Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical and
Courtney Freed: Big Crazy Love
Reviews by Rob Lester

Broadway Records/ Theatre Barn Records
Digital (CD to be issued in January)

Honoring the 1960s principled activists who sought to have America's racial anti-discrimination laws not just enacted but enforced, Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical is an earnest sonic montage that earns its emotional and dramatic rewards. The calendar turning to the month of May reminded me of two appropriately timely reasons to have us dig into this score now. It's the anniversary of an historic action test that the show centers on–61 years since '61–as well as the 84th birthday of one of its surviving leaders, Diane Nash, a major singing character in the piece. She and the late John Lewis, who went on to be a much-honored U.S. congressman, are central to this still-resonating and relevant true story, dynamically played by the riveting performers Brynn Williams and Anthony Chatmon II, standouts in the strong 17-member cast assembled for this world premiere recording. (Some of them have been in live presentations of the project written by Richard Allen and Taran Gray, still awaiting announcement of a booking for a new full-production run.)

Through this stirring recording produced by its authors, with Gray on piano leading a seven-piece band playing his own impactful arrangements and orchestrations, we are invited to feel as if we've come along for some special historic rides and rallying cries. Black and white, young and older, volunteers were willing to stand up together for equal rights and to also sit down together–intermingled as passengers on what became a series of the interstate bus journeys referenced in the show's title–headed to bus stations in the South. There, they were resolved to have access for all at the same lunch counters and in the same waiting rooms and bathrooms. Determined to be peaceful protesters, they engendered supportive backing and violent pushback from racists, including the Ku Klux Klan. Attacks and setbacks don't raise their ugly heads in what is sung or much sung about directly in so many words. And, although John F. and Robert F. Kennedy as well as Martin Luther King. Jr., figure in the plot as described in the synopsis, in this recording we don't hear the voices of JFK, RFK, MLK, or the KKK.

If we were to consider numbers individually, many are highly effective, mixing power and poignancy, but too soon they feel like so many similar shades of too few basic colors. They are nonetheless beautiful colors, with arresting solo voices and gorgeous harmonies, though some could be alternate candidates for the same song function. Banishing despair, defeatism and depression, modeled on old spirituals and gospel, several selections evoke the assured, emboldening attitude of the iconic watchcry "We Shall Overcome." And that's meant as praise for authentic-sounding pastiche in the targeted tradition. "Upside" includes an example of a nod to a classic ("Oh Freedom").

While I confess to being less tolerant than many musical theatre and pop fans when it comes to songs that depend on oh-so-many repeated phrases that make something wear out its welcome for me, I acknowledge that it's appropriate here. A sung mantra and motivator, aiming at convincing others and building support is the M.O. that is arguably de rigeur. And it is emblematic of the genres mentioned. In the lyrics, though, there isn't much doubt or debate revealed among the stoic, committed citizens, so whoever nobly leads a song can still seem to be preaching to the choir, to use a genre-appropriate phrase.

Rewarding compensations for (and distraction from) the dreaded redundancy factor come via the variety of vocal pleasures as things build and harmonies blossom. Integrity and passion, both in abundance here, can help maintain interest.

Freedom Riders' songs and spirit dwell decidedly on positivity and hope, steadfastly looking toward building and boosting confidence that there will be triumphs over challenges. Numbers like the opener, "Ride to Glory," and the reprised "We'll Get There," which gets effectively galvanizing grit from Payson Lewis as John Seigenthaler of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's staff, stress the nobility and gravity of the mission–doubts and doubters begone!

Notably, although the material is generated by the times, troubles and prayers of people from one chapter of history, many lyrics are so general that they could easily apply to other struggles–political or personal. They champion and encourage faith and community. I think these can be a balm, incentive, and real inspiration for a range of life's darker hours when one needs to keep calm and carry on.

CD and digital

Things don't get especially big or crazy in the mostly breezy Big Crazy Love, although I find quite a bit to love among the 11 tracks featuring singer Courtney Freed. Six of them are her engaging and unpretentious originals and the others are familiar oldies, dipping into various styles and time periods. She projects an amiable stance, with a relaxed comfort level that makes one want to just sit back and smile or sway along. The voice is clear and unaffected, with phrasing that feels natural. Musicians and vocalist settle into the shared vibe from the start, with instrumental intros that are especially inviting–skillful and thoughtful on their own, rather than merely perfunctory lead-ins. Guitarist Hamody Hindi's contributions are particularly evocative and pianist David Saffert has sparkle. Listen, too, for the welcome sounds of cello, viola, and flute in the band.

This is Courtney Freed's second collection; the first, a set of standards with Harold Arlen's melodies having appeared a dozen years ago. Based in Oregon, she's done some musical theatre roles there, with leads in Chess and Falsettos, sung with bands, and produced music events. Another exhibit of her wide musical tastes is her own tribute show to Freddie Mercury. She sails with aplomb through an included item from that Queen frontman's repertoire here. It is "My Melancholy Blues." (Quibble Department: The number is mistitled on the packaging without the word "My" and another error lists the Dinah Washington hit "What a Difference a Day Made" with its final word's verb tense switched to "Makes," although neither makes for a big "difference" to suggest a lack of care in what she sings or the diction.)

The bossa nova "No More Blues" with its English lyric appropriately floats along on a cloud of serenity, while the pep of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" (a bouncy hit from Wham!) zips by with maybe too much zip to let us find a groove. The most serious ambiance is reserved for letting the listener drink in the moody "Lilac Wine," reflective and resonant, although it doesn't approach the sense of darker melancholy others have dug into with this potential heartbreaker. Courtney Freed sometimes seems to want to veer to the sunnier side of mindsets and memories. However, she can certainly more than hint at having known trouble in paradise, even while sounding like she's coasting on a spinning melody and smiling through a mixed bag of recollections in her own "When We Were Lovers" ("the sky was blue and so were you"). Another original, the nimble "Ancient History," looks back to wonder if a relationship is past its shelf life, asking "Have we become the thing we always said we'd never be? Are we out of time?" (Pointedly, upon a repeat of this line... the track ends abruptly.)

An easy-on-the-ears voice, an eclectic songbag and some smart self-penned work, one wonders with hopeful anticipation what else this lady might have up her musical sleeve.