Sound Advice Reviews
The Hello Girls, Struck, and Stacy
Who was it who said, "No one said life would be easy"? The folks in our focus this time would echo that sentimentand in their own ways fight the good fight. First, meet determined, dedicated females, The Hello Girls, who face gender-centric battles for acceptance during wartime. Other kinds of battle scars and fatigues come to the post-prime rock star in Struck. Lastly, singer Stacy Sullivan's themed collection called Tornado Alley is about surviving the various kinds of storms life can bring
THE HELLO GIRLS
It can be argued that a war has no true winners, but it does have its heroes, sung and unsung, and the cast recording of The Hello Girls presents a real winner of a score well served by a cast singing of heroism. It has all the more impact being based on actual facts, via the eye-opening research of its authors, following a documentary film and book of the same title. The name comes from the nickname for trained telephone operators who were the exception-to-the-rule females serving in the American army in France during World War I, yoked to headsets, bilingual facilitators who efficiently made crucial communications possible. Implying parallels to our own current political turmoil and tensions, the company opens the proceedings by directly addressing the audience to "imagine a time" when opposing factions were "stuck in a stalemate." While history has a nasty and tragic habit of repeating itself, here it comes alive again in the new ways that can be seen and felt with the perspective of the passing of a full 100 years.
America's foolishly slow-motion granting of equal rights to women comes to light in an "actions speak louder than words" success, in portraying the female characters as stepping up to the plate instead of stepping subserviently asidethey're generally in control, savvy, brave, practical, ready, willing and ablenot just grousing or declaiming. They dive into their assignment with dedication and discipline, even when learning and repeating a list of secret code words that would stymie a spy hacking into a call (the musicalization of this recalls a similar on-the-phone setup of code words presented in the daffier 1950s show also about a telephone operator, Bells Are Ringing). The cast of five women and five men solidly puts the main spotlight on the distaff side, without making the males (various army men of varied rank) merely resistant, blindly bigoted buffoons. The vision skews toward fervent patriotism and military work ethic without whitewashing the horror and danger of war.
I find the generous amount of time given over to vocals by Ellie Fishman as Grace and Arlo Hill as a lieutenant named Riser to be consistently satisfying. She is dynamic as a respected, thoughtful force to be reckoned with; many strong moments marvelously land in the "sweet spot" in her voice, preventing them from what could have become strident overkill. He has three solos that show reactions to very different situations, effectively giving dimension. These two actors are the only ones who do not also serve as instrumentalists, but no disclaimer apologies are needed for the cast members drafted for doing double duty this way; they shine! (Ben Moss as one of the men does some of the piano work and is billed as music director, sharing credits for the especially fine orchestrations with composer-lyricist Peter Mills. Elena Bonomo, not in the cast, is the percussionist, and credited for additional arrangements for drums.)
While certain numbers, like the opener, are orchestrated to sound stirringly martial, Mills, partial throughout this musical play to wordplay, leavens the seriously taken situations of the doughboys (and "girls") with wit. For example, he has the repeated words of the title, "Answer the Call," mean responding to a nation's military plea, while also employing that same common phrase that means picking up a ringing telephone. And the very next song follows suit as its main word/title is all about being "Connected." The wordsmith has a field day when one of the women is giving a wounded soldier "Switchboard Lessons," grabbing the double meanings ripe for the picking: jack, board/bored, free, connected (again), ring, and smooth operator. Throughout, there are ear-delighting rhymes (one's New Jersey hometown of Passaic matched with "formulaic," "conundrum" with "one drum," and the plot's appropriate dipping into French for "Je M'en Fiche" (which means "I do not care", has "fiche" inspiring the desires for a vacation day's fun including being "off the leash," "dare to eat a quiche," "find another niche," and the Italian word "capisce?"! But even more impressive for those diligent enough to find their not-hammered-home appearances are internal rhymes like "well-bred, corn-fed" and those that zero in to use a canny lyricist's tool kit's tweezers to pluck a syllable from one word to shine with the entirety of another word ("proper operator," "surprising rise to fame," "When you ring, we'll be bi-lingual").
Craftsmanship is not merely cleverness forsaking characterization or points to be crisply made. Judiciously used alliteration moves lines along with rhythmic deftness, like the well-drilled marching soldiers presumed to be elsewhere: (In "Answer the Call," it's "Through the travels and and troubles and trials..."; in "We Aren't in the Army," there's "Digging deep to determine...") Our attention is artfully guided to words that stand out because of the surprising or stressed notes on which they sit. When desires or tensions rise, so does a melody line, and when characters or audience should be overwhelmed, things fly by with a dizzying fleetness, while indecision is marked by halting bits that later rewardingly lead to release.
Those who saw the limited Manhattan run at the end of 2018, with this cast, heard the play's dialogue (some included here) more interwoven with the singing. As has often been their approach, Mills and Cara Reichel collaborate on the spoken text and she directs. (Longtime collaborators, also a married couple, they're currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Prospect Theatre Company they co-founded).
The bittersweet denouement about the decades-delayed acknowledgment of the phone operators as army veterans worthy of benefits and recognition adds a poignant postscript to a piece that already rings, and elicits, strong feelings, the passing years not withstanding. It's an outstanding accomplishment.
There's a cast of five. Ten of the dozen songs are lead solo vocals, half of those by Cumming, whose low-flame, whisky-voiced performance suggests a burdened and burned-out observer of life. In its most engaging moments, the persona aspires to evoke perhaps a Leonard Cohen kind of vocal minimalism that is offset by gravitas. Effectively terse text written in the first-person voice of Flowers is included in the booklet, and those words clue us into him and the other characters in ways clearer than what we glean from the material they sing (which lacks much specificity). Compounded by being almost all solos (two items are duets), we don't get the sense of interaction or reaction within most numbers. It's more about taking turns.
Composer-lyricist-producer-engineer-contributing multi-instrumentalist Rich Morel drapes the sounds and proceedings with elements of the contemporary musical worlds of dance and house and rock he has inhabited, coming from years as performer, DJ master of remixes, producer, etc., working with a myriad of acts such as Cyndi Lauper, Yoko Ono, Ute Lemper, Tina Turner, and the Pet Shop Boys. The songwriter's own background vocals are quite beneficial in adding flavor and depth when lead vocals feel wan or one-color. The band is small but provides a dense forest of music with the use of synthesizers and a few players on duty on a few different instruments. (Brendan Canty is credited as co-composer on "Low Lying Trees" and "Sound of Thunder," playing in the band on this one track.)
Struck strikes me as the kind of score that works better if you let it wash over you in a kind of casual way instead of hanging on attentively to each line and each word. The generalized moods and attitudes are more impactful than the detail. Morel's lyrics suffer from some reliance on near rhymes (died/ cry ... dark/ apart ... lost/ bos ... around/ down ... home/ alone). In some cases, he mostly takes a vacation from rhyming, and while most rhymes are real, he's overwhelmingly employing very common one-syllable words (be/ tree/ sea/ me ... night/ fight/ right). The laziness with words extends (unintentionally) to typos in the booklet.
Jesse Clasen, ingratiating as the loyal longtime fan and chum, may have a number called "Let the Light Shine In," but don't expect things to get too bright here. There is a certain integrity in the doleful ruminations that are all of a piece and soaked in the chosen musical vocabulary. It's best appreciated by those who'd regularly dip into its ambient sounds far afield from old-school musical theatre. Although tempi and rhythm get busier on some tracks, we seem anchored in gloom, impending or lingeringly lugubrious. The window offered on the world is one of looking through a glass darkly. Whether throbbing or snail-paced, there is a numbing effect that is exacerbated by plain lyrics that favor repetition over revelations.Adding to the droning are the electronic layers and cloning of Instrumental figures that swarm through the songs, catchy at first, then latch on, lichen-like, to the rock played here.
Some may resist the musical pouring of dark-hued atmosphere as dauntingly dreary. However, I'd bet that others will find Struck to be hypnotic and haunting, an antidote to what they see as the more simplistic and forced cheer that fluffier musicals can bubble over with. To each his own.
Even if the footage of devastating weather events in parts of the U.S. hadn't coincidentally been competing for my attention and sympathies in this same month that I've been listening a lot to Stacy Sullivan's riveting recent release of Tornado Alley, her performance would still knock me off my feet. More and more in the last several years, this is a singer whose work digs deeply into drama and pulls me in immediately. I remain surprised and impressed that the effect happens all over again with each hearing, even though I know and remember what to expect. There is palpable honesty at play even when she is playing a role in a song that is more of a vignette.
Perhaps it's a coincidence, but someone repeatedly being affectionately addressed as "darlin'" makes for nice bookending in the very different first and last tracks. The opener, "Who Do You Belong To?," is a detail-drenched memory piece set in a diner where the waitress uses the "darlin'" appellation with a young customer; we conclude the rich 14-track collection with the promise of post-winter good news with the familiar, soothing George Harrison herald, "Here Comes the Sun" ("Little darlin', it's been a long, cold, lonely winter ..."). This piece is set up with the borrowed (but uncredited) introductory verse of "Over the Rainbow." This final thought leaves us on a positive note after more demanding, dare I say draining, listeningand is also the payoff for an earlier insistent adviso, "You Must Believe in Spring." (It also, I suppose, justifies including this as one of a couple of numbers the singer is revisiting from prior recordings.)
A little back-story about the title Tornado Alley: The Sullivan family, which boasts several gifted singers, hails from an open part of Oklahoma known by that term because of its volatile weather events which set off alarms, literally and otherwise. "Where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain" can be far more drastic, of course, than its purely invigorating impression suggested in the classic musical that takes its title from the state's name. Yes, some repertoire choices directly reference the "theme," but even what might on the surface seem like obligatory, obvious candidates are observed in inventive ways ("Stormy Weather," "Wild Is the Wind," and a medley that incorporates "I Think It's Going to Rain Today"). Some weather references lean toward metaphors ("Landslide").
Uncluttered accompaniment and arrangements enhance the emotional direct current of the singer whose calibrated and theatrical use of her voice allows her to approach a wide range in the spectrum between fragile and heroic. Because the instrumental group is small (four players: a pianist who is not the fall-back main accompanist and the others all string players), the music is allowed to breathe, and listeners may be holding their breath. Troy Fannin, front-and-center guitarist/arranger/producer is as simpatico a partner as can be imagined. There's a richness and elegance to all the playing here: Gökçe Erem on violin, Bobbie Crow III on cello, Jamie Mohamdein on bass, and Matthew Watanabe on piano.
The Sullivan sensibility obviously finds itself in synch with lyricist David Hajdu's palette of evocative and literate choices, as she's included four of these that are stuffed with rewardingly specific images (three are in collaboration with composer Renee Rosnes, including the aforementioned "Who Do You Belong To?"). This project is one of those too-rare fully satisfying events and feels like attending a festival of compact, finely etched one-act playssome stand out for their firm presentation of worthy personal philosophies (Hajdu/ Fred Hersch, taking its cue from the title of pianist Hersch's memoir), while others make one feel like a voyeur stumbling upon intimate diary entries.
Underlying and underlining everything in Tornado Alley is a masterful reminder and rumination on how lives can be altered by relationships, time, and events. Call it emotional climate changeit's inescapable, as is being moved by the performances of Stacy Sullivan and these fine musicians.