Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Bridges of Madison County and
One Touch of Venus

A musical from long ago that never had a complete recording (till now) and a just-closed show from the current season look at love quite differently. Besides debuting pre-Broadway in Massachusetts (70 summers apart), what do they have in common besides brief love affairs and characters with big choices? Well, it's well worth considering that the composers of both did something not usually done: they wrote their own orchestrations. And those orchestrations, as lovingly preserved on these cast albums, add immensely to the full effect and true beauty. And, by the way, in the liner notes of both recordings the observers make comparisons to the innovations of Oklahoma!.


Ghostlight Records

Life and its choices and crossroads are not always black and white, the photographer character in Bridges of Madison County reminds us. These snapshots of feelings and memories make for—hallelujah!—a musical for grown-ups. Composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown has created a work full of beauty and emotions that burst free or burden their owners when kept stifled. There is palpable pain and anguish, yearning, pride, and joy. Brown's own orchestrations are a marvel—enriching observations, thick with foreboding and tautness, deepening emotion with subtext. Tenderness and tension cohabitate within lines of songs. The main characters are painted sympathetically, but never let off the hook for their all-too-human weaknesses or times of indecision and ineffectualness.

If it sounds complicated, it is. Sadness has rarely sung so beautifully, and retrospect rarely reigned so bittersweetly. There's an admirable dignity about the characters, and we root for them as they wrestle with choices, conscience, and themselves. While this may sound psychologically maze-like, I found the score to be instantly accessible, easy to be swept up in, and it only gets richer with repeat listenings. It's hardly a "fun" listen or a peppy score (except for a rousing county fair number with country fiddle). But, oh, the music soars and swells and sweeps us up. And, I think, it's ultimately life-affirming, as crystallized in the final number that states that love chosen, despite the pain, is "Always Better." And better, as they say, to have loved and lost than ... well, you know the rest.

The orchestrations are mature, as is the songwriting itself. Images are specific, longing comes forth in pulsating or abbreviated phrases, accompanied by strings that caress or agitate. And when emotions burst with excitement or bubble over with expectations and revelations, the long notes in voices and instruments are climactic and exciting. Unlike some contemporary shows, these explosions and decisive moments don't come as bellowing, belting, or shrill, musically modulating tour de force power punches. Some building-up feeling and realizations for Kelli O'Hara's Francesca is more near-operatic classical in style, closer to her work in The Light in the Piazza (although this time she is the one with the Italian accent—which is more endearingly warm than distancing after a bit of exposure). Much feels like it's from her character's point of view, especially since the men are less in touch with their feelings initially. For me, this is Kelli O'Hara's most overall involving and impressive vocal work on recording.

Steven Pasquale, again co-starring with O'Hara (as he did so recently in Far from Heaven) is gripping and heartbreaking in his own way. As artist Georges does in Sunday in the Park with George, his Robert—the "Temporarily Lost" photographer—brings us into the visual world of composition and preserving sights he beholds with special insight and captured emotion in the perfect picture. And, likewise, he struggles to express or contain his feelings and has paid a price for his dedication to his art. His singing and acting show many colors, gradually expanding and opening up. He's a fascinating mixture of vulnerability and stoicism. His growing self-awareness and self-examination are riveting, often feeling stripped bare—and some a capella stretches make it even more directly so. As the two sing "Falling Into You" in what hits us as an inevitable moment as the first act ends, we both cheer and fret.

Besides the two leads, there are other strong song turns. In "Another Life," Robert's ex-wife (a dazzling Whitney Bashor) sings of their failed marriage. Hunter Foster is particularly impressive in a song where, as Francesca's husband Bud, he takes time out for some musing and memories in "Something from a Dream." Others in the cast lend support as witnesses, friends and family. But it's the orchestra (conducted by Thomas Murray) that is the greatest ally, in their sensitive and evocative playing and orchestrations well realized, that are the richest, most satisfying support and underpinning.

Again we have Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom Records to thank for so vividly capturing the talents of Jason Robert Brown as they did with his solo album and cast albums of The Last 5 Years and 13, and I look forward to hearing the next projects from this talented man.

Those with open hearts and a desire to do more than tap their toes or cheer for showstoppers or snarkiness will find a musical worth prizing. But keep the Kleenex handy.


JAY Records

Good things come to those who wait, and sometimes things do finally come to pass just as hope is wearing thin. A complete recording of One Touch of Venus has been released, and that's 14 years after first announced and recording began. (Musical theatre trivia mavens can chime in to say that's the same length of waiting time of the engagement of characters Nathan and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls before they tied the knot!) The happy ending in this case is that we have a sumptuous two-disc set with a fine cast and a symphony orchestra, a few more players (in the string section) than the 25-piece orchestra that composer Kurt Weill had orchestrated his own music for. And how glorious the full sound is, with crisp detail, when accompanying singers or in the brief and lengthy instrumental tracks.

Melissa Errico, who played Venus in the 1996 Encores! concert version, is here again in that role, with her undiminished blend of elegance and earthiness. But none of her castmates from that very limited Manhattan engagement are on hand. We do have two of the theatre's most robust-voiced male veterans, Brent Barrett and Ron Raines, getting plenty to sing heartily. And a buoyant Victoria Clark is featured in one number in each act—she gets to lead the early arriving title song and the mockery of the "Very, Very, Very" rich not deserving of pity regarding their woes, plus one of the three cut songs. (More on those later.) In the comic relief department, Judy Kaye is heard rather briefly, but memorably, as a fusspot mother of a whining young lady whom Barrett's character is not so happily engaged to (Lauren Worsham). Michael "Tuba" McKinsey and Jacob Smith add some zest as a couple of lowbrow thugs, and Karen Ziemba is on board for a brief moment, but in a spoken role.

There's so much to enjoy beyond the best-known songs that have stood the test of time—"Speak Low" is a solid standard, still often sung and recorded, "Foolish Heart" is an underappreciated straightforward gem of rue, and "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" is alive and well, appearing next week as the title song/theme of the cabaret act for the winner of the Metropolitan Room's annual competition for a new cabaret star. Finally we get to fully partake of the quite varied Kurt Weill music, with his own splendid orchestrations, and the lyrics by humorist Ogden Nash that range from the sincere to the satirical to the silly. List songs with playful rhyming take swipes at such subjects as attitudes about love, modern art ("New Art Is True Art"), the alleged attractions of the much-maligned area outside fashionable Manhattan ("Way Out West in Jersey" which has fun rhyming New Jersey town names like Weehawken) and the self-explanatory male-bonding gripe, "The Trouble with Women."

And we get a taste of the plot not just from the helpful synopsis in the booklet, but numerous quick bits of included dialogue (book by Nash and S. J. Perelman). Some photos of Melissa Errico costumed as the alluring goddess of Love who comes to life adorn the booklet, but even with just her voice and characterization, we get a sense of the ethereal mystique mixed with directness, pooh-poohing the societal restrictions on acting on physical attraction. And her casual vanquishing of her rival (zapping her to the North Pole) and conveniently but suddenly appearing and disappearing seem spot on. While the potent Brent Barrett is hardly type casting to be what's supposed to be a milquetoast, self-conscious barber pursued by Venus, it's a great pleasure to hear him give such vigor to the songs. Deeper-voiced Ron Raines as the art collector head honcho is grandly satisfying, whether pontificating and letting off steam or turning serious to wistfully lament a lost love (doing full justice to "Westwind," which feels almost like an art song in its refinement and a subdued torch song in its wistfulness).

For those unfamiliar with the show, the outside packaging doesn't indicate who sings what, or that the different titles are not wholly unique melodies, but rather are instrumental variations of the main songs blended together. However, tracks including the words "Ballet" or "Dance" and the piece named "Artists' Ball" let us know they are instrumentals—and the timings are given. A quick look at the titles of the 38-track list might give the impression that there are even more individual melodies not previously preserved on the original cast album that first appeared as a set of five two-sided 78 rpm records that totaled seven songs featuring lyrics (the 78 rpm set consisted of five discs with a number on each side, including a reprise and instrumental sections).

After the spectacularly delicious musical banquet, we get three desserts—songs that were cut from the show along the way. They are in and of themselves a mini-representation of the eclectic nature of the score—or, to add a positive spin: the well-balanced changes of tone that provide a satisfying mix without being jarring. "Vive la Difference," a comparison of the behaviors of men and women, gives Melissa Errico gets only the cheery title line to spout each time Raines and Clark compare notes on gender-specific attitudes. It's a bouncy bit of fluff, but Nash still makes a splash with his sense of spiffy wordsmanship. "Who Am I?" is a Raines solo that's a burst of frustration and zig-zags from references to psychiatric terminology (blithely rhyming "genius" with "schizophrenius") to fits of frustration ("You can carve on my memorial/ That both her personalities react/ To both my personalities/ Like a Democrat brushing off a Republican editorial"). And "Love in a Mist," the one non-orchestrated track (because it was cut so early on), an Errico solo, is a simple yet pensive and poetic gem ("I was bewitched/ I took it all for granted/ Under the spell/ How could I tell the end?"). Free to phrase freely, with just piano accompaniment, she makes it an especially reflective and radiant performance, and now it's difficult to think of the score without this missing piece that gives a contemplative Venus more genuine feeling and depth than heard in the score proper.

One Touch of Venus reminds us of the golden touch of master craftsmen at work and it's a delight to see it handled with love and care—and skill. Yet, somehow, it remains a concoction that often feels as light as a feather. But that feather is solidly constructed and set aloft with much preparation.

- Rob Lester

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