Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

We Are the Tigers and
Mimi Bessette's Lullabies of Broadway: Act II
Reviews by Rob Lester

What a contrast this time in these two listens featuring female voices. We have a cast recording that screams for our attention, loud and strong. Then our agenda puts on the brakes for a break from the brash, switching from rocking out to soothing a "rockabye baby" ambience with musical theatre performer Mimi Bessette's set that is the ultimate aural balm.


Broadway Records

Is the kind of screaming you hear on the cast recording of We Are the Tigers there just because the characters happen to be cheerleaders in full throttle practice? Not so much. If the ear-piercing howls dramatized those incidents wherein characters are killed, that would be understandable. But there are no blood-curdling shrieks; no one is literally screaming bloody murder. Most of the mega-decibel shrillness comes as part and parcel to the way the high-decibel, high-stakes, high school angst is sung about. The word "screlting," meaning singing in that upper range of female theatre voices, is used by songwriter Preston Max Allen in the liner notes to describe what is the (fulfilled) order of the day.

On heavy rotation indeed is this heavy-handed unleashing of bluster, blaming and shaming, all the more puzzling for a show that was promoted as a comedy. OK, we can make a case for it being a dark comedy of sorts or a rewarding field day for sadistic-leaning audiences who'd rather mock the miseries of the young women whose burdens include, but are not limited to, being bullied, dependency on pills or alcohol, sexual frustration, unrequited love and unspoken longings, a physical injury, seething jealousies and long-simmering hurts. Oh, and, last but not least, being the witnesses to—or victims of—the aforementioned death. And did I mention they're not thrilled that the school team they cheer for has a pretty rotten win-loss record?

Are we having fun yet?

We may not suspect who is the suspect with a knife, but more than one has an axe to grind from ongoing histories together. Longtime schoolmates still seethe from old wounds ("Wallflower") and two are sisters. The sole male character serves as paramour for the girl resisting their physical intimacy on religious grounds (unless they marry to be together "Forever"). Full of fury, worries and arguments can whirl at full throttle as musical numbers build to a fever pitch in a bitch fest. This is caffeinated contemporary musical theatre with pop-rock stylings with a pounding four-piece band and lots of belting vocal harmonies. Some of this comes across as cathartic for the characters, and listening to the committed, intense cast performances may indeed be cathartic for audiences with similar bottled-up feelings.

The 10-member company leaps in and holds on tightly to the torment (and tormenting), making for some believable portrayals of the more harrowing and haunting moments. Particularly effective are the sense of emotional claustrophobia in the anguished "Waiting for the Breakdown" and, in a rare subdued segment, Jenny Rose Baker capturing loneliness and rejection of a fading friendship full of broken promises of staying in long-distance touch via technology ("Skype Tomorrow"). Cathy Ang, playing the mascot denied a spot on the squad, is a loveable hoot in her epistolary solo, "Mattie's Lament," in which she tries to look at the bright side in a dire circumstance.

The show has received a mixed reception, but has certainly found enthusiastic fans and received awards in its California mounting that preceded, by a few years, Manhattan concert presentations and the recently closed Off-Broadway production. This recording is probably best suited for those who prefer power singing with edge; if you like points being musically driven by drumming, you'll get plenty of bang for your buck. Underneath what may seem overwhelming in that screlting that can veer toward caterwauling lurk some effective moments. Yes, seek and ye shall find some pithy capturing of adolescent bravado and broken promises, and flashes of humor. Although I can't jump up to be the most enthused rah-rah leader of cheers for this cheerleader musical, I acknowledge and admire the pathos in the pom-poms and the humanity that comes through.


Broadway Records

You might say that sweet-voiced Mimi Bessette was born to croon to the recently born. Her 1990 album called Lullabies of Broadway was a memorable one that stuck with me. (I have a thing for lullabies and, of course, for Broadway-related material.) Not all tracks on that rather short old set were introduced on the Great White Way, and there are a few such exceptions in her new collection, which indeed starts off with the instantly recognizable instrumental intro for the first vocal which was first intoned by a noted green frog, "The Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie. This long-time-coming sequel, theatrically titled Lullabies of Broadway, Act II, suggests the world's longest intermission: a whole generation of Broadway babies who were lulled to slumberland with perhaps a cassette of Bessette are now fully grown. (Bravo to Broadway Records for re-issuing the old disc as the busy company brings us its worthy and superior successor.)

Act II is longer, lusher, and more varied in tone and accompaniment. Vibrato is more present and it adds color and drama. The first album had higher contents of sugar and valium, taking the "lull" goal in "lullaby" as a priority to induce sleep, silky-smooth simplicity in legato lines rarely allowing for nuanced phrasing of lyrics or anything that would risk that "the cradle will rock." It's immensely charming, but the new set commands more attention to the words and is more mature in its approach and much of its repertoire. So, to address the elephant-in-the-room question, this is the kind of "for listeners of all ages" recording that so many other similar endeavors claim and hope to be.

Although the singer's own two Broadway credits hardly would present much material appropriate to the project (she was in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Bonnie and Clyde), her experience includes many other shows that clearly have given her a sense of how to paint a picture and persona with a musical theatre song.

The time range covers seven decades. She reaches back to the 1940s and '50s: a blithe "Moonshine Lullaby" from Annie Get Your Gun that doesn't drip with the taste of liquor or the voice of its belting originator (Ethel Merman, whose name with the word "lullaby" would perhaps suggest an oxymoron); the rarely approached Guys and Dolls number "More I Cannot Wish You" that feels like a sincere embrace; and a relaxed, guitar-accompanied "Till There Was You" from The Music Man. Recent material includes "Everything Changes" (Waitress); the country-flavored "I Can't Wait" (Bright Star), where her voice suggests a Dolly Parton quality as she duets with the amiable David Lutken; "Sylvia's Lullaby" from Finding Neverland, which might subliminally or directly suggest another inclusion, "Finding Wonderland" from Wonderland. This last item allows for more vocal heft to persuasive power ballad territory. From the "in-between years," there are two more usual suspects from Disney movie projects that later came to Broadway: programmed back to back, they are Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's "Hushabye Mountain" and the title song from Beauty and the Beast.

Guile and pessimism are absent here, and their banishment makes for welcome respite. But what's served up so warmly is not experienced as warmed-over comfort food, and the coziness doesn't lead to being hypnotized to the point of being brain dead. Emotion is perhaps most effectively on display when Mimi Bessette shares the vocal assignment with young Luca Padovan (already a Broadway vet, having been in Newsies and School of Rock). Both sound gorgeous on the upper-stratospheric, ethereal "Come to My Garden," making this elegant piece from The Secret Garden breathtaking.

David Hancock Turner—as one of the pianists among 13 instrumentalists, musical director, and arranger—finds a pleasing balance between fresh creativity and respecting the original musical architectures of older pieces (maybe from your childhood) that some folks will especially long for and welcome nostalgically like old friends. Producer Robert Sher, who gave us some splendid cast albums, brings the same labor-of-love care and sumptuous sound. Although some may take the title word Lullabies as a prescription and be eased to slumberland, I think that those who simply want gentle, genuine gems of loveliness will find Lullabies of Broadway, Act II a dream come true.

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