?"
It's common in such nightclub acts and concerts to highlight and revisit the star's big musicals and big songs. Too often, they sound less exciting with a small band compared to a Broadway orchestra arrangement. Even when that isn't the case, for a listener who also has the cast album and knows it well, it can be redundant. Happily, neither is the case here. Pianist/musical director Jerome Korman has come up with original settings for the two cornerstone pieces included from the still-growing Yazbeck résumé: this past season's On the Town's ravishing "Lucky to Be Me" and an especially original and revamped "All I Need Is the Girl," spotlighting his time as Tulsa in Gypsy. That splashy song and dance gets a back-and-forth "dialogue" between snatches of rat-a-tat-tat dance steps and sung lines that squarely puts focus on wanting a relationship, not merely a dance partner for an act.
The band's talents are stellar, with bows deserved by Korman and his corps of players, a mighty half-dozen: cabaret regular Tom Hubbard on bass (who gets a neat solo spot), violinists Meg Okura and Chip Roberts, woodwinds player Jack Bashkow, trumpeter Mark McGowan, and percussionist Paul Pizzuti.
In a show biz world where the temptation to be lulled or seduced into a sense of entitlement, smugness, or false modesty could be a professional hazard, numerous elements of Tony Yazbeck's personality and affect are rewarding, refreshing, and really a relief. In his disarming patter and unjaded singing, and even the liner notes, coming through without a doubt are gentlemanliness, work ethic, gratitude, and appreciation for finding his professional success and finding his soul mate. His album, as elegantly produced by Tommy Krasker and Bart Migal, is quite the find, too.
There's only one major thing wrong with Natalie Douglas' albums: there simply aren't enough of them. She's a longtime New York City resident cabaret favorite who has increasingly worked in venues far from the home she loves, but this is only her third album. The first came along just as the then-new century did, although she'd been performing for some time before that. She began as a piano bar sensation, and a reliably bright light/highlight at the annual Cabaret Convention concerts, benefits, etc., although sorry her lot the singer who had to follow this powerhouse.
Natalie is a frequent concertizer at Birdland, smack in the center of Manhattan's theatre district, and she'll be back there tonight (March 21) in concert to celebrate the release of this new CD. Her second disc was recorded live there and was a tribute to one of her musical heroines, the formidable Nina Simone whose repertoire and songwriting are represented with the searing and angryyet, strangely, rollicking"Mississippi Goddam." Once again, the dynamic Douglas is potent, poised to be the rare artist with the command and gravitas that make her eligible to convincingly carry the traditions of that uncompromising artist's politically charged repertoire and stance. In this set, which includes other turns honoring groundbreaking moments from legends she calls "The Ancestors," she brings dignity and majesty to the late songwriter/performer Abbey Lincoln with two of her philosophical statements (the opener, "Wholly Earth" and "Throw It Away"). And the unblinking indictment about lynching introduced by Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit," is a shiver-inducing naked cry of pain that co-exists with grand musical beauty.
The many hues of Natalie's voice and personality gleam on the 12-track disc. She's slinky and kittenish and just plain fun building up steam in Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "The Best Is Yet to Come," struts and soars assertively with "I Must Have That Man" (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) and coos a smooth, honeyed croon in "Sleepy Man" from the score of a musical currently being revived in New York, The Robber Bridegroom. Her voice can take on a horn-like piercing jab at the air elsewhere, or belt comfortably with full-bodied, rafter-raising resonance at will. Other treats from musical theatre include the classic Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein showpiece from Show Boat, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" which lets her use several of these tones in one nicely building piece de resistance. Knickerbocker Holiday's "It Never Was You" is sorrowful and wistful, the images crisply delineated without drowning in self-pity of ponderous poetry. And the title song, "Human Heart, is an uplifting number from Once on This Island for which she provides her own harmony vocals.
Musical director/pianist Mark Hartman, the songstress's professional other half of many years standing (and always outstanding) is sitting pretty with a glorious small ensemble featuring string players and dramatic settings. Moments of loveliness alternate with moments of drama and tension that ring true, with the power of pauses and sharp awareness and implantation of timing reflected in phrasing and climaxes. Both Hartman and Douglas have plenty of theatrical credits on their résumés and the fruits of such labors are evident here, with laser-beam sparseness and storytelling acumen nowhere more apparent than in the bittersweet portrait of "Mr. Bojangles." This tale of a broken-down dancer who's seen better days is highlighted by a starkly atmospheric orchestration featuring piano, an aching solo string figure, and the singer's in-the-moment, very present and empathetic rendering. Although I know the lyric by heart, I still felt anxiously on the edge of my seat as its sad biography was unspooled.
Indeed, there is much heartache and heartbreak in Douglas and Hartman's Human Heart, but the human spirit ultimately emerges and sails on.
Retired lawyer/song-lover Norm Drubner is a far croak from Kermit the Frog, but he sings sincerely about wanting to find "The Rainbow Connection," too. This is Mr. Drubner's sixth album and he seems to be getting better, though the voice is modest in size and strength. Charm, a "Nice Guy" persona, and a palpable fondness and respect for the Great American Songbook are assets. While it's hard to argue for picking a Drubner disc over one by a bevy of more polished performers covering standards, he does offer an endearing earnestness that might grow on you if you tend to aim for amiable low-key folksiness from the likes of Bing Crosby or Perry Como. While some of their old records are saddled with dated, overly sentimental or very commercial arrangements, Norm Drubner's CDs have bright, likeable and un-sticky arrangements by the album's pianist Nick Bariluk. There are affecting appearances by vibes, trumpet and guitar in addition to the more expected trio sound of piano/bass/drums. The work is fleet and the piano virtually dances and darts about in energy-adding flights and supports the fondly sung ballads with little stickiness or fluff. While the arrangement of "Too Close for Comfort" is too close to the treatments crafted for Mel Tormé and Eydie Gormé to be called at all original (maybe intentional homage?), most charts have sparks of creative original thought.
Singing lightly more than "talk-singing," few notes are sustained, but much is sketched with a kindly grace. And there is an appeal to the timbre. More than the aforementioned Crosby and Como, Norm Drubner's voice reminds me of early Rod McKuen's records, if you know and recall that kind of appealingly distinctive "foggy" sound. While the vocals are limited and low-energy here, the band is doing much of the work in setting and developing moods, doing the "heavy lifting" as zest-provider.
Repertoire-wise, there isn't much in the little-known category on Norm Drubner's series of albums to add the discovery element, so his renditions face the hurdle of having to stand up to comparisons of the many recordings we've heard of the standards he chooses. There are some also heard on Tony Yazbeck's vibrant CD, starting with a brief instrumental blast of the Gershwins' "Fascinating Rhythm" (which never is sung here), and a medley of Irving Berlin's dance-centric classics that includes "Change Partners" and "Cheek to Cheek." Like a cluster of albums last year saluting Frank Sinatra's centennial, included is that ache of lonely wakefulness, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Much-covered classics by Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart fall into place, and while that team's often-heard "My Romance" about a love song with "a constantly surprising refrain" is no surprise, a more out-of-the-box choice is Pal Joey's "Do It the Hard Way" that adds a spot of spunk (and quite welcome it is!). Dipping into the Ellington bag of jazz melody, the album offers "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," although ironically this CD that proclaims its love and respect for the architects of the Great American Songbook doesn't include the names of any of these writers.
The tracks tend to cut to the chase without fuss or lengthy instrumental breaks and nine of the 14 tracks clock in at under three minutes. Getting to the point of a song and moving on to the next order of love-struck business is not a bad idea. For those who can't get enough of solid time-proven American songs, with a genial and relaxed singing host, Norm Drubner is one more gregarious guy with a song in his heart and his heart on his sleeve.