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Sound Advice Reviews

Lynne Shankel's music for Bare & more,
Plus favorite cast recording catch-up from last year
Review by Rob Lester

Here's a look at an album centered around musical multi-tasker Lynne Shankel's work, with several tracks representing songs added for a revised version of Bare with her melodies and the original lyricist/bookwriter's words. Then, it's detailed review time for two cast recordings that made the column's top ten list for 2016 releases.


Yellow Sound Records

It would take a pretty big metaphorical hat rack to have room for all the musical hats Lynne Shankel wears quite well. She has been an orchestrator and done vocal and/or orchestral arrangements for shows on and off Broadway, and sometimes has been the musical supervisor, conductor; she plays piano, sings, and composes music, sometimes with her own lyrics. The very different colors and styles of her pallette as orchestrator/arranger of other writers' songs, bringing more shadings and drama to them, are reflected in this partial list of musicals with quite different feels and styles: Allegiance, Altar Boyz, Summer of '42, Vanities.. In projects to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, she has long associations with the live Broadway Bares extravaganza and the holiday CD A New York Christmas, one she also produced and conceptualized.

Bare, a musical originating at the turn of the century, with a strong fan base, also bears her stamp. Its lyricist/bookwriter, Jon Hartmere, reworked the show in major ways for a 2012 production with new songs he composed with Ms. Shankel's melodies. Dropped were some songs he'd written with the original composer, Damon Intrabartola, who was not actively involved (and who died the next year at the age of 39). Now we have eight Hartmere/Shankel score additions officially preserved for posterity, one of the numbers—"Best Friends"—in two versions, with different singers.

For those new to the story, you'll get a sense of it and feel the angst and unrest of its characters, most of whom are teens in a Catholic boarding school. A production of Romeo and Juliet figures into the plot in a major way, and the star-crossed lovers in the show are two males romantically involved, but hiding their sexuality from people in their lives, one being far more reluctant than the other to come out. This notches up the tension and also supplies some funny fumbling (in the "Did I say that out loud?" missteps). As one of the guys sings "Best Friends," the lyric and bouncy melody give him the chance to spell the title, but he absentmindedly spells it as b-o-y-f-r-i-e-n-d-s. Amusingly, he laughs it off to his terrible spelling skills. Taylor Trensch (currently playing young clerk Barnaby in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway) is especially charming and appropriately mixing goofiness with joy in this duet with the buoyant Alice Lee. (Christopher J. Hanke and Patti Murin do the honors in the "remix" alternate.)

Bullying, worry, drugs, defiance, isolation, anger, agitation and pressure all figure into the world of these teens, so restless energy and coiled energies seem appropriately expressed through rocking beats and wailing singing early on (with the aforementioned duets respite from the storms) as drums pound and guitars soar. Power singing is intense, the female duet quite intense and potent (Lilli Cooper and Elizabeth Judd, lamenting "You Don't Know.") In another change of pace, singing of recent love and lust with glee about the sexcapades of protagonists "Peter and Jason," Noah Zachary is on the ball in this bouncy bit. Bareheads may debate whether it was wise or not to cut it from the final score, but it's a cute ray of sunshine in an often dark sky and an engaging album track.

The balm-like "You're Not Alone" is effectively calibrated by Missi Pyle in the role of a caring nun. Of course, any cast recording heard by those who don't know the show or haven't seen it on stage puts the listener at a disadvantage and, here, newbies to Bare are only hearing about one-third of the score and some dialogue, so keep that lack of context ... well, in context. The passion and pain come through, and fans of rock musicals, contemporary power ballads, and comic-relief character pieces (like the outrageously broad encounter with a sassy Virgin Mary in "Hail Mary") each get something to favor.

The label's website still lists this as a 2-CD set, the discs named Bare and Naked, while what was sent for review—and seems to be available elsewhere—is a single disc with all the tracks. Some of these numbers have a big sound, with more voices and various instrumental groupings. The name of guitarist Peter Calo is a welcome one for sure.

One of the non-Bare songs, "Anytime, Anywhere, Any Day," is also a Shankel/Hartmere collaboration and it's decidedly sunny and jubilant. You can practically see singers Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena smiling widely. They're terrific in this bright, energetic excursion radiating with infectious joy. Other than this number, and the Bare songs, music and lyrics are Shankel-created. Her lyric writing can capture youthful optimism and more seasoned life observations. Treatments tend to build in power and force. As a lyricist, Shankel does like to repeat the title a lot (or other key phrases); short and pithy can be more impactful than re-statement when there isn't a twist or new idea at the end.

A more mature Mendez assignment comes with her solo: serenity and satisfaction with life's simpler and non-monetary pleasures, epitomized by the the sight cited in the title: "Full Moon in July." And Klena is featured in the poppy "Brand New Day."

Simple pleasures of daily life are enshrined in blithe songs and singing, but the same stylings effectively expose intolerance lurking ominously in a "Postcard American Town," the sugar-coated voice of Katie Rose Clarke going against the grain of negativity in the words. And Shankel's work can be muscular and meaty. Whitney Bashor finds layers of feeling and eyes-open reflections on the slow recovery from a broken relationship and the skills needed ("I Got Real Good). Jenn Colella (now in Come from Away) is fierce and a commanding wall of strength in the dynamic and determined "I Will Make Thunder." And another Broadway vet, Telly Leung, high voice and high of spirits, leads a chorus in the life-affirming philosophy mantra called "You Gotta Live Your Life."

I wish we had than just one track—the final one—with Lynne Shankel herself singing. She's a warm-spirited performer, her softer "attack" making a listener want to come to her and listen and think, rather than have the message and meaning predetermined and preached, which is the case (but not necessarily the intention) elsewhere on the disc. The piece she chose is a kind of narrated tale named "Pieces of Me," sung in an appealing voice that feels unpretentious. It would have been a good title song for the album, actually, because there are so many different perspectives and stories which may well represent the varied sides and "pieces" of the writer in touch with emotions and ways to "paint" them.


Ghostlight Records

Goofy can be great. The 2016 recording of the oddball show Red Eye of Love is best appreciated if you can let go of expectations of standard logic and believability and enjoy the wacky and wild ride. Just check your need for a reality check. The icing on the nutty cake is there and has a decidedly sweet taste—the musical has a marshmallow-soft overlay that charms. This is due largely to the wistful, hopeful characterization of central naif character Wilmer by the terrific comic actor-singer Josh Grisetti. He's the only carryover from the cast of a 2014 New York City production, recreating the role for this studio cast recording. Whether he's falling in love or falling onto financial hard times, carrying the torch for his love or carrying the suitcase while selling very special dolls (They get sick and die!), is enlisting in the U.S. Army or has been enlisted to work as a Santa Claus, the character is sympathetic and entertaining. Typical of the glib and offhand attitude of the piece is this description from the plot synopsis: "Wilmer is heartbroken. He contemplates suicide, but decides he will go to the movies instead." And that impulse cues his breaking into the cheery song called (what else?) "I'm Going to the Movies."

That lovely voiced and seemingly ubiquitous leading lady Kelli O'Hara pertly plays what shows used to label the "love interest"; she's a woman who vacillates between her attractions to poor but devoted and compatible Wilmer and the not-at-all poor, crass O.O. Martinas (the suitably bombastic Brad Oscar). O.O. runs a department store selling nothing but meat—a different kind on each floor. This leads to odes to the joys of carnivorism and capitalism and the resulting cash. (The plot plays fast and loose with the passage of time, allowing the show to make its points about the American Dream and changing economy and social mores in various decades.) Nikki Renee Daniels, with brio, steps out from the eight-member ensemble for one number as a nightclub singer for an extra added attraction/change from the aforementioned three actors who otherwise handle all the lead vocals; there are also two big company numbers among the total of 17 tracks. It's a zippy score with some nostalgic pastiche, old-school musical comedy panache—all enhanced by an instrumental ensemble numbering one dozen players, conducted by Greg Jarrett and orchestrated by the savvy Bruce Coughlin. Energy never lags.

Red Eye of Love keeps me grinning, its satirical bite usually wisely diffused by craft when the proceedings are commenting on values and priorities and, yes, love. It may feel like there's some inconsistency of tone at times, with the brash, broadly playing Oscar and some of his character's motivations and actions squarely in more cartoonish mode and O'Hara playing things fairly straight and seemingly "casual" and breezy. But someone's feet should be somewhat on the ground. The contrast works, with Grisetti's style being the best of both worlds, true to Wilmer's uniquely perceived reality, anchoring the action. And the ending is as unpredictably unconventional as such an absurdist piece deserves.

A bit of history: This tale has had a long road to that recent production and now recording. It began life as a play way back in 1961, written by Arnold Weinstein, with some music by William Bolcom, a frequent collaborator of his. John Wulp directed and co-produced it. For the further blossoming into a full musical with a rethought musical personality, Bolcom's melodies were jettisoned, and the versatile composer Sam Davis was brought in; Wulp reworked the spoken and sung words as deemed necessary. (Weinstein had died in 2005). I'd very much look forward to another production and what further tweaks and hindsight may bring to a worthy and unusual project, having seen the Manhattan mounting three years ago which got some shrugs and a mixed reception from reviewers. It makes for a tricky balancing act to have one foot dancing in the clouds, while maintaining a loopy ambience, and have the other foot precariously trying to dig into the ground of sufficient realism to sustain thoughtful audience involvement.

For the meantime, there's a feat of fun in the swell-sounding recording with its diverting performances, nifty wordplay, and merry musical razzamatazz by the talented late-to-the-party team member Sam Davis. Mike Croiter of Yellow Sound Label moonlights as producer for this sunny affair on the Ghostlight Records banner. Red Eye of Love is a hoot, but has heart, too.


JAY Records

When a highly dramatic musical theatre piece creates its own enveloping world and we spectators are pulled in like moths to light, it can be heart-racingly thrilling. When that can happen solely through the audio of a cast recording, it's remarkable. Such an experience comes with listening to the 26 tracks making up the souvenir of Thérèse Raquin's London production. Talk about evocative soundscape and earnestly committed performances! It's grim, yet majestic. Voices ache with the loneliness and desperation of the characters in their claustrophobic lives at many points, and sometimes the strength of myopic determination and harsh assertiveness is chilling. Much of the spookiness and sense of foreboding come via the orchestrations that provide an undercurrent of impending doom and/or edgy restlessness even in what would otherwise be innocuous conversations or solos.

Dipping their musical brushes into melodrama, opera, and Greek tragedy, Thérèse Raquin's creative team paints moods that keep the storm clouds ever present. The potent music by Craig Adams alternately mutters, throbs, or becomes sweepingly big. Lyrics, book and adaptation are by Nona Shepphard, who also published her version as an adaptation of the classic book.

Émile Zola's 1867 novel, with the action set in his Paris in his own time, has been dramatized and adapted many times. It's been a non-musical play, a film, and a TV mini-series, and has been musicalized by others. In 2001 Broadway-goers found it reset in New Orleans in the 1940s with a score by Harry Connick, Jr., titled Thou Shalt Not, referencing one (or more) of the Ten Commandments broken in the story. Thus, many of us go in knowing the twists, tragedies, and torments to come, but there is impact still in witnessing the plot unfold, watching and waiting for the exact moments tides will turn. Dialogue is included, so it's a very full experience. Underscoring of the spoken sections keeps the river of unsettling drama flowing virtually relentlessly. Relief and respite arrive when the ensemble sings robustly of release from workaday worries in the fellowship found playing dominos and drinking on regular gatherings on "Thursday Nights" at the Raquin home.

Considering voice types, the protagonists are well cast and strikingly different in color and timbre. Domineering Madame Raquin, played by the spot-on Tara Hugo, sounds weary and weathered, summoning harshness or lamenting to suit her reactions to the younger characters in her household. The title character, niece to Madame, is suffering in silence and boredom in early scenes, creating a sense of anticipation and curiosity about when she might finally sing a super-sized swath of melody and reveal what's inside. (You'll need to be patient!) But when rich-voiced Julie Atherton lets Thérèse's stifled emotions burst through, it's quite something to behold.

Jeremy Legat as the sickly Camille Raquin does not overplay the fragility to burden it with boring pity-party limpness, but he's gentle and sweet enough so his lusty, vibrant painter friend Laurent can be higher energy without veering into overdrive in being dashing and radiating testosterone. Ben Lewis fills the bill and lets Laurent's selfish and explosive sides sing out with gusto without going overboard (no pun intended). Thus, the two men are more dimensional, nuances of personality and mindsets reflected in shaded singing.

Any of these characters could tempt a lesser performer to veer into exaggeration and redundancy with this material, but it's the holding back that can keep our interest. It's no surprise that these leads are all well experienced in theatre productions ranging from the light fare of Peter Pan to projects where they sang the more demanding melodies of Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, and Weill. And Julie Atherton has worked with Adams before, singing his music with his own lyrics in Lift.

Intertwining harmonies of the ensemble provide enough pleasure and variety to the ear so that repetition and you-feel-it-coming big builds excite instead of suffering from tedium or anticlimactic endings. When, in Greek chorus mode, there's a choral warning or condemnation repeating Thérèse's name over and over, it doesn't feel like overkill in easy broad strokes. While it's inarguably heavy going, Thérèse Raquin has a lot going for it as compelling drama, performed with integrity, with a haunting impact that lingers.

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