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Godspell is back ...
... and so is MAC - with March cabaret awards

A current Broadway tenant, the Godspell revival that feels at times like a church revival meeting with an electric-edged pop sheen, results in another recording of the score. Several blocks away, at BB King's on March 29, the annual MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) awards will be given out during a big musical show and ceremony. We'll look briefly at the candidates for their CD of the year award, but—atypically—songs from the musical theatre are largely absent. It's indicative of the widening of the cabaret repertoire net these days.


Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom Records

We've been down this holy road before. With several recordings of its score previously available and the first one (from 1971) recently reissued, we might wonder if there much special here. Is much re-thought and revamped, rather than just rehashed and recycled and redundant? The good news is the score and its basic sensibilities remain true at the core (despite some varied intensities, causing some numbers to feel lighter or looser or laced with raucous electricity). It's somewhat less sweet or sharp than other versions, with fewer high-water marks of emotional intensity and joy. Other versions revel in and emphasize the quite different styles of (then very young) Stephen Schwartz that make up the score, despite the lyrics mostly being taken from or inspired by the Bible and old hymns. Here, the new arrangements and tones feel more unified and painted with closer-hued musical colors, while still allowing some striking variety in approach with the score's structure of giving prominence to the characters of Jesus and Judas, with each of the eight other players getting one distinctive spotlight lead vocal number in addition to their ensemble work.

Dialogue is not featured; all 17 tracks are songs, opening with a montage piece not on the earliest recordings of this piece, "Tower of Babble," in which the company members as famous philosophers and writers—from Socrates to representatives of the 20th century with strongly held beliefs—spout their words and probing questions about belief/trust in God or a lack thereof. The last two tracks are alternate versions of two numbers. John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting) turns in a creditable and strong cover of "Beautiful City" with a likeable, warm, contemporary pop glow that has its own style without being very foreign at all. The CD ends with three cast members (Lindsay Mendez, Wallace Smith and Telly Leung) cutting loose and having a ball, affectionately, with what's labeled an "after hours" personal approach to "Learn Your Lessons Well," with soaring voices enveloping the material in a satisfying and rich way that proves more than anything else how entertaining, flexible—and how potent and personalized—these numbers can be.

The disclaimer, should one want to invoke it—and it's well worth remembering—is that those who mount Godspell have been encouraged to make it their own, improvise bits of business; directors have taken the ball and run with it, often having quite a ball in the process. And with its playful nature in some areas, quips, pastiche, welcome embrace of past and passing times, and malleability, Godspell isn't gospel.

Director Daniel Goldstein's Paper Mill Playhouse version of several years ago had been in the works as a New York transfer at the time and put on hold, but I'm very happy that he was able to retain two cast members I enjoyed when I saw it back then at the New Jersey venue. They stand out as two particularly sincere, compelling performers in their turns, heartfelt and real, without the strut, sass and rowdiness that overwhelm some other numbers (or the watering down of others). Uzo Aduba, with a glorious voice, straightforwardly serves the earnest material, rather than showboating or lacing her performance with vocal embellishments, in "By My Side," the number with music by Peggy Gordon and lyrics by Jay Hamburger which existed in what was a play with a few songs before Stephen Schwartz was brought on board. And Telly Leung adds to a strong track record of disarming and committed performances with his convincing song of gratitude for "All Good Gifts" as delineated in the 19th century words of Jane M. Campbell. His mix of reverence and joy does not cloy; it has a sense of awe and modesty, all the while demonstrating vocal assuredness. A high note at the end is simply gorgeous and, as the number builds and the others join in, it ends strongly and satisfyingly.

With a few exceptions allowing for the early set-ups and the obligatory descent to deception, despair and death near the end (feeling not so very weighty this time around), much of the rest comes off as slyly tongue-in-cheek or a party. That peppy party is filled with frolicking, frenzied cheerleaders rocking out. It's more slick and knowing boisterousness than youthful innocence leading the parade. "Day by Day" begins gently with the lovely, dewy-fresh voice of Anna Maria Perez de Tagle very welcome. Then, like many numbers, it turns into a churning, busy big build. There are times—especially on lyric lines that get repeated a lot—when all the big-voiced cavorting becomes wearing or simply anti-climactic. Fortunately, there are some exciting voices that can handle the happiness heft. Nick Blaemire manages to find a way to cut through this with "We Beseech Thee" and remain enthusiastic with a somewhat cool, hip manner of his own. The attractive-voiced Morgan James doesn't make "Turn Back, O Man" the all-stops-out, assertive showstopper than some do.

And what of Hunter Parrish as Jesus and Wallace Smith (Judas/John the Baptist) with more solo musical material? Their "All for the Best" duet, with its memorable counterpoint section (that Schwartz says he modeled on Irving Berlin) doesn't have the extra kick of spunk and splash we've come to expect, as it somewhat plays down its usually very vaudeville pastiche plinkety-plunk zip. To me, at least on disc, throughout their performances, they come off as more low-key and less charismatic and commanding than others who've walked in their sandals. There isn't a charisma "personality-pow" overwhelmingly present. Certainly there is much to be said for needing to make Jesus a gentle spirit and some of that works with Parrish's non-showy manner, and his "Alas for You" finds some calibrated and in-reserve chastisement mixed with frustration and woe. His solo of "Beautiful City," the song originally written for the film version and, in revised form, interpolated into some stage versions, captures some emotion but is not the catharsis and rallying cry it can be. Wallace Smith is also mellower and more middle-of-the-road, eschewing grand vocal gestures or heat, his Psalm-derived "On the Willows" pleasant but restrained, with back-up vocals from the two keyboard-players in the small-but-mighty band (conductor Charlie Alterman and associate conductor Matt Hinkley, who is also one of three guitarists in the band of just six players).

New orchestrations and vocal arrangements are by Michael Holland, who shares CD producing credits with the composer and Ghostlight's Kurt Deutsch. Michael, a songwriter-singer, will be familiar to some from the world of cabaret where his pop palette is on display regularly a few blocks away from the Circle in the Square when Godspell lives, with partner Karen Mack, at Don't Tell Mama. And this isn't your mama's Godspell. But there's no point in copycatting redundancy when it comes to recordings of cast albums.

And the nominees are ... (These 2011 releases are up for the MAC Award for CD of the year by a member of of MAC, the Manhattan Associate of Cabarets and Clubs, the winner chosen by vote of its members. A committee, on which I served again this year, listened to and considered all CDs submitted by MAC members and narrowed them down to the following):


Recorded in concert at Birdland in Manhattan's theatre district, showman William Blake's concert is mostly a go-for-it powerhouse. It's dynamic and dazzling, vocally impressive, assured, with soulful singing. The nine numbers include solid, wailing performances of two numbers associated with Gladys Knight and the Pips: "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Midnight Train to Georgia." The energetic, buoyant Blake is quite the pip (lower case p) himself: seemingly indefatigable with voice to burn on this recording capturing one September night. Beginning in high gear with "I Want to Take You Higher," (very) high-voiced William takes no prisoners, starting intensely right out the gate and pouring on the juice. The driving energy and vocal vigor rarely find respite, but there's emotion and empathy within the numbers, not just drive and swagger. "Cry to Me" is a reaching out to someone in need, a pledge to care and be there to really listen. This ups the ante, but varies the tone and agenda, on the third song after a start that seems like shooting himself out of a cannon. But when he does cool down and show the prettiest part of his stratospherically-placed instrument, I longed for much more of that. Some Smokey Robinson hits would suit him wonderfully should he want to renew his passport to the land of Motown he clearly loves and sounds at home in.

Though much of this is virtuoso killer-chops audience-entertaining lightning and thunder, the cool-down groove set up, wherein the audience sings along, is a pleasing late interlude. What might initially come off as a go-for-broke, all-stops-out M.O. could seem exhausting if one isn't ready for it, and I hope for more nuance and more emotional colors to come in the future with more varied, deeper material, but I'm often content to drop this CD in my player and let my jaw drop again in amazement at the rocking R&B of Mr. B. The four-man band includes the prominent and potent guitarist Doug Mikula, bassist Mike Noordzy and drummer Jakubu Griffin. And multi-tasking Michael Thomas Murray is the talented keyboard player, arranger, co-producer (with Stephen Wilde) and does some back-up vocals. Also credited with that last duty is one William Blake, which suggests either some post-production or that our star has cloned himself—which might explain how so much power and passion can come in what seems to be one package.


Opening Day Entertainment Group

This beautiful and tasteful instrumental Christmas album of mostly melodies from the sacred side of holiday music, was covered in our annual look of seasonal music.


Seventy years after its introduction, a perky number by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin called "Hello Ma! I Done It Again" has been done again in great style by Alexandra Kaprielian—and it sounds splendid and spiffy all these decades later. It's from a movie called Tall, Dark and Handsome. From another 1941 film comes its title song "Kiss the Boys Goodbye" (Frank Loesser / Victor Schertzinger) and it's a treat, too, even sliding in a one-word lyric alteration as a nod to the "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" signature song of Mary Martin, who preceded her in kissing this cute bit with coy charm. Yes, songs from earlier decades are what's being fondly embraced in the CD titled Born Too Late by the warm-voiced vocalist who can sound lushly legato or likeably bubbly on upbeat numbers.

One item included among the mostly quite familiar titles began life on Broadway: "Love Me or Leave Me," in which, admirably, she avoids being enslaved by the highs and lows of its melody. There are no "lows" on this 13-track CD; the zingy choices (which dominate) are infectious and the ballad changes of pace are satisfying and only make me wish for more of them, like the introspective and mature "Misty" which builds naturally to full-voiced strength of passion before pulling back for a calmer ending, with a tone and judicious handling of melisma that compare favorably to Jane Monheit. Alexandra, with an unpretentious manner and attractive, clear timbre, would have fit right in as a girl singer in the heyday of the big band era, but—although smooth as silk—she doesn't just skim the surface of lyrics to make it all about a singable, rhythmic melody. She has fun with words and attitude on breezy numbers with an easy confidence.

Alexandra is based in San Francisco where she's also done musical theatre, with an upcoming lead role in 42nd Street Moon's production of Zorba. One of the strongest tracks of all, from 42nd Street, that movie musical about musical comedy that became a stage musical: it's represented by a ballad treatment of "I Only Have Eyes for You" by Harry Warren & Al Dubin—particularly relishingly romantic here. Another Warren/Dubin collaboration, less well known, follows it: the exuberant "I've Got to Sing." (One grumble, while crediting here, is that songwriter names are left off the package.) With Kelly Park producing arranging, and playing piano, vibe and timbales, he and the crackerjack little band make merry music indeed. One can be "born too late" to get first crack at the material, but it will never be too late to enjoy swell CDs like this that revisit the past and sound timelessly at home.


Listening to the material on My Time to Fly, Massachusetts-based Harriet Goldberg's songs are easygoing and unpretentious, simple—or simply and unapologetically emotional or just conversational. Are they groundbreaking or highly polished, with showy uses of language or big swaths of melody with leaps and swirls? Hardly. They are modest in all senses, and focused on love: love longed for, love lost or found or detoured. A lyric of hers tends to state its point very early on, often evident from the title, and then give more detail or embellishment, rather than have a new "chapter" in the story or surprise twist; a Goldberg variation is minor or rare. In the attractively architectured message to the addressee that "Someone's Waiting," we can guess that the certain someone is the person so determinedly delivering the message. It's no stunner, but it's satisfying nonetheless in a traditional "old-school love song" way. We're not led astray. (This is one of three numbers written in collaboration with Bob Levy.) A bit more adventurous, without being a shockeroo, is the last-tracked number, "I Don't Believe in Christmas This Year," which on a first listen we may not be 100% sure what caused the sudden Scroogeness, but with the focus on romance with tinges of regret, we might guess. An asset is that a few numbers talk about perspectives on relationships beyond the usual major highs and lows ("We Don't Know Where We're Going" bemusedly confronts the uncertainty and uses the metaphor of a road trip; an ex is honest about how memories and emotions triggered by them crop up "From Time to Time," but is neither devastated nor warmed enough to think they could or should start over). The upbeat, empoweringly confident title song is energizing—however, as the only thing with that mood and verve, it sets a non-representative tone. Most is laidback, wistful, and gentle of spirit, with the accompaniment and instrumental breaks in no-rush, low gear of light jazz—not hard-driven or pulsating—that tend to float and flutter easily but undemandingly, rather than command full engagement with a sense of urgency or drama. Billy Novick, who is heard on sax and clarinet, is the arranger.

All numbers are solos, with singing duties divided among three singers. Lynn Stein (with the superb bass player Jon Burr) appears on two selections, both of which also appear on a collection of songs by Bob Levy also released this past year. She's at her spot-on best here, her voice nuanced with maturity and feeling. Sounding fully involved and connected, yet cozy, she makes the lyrics of "Someone's Waiting" and "Tell Him Now" especially persuasive. Krisanthi Pappas, whose recent album of mostly musical theatre songs showed mainly her exuberance and brio, adjusts to the material by shifting into soft focus with a crushed-velvet, reflective tone. She brings an offhand light jazz swing and some welcome grit and backbone to the determined vow of "You Won't Be Breaking My Heart." Male vocals are supplied by Dane Vannatter, who has appeared on earlier separate collections of songs of Goldberg and Levy (and is overdue for his next solo CD). His pretty-timbered, dreamy-sounding style and approach could probably liquefy anything should he'd choose to, and soften the occasional jarring false rhyme or innocuous choice or flowery, clunky cliché ("the wings of a dove" to rhyme with the repeated title line of "And There Is Love"). And he finds the ambivalence or sublimated resentment and rue in "From Time to Time" and lets it come more to the surface on that un-merry Christmas item. With repeated plays, the subtle underpinnings of the writing craft and singing here come out more and the grown-up perspectives do, too.


Miranda Music

A highly emotional, pensive and well-produced album has come in from Marcus Simeone, and there are MAC honors written all over the people involved. The singer's been awarded cabaret's MAC Award for his live performances in the past. The versatile and talented Tracy Stark is his musical director/pianist; she's a past winner and current nominee herself and they co-wrote Haunted's dramatic title song. Being honored with a special songwriting award is John Bucchino, who sits in at the keyboard on his own piece, "If I Ever Say I'm Over You," given a reading that combines reflective with raw, with the rewarding end result: honesty communicated. Featured on a few tracks, to much advantage and with grace, is past MAC winner, guitarist Sean Harkness, nominated for his own Christmas album with flugelhorn player Mike Herriott. There's never been any question that Marcus has major vocal chops and was willing to put his heart on his sleeve and put emotion on display. In the past, seeing him here and there over the years and hearing his live album a few years ago, I felt he often overwhelmed songs with styling, melisma, tics, gasps and gushing. Sometimes, with standards, he imposed vocal inflections and breathy bathos that works better on certain kinds of pop and R&B. (And in-person performances seem to indulge embellishments and there were visual distractions of facial expressions irrelevant to a CD listening experience). The very, very good news is that those things that encumbered him from getting to the heart of the lyrics are largely gone and he's using his talents in the service of the material without girdling himself so much that he sounds generic or reluctant. The outcome is a more convincing and less labored approach where one can admire both singer and song—and moods and story get delivered.

Marcus is in his comfort zone with material where he can indulge his glossy streak and funky side, and that impressive falsetto, but there are some pleasing side trips to country and Broadway ("Come Rain or Come Shine," "Nobody's Heart"). Heather Sullivan does some guest vocals on her "Somewhere Lies the Moon" and that's one more asset for this very listenable CD where things really work. It's on Miranda Music, the label formed by cabaret's staunch friend, Kitty Skrobela, and we can look forward to their new CDs from Stark and Harkness and others.

- Rob Lester

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