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Beautiful & Beautiful Dreamer

Here are two releases from Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom Records which might make your listening life a little more beautiful: nice songs and nice singing from the Carole King musical Beautiful and Beautiful Dreamer from Broadway-experienced Donna Vivino.


Ghostlight Records

Perspective, perhaps, isn't everything, but it changes everything. I am no newcomer nor casual observer to the pop songs and personalities of Beautiful, before and after Carole King's mega-selling Tapestry album. I have long been an admirer of Carole King both as a performer and songwriter, and, by both accident and design, I found myself accumulating records by those who sang her work, noting her name—usually linked with songwriting and marriage partner Gerry Goffin—on discs by The Beatles, Steve and Eydie, many pop groups, and two of my very favorite vocalists who had 45 rpm singles of the song (written solely by Carole) that gives Beautiful its name: Barbra Streisand and Karen Wyman, advising us to "wake up ev'ry morning and show the world all the love in your heart." So, I'm happy to have another look at the life and legacy of King and her contemporaries and collaborators, notably Barry Mann. I have the originals and am neither wanting nor expecting the Broadway show or its cast album to bring me simply a copycat recreation of the artists or their printed-in-memory records.

This generously packed-with-songs package certainly plays the nostalgia and sentiment cards often—and, let's face it: it's a jukebox musical. The booklet with bookwriter Douglas McGrath's behind-the-scenes introduction of its genesis and approach, a plot synopsis, production photos and all the lyrics help give a sense of the show as a show, as do the occasional lines of dialogue. But it's also an overflowing collection of vintage pop songs, including those by the secondary couple Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, colleagues and friends.

Anchoring the proceedings, talented Jessie Mueller as King is instantly ingratiating and sympathetic. Her timbre and inflections even sound like King in flashes, on certain sounds and stylings, notably the first time we hear her, in "So Far Away," one of the eight Tapestry tracks we hear (not including "Tapestry" itself, heard only instrumentally before that in the overture). Mueller's non-labored portrayal, plaintiveness and vulnerability crucially come through with flying colors in the singing as do ebullience on the sunnier tunes and musical acumen as we hear songs developed and assigned to artists and arrangement ideas discussed. "There should be strings here like raindrops falling ...every other note," she's heard advising, with assuredness, as the early record "It Might as Well Rain Until September" is made. The recurring figures in arrangements, hooks, and instantly recognizable instrumental intros, as well as some back-up vocal sounds, are part of what made some of these records catch on and stick in our minds, redolent of their period. However, the versions here don't slavishly clone every little detail—indeed, some are juiced up, sweetened, or get musical theatre builds and buttons (no hit single fade-outs here). But those King chords that stamped her more mature singer-songwriter performances and bouncy rhythms and "sha-la-la" back-ups and echoes that define the older stuff keep things grounded in familiar territory.

Jarrod Spector moves from his Jersey Boys real-life music figure of Frankie Valli to embody Mann, and he sounds terrific in a more relaxed, but still bright singing voice. Anika Larsen as his life/music partner Cynthia is chipper in her renditions of the hits and a glib self-promotional special lyric set to the ancient "Happy Days Are Here Again." The likeable singing of Jake Epstein as Goffin is heard all too briefly in a few sections of early numbers. His later love interest, the coincidentally named Sara King as Marilyn, gets "Pleasant Valley Sunday," the rare instance of one of the numbers being used as a character song, when the marriage is fading. But there are occasional uses of life imitating art or reflective autobiographical writing within songs-as-pop-songs-as-would be-hits: In "You've Got a Friend" the line about non-friends "They'll hurt you/ Yes, and desert you" stands out as one voice takes only the last four words and nothing else in the number. Mostly, though, it's a feel-good album that's an affectionate valentine to pop music from teen-targeted tunes from the Brill Building material and beyond, nicely served up.


Ghostlight Records

There's a lot that's beautiful in the voice of the singer and the beautiful images sung about throughout Beautiful Dreamer. Donna Vivino made her Broadway debut as a child: as young Cosette in the original Broadway company of Les Misérables . Now, that's a dream come true, especially in the long view of what became its iconic status, with the show so ubiquitous and now on Broadway yet again. Decades later, she has revisited her character's wistful "Castle on a Cloud" in her solo album debut, Beautiful Dreamer, along with other pleasant dreams.

"Pleasant" is the keyword; although her voice and the arrangements are unfailingly pretty and easy on the ears, the smooth velvet can veer toward musical valium. It's a laidback studio album that makes many of the tracks feel like we're all floating on one of those clouds, drifting in and out of (mostly in) a "cool jazz" sky. The dreamed-of castle may be on a cloud, but metaphorical cloudy skies rarely appear. In instrumentation and tempo the "Castle on a Cloud" may have its architecture redesigned, but its resident singer resolutely retains a childlike wonder. Although logic and a lyric in Les Mis may tell us that "There are dreams that cannot be," somehow we still root for the character of Cosette somehow being cozily ensconced in a make-believe castle, even when the singer no longer sounds like a child. Miss Vivino's history earns her the right to sing it again, irony-free, and nostalgia wins out. The rendition does not feel coy or cloying. It's an odd but affecting castle tour, sung with affection.

Elsewhere, she proclaims (quietly) that she "doesn't need a castle rising in Spain" to be happy; in Rodgers & Hart's "My Romance," the singer is more than content with just the loved one. When she sings, "Wide awake, I can make my most fantastic dreams come true," the dream as reality convinces. Less on target is her wayward way with the same songwriters' more complex "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" which belies its descriptions of being troubled, tense or toyed with. She doesn't seem invested or introspective. Vocals remain quite feathery, the lady's own feathers unruffled by a guy who has supposedly put her "on the blink."

Although sung in English, the Brazilian jazz standard "How Insensitive" ("Insensatez") is phrased so evenly with words unshaded that it's as if she were instead a non-native speaker who learned the lyric phonetically. If the intent was to emulate such vintage recordings or to truly be portrayed as that "insensitive" departing lover at a loss for words, the dispassionate approach may become contagious and disengage the listener. Those songs keeping a distance from adult romances with any complex or hurt feelings work far better.

Interestingly, the song that is most directly sad, "Rainy Days and Mondays," finds Donna Vivino with her most thoughtful and mature phrasing. While understated, it demonstrates understanding of the malaise of melancholy that stubbornly won't depart. Otherwise, the most successful tracks are when a happy medium is found, and the coziness of sweet dreams doesn't melt into terminal mellowness. But, of all unlikely entries, "Over the Rainbow" will wake you up. Swinging with a beat, the fleet tempo is determined to be different. It doesn't evoke the usual land of wonders "where the clouds are far behind." In the case of this Vivino vigor, "the dreams that you dare to dream" is kind of daring all right, attempting a reinvention of one of the most-sung standards of them all, but it's at odds with emotional territory. The ode to the "place where dreams are born and time is never planned," the idyllic "Never Never Land" is certainly inviting, though less about exciting adventures and more about restful scenes best viewed from a hammock.

There's no evidence of the Broadway belt Donna unleashed in her stint as Elphaba in Wicked or in other encounters. Beautiful Dreamer is about warm and fuzzy, and concludes with the Stephen Foster title song, whose elegant simplicity finds a lovely embrace of its sensibilities. While the other 12 tracks are arranged by the disc's keyboardist Mitchel Forman (and some feature his mid-song jazzy piano excursions that can contrast with what the vocal sections establish), Jerry Vivino arranged this final selection which his mother used to sing to his daughter, Donna. Jerry, a prolific musician whose work includes being in the pit in numerous Broadway shows, the house band of Conan O'Brien's TV show and on many recordings, produced the album and is heard prominently on flute as well as tenor sax and clarinet.

For times when you want more drifting into dreamland that something dripping with drama, Donna's CD may be just the right prescription.

- Rob Lester

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