May is a busy month for new releases, with a flurry of activity in the world of musical theatre as we get closer to the Tony Awards, and for vocal albums coming our way, too. This time, we look at three vastly different shows, three singers (one somewhat "Under The Radar") who are of different stripe and a quick look at some old "non-human" friends just for fun. Let's start in fabled Shubert Alley with the show playing at the theatre called the Shubert.
MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT
Would anyone have thought years ago that one of Broadway's hits would be based on a wild and wacky Monty Python movie? Don't be silly. On second thought, do. That's what it's all about. Humor is a matter of taste (or lack thereof), so the number of guffaws you get from this high-spirited show and its cast album will depend on how you define "funny." Certainly both fans and foes of big (meaning very big) Broadway musicals will relate to references to their excesses. "The Song That Goes Like This" and "Twice In Every Show" mercilessly mock de rigueur big, dare-I-say-pretentious, bombastic love ballads designed in their pre-fab way to press the emotional buttons and win applause. The renditions here, thanks in large part to Sara Ramirez as The Lady Of The Lake, skewer the genre while illustrating and recreating every by-the-numbers recyclable cliche ("I'll sing it in your face/ While we both embrace/ And then we change the key ... ). Broad strokes and broad jokes may wear thin for some, but if you give in to it, you'll probably have fun. If not, the cast sounds like they're having more fun than all of us, and how can you not admire that? Goofy and spoofy, it's true to its British comedy troupe roots.
Spamalot is an irreverent and anachronistic romp through the days when knights were in flower and humor didn't have to have to be laden with agendas and political correctness. Although it shares some of the same sensibilities and is in the same vein as its Broadway neighbor, Mel Brooks' The Producers, it doesn't hit bullseyes as often. The lyrics are not as packed with cleverness and wit and the "zinger" count is much lower. Many of the song ideas are fine but somewhat in the one-joke category. Musically, the bar is not set very high and there's certainly something to said for pastiche. It's good pastiche. Adding hugely to the album's aural pleasure is the pastiche and panache of the arrangements. Tempi are bright and the energy is high, high, high. Spam may be canned, but the music is not. Gratitude to Larry Hochman (orchestrations), Glen Kelly (music arrangements) and Todd Ellison (vocal arrangements and conductor). Sounds good to me.
This is not a CD that requires deep analysis, nor is it one to listen to in order to revel in the sound of glorious singing or any real emotion. There are some big numbers and razzle-dazzle with more razzing than dazzlement, so it can be a strangely unsatisfying listen, despite its strengths. "Always Look On The Bright Side" commands one of the score's would-be hits ... so be it. This is a theatrical experience where the songs (by Python mainstay Eric Idle with John Du Prez collaborating on the melodies) are not the be-all and end-all, and the on-stage antics and visuals are largely what's needed.
Broadway can stand a self-inflicted piercing as sharp as one from the sword of a Round Table Arthurian. Forbidden Broadway lets musical theatre kid itself, too. So stuff like "You Won't Succeed On Broadway" tickles rather than stings. But just in case you're distracted by just the jests and jousts, even in the CD's lyric booklet it is pointed out that in the overblown key-changing "The Song That Goes Like This" there's a character dramatically coming downstage on a boat and a chandelier descends! But it's all for an evening's amusement and the power of The Music Of The Knight. And it will prepare you for the next huge British extravaganza. Which reminds me...
THE WOMAN IN WHITE
Once upon a time there was a show called Phantom Of The Opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, orchestrations by David Cullen, and starred Michael Crawford. The three gentlemen reteamed for The Woman In White, currently playing in London. The cast album, recorded live on opening night, is now being released in this country. Melodramatic in its own way (it's a mystery with tension and deception), Woman in White has moments which are more low-key plus others which are scary, surprising and romantic. It even has a minor sort of a "Song That Goes Like This": a steel-belted number which builds fervently. With dialogue included, the recording is packaged as a 2-CD set. Stage action which would not be obvious is described in the lyric booklet, so one can understand and follow the ever-thickening plot while listening.
The play is adapted from the novel by Wilkie Collins, with script by Charlotte Jones and lyrics by David Zippel (City Of Angels, The Goodbye Girl, Hercules). Zippel's trademark wit and wordplay are almost absent here as this story is no joking matter. The music is also not heavy on the overarching, intense, overblown scale some have many have to come to expect with relish or dread. There is intensity of a more controlled, coiled-waiting-to-strike kind. Quite a bit of what you'll hear is dialogue with underscoring or recitative. While the story is compelling to an extent and the tension palpable, there's not much meat in this musical stew, meaning that full-fledged melodies are few and far between.
Throughout the recording, the tone changes radically. Early scenes are like little drawing room cameos and then it becomes a Victorian soap opera. In the middle of act two, Michael Crawford suddenly gets a broad and hammy comic showpiece, "You Can Get Away With Anything" where Zippel switches from pedestrian rhymed dialogue to more fun with rhyming (it's a breath of fresh air but totally out of step with almost everything before and after). According to the notes, it got such a huge audience response that it had to be re-recorded for the album. (The live version is included as a bonus track.)
Maria Friedman, the popular British leading lady who has done some cabaret work in New York, sings well as a woman who is alternately tender, troubled, terrified and tortured. (She's having a bad year.) The other main singers are all impressive: Martin Crewes, Angela Christian, Jill Paice, and Oliver Darley, It's certainly an odd piece, rather relentless for the most part, and not typical of either of its writers. I can't imagine that as music it will prove to be as interesting on repeated listenings once the plot is known. However, the first time around there is the curiosity factor about a woman with a secret and two men (Crawford as an Italian count and Darley as his evil friend) who are selfish and out to hurt others. As for me, I prefer my musical bad guys to be, shall we say, dirty, rotten scoundrels like the ones who are currently on Broadway and are better company.
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS
What do you do for an encore after you write the score for a Broadway musical about some guys who take off their clothes? David Yazbek follows his success of The Full Monty with a show about some guys who show what's underneath the surface of selfishness to reveal ... gasp! ... more selfishness. Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels' fans and supporters are shouting its praises and talking awards, others find it too "dirty" (there is some smut), and only a few scoundrels have dared to suggest it is "rotten" (it certainly can't be categorically dismissed). In my view, Yazbek has a dirty, rotten secret: this show has a wonderfully talented cast but if we strip away their pre-existing comic talent, musical skills and charm and simply look at the material, it's not that impressive. Well, at least not to my ears. There are some diverting and enjoyable melodies, but I find many of them just a couple of steps above serviceable. The lyrics have plenty of fun rhymes (as in "The More We Dance") and topical references that are playful, but they don't add up to songs I want to hear over and over.
There is a large supply of talent in the talent pool that is the cast. John Lithgow is a versatile actor with a brilliant capacity for quirkiness and can play nasty and compelling better than most. He is also surprisingly musical in his own modest way as proved by a children's album he put out (Singin' In The Bathtub). The change-of-pace serious number "Love Sneaks In" is rather nice. Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott are two of the most exciting performers around and they were superb together with the excellent material of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. In that they were hilariously funny, endearing and heartbreaking. They've been equally impressive separately in various shows such as Thou Shalt Not (him) and Debbie Does Dallas (her). Here they put their blood, sweat, tears and other assets into the songs, but I find the material not quite worthy of their talents. Sure, Sherie's "Here I Am" is a romp with good energy and some cute language twists and the title number is entertaining and rousing, but I find much of this highly resistible. Joanna Gleason is another performer who is terrific but only is heard in two numbers and they don't exploit her talents, though she's game.
The three bonus tracks not available on the promotional give-away (free CDs have been distributed at the theatre) are demos of songs from the score, not cut songs. "Here I Am" and "All About Ruprecht" are sung by the songwriter. "Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True" ends the album in a more relaxed solo version by Sherie Rene Scott and it's certainly one of the songs that works and is affecting as a ballad. Bill Charlap is on piano on the demo, and he's one of the best jazz pianists around, although he doesn't wear that hat here.
OK, Little Women has finally won me over. No, not completely, but more and more. I saw the show twice early in the run and have had mixed feelings. We all want a new Broadway smash, meaning a totally original score of excellent quality with fleshed-out characters played by exciting performers with great voices, breathtaking choreography and ... all right, I expect a lot. I wasn't mad for the entire cast or the score, although I found the music much stronger than the lyrics, generally. The second time around, I found more to admire and now with the cast recording, I've come to appreciate more little things about Little Women. The CD sounds absolutely wonderful and brings out numerous strengths. The energy is there, in the cast and orchestra. It bubbles over in many appealing instances and is well focused in subtler ways at other times. It's quite a triumph, really.
No stranger to recording studio success and real presence on disc, Maureen McGovern is surely the element of the show least criticized. Despite not having enough to do and no big non-singing moment, she shines. In one number she sings about the intent of her letters to her husband: "Every word should bring you closer and caress you with its tone." That's what she does when she sings any words or notes - she caresses them. In this number and many others, Kim Scharnberg's orchestrations and Andrew Wilder's conducting and additional arrangements are outstanding. A superb orchestra (including flute, oboe, French horn, euphonium and 11 string players and more) gives wonderful accents and graceful and dramatic figures to play. There is an intelligence in the assignments which brings out more emotion, subtext and characterization. Scharnberg and Wilder are great allies for this score, which otherwise doesn't always score a home run. Composer Jason Howland is one of the album's producers (and originally one of the show's producers before he took over as a songwriter). Mindi Dickstein's lyrics are more successful in the broad strokes than in filling in the details.
Sutton Foster as struggling writer Jo March is fully committed - to Jo and the show. I admire her interpretation and find little to criticize. In many little bits of dialogue included here, she gets the most out of each line and knows what word to underline. This is an exciting performer who makes you care about the character. Danny Gurwin is a major asset to this show as well, instantly likeable with energy to burn. His number, "Take A Chance On Me" is exciting and everything about it works like gangbusters. He is a big boost to the ensemble numbers, but when he returns in act two he is saddled with one of the weaker numbers. Megan McGinnis as Beth has a touching vocal quality and her "Some Things Are Meant To Be" is an effective moment where the lyrics have power and poignancy.
There is a lot to like and, with the linking dialogue and songs with plot points, there's a beginning, middle and end for the CD experience. Ultimately, it's a life-affirming musical and quite moving in several spots. In others, it's entertaining and funny without stepping out of character to be glitzy or gimmicky. It's got heart. You can hear that.
Just when you thought it was safe to take a quiet stroll down the yellow brick road, here come those Muppets with a tornado of energy, fur, and fuzz in, yes, yet another version of the saga of The Wizard Of Oz. It takes a lot of nerve (and heart and brains) to do this, perhaps, but there's nothing too wicked going on. You'll find this new movie version on television on Friday, May 20th and the CD hits stores on May 17. The songs are new but few, so the CD is filled out with previously released merry Muppet memories.
Miss Piggy hogs the spotlight playing all the witches in a typical tour de forcefulness. Her big number is "The Witch Is In The House." It's a hoot as Big Diva Moments go. Dorothy is played by pop star Ashanti whose two songs have a contemporary sound and sheen with different motivations for leaving Kansas. There's a very short number by The Munchkin Tap-Your-Knuckle Choir, but the highlight is "When I'm With You." This ensemble friendship-appreciation number for the characters of Dorothy and her wizard-seeking traveling companions is sweet and catchy. It's the most musical theatre-styled of all of the songs. You might notice the scarecrow's resemblance to a certain frog.
"Being Green" (about the aforementioned amphibian, not Oz's Emerald City) and eight other older manic and mild Muppet movie and TV song selections are included. One is the old song "Happy Feet," introduced in 1930 by Bing Crosby, which predates the movie classic The Wizard Of Oz by nine years. If you happen to be looking for a new version of "Over The Rainbow" you won't find it here, but it does appear on the next album discussed, so keep reading.
Once again, prolific producer John Yap of JAY Records takes us for a flight across Broadway's memory lanes and, as usual, we're traveling first class. We've got the National Symphony Orchestra on board for 14 songs by musical theatre and concert performer Doug LaBrecque. With a few exceptions, this is a traditional collection of Broadway showstoppers and you'll be hearing the tempi and some original orchestrations which will be very familiar to owners of cast albums. The mantra here is the adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Although it's exciting to turn the spotlight in new ways to illuminate hidden possibilities in a standard, sometimes it's nice to use the old lighting plot. When a singer has a glorious legit voice and is committed to the material, as is the case here, it's a pleasure to hear. Doug is a vocal chameleon, adapting to the style du jour. He sounds just as comfortable with a formal "Begin The Beguine" as he does with the vaudevillian "Mr. Cellophane" from Kander and Ebb's Chicago. He can sound brash as in "Luck Be A Lady" or sensitive as he does with the welcome choice of "Her Face" from Carnival by Bob Merrill.
You may flash on Spamalot's "The Song That Goes Like This" for the big-voiced singer has played the two major male roles in The Phantom Of The Opera and knows his way around the anthem-like Broadway concert pieces. The title song from The Phantom Of The Opera is performed full-out with guest Christiane Noll (a chameleon herself) doing all the soprano soaring. She also duets on Show Boat's "Why Do I Love You?" (Doug had a stint as the leading man in the Hal Prince production and we hear Robert Russell Bennett's classic orchestration with teaspoons of other melodies from the score between sections). Jan Horvath is the partner on "Almost Like Being In Love" from Brigadoon. The original Ted Royal orchestration was also employed for JAY Records' most recent release in a studio cast CD of that show.
With Sweet Charity about to officially set foot again on Broadway, it's great to have its "Too Many Tomorrows" included and it's sung quite well here with the Ralph Burns orchestration intact. Two songs written for films are in the mix. One is the oft-recorded "Over The Rainbow," in a fine musical treatment by Wayne Barker who lets it be powerful without milking it, and wins points for including the verse. The other ends the CD: "The Prayer" from the film Quest For Camelot (not Spamalot) by David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager.
I'll confess that when I first looked at the song list and music credits, I thought "same old, same old" (the songs that go like this and that) and didn't race to play it. Then I listened and was treated to its glories. John Yap and Doug LaBrecque have made the choice to do the songs as the characters and somehow it's refreshing. Big voice? Yes, but I want to point out that it's not bombastic or heavy. The voice has a sweetness to it in most numbers and the goal is to go for the heart, not go in for the kill. I still have no clue what Doug LaBrecque is like when he sheds the roles, but there are nice hints that make one want to find out.
I think Eric Comstock is in love. I don't mean just because of his recent marriage to the interesting and seriously sultry cabaret songstress Barbara Fasano who is overdue for another CD of her own. Eric is in love with good tunes. In each of his three albums he's presented us with standards the world's been loving for decades, plus the occasional rarity on which he bestows equal (no, greater!) affection. This time out, we have one right off the bat with track one: "Easy on the Heart," a recent creation by bassist Charlie Haden and Arthur Hamilton. It's easy on the ears, a hip little number. And what is this title tune? "No One Knows" is a song that practically no one knows. This is its first official recording, which is rather an event since the writer is the long-departed jazz legend Billy Strayhorn. It's a nice present!
Eric is all about the songs, not showing off his voice or upstaging the material with clever look-at-me stuff. He has some cool partners in swing here, notably Count Basie veteran Frank Wess on tenor sax and flute. On piano we get one of two Erics: the singer usually, but on five cuts the excellent jazz man Eric Reed. With other strong players as well, this outing brings the singer more fully into a jazz atmosphere. The lyrics are not sacrificed, only enhanced when Eric is in a reflective mood, as he is on standards like "There Will Never Be Another You," which is especially well phrased and bittersweet. I've heard Eric come across as aloof from a lyric that seems to need passion or vulnerability. Here he mostly avoids that syndrome. He also comes up with a few real swingers and jazz standards. Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Hazel's Hips" is very successful and fun and the romantic Paul Simon song "I Do It For Your Love" is a refreshing choice, too.
I was delighted that a charmer of a Broadway song I've always liked, "If I Had My Druthers" from Li'l Abner, made the cut. Not many pull that one out of the hat. I wouldn't have pictured the often suave and reserved Mr. Comstock in backwoods boy guise, but he makes it work in his own way. And two more Great White Way tunes are out and about: Gypsy's "Small World" and "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow.
In the last couple of years, Eric has been at the piano and at the helm of two long-running cabaret shows with Hilary Kole and Christopher Gines. First there was Our Sinatra and now there's Singing Astaire, both full of great tunes, as is this CD. I do sometimes wish he'd use a little more voice, as he can be a bit clipped and (to me) overly "conversational" in the interest of presenting the lyric. Being a singer as well as an instrumentalist, perhaps he sees his dual role in letting the piano handle the melodic ideas and having his voice be a bit more in speaking mode. It's just a theory. Don't bet money on it. Save your money for CDs with class and style, like this one.
UNDER THE RADAR
(Our weekly feature spotlighting something or someone you may not have heard
about ... but we think you should)
Her background is Caribbean, British and African. She can sing in more than one language, and in different styles, but it all sounds rich and ravishing. Meet Tessa Souter, who has released her debut album. She's garnered some warm attention from the music press and played club dates including a spot in Greenwich Village, Club 55, where she'll return May 13. I've very recently caught on to her and am glad of it. It's hard to believe this is the young lady's very first recording - she sounds so assured, so comfortable, so in command. It's one of those CDs you put on and immediately think, "wow!" and know you can settle back and be bathed in a simply beautiful voice possessed by someone who has learned how to use it. Well, she's had a good teacher - her mentor is one of the best jazz singers, the veteran Mark Murphy, who is also known for his good taste. Tessa's style is not similar to a typical jazz singer, though. It sounds like she could do all kinds of things. Well, she does here.
Sensitive and thoughtful, there are no tricks or gimmicks on display. The standard "How Insensitive" ("Insensatez") by Antonio Carlos Jobim has been attended to in cabarets and recordings by dozens of singers but she makes the melody a fresh experience. The Duke Ellington classic "Caravan" is in good hands, too. Although she might find herself typed as "a jazz singer," that would be just a part of the picture. She pays careful attention to the lyrics, phrases well and knows how to bring out the drama in the words. Especially well served is "Fragile" by Sting. There's also a Billie Holiday specialty, "Left Alone," that shows her way with a sad ballad without borrowing any vocal stylization from the lady. She knows how to tell a story (not surprising that before turning to singing, she was a journalist!) The album's jewel of a title tune is by another singer not easily categorized, Jon Lucien. Not only did Tessa produce the CD herself, she also wrote especially tender and emotional lyrics to three of its selections. One of these, "You Don't Have To Believe," has an attractive melody by ... you guessed it - she composes, too.
She interacts well with some highly skilled musicians. Freddie Bryant playing guitar is a true partner; it never feels like they are taking turns. Reflective, spare, serious, hypnotic... I've been playing it over and over and keep finding new things. For a taste of all this, treat yourself to a free sample at www.tessasouter.com.
Speaking of new things, next week we will be talking about two new releases from Stephen Sondheim. And when I say Sondheim, I mean the singer, not just another cast album, although there's one that starts off with a bang. We'll explain later. Also, a beauty of a tribute album from a singer hitting New York this week (Debby Boone) saluting a much-missed classic singer who happened to have been her mother-in-law (the great Rosemary Clooney) and some more of the usual and unusual, above and under the radar. We'll be listening for you.