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They've made their names on Broadway—as, respectively, a Jersey Boy, a Dreamgirl, and a girl who dreams of life above sea level. The heroes and musical American idols for each are numerous, and they salute them in their recent albums. Two are debut albums recorded live at Manhattan's 54 Below and the other is a return to the recording studio.

JARROD SPECTOR
A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
LIVE AT 54 BELOW

Broadway Records

After several years playing Frankie Valli, Jarrod Spector has gone from (Jersey) Boy to Mann (songwriter Barry Mann, whom he portrays in the new musical Beautiful). He also has a new cabaret show, presented at 54 Below. It is not his first time at the cabaret rodeo, as he had previously taken mic in hand for shows at New York City's Metropolitan Room and Café Carlyle and beyond. His new act tips the hat to male singers over the decades who, like himself and Frankie Valli, his longtime role/role model, have garnered high marks via their high voices. In some cases, it's a consistent stratospheric timbre (Little Jimmy Scott, represented by "Unchained Melody") and in other cases it's about particular songs they sang/wrote which exploited their upper registers (Elton John with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl").

In this recorded live show, Spector speculates about the long lineage and presumed chain of influences on singers, which reaches back from a bit of Enrico Caruso to Bruno Mars' recent hit "When I Was Your Man." Some numbers work far better than others; there's more success with pop-rock stars than with "When You Wish Upon a Star." I wish that, despite bright money notes being in place, those and others would soar to dreamier heights.

With a small band helmed by longtime Jersey Boys musical director Adam Ben-David at the piano, it's a casually and enthusiastically narrated musical history lesson. In the packaging, this self-described "music nerd" is photographed in various poses surrounded by vinyl records and a phonograph, attentive or happy as a clam. In the captured performance, his Jersey Boy joy is as equally present as that absorbing attentiveness, as much here feels like a game but studied, conservative re-creation of the tempi, phrasing and attitudes of the original iconic versions.

Musical giants make big footprints and the tendency here is to follow closely with the phrasing, shape, and arrangements, not breaking new ground. The likeable Mr. Spector's singing is solid and strong, but there's so little personalization in what amounts to a competent recital that we don't get much sense of who this Jarrod is from the lyrics. We can rarely suspend disbelief and react as if they are his thoughts, or even those of a character he is convincingly presenting. And that is one of the greatest pleasures of theatre or cabaret's communication and connection. We get more of a sense of Jarrod from his spoken material (thus, it was wise to include this, which works better than many patter-filled live sets). The talk includes anecdotes about his experiences related to Jersey Boys, and when the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' material comes up close to the end, it is understandably inevitable that it feels the most connected. And, to his credit, it doesn't sound at all tired, despite having logged 1500 performances as Mr. V.

The polish, brio, bandmates and fellow singers prevent the endeavor from coming off as a pale carbon copy. So, it would be an overstatement to say that the recital is a mere couple of notches above a high-class, high-voiced cover band. It's surely better and brisker than that, yet the too-close approach inspires memory-tugging smiles more than it presents surprise. Jake Schwartz's electric guitar solos provide some guts and make a few side trips not led by automatic pilot. Sound balance does not always keep Spector spotlighted front and center, with the band and background singers in danger of overshadowing him here and there. However, this is not quite the case when Rachel Stern steps out for a true duet on the power melodrama of "It's All Coming Back to Me Now."

The range of genres from early bluesman Robert Johnson and his "Sweet Home Chicago" to sweet-voiced nostalgia and vigor of some rock takes some real knowhow, maintaining concentration and energy to switch gears, while hopscotching over decades in a live bang-bang-bang show is no small feat. Personality, patter and pacing are well packaged by director Eric Michael Gillett, who has won awards as director and singer from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC).

The idea of a look back at the high tenor's role in music is a worthy theme, though lead singers from more diverse groups, such as The Ink Spots, or some Broadway repertoire would lend some desirable variety for a less rock-centric roll along memory lanes. Some interest comes from song combinations, which also allows the concert to pack in more numbers: the second track is a threesome and there are five two-song combos (including the closer "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for" which leads into a reprise the Beatles oldie "With a Little Help from My Friends," the set's opener). And that lyric's confession that what's desired beyond friendship and the chance to "get high" is "somebody to love"—directly echoed with the welcome choice of Queen's "Somebody to Love."

It seems a lot of love went into this and, despite reservations, it certainly offers a rockin' lively time. Jarrod Spector concludes his return engagement of this show at 54 Below on Monday, March 31.

JENNIFER HOLLIDAY
THE SONG IS YOU

Euphonic Records/Shanachie

She's back! With several albums in varying styles since she memorably made her mark in that moment of star-making as Effie in Dreamgirls, Jennifer Holliday's latest studio album is divided into sections loosely tracking love's stages. The individual tracks are indicated in the accompanying booklet as being "in dedication to," "tributes to" or "in memory of" superstar divas and a few men. These connections range from an icon's signature song (a terrific take on "At Last" to honor the recently departed Etta James) to a puzzling choice of material "in tribute to Miss Barbra Streisand: 'The Voice'" with a piece Streisand never recorded—it's a stretch to strategize that it's about her. That number, ruminating about romances, "Love Me by Name," was co-written by another singer of many years (still) standing, Lesley Gore (in collaboration with Ellen Weston). Going from hushed gratitude in low-flame mode, the number heats up, with the strings of repeated "Love me!" demands with the word "love" broken into multiple syllable recall the famed pleading of Dreamgirls' showstopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," but in much, much lower gear. With the recent loss of Marvin Hamlisch, "Nobody Does It Better" is listed as a memorial to the composer rather than a singer. She sticks closer to the hit version here, with the instantly recognizable opening series of piano chords that anchor the arrangement, along with other figures. (A photo in the booklet shows Ms. H. singing with the late Mr. H. conducting.) She luxuriates in its rhapsodizing about a lover's ways, as if lying languidly in silk sheets in afterglow or wish-you-were-here yearning. The elasticity and richness of the voice remains its own marvel.

A variety of arrangers and musicians (as well as types of music) make for an appealingly eclectic album. Background vocals are used on some tracks and feature Latrice A. Pace. Some charts offer a big sound with a feathery-full string sound with muted brass and reeds favored.

Even if you only know Ms. Holliday's work from her volcanic work in Dreamgirls, you may well recognize her sound and vocal trademarks here. Though more subdued, there is that wide-ranging, swooping and swelling voice and her liberal use of melisma, the idiosyncratic grunts and gasps, and other frills and fills, coos and crescendo. As far as lyric embellishments, she's particularly prone to throw in the word "baby" often and to repeat key lines, especially as she stretches out the endings of songs. Some will find these self-indulgent, others satiny or sexy, oozing with "oooohh"s. Ever-so-earnest, breathy spoken sections set-up up each segment, the most egregiously melodramatic "romance novel" approach is a gushing, lusty monologue resembling one side of a phone call pleading with her honey to hurry home. "Two Hearts 'Real-Talk' in Love" is floridly titled, but this and the other so-called "Preludes" are separately tracked and can be skipped over. It's the singing that counts, and much is rhapsodic R&B velvet. Once one gives into the highly stylized swirling of voice and layered accompaniment (pillowy more often than powerhouse), it's quite dazzling in its own defined genre.

Gracing a true standard which provides the CD with its title song, "The Song Is You" by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II is a nod to Michael Bublé's take and is a big band blast of fresh air, with fewer "tricks." It's relatively restrained, starting with a conversational and low-key approach. But there's no doubt she'll reach for that big leap to the strong high note on the last word of the phrase "the song my heart would sing." In the extended ending (the gal loves a long goodbye to a piece of music), she even tries a bit of scat-singing. In another mood, "The One You Used to Be" (aka "Memories") is an emotional farewell to Whitney Houston, and Jennifer had a hand in writing it. While recorded by many artists, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David "The Look of Love" is dedicated to Dusty Springfield, who had a hit with it, but Jennifer's version is very different in vocal timbre and tempo. As is her wont, it's on the slower side, eschewing the Bacharach-favored percolating pop beat. In fact, tracks here generally tend to the long, take-my-sweet-time approach, with some sung tracks extending past five or six minutes. The finale, the soothing and reassuring "Love Is on the Way" clocks in at more than seven minutes.

While she salutes the aforementioned stars—as well as Aretha Franklin and others—she may suggest elements of their singing styles, but never adapts her vocal approach to imitate or immerse fully in their ways. There's no awkward adopting of another persona or labored re-shifting. Whether working a groove or laying back on a bed of strings, Jennifer Holliday is a special taste and treat.

SIERRA BOGGESS
AWAKENING
LIVE AT 54 BELOW

Broadway Records

In one of many Broadway babies doing nightclub acts at 54 Below, Sierra Boggess shows more versatility than some others. Her act is a series of salutes to her "inspirations" from musical genres to family to Andrew Lloyd Webber and her beloved Barbra Streisand. The Boggess soprano is strong and wide-ranging, a pleasure to hear in its legit, pure sound—an ingénue sound that doesn't overdo the gooey gush of innocence, despite more than a dollop of Disney. And the lady can belt without becoming strident or too showy. A true musical theatre voice, she also showcases her ability to essay opera with two selection from La Bohème, presented with elegance and grace.

As splendid as much of the singing is, it's the talk that mars this live album. Irritating and adolescent, it has the star jabbering on and on, using the adjective "awesome" over and over to apply ... well, almost everything including "you guys" of the audience. She tediously employs the word "like" constantly as filler or replacement for "said" or "so" so much that it could drive one up the wall. She pontificates about feel-good self-affirmations and the theories of self-help guru-author Wayne Dyer and quotes him and others and her own cornucopia of life philosophies, chattering about a bottle of water going with the flow, etc. etc. "How cool is that!?" she gushes about childhood experiences and her guitar-making dad (he comes up to play one). While some of it is on individual tracks and can be mercifully eliminated, there are times where she talks mid-song and we're stuck.

The oft-thanked "awesome" Brian Hertz is in the driver's seat as very capable and strong musical director/pianist and sister Summer Boggess is fine on cello, though she doesn't get a real spotlight moment of any real length. With Dad on guitar, she sings Dolly Parton's "Wildflowers," wherein she consciously or not adopts some of the Parton timbre and accent. Later, her winking vocal caricatures comically show skill at mocking bad casting choices for mega-shows with melodies by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whom she praises and whose shows she's been in, such as The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel. The mash-up includes even more snippets than those listed. She can be lighthearted as well as heartfelt and that's great to see and hear. She comes across as being in her comfort zone, establishing that by her early set-up of Richard Rodgers' "I Have Confidence." Despite the seeming ease veering into smug self-satisfaction, basking in the audience's obvious pre-sold affection, Sierra can still produce a vulnerable character in song.

Plucking some numbers from family-friendly films, what a delight it is that she chose endearing pieces from the Sherman brothers' score to Tom Sawyer from which comes "How Come?." In the same segment, there's "Can You Imagine" from a little-known musicalization of Heidi, the charming Heidi's Song by songwriting giants Burton Lane and Sammy Cahn, which produced a soundtrack album I'm glad I found long ago. This extended segment, about the overwhelming wonders of Nature (and the overwhelming wonders of being cast in the title role for one's Broadway debut) begins and ends with Alan Menken melodies. First off is Pocahontas' "Just Around the Riverbend" (in her autobiographical anecdote, the river is the Hudson) with Stephen Schwartz's lyric. And, of course, it all leads up the "I want" number from the Boggess Broadway bow as The Little Mermaid, "Part of Your World," with Howard Ashman's loveable lyric retained from the film. It's all sunny without being saccharine. And the crowd cheers.

Seeing her idol Barbra Streisand twice in concert—and meeting her backstage—makes for some of the most oh-so OMG moments in a long-winded Twitter-worthy fan club meeting recounting. Lost in the lengthy section is Streisand herself. We don't hear much about what the icon did on stage or backstage; while "Don't Rain on My Parade" is heard, it's just an instrumental tease, and the Boggess version of "Before the Parade Passes By," sung by Barbra in the movie version of Hello, Dolly!, is not informed by the superstar's dramatic and powerful interpretation. Sierra sings it in a more formal, legit style, interrupting with commentary. Surprising herself with the calm and simplicity of the much-anticipated meeting a legend, she uses "A Quiet Thing," recorded by Streisand, but introduced by Liza Minnelli, whom she says was also backstage, though the included talk never connects that fact.

A booklet includes numerous glam shots of the very attractive songstress/actress and praise lavished upon her by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Hal Prince. Prince mentions several of the songwriters represented, including his longtime associate Stephen Sondheim ("Lovely"—which is just that—from .. Forum). And, he categorizes the included number "I Don't Care" as "hilarious," although he says "I'm too lazy to find out who wrote [it]." Apparently, so were those who prepared the song credits, as they say in print that it was the work of three writers, none of whom bears any similarity in name to the actual creators of this rowdy 1905 vaudeville romp which Sierra stomps brashly through. (It was penned by Jean Lenox/ Harry O. Sutton.) Another case of identity theft comes when five writers are given credit for something called "You'll Never Know" which turns out to be the romantic 1943 classic by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, sung in films by Alice Faye. And while the booklet does get the right writers for "Live Out Loud," Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley, Sierra in her intro of it names composer Lippa as sole writer, though she says its lyric is her new mantra. (Our little mermaid sang this A Little Princess number of carpe diem determination on the studio cast album of that score.)

With her musical comedy sensibilities and abilities to adapt to other kinds of material, I look forward to another studio album from the more mature sides of Sierra Boggess. She's one who can step out of and into character with equal flair.


- Rob Lester


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