We say hi to High Fidelity and some high energy from three female singers, two in live recordings. There's the debut CD of Terese Genecco, her tribute to Frances Faye; a reissue of Martha Raye material; and Amanda Abel's nod to neurosis, A Night of Neurotica.
We'll leave it up to the chat board posters and theater historians to fight about why High Fidelity didn't become a hit this past year. Meanwhile, we have the original cast album or as the cover proclaims, "the record" - to emulate the love of vinyl its male-bonded trio of protagonists have. Since these guys with limited social skills live and breathe pop-rock music, it's not surprising that the energy poured into the paeans to pop make for the most successful and entertaining moments. Although some of their inarticulate struggles to express emotion makes them likeable losers, thanks to the talent of the three co-stars, they never match the terrific excitement on display in the opening number praising "The Last Great Record Store on Earth." That sharp track builds terrifically with the trio in their element and their characters strongly established: Will Chase as proud but casual store owner Rob and his two helpers, Jay Klaitz as the surly and opinion-heavy guy and Christian Anderson as the dorky shy one.
Their other big number as they buck the odds of meeting their goals, "Nine Percent Chance," is well done and makes you root for them. Their self-deprecation works as a charming play for sympathy played as pure blind enthusiasm. Christian is especially delightful with the high, squeaky geeky voice he affects, making his character hilariously endearing. The enthusiastic "It's No Problem" is a treat, and welcomed again when it is reprised in reaction to a second situation.
Though it's appropriate and thus not a big leap for such characters to sing in a pop style in these songs by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green, it makes the listening kind of a light experience. It might not be meaty enough for theater fans who like their material with more depth or razzle dazzle. The songs have a point to make, they make it quickly and then become anti-climactic, despite the best efforts of the cast who sound committed to their characters. Will Chase generally keeps interest as he modulates the rage Rob feels in reacting to his girlfriend leaving him, channeling or hiding his feelings and often letting them explode. As that girlfriend, Jenn Colella gets less time; she is effective in some brief appearances, but her main number, "Number Five with a Bullet," becomes abrasive in short order. It starts out harshly and becomes relentless with its repeated lines and uncalibrated ranting. (Granted, the scene is a dream so it's not supposed to be "believable," but again it's a number that doesn't hold up to repeated listenings as it's a one-note, one-joke thing.) Showing her character's opposite side with the wind taken out of her sails, she's plaintive on the bonus track "Too Tired," a song cut before the show opened.
A couple of numbers meant to be rock songs of questionable pedigree don't play as spot-on pastiche, although the moment Bruce Springsteen springs to mind and leaps into the fray pushes the right buttons as a revenge/empowerment fantasy (Jon Patrick Walker makes a feisty Bruce).
The driving band provides a suitable rock and roll ambience that feels right, and there's no sense of ambivalence or musical identity crisis with a "Broadway does rock" fakery. Some top players are on board, like the solid bass player Randy Landau, ace trumpeter Bud Burridge whom I've found more often in jazz settings, and cellist Peter Sachon who's at home in classical music or anywhere. Adam Ben-David is conductor and keyboard/harmonica player. The booklet has some photos, all the lyrics, a plot synopsis and 11 pull quotes of praise, selectively pulled.
The album is well produced by the reliable Kurt Deutsch and Joel Moss, who have become the dynamic duo of Ghostlight cast album assignments. If you take High Fidelity on its own terms, not expecting it to be Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein (it's not trying to be), there are some hip, funny and catchy pleasures to be found.
In the most dedicated and triumphant case of identity theft in a long time, Terese Genecco hits the bullseye in saluting the object of her affection, the brassy and irreverent saloon singer Frances Faye (1912-1991). The ebullient and emboldened Terese has a warmer and sunnier sound than her idol, and that just makes things all the more joyful. The Faye way fits her like a second skin as she comfortably takes on or refers to the late entertainer's sassy way with a song and a quip.
Arrangements and phrasing have been studiously recreated, but sound fresh and natural rather than warmed over or timidly, tepidly copied. Her blaring, sizzling band is rough and tough and up to snuff. She strikes up the band and they strike up a relationship that finds them feeding off each other's energy. This goes from from the sung greeting, "good eeee-vening, ladies and gentlemen, how do you do" and high-voltage, quick-tempo "The Man I Love" with its asides to a fabulous finish with the Faye finale, her trademark "Frances and Her Friends" and a goodbye to a sated, gratefully cheering audience.
The act was recorded live at New York's Metropolitan Room, the club that is celebrating its one-year anniversary this week. I was there during this engagement and frankly wondered if the electric chemistry between performer and audience (and performer and band) could be captured on CD. I need not have worried; the mutual admiration society is in full evidence, with just enough of the talk kept in to give the sense of the devilish good spirits.
Radiating good humor and reveling in the company of the band, the audience and the channeled spirit of Frances, Terese sings with abandon, wailing and belting. During the rare moments when she slows down, in "Drunk with Love" and "Purple Wine," she reveals a capacity for unguarded emotional emotional singing. Otherwise, don't go looking for drama or storytelling through lyrics: this is entertainment, pure and simple and smashing, with artistic license taken with lyrics a la Faye with an eye to be provocative. Mostly it's a pulse-racing romp through material like Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and "Unchain My Heart" that feels like an intravenous dose of caffeine and adrenalin with pounding percussion and blaring brass. There are some playful winks at material such as "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" and little throwaways like a couple of lines of "If I Were a Rich Man."
Listening to some old Frances Faye records in between exposures to Terese's Bistro Award-winning tribute made me appreciate again how refreshing this work is, and also how studiously the singer did her homework. The style and substance are recycled with relish, and the brazen, in-your-face but teasing attitude that sounds so off the cuff with Terese were all etched in vinyl. One need not be a student of the Faye heyday to appreciate the pure entertainment value of Terese Genecco and her very hot and swinging "little big band." She sometimes plays piano herself, and at other times leaves the keyboard in the very capable hands of Barry Lloyd who musical directs many acts in San Francisco, where both are based.
Terese is spending May 31-June 9 at The Plush Room in San Francisco, alternating between this show and her new one, a tribute to composer Arthur Schwartz which I also enjoyed when she premiered it in New York a few weeks ago. She is no one-trick pony, just a rollicking reincarnation of a rambunctious, rhythmic rebel.
Irrepressible clown Martha Raye (1916-1994) was a more versatile performer than some people know. Though it's her broad, eager-to-please comedy persona and lovably nutty way with a song that brought her more acclaim, she also could jazz up a tune and longed to be the belle of the ballad, too. As the liner notes point out, she was so determined to sing straight and work against type, she recorded several songs under a pseudonym (Margie Reed) in order to be taken seriously. These restrained, no-fooling-around tracks are included here. She is accompanied on those by Charlie Barnet and his orchestra, sounding smooth and professional, almost generically so. Martha takes on such heavy songs in that guise as "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" along with a couple that have a lighter feel. Point taken, she could sing a serious song and acquit herself well enough, but in a world of many women with pretty voices, still she shines more in the perkier, quirkier numbers where her sense of fun is unbridled.
The tracks cover the period from 1939 to 1954. Though some of her versions of standards are hardly definitive, they're all nice to hear and have collected. The sound quality on the musical accompaniment is not very crisp and alive, betraying the age of the recordings; Martha sounds clear and out front, but the varying orchestras sound distant or muddied at times. Of the bands whose credits are not lost to history, bandleaders include George Bassman and David Rose (who was one of her seven husbands). The tracks with Rose are some of the most appealing. They include one of her memorable numbers she also took on in the musical film Rhythm on the Range, "(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It," the plea to musical "longhair" Mr. Paginini to loosen up, and she demonstrated by her own tour de force as she and the band jazzed things up. (This was also an Ella Fitzgerald specialty.)
On some selections, the musical blueprint is to sing the song through once with pep but rather straightforwardly, and then shake things up, as if to say, "OK, that's how the song goes. Now, let's have some fun with it and play around and get things popping." Not for purists, to be sure, but these last sections show Martha's dynamic musically-in-charge mettle. She must have made waves with "Ol' Man River" being churned up so cavalierly in the second half.
A few novelty songs are curiosities here: ("Wolf Boy" anyone? It's an oddball invitation for some domestication, complete with a howl or two; on the other hand, an invitation to meet "Pig Foot Pete" is a recommended treat, and "Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!" is a playful but mild sign of the times, written by one of the bandleaders represented, Phil Moore.) Mirthful Martha seems game for anything, but also gets a crack at a few standards like two by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer: "Blues in the Night" and "That Old Black Magic."
If there are a few insipid ditties and routine arrangements that threaten to keep her from soaring, there is a generous number of tracks - twenty-four - and the glass is more than half full, so let's raise in a toast to a talented lady who made her mark and made some fine music.
UNDER THE RADAR
With an emphasis on the feisty and fun with cute, coy, capricious character songs, Amanda Abel offers sixteen selections. The plucky lady plucks some from the musical theater/musical film catalogue, from the days of old (Irving Berlin's "Let Yourself Go") to the fairly recent ("Everybody's Girl" from Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier). Like many before her who know how to "sell" a number and its comic moments, it's not about a pure, golden voice. On some numbers, she belts fearlessly and can be brash where it would have been beneficial to attend more to musical values. Here and there, the musical road has a bump and a note doesn't get the care it needs. This is a live recording, so there's that "working without a net" one-shot factor to consider.
Interestingly, in addition to cabaret work and other credits, Amanda has worked doing impressions of famous female singers and from the impressive sound and video clips on her website, it seems the discipline is good for for her. She's been in shows as Judy Garland, such as Judy's Scary Little Christmas. It's also noteworthy that the singer is the granddaughter of the legendary Eddie Cantor and the sister of songwriter-singer Brian Gari. She sings the title song from his musical A Hard Time to Be Single and struts her way through "Relax with Me, Baby" from his Late Nite Comic. Mother Janet Gari is a songwriter as well.
A specialty Sondheim combo arrangement of "Losing My Mind" and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" is stolen part and parcel from Dorothy Loudon's mix. Two songs about bad luck - or, rather, no luck - in finding Mr. Right let Amanda mine some comic frustration: "Where in the World Is My Prince?" from Jerry Herman's Miss Spectacular and "All the Good Men Are Gay" (Ron Abel/ Bruce Newberg). She's in fine form with these. She gets serious and does a touching job with "Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10," that tender song cut from Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields' score to Sweet Charity. She also takes on "I'm Way Ahead" by the same writers, from Seesaw, benefitting from a more serious and measured interpretation. She takes her leave of the stage with her exit cue cutie, "I'm Outta Here" by the husband and wife team of Ray Jessel and Cynthia Thompson.
And I'm "outta here" too.