South ... , West ... , and East - May 29, 2008

Music from all directions: South (Pacific), East to China (for Adrift in Macao) and a karaoke West (Side Story). Along the way, the solo CD by a star of South Pacific , and two ladies named Jo in these musical travels all over the map.


Masterworks Broadway

The grand and classic Rodgers & Hammerstein/ Joshua Logan musical South Pacific retains its magic in revival and in its new cast recording. How come? To quote its big song, "Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons; wise men never try." Fool that I am, I'll try.

The story and songs make us face some tough things we don't like to face - our own prejudices, the ugliness of war, our own mortality, fear of being alone - but is ultimately cathartic and hopeful. And it does so with dignity and humor, letting each of us embrace our own inner "Cock-Eyed Optimist" and romantic. A fair amount of that comes through in listening to this satisfying but not startlingly revelatory new album. In its newest, respectful incarnation, the much-recorded score brims with vigor and humanity in state-of-the-art bright, full sound with the original and truly memorable Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations revealing sharp detail. Those pulsating and sweeping instrumental figures that accompany and enrich "Bali Ha'i" hauntingly, or bring underpinnings of yearning to the love songs, are very present. Special appreciation goes to Ted Sperling who conducts the orchestra, increased by nine players for the recording.

Devotees of the 1949 original cast album and other pre-CD era recordings will appreciate the familiar as well as the bits of extended instrumental work a CD's length allows. Included is some natural-sounding dialogue with underscoring, especially effective in conveying the relationship of the main couple, showing how opposites attract - and attract problems. The tense dialogue in the Finale to act one enriches the undertaking, and the "Entr'Acte" music is dramatically satisfying. (Of course, that majestic overture ain't slim pickins either.) Reprises, rather than being milked "here we go again" moments are often key high points, some showing different states of mind than when the number was sung first. (The standard 26-track album was supplied for review; a few additional tracks appear on a version sold exclusively at Barnes & Noble.)

The cast provides us with a very human-scale, sympathetic group of people in this South Pacific - warts and all. Romanticism remains, but it's true, not goo. Kelli O'Hara is instantly likeable and endearing as everybody's favorite military nurse, solid but neither showy nor uber-ingenue-anced in the role. Her phrasing has freshness in subtle ways: I particularly like her reading of lines in her sunny numbers and reflective moments. As that "cultured Frenchman" who takes a turn for the Nurse, Paolo Szot sounds three dimensional —vibrant and even vulnerable, not a regal operatic singer with rolling Rs and a booming but distancing voice. In the non-truncated "This Nearly Was Mine," he seems to choke back sobs of regret for what seems lost on the lines, "Now, now I'm alone" and "we can never know." Matthew Morrison as Cable brings a real sense of urgency and, in "Younger Than Springtime," real awe for both his feelings and the girl who inspires them. The inclusion of the originally cut homesick "My Girl Back Home" for his character, with an assist from Nellie, is welcome.

I'd prefer interpretations that were somewhat rowdier or idiosyncratic for the comic characters and the male bonding and female bonding stuff, but the recording has good spirits and good humor on the numbers where that's needed.

As a loyal and unwavering fan of this score since I was introduced to it in childhood, I'm not among those who feel they are suddenly (re)discovering its glories and depth. So, I'm not bowled over by its power in 2008. I know and appreciate many of the recorded versions, some more complete in length or impact than others. Certainly this new one is quite worthy and rewarding; it does not use heavy-handed ways to try to charm, and is not emotionally manipulative in its presentation. It trusts the material, and it works very nicely indeed.


DRG Records

Back in the days when pop singers and record labels got in line to record the big new songs from the big new musicals, songs were pop-ularized in that way. The number that could work out of context, sometimes tailored to the style of the vocalist or somewhat homogenized, became a record that became the way a song was first or best known to the public. It may have helped create interest in the show; at other times the show was already known and the public wanted to hear their favorite singer or "song stylist" take a shot on the score. Often, it meant very "commercial" renderings, sentimentalizing the melody to make it catchy as could be, with arrangements that simplified things or drummed them in. Theatre purists who know and revere a song's show dramatic power in context can be frustrated by the generic-ization that may result - or they may feel the singer (who may have been a busy artist rushed into a studio without knowing the show) sounds clueless. If you're a fan of the vocalist's special style - and especially if the match of singer and song is a good one - these recordings can be prizes. Not encumbered by a character, a singer just singing might bring wonderful purely musical qualities to a number. So, I try to come to these recordings with an open mind and a realistic sense of proportion.

Originally issued separately as records on the Capitol label, these are mostly breezy and cheery renditions of numbers from the then-current South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate, sung by stylish and accomplished big name recording artists of the era. And they're a pleasure to hear.

Peggy Lee, wistful and evoking a mystical sense with "Bali Ha'i" and jazzing up "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" with some lyric differences, certainly made them her own. These tracks are little treasures. She had the advantage of working with her hip husband and then regular musical director Dave Barbour, who also provided the backing for some harmless fun for a male chorus doing "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame." Frank DeVol was the other musical director, with a chorus blandly and blithely skimming the surface of "Happy Talk" and "Honey Bun," but more satisfying for the two remaining Nellie numbers for the great Margaret Whiting: her recordings of "Cock-Eyed Optimist" and "A Wonderful Guy" still sound zingy and invigorating.

The singer most associated with musical theatre, with numerous studio cast albums of operettas (and shortly after this to star in the films of Rodgers & Hammerstein's two prior blockbusters) - golden-voiced Gordon MacRae - handles two of the male leads' numbers. His "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Younger Than Springtime" are in a much more low-key/smooth vein. His approach is not very dramatic compared to what he did so well in various musical films, and certainly they don't feel South Pacific-specific. He's more impressive, forceful and connected in his recordings of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate songs where he handles four numbers, sharing the bill with Jo Stafford, a frequent recording partner, along with her husband, the musical director Paul Weston. There's a chorus here, too - peppier than many, with soloists who have some personality. (Their "Too Darn Hot" is cute.) The only duet for the stars is "Wunderbar." They take on the songs of both couples in the show, zipping through them with professional aplomb and snazzy pop arrangements. The comedy comes through in Jo Stafford's numbers, suggesting a comfort level with the clever and cheeky Porter lyrics, notably on "I Hate Men" where the usually reserved singer cuts loose.

It's swell to have these on a CD and the sound is warm and not at all brittle or feeling overly tinkered with. Thanks to DRG for digging these up again. It's the other kind of Broadway revival.


Ghostlight/ Sh-K-Boom Records

Compared to her theatre work from such shows as the current Tony-nominated South Pacific, it's a rather different Kelli O'Hara we are hearing on her first solo album. On cast albums, we get her as a character singing in that theatrical way that comes from created/directed heightened reality. Here, emotion seems not heightened but lightened, even drained. The proceedings begin with a song written by her husband, Greg Naughton: "The Sun Went Out," giving us the idea right away that we're in for more relaxed ruminations than drama.

The very pretty voice retains its attractive and honeyed quality, seeming gentle and ultra-mellow for the most part. There's not a sense of discomfort with the varied material and styles, but the very laidback approach makes whatever investment in the lyrics there is come across as tentative or too held back (vocally and emotionally). After this initial surprise and not being "grabbed" on a first listen, I thought it might be the kind of CD best appreciated late at night or early in the morning when subtle, delicate and relaxed sounds might be welcome. It's a little more inviting then, but still strikes me as pallid ballad territory rather than cozy.

The songs as sung, arranged and played tend not to build very much and kind of stay in the same plane. Some work to an extent because they thrive quietly in an atmosphere for awed contentment and noted absence of conflict, such as the old Don McLean song, "And I Love You So." Kelli as singer serves Kelli as songwriter well on her sincere "I Love You the World." Likewise effective, the title song is one of three originals by the man who arranged and orchestrated the album and sings with her on this one track: Harry Connick, Jr. He, her Pajama Game co-star, sounds whisper-winsome, too. He's also on piano on the album, but has shared the bottle of chill pills (or provided them) to the extent that his usually very present and vibrant piano playing is restrained and underwhelmingly understated. I struggle to hear his piano even on the small-group sessions (there's a large string section used on eight of the 14 tracks, conducted by Rob Berman, conductor of The Pajama Game). Does modesty or underplaying cause the piano to seem buried in the mix? That's another disappointment for someone like me who is generally a fan of these two artists. (The gentle and intimate piano-and-voice-only track for the Frank Sinatra hit "All the Way" is some compensation, but it, too, goes for minimalism.)

Show tunes include "Fable," from Kelli's recent theatre resume highlight, The Light in the Piazza by Adam Guettel. It's interesting to hear Kelli's less fervent, out-of-context girlish version of this piece (not sung by her character in the show). The King and I's "I Have Dreamed" opts for serenity and calm rather than the expected yearning, but again, pretty is pretty nice; it just would be nice to have something more. Sometimes less is not more. At the end of the day, there's no question that it's a lovely, unpretentious voice.


LML Music

Going East from South Pacific to China, the intentionally wacky Adrift in Macao is many miles, more than half a century, and two generations from the music of the weightier classic (the composer is Peter Melnick, a grandson of Richard Rodgers). The album of this musical, which played in Philadelphia in 2005, last year in New York and this year in Boston, has been released featuring the off-Broadway cast.

Some of the rollicking and sprightly music here is quite attractive in its daffy and sometimes modest way. Trying his hand at lyrics, the accomplished playwright Christopher Durang doesn't often enough come up with the effortless or more zingy words they seem to cry out for - either that or the lyrics show some promising ideas that can run out of steam and variety. The result is a mixed bag with some labored attempts at madcap humor that is not the froth needed in a trap of a parody of genres - tales of intrigue, B-movies with a noir/ femme fatale edge, kitschy ethnic stereotypes. Give in to or being predisposed to silliness and wanting nothing else, it can be somewhat of a hoot at times. The packaging includes some photos of them in scenes from the show, all the Durang lyrics and his brief introductory notes some, plus a synopsis of the convoluted plot.

There's some pleasure in the pastiche, and the cast certainly fearlessly dives into their roles with broad characterizations in this story that uses the little Chinese region as its provocative "foreign intrigue" setting, inspiring such included bits as someone loudly hailing a rickshaw and getting instead the attention of a passing man who happens to be named Rick Shaw. Alan Campbell is a suitably aloof goof as the blasé but befuddled mystery man looking for a mystery man. As in some old musical movies set in night clubs or theatres, some of the songs are supposed to be songs or dance numbers rather than extensions of dialogue. A character is a singer and the singer sings the song. Period. Michele Ragusa and Rachel De Benedet as sort of dueling divas - cool and sultry/ feisty and fiery - are on a stage in one scene that includes the latter forced to desperately improvise a song's lyrics with whatever words come to mind and hopefully rhyme.

Presumably funnier in performance with built-up frustration and a sense of surprise, cast member Will Swenson breaks the fourth wall to assertively sing a song directly to the audience to complain that he wasn't given a solo. You may find yourself pulled into the silliness as it goes along as it does kind of build, with the last two numbers, as I hear them, being the most successful and really clicking: entertainingly sneering Orville Mendoza's final hammy tour de force shtick "I'm Actually Irish" and the relentlessly, maniacally perky number for the full company, the tricky "Ticky Ticky Tock."

Besides the performers mentioned, the cast includes two heard just in group numbers, called The Trenchcoat Chorus. They are Elisa Van Duyne and Jonathan Rayson (the latter an exceptional singer not given an opportunity to step out solo here, alas.)

The five-piece stage band led by keyboard player Fred Lassen was increased to seven for the recording, adding the great jazz trumpet player Bud Burridge and the guitar player whose contributions I've often admired, Kevin Kuhn. The creative orchestrations are by Broadway's accomplished and talented Michael Starobin, with additional contributions by the composer. The goings-on feel like a meal made up of mostly froth and meringue, heavily whipped - into a frenzy.


Stage Stars Records

Whether you are preparing for an audition or production of West Side Story show in the north, south, west or east, once again the do-it-yourself, teach-it-to-yourself Stage Stars label comes through. The album has been released in advance of the upcoming Broadway revival. Providing karaoke-ready, rehearsal-friendly accompaniment tracks to learn and practice with, there are instrumentals that are easy to follow for most of this not-so-easy to sing but easy to love score. In the past, I've regretted that some of the company's accompaniment tracks were tinny sounding in their synthesizer arrangements. On this recording, they are noticeably more acoustic and "real instrument" sounding - crisp and clear and not just functional but nice to really listen to on their own, for the most part. David Negron did the music preparation and programming.

One disc is all the instrumentals and the other is the same tracks with full, in-character vocals added as a guide. All the tracks on the original Broadway cast record appear here, including the instrumentals ("Prologue," "Dance at the Gym," "The Rumble" and the instrumental section of the ballet "Somewhere"). Lyrics are not included due to rights not being granted, but they are readily available online. As usual with this company, things are quite theatrical but with an emphasis on musical figures and melody line in the accompaniment to keep student singers on track with the tracks. Songs are in the established show keys and tempi.

The singers give full-out performances while being careful not to create any confusion by back-phrasing or speaking a phrase that needs to be sung. Diction is also attentive. Adding to the real feel, there are the dialogue bits and taunts by the gang members and Maria's teasing friends in "I Feel Pretty" with real characterization and detail; nothing is "tossed off." The singers playing the Puerto Ricans, Maria (Emily Grundstad), Anita (Dara Seitzman) and Bernardo (Ryan Andes), go overboard sometimes with the accents so self-consciously thick or inconsistent, but there's some strong singing from all. Dara is too "screamy" and frantic on "A Boy Like That" but an absolute comic pro and delight in "America" — really nailing it. Emily has some lovely moments as Maria with her Tony, the label regular Rob Langeder. What a refreshing change to hear a Tony who sounds truly youthful on disc and believably head over heels in love, awestruck and dumbstruck by the sound of his beloved's name with all the callow, sincere wide-eyed devotion called for. As Riff, the leader of the Jets, there is a very tough and sharp performance by Booth Daniels. An active New York cabaret performer with a flair for comedy in music (at the Duplex June 12), he registers strongly here. The others cast as Jets (including reliable label regulars Jason Wynn and Kristopher Monroe, who are spot on) are hilarious in the comic relief number. Gee, Officer Karaoke: thank you!

And while we're on the West side ...



With a sound that smolders and suggests a shaking of the shoulders, and shaking up things in general, Jo West is the pick of the litter if sex kittens are still born to purr their way through songs. A newcomer to recording, with her five-song debut EP, the California native who now lives in New York City is ready to strike vocal poses, be sultry and breathy, pout and wail. Evoking sirens and temptresses of the mid-20th century in pop culture, she seems partly serious and partly playful. Certainly she's game for glam and not taking herself too seriously, but focused on the fun of the femme fatale (the coyly confident "Put the Blame on Mame" and "Peel Me a Grape") and retro romp. You can easily imagine her lying across a piano top and slithering down in a slinky dress but all the while it's with a very big wink.

There's something very homemade and daringly go-for-it gutsy about this recording. The sound isn't crystal clear and the instrumental mix leaves something to be desired. Four of the five songs have a quartet backing (piano, bass, sax, drums) and the last track, a change-of-pace fairly serious take on "Nature Boy," is with just piano. (It proves she's more than just a one-trick pony express to Showoffsville; though she's a singer still having likeable rough edges and needing to find her own sound - influences abound - one is left wanting to follow up and see what Chapter Two might bring.)

The feel is fresh —in both senses of the word. Like a little girl playing vocal dress-up, she seems to be gamely trying things on that might not quite fit (yet), but that's part of the attraction. She gleefully dives into the carefree free-for-all of "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine" - and does shine. A welcome surprise!

Next week's column will take us in other directions, to such exotic locations as the Bronx for A Catered Affair and more.

- Rob Lester

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