This week, we look at four CDs. We begin with a new release from Euan Morton
that's red hot, and end with a musical taking place in the sub-zero Minnesota chill. In
between, two old favorites from the list of musical theater classics.
There's a phrase tossed about so much in publicity for CDs that it has become a cliche: "the highly-anticipated debut album by ..."
It's often an exaggeration; when true, the high anticipation can be so high that the reality upon arrival can't live up to expectations. In the case of Euan Morton's NewClear, however, there is good news to report and celebrate. Those who have been captivated by this performer in theater roles - a major impact as Boy George in Taboo and recently in Measure for Pleasure at The Public Theater - know his talent. He has garnered more attention in concert appearances at The Town Hall and Joe's Pub, singing both pop and traditional Broadway material. His voice can also be heard on recordings: besides both cast albums of Taboo, he has one song each on last year's Hair concert CD, Broadway Unplugged and the new Jamie de Roy and Friends CD, The Real Thing.
Euan Morton is the real thing: talented and charismatic. His ever-growing number of fans have certainly been "highly anticipating" this debut solo recording, and have also been curious about would it would sound like, since he has proved himself to be eclectic. The short answer is it's rock-pop and a smash.
Euan's voice can sound vulnerable. It can be strong and powerful. Often, it seems to be both at the same time and maybe that's what makes him so special and intriguing. When he uses his vocal power, whether it's for most of a number or judiciously, as in the held notes on the word "again" near the end of the title song, it's like an electric current of energy. When the sensitive, reflective side comes out, as in some sections of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," it's a wise and welcome respite.
An old favorite of mine from the 1980s, "At This Moment" (popularized by Billy Vera) is heard in two versions: a pained and gutsy reading that draws on Euan's sense of drama, and a bonus track with a club/dance backing. The album is exciting, sensual, emotional and energizing. It makes little use of the high end of his vocal range, where he can sound ethereal and angelic, and that seems a missed opportunity since that is one of his greatest assets. But what we have is very satisfying. There's variety here: some quiet moments, sometimes he wails, other times he rocks out with an edgier, more driving sound with guitars blazing. Two Boy George numbers are included: "Victims" and "Pie in the Sky," the latter from Taboo.
Dan Bern's "Chelsea Hotel" is a highlight, an interesting mix that goes back and forth between a folky feel and a more assertive swagger. That may sound like an identity crisis, but it works. Euan finds himself in skilled musical company: drummer Damien Bassman, bass player Paul Ranieri, and three players named David: Mr. Matos on guitars, Mr. Mann on sax and Mr. Nehls on keyboards. David Nehls also co-produces and contributes a solid rocker, "Good Time Gone Bad."
With a busy schedule including playing the title role in another New York show, Brundibar, and a May date at Birdland, it's safe to say that the phrase "highly anticipated" will be well deserved in many a sentence with the words "Euan Morton." This CD is like a bolt of lightning.
I confess to being a Show Boat addict. This groundbreaking musical, which will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year, has had many recordings and I find a lot to like in each one, though I'd be hard pressed to name a favorite. This is partly because the score has had songs added and subtracted. It is also because the score has elements of operetta, musical comedy and drama; the emphasis on one style or another is reflected in different versions. Due to the unusually large amount of material, earlier recordings were incomplete until a deluxe box set came about in the late 1980s. This version came around the same time, and is credited as being "inspired by" the Opera North/ Royal Shakespeare Company/ Pola Jones London Palladium production, and employs many from that cast, but it was not recorded until 1993. It's called "the first complete recording of the published 1946 edition," (a major revival) and is a 2-CD set. Despite being based on the 1946 version, the major song written for that revision has been cut: "Nobody Else But Me," the last melody written by composer Jerome Kern (but Lorna Dallas' recording is included on the CD as a bonus track - she starred in a 1971 British revival.)
The recording sounds excellent in this latest edition, although there are times when listeners may have trouble catching all of the words in the ensemble numbers. Frankly, the real star here is the orchestra. The National Symphony, conducted by John Owen Edwards, playing Robert Russell Bennett's revised orchestrations is exciting to hear and never sounds tired or muddy. Obviously, much care was taken by producer John Yap to bring out the colors and individual sections. The purely instrumental passages are generous, among them an overture, entr'acte, "Villain's Dance," some longish introductions to vocals and even the borrowing of John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March." The two lovers at the saga's center, Magnolia and Ravenal (Janis Kelly and Jason Howard), are, to me, the least interesting. Although the singers' more operatic voices are fine, I find them both a bit stiff and cursory in their phrasing, missing opportunities to bring out nuances in the broad-stroke emotions. However, I love just listening to the orchestra in the leads' solos and love duets. The rest of the cast fares better: veteran Willard White makes a strong Joe with a noble "Ol' Man River" bringing out the majestic Kern melody and Oscar Hammerstein's ever-powerful lyric. I especially like Shezwae Powell in a sassy "Queenie's Ballyhoo" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Sally Burgess' Julie is best in the latter number, whereas her solo "Bill" suffers from a formal approach (but it is more effective in its final chorus). Brit favorite Caroline O'Connor is an entertaining Ellie.
As one who can't get enough of Show Boat, I enjoy this version for its completeness (the "St. Agatha's Convent" piece, "Dahomey," the World's Fair production number opening act two and some reprises), rich texture and the grand orchestra - and of course, superior sound. Those who prefer a more stately or reserved Show Boat may find this version to be their favorite.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
Another classic score with numerous cast albums is Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun , including three different full-length versions with the original star, Ethel Merman. Bayview Records has come up with a trio of treats: a collection of recordings by cast members from productions in London, Paris and Australia, within a few years of the original. The show is now 60 years old and, to quote one of its lyrics, it still does "sparkle like a crystal." However, due to the age of the recordings, the sound quality here is not quite sparkling. In the early days of cast recordings, before the invention of the long-playing record, sometimes only the "major" numbers were preserved. So, here we have just some highlights.
The 1947 British cast performances have been issued in the past and they sound much improved. The terrific Dolores Gray was a swell choice for the lead and she and co-star Bill Johnson are especially playful in their duet, "Anything You Can Do." They're both quite entertaining throughout - no complaint here. Johnson is heard in a major percentage of the character's material. Although Dolores Gray is not as uninhibited as many Annies, her rich voice is always a pleasure, and she finds plenty of humor. Her "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun" is a fun hunting trip through Berlin's jokey lyric as she blasts out, "but you can't shoot a male in the tail like a quail." [Insert your own Dick Cheney joke here.] The cute and perky "Who Do You Love, I Hope?" cut from many later productions, is included (by the "juveniles" Irving Davies and Wendy Toye), and that's noteworthy.
Evie Hayes is a crackerjack Annie in the Australian cast. As in the British selections, we get the duets "Anything You Can Do" and the ballad "They Say It's Wonderful." Her leading man is Webb Tilton and they're well matched, apparently having a rootin'-tootin' time. Some dialogue is included in this section and it's a plus, really giving the listener a flavor of the show. The now deemed politically incorrect "I'm an Indian, Too" shows Evie to be a high-energy comedienne. These six Australian cast tracks are premiere recordings.
Four songs in the French translations are sung by the Parisian Mlle Annie Oakley, Lily Fayol. "Moonshine Lullaby" gets the least literal translation, but all are delivered with high spirits. This quartet en français makes for a diverting curiosity in the mix.
"I Got the Sun in the Morning" is heard in each country, and though "There's No Business Like Show Business" is heard in both English language casts, neither is very rousing or memorable. Don't look for innovative interpretations here, but this is a fun look at the indestructible score, and has appeal as a companion piece to any of the regular full cast recordings.
UNDER THE RADAR
The guilty pleasure of the week is Don't Hug Me. It's very silly. It's supposed to be. The action of this musical comedy takes place way up north where it's 78 degrees below zero and so it's no wonder that our leading man's goal (achieved) is to move to Florida. We have some characters here whose brain cells seem to have frozen along with the ground. What do they have on their minds? Not a lot. Lust, ice fishing, bar talk and shopping. I didn't find myself rolling on the floor with laughter, but was amused at times with the parodies of musical styles and the broad humor can be a harmless mind vacation. It's not Show Boat but it's a cute change of pace.
Billed as "a Minnesota love story with singin' and stuff" and "Fargo meets The Music Man without the blood or trombones," it's a harmless trifle that will attract those looking for high spirits and lowbrow good times. I enjoy "My Smorgasbord of Love" which is packed with more food references than a four-page menu, as a man compares his beloved to various items of good eatin'. An Elvis parody is entertainingly delivered and the country and polka (yes, I said polka!) pastiches are enjoyable.
The show played in Los Angeles in late 2003 and 2004. This album was recorded during that period, but had only been sold at the theater until now. The score is by two brothers, Paul (music) and Phil (book and lyrics) Olson. The wonderful world of karaoke is an element of the plot, and the arrangements reflect that. A small, enthusiastic cast is heard in 15 raucous and occasionally bawdy songs. More information is available at www.donthugme.com.
And that's the news about the new and the old.