Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Children ... and Art
Puppy power, Patinkin & Panton
Reviews by Rob Lester

"The art of making art is 'Putting It Together,'" wrote Stephen Sondheim in a song for Sunday in the Park with George, which also has a number called "Children and Art." But what about the art of putting together a recording suitable for children? Let's consider the cast album of a kid-targeted musical that grew out of a series of books for youngsters as well as a vocalist's outing that collects A Cheerful Little Earful of kid-friendly material, including show tunes. And there's a release from the man who played the title role in the aforementioned Sondheim classic, named for the included "Children and Art," but this earful is not largely cheerful, nor is it something for the children.


Broadway Records

To say that the TheaterWorksUSA musical Dog Man is "high energy" would be quite the understatement. The cast recording that comes from this endeavor, adapted from the graphic novels by Dav Pilkey, sounds frenetic and nose-thumbingly nutty—almost relentlessly so. Its wacky tale involves bombs exploding, evil animals, buildings that come to life to terrorize a city, a volcano, a cloning experiment gone awry and its titular species-mixed hero. (In a hospital, a policeman's body has his own dog's head sewn onto it. Yes, you read that right.)

The ensemble cast of eight is gung-ho and sometimes over the top as they play their zestful characters: the human, the animal, the hybrid. Among the troublemakers is Petey The Cat, and he and the crime-fighting post-op crusader fight like—well, like cats and dogs. But nasty Petey initially seems more annoyed by the eternally mega-peppy creature he accidentally creates, known as Li'l Petey; the latter's intentionally overly giddy "Happy Song" is a hyperactive hoot, as playfully pesky earworms go. The two compare perspectives and butt heads in the score's sharpest moment, "The Evil ABC's" ("A is for annihilation, B is for the bombs that go boom-boom" begins the alphabet lesson, and they argue, for example, as to whether L should stand for "lethal" or "love."). I was most entertained by the characterizations of the two performers involved: Jamie Laverdiere so good as the bad one and L.R. Davidson on target as the ever-chipper kitty. The score provides plenty of places for protagonists to seethe and/or spew threats ("Revenge"; "I'm Back") and an excuse to cacophonously kick tempo (and heels) up for a "Robo-Dance Party."

Lurking under the broad, brash style that seems to treat violence and mean-spiritedness ever so casually are suggestions of a winking but warmer sensibility and a conscience. And all of this is framed to ostensibly be songs for a musical dashed off one morning in school by two mischievous fifth grade boys who are fans of the Dog Man stories. So, by extension, we can't think there are cooler heads to prevail and bring a true grown-up sensibility. Thus, unabashedly, the plucky proceedings and tone, for better or worse, nail the mindset of pre-adolescents rather than capture that crossover "family fare" flair.

But there's some fun to hear in its included dialogue and the raucousness and rhymes, if you're willing to surrender to silliness (for example, urging the panting semi-dog in the title song to "catch that fishy tyrant/ Don't stop for no fire hydrant"). The score incorporates bouncy pop sounds and some nods to musical theatre influences (beginning with an "Underture" and the self-referential intro of "The Opening Number"). Of course, the actual writers' school days are behind them, but lyricist/bookwriter Kevin Del Aguila and composer Brad Alexander have, among other projects, racked up considerable credits in children's entertainment.

This romp is touring the country with upcoming stops in the states of New York and New Jersey and seems to be in the state of perpetual motion—and madness.


Nonesuch Records

There's an air of melancholia pervasive on much of Mandy Patinkin's recently released recording, his first in a long spell. While some CDs in the past had performances that were big and flamboyant, this is pensive Patinkin, in low gear, often even muttering and mournful. This climate change presents an atmosphere with heavy clouds in these skies, dramatic but downbeat and dour, with some exceptions that suggest silver linings. But some are deceptively disguised as rays of potential warm sunshine.

Children and Art is named for the included tender piece from Sunday in the Park with George. Back when he was starring in that show, Patinkin participation in the song was relegated to a few spoken lines. Now the thoughtful performer, who turns 67 at the end of this month, finally (and movingly) explores all of its bittersweet depths and perspectives, even incorporating spoken words. It's a highlight in the eclectic mix that happens to feature items which have music and words written by one person instead of collaborators, several being singer-songwriters themselves. Patinkin joins those ranks with his own low-key and oddly charming (or charmingly odd) "Raggedy Ann." This endearing ditty about dolls is one of the collection's associations with childhood, but Children and Art is decidedly not lighthearted kid stuff (unlike his earlier family-friendly, child-relatable compendium called Kidults).

While looking back on youth and parents, this scrapbook of memories isn't Photoshopped to gloss over gloom or anything non-glamorous. Tom Waits' detailed autobiographical evocation of his boyhood neighborhood, "Kentucky Avenue," warns about the neighbor lady with a gun at the ready, notes bullet holes on the side of a car, and reflects on the fate of a handicapped friend. With deft musical identity theft, Patinkin's adopting of the claustrophobic images convincingly makes their gravity appear to be long-owned.

As for parents and children, home and hearth aren't about sweetness and light: It's heavy going hearing about a parent's fading faculties (the sorrowful "My Mom" by Marc Anthony Thompson), but the caring and concern are palpable. Dignity is in there. Fatherhood is represented with two old Randy Newman choices; one, set at a party among other kinfolk, laments the absentee "Wandering Boy," and "So Long, Dad," despite its affect of forced jauntiness, presents awkwardness in its small talk and emotional distancing during an in-person get-together.

Note that two selections, despite instrumental background, don't have this able vocalist singing at all, but are spoken pieces ("From the Air" and "Fear Itself"). If this all sounds familiar to followers of Patinkin, it's because it is. Eleven of the twelve tracks have been doled out among the entries in his digital "Diary" series of intimate studio recordings in collaboration with keyboardist/producer/engineer Thomas Bartlett. The final track repeats something ("Refugees/ Song of the Titanic") from the 1998 Mamaloshen album where he sang in Yiddish. The physical CD begins with Rufus Wainwright's "Going to a Town," but this Jewish artist deletes the lyric's reference to Jesus Christ and changes the central location that is burned and disgraced to Jerusalem from the original America.

Mandy Patinkin is on tour, with a busy schedule taking him far and wide. Following this week's stops in Toronto, he will be in California, and Washington DC.



Three cheers for A Cheerful Little Earful, singer Diana Panton's new collection for the young and young at heart that manages to be upbeat and gentle at the same time. It is contagiously and consistently charming, with an unforced and refreshing sweetness. How can you not smile? Its appreciative evocation of the simpler joys in life, crooned and played with ease, is easy to take—and take to heart. Without condescending or sacrificing/simplifying musical elements (it's rather jazzy, with instrumentalists getting some generous solos, and the piano seeming to dance across melodic lines).

Fans of the mid-20th century golden age of show tunes, movie songs, and popular music (plus a stroll down Sesame Street) have much to nostalgically revisit in graceful renditions—and the well-curated collection offers much that can serve as cozy introductions to that material for kids with relatable items. Optimism beams in musical theatre-born philosophies urged via South Pacific's "Happy Talk," Finian Rainbow's "Look to the Rainbow," and the Cole Porter adviso to "Experiment."

Even on other albums not targeted toward a family audience, Diana Panton's girlish sound may remind some listeners of the less-is-more sunny voices of Blossom Dearie, Stacey Kent, or Nellie McKay. There's a convincing innocence and disarming joie de vivre in the cotton candy approach and blithe manner. Jadedness is definitely not in the picture. It's very welcome, as are the two musicians: Reg Schwager is the guitarist and Don Thompson plays piano, bass and vibes.

There are two movie songs by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson. One is the lullabye candidate "Hush-a-bye Island," ending the CD with a suitably "hushed" and lovely nod to the Land of Nod. As to the other by this writing team, attentive listeners familiar with "It's a Most Unusual Day" from the MGM movie A Date with Judy will notice that, in this date with Diana, this Canadian singer changes the mentioned location of California to reference "Hamilton" (the city, not the musical), and elsewhere in the lyric the songbird chirps, "I see birdies greeting birdlies"—that named animal replacing "people." While that may risk a touch too much cuteness for some, it's the exception to the rule of this outing that really captures and respects the essence of these warm-spirited, sincere selections.

A Cheerful Little Earful is a companion piece to the Juno Award-winning 2017 release titled I Believe in Little Things that tip-toes through similar material. (This new one has already won two awards in the United States.) It's just the right antidote for all the noise and negativity in the world.

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