Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

A Little Brains, A Little Talent, a little horror, a little jazz ...
Reviews by Rob Lester

Broadway Records
CD and digital

If you know the spoofs, sparkle, sharp political jabs, and irrepressible persona of Randy Rainbow—or even just the cover pic of his new recording where he's draped in a feather boa grandly posed with a big martini glass—the words "understated" or "shy" won't immediately jump to mind. But his new recording's title, A Little Brains, A Little Talent, is too modest a description of what you'll encounter because the wit and satire are not just smug, but smart, and there's a lot of talent in the writing and performance. And his guest stars ain't chopped liver. Of course, clued-in musical theatre fans will recognize that this title is also the name of a show tune from Damn Yankees, a score also represented by "Those Were the Good Old Days." Sometimes, as with the former, he mostly uses a number's original words and sometimes, as with the latter, he has his own polished lyrics that let him vent and amusingly lament. (The "good old days" of the woes of Watergate and Clinton seem nostalgically preferable, he posits, compared to the wreckage by today's Republicans, his most frequent target.)

Wisely deciding not to just present a full quiver of arrows dipped in poison or an unrelenting parade of parody, Randy Rainbow also shows his sincere side and his joy frolicking in show tune heaven without always changing words. Even a few lines of the original dialogue from Gypsy are included in a cheeky romp through its "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," originally written for three jaded female strippers, which becomes a gender-reversed trio when Josh Gad and Sean Hayes join our star in the snark-a-thon. And the Gypsy score inspires another treat with a guest star, one who led a revival of the beloved musical: Patti LuPone. We get a duet based on the score's "If Mama Was Married," yanking us back to pre-Election Day 2020 with the dump Trump wish, "If Donald Got Fired." Of course, the unavoidable reality about topical humor not quickly recorded and released is that it has a defined and short shelf life to be topical because, thankfully, even the scuzziest of scandals and most putrid politicians become yesterday's news. So the bite may feel dulled, and soon to be history. But we can still appreciate it and chuckle, albeit from a safer distance. Others in the GOP still in office get still-relevant K.O. punches that are LOL, unless they are your off-limits heroes.

Material from two big Jerry Herman hits bring out the other two guests. Titus Burgess is Rainbow's riposte receiver and giver for the gleeful "Bosom Buddies" barbs from score of Mame which also is sampled via "My Best Girl" sung to and by Bernadette Peters in a touching mash-up with Hello, Dolly!'s "It Only Takes a Moment" which she envelops, captivatingly, with earnestness and fragility.

New songs are born for our jester du jour when musical theatre composers of today accept his invitation to provide melodies for his words. "Randy Rainbow for President" is a brash boast of his policies set to a quick tempo tune by Marc Shaiman and more good vibes are in sight through "Pink Glasses" with zingy music by Alan Menken. Rounding out the round-up of new, old, and new words/old music are some catchy melodies first heard in the first half of the 20th century, too, some zipping by in medleys, like "Yes, We Have No Bananas" becoming "Yes, We Have No Steve Bannon." You get the idea.

Some sustained final notes and ease with tricky tempi show us that Randy Rainbow is more than merely a serviceable singer amiably demonstrating his wares as a writer (he also harmonizes with his own multi-tracked voice, barbershop quartet-style). He's quite the entertainer and A Little Brains, A Little Talent is a lot of fun, a lot of pizzazz.

Ghostlight Records

The tradition of having a ghostlight, which is one bare light bulb on a lamp on an unoccupied stage, serves the purpose of safety and also is known as part of the superstition that a ghost may haunt a theatre, needing to be discouraged, catered to, or seen. So it is appropriate for a recording of a musical theatre production about a musical theatre production thought to be attracting a long-residing ghost that the record label presenting it is named Ghostlight. The company has brought us so many worthwhile cast albums—and here's another making its entrance: Goosebumps The Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium.

The tale and the tale within the tale may sound familiar. Phantom of the Auditorium is one of the many books in the huge and hugely popular spooky/funny Goosebumps series for children by R.L. Stine. (Some years ago, Rupert Holmes also delved into, and combined, some Goosebump books to devise a straight play.) The plot concerns school kids putting on a show whose plot involves love, dark dangers, and an imposing man residing in the bowels of a theatre, wearing a mask to hide his disfigured face, with dangers lurking. Where have we heard that one before? (No, they aren't actually doing The Phantom of the Opera, but we get the point and parallels.)

This is a studio cast recording featuring adult Broadway veterans in the leading roles for a play with key characters who are children in middle school. Fortunately, the pros here don't try so obviously hard to sound like youngsters that they become self-consciously coy or cartoon-like. Krystina Alabado does much of the singing as the worried but enthused sixth grader playing the play's female lead. Will Roland has the crucial role of her offstage prankster BFF and onstage co-star (the Phantom), but surprisingly doesn't sing all that much. Stephanie Styles is her possibly resentful understudy who works backstage, with a good showcase in "Understudy Buddy," and Noah Galvin stands out as Brian, who introduces himself as a new student. (Some of the regional theatres presenting the show have cast those roles with actors closer to the age of the characters, while others have been longer in the tooth.)

In the two major adult roles, Sheryl Lee Ralph would earn better grades as the drama teacher if the score gave her the opportunities to show her range or cut loose, but the character is relegated to chastising and singing exposition (sharing the dense backstory of the history of their spooky play's first production and how it is supposedly cursed). A guy who knows his way around ghost stories, Beetlejuice's Alex Brightman brings the sneer and impatience he nailed there to his role as the man whom the kids find in the sub-basement, introducing himself as the night custodian they'd never heard of. (But is he?) In any case, he seizes a couple of splashy chances in song to tell off the nosy kids, stepping out in "Watch Your Step." Oh, and the author of the Goosebump books is on the cast list in a cameo as the school principal, also now given his same surname.

Unpretentious in scope and structure, Phantom of the Auditorium is aimed at children (not the pre-school set) and families. It's an accessible, lighthearted, cute musical comedy with touches of terror and mystery, lightly peppered with personality types prevalent in theatre companies of all ages. The dialogue (of which we hear a fair amount) is by John Maclay who wrote the lyrics with Danny Abosch, the composer, producer, music director, arranger, orchestrator, and keyboardist in the surprisingly large orchestra.

A quick observation that there is a total of 19 tracks might make one jump to the conclusion that this is a bigger bounty of songs than it is. Although the score has its charms and chills, quite a few tracks are extremely short and/or feature, instead of singing, instrumental passages and dialogue, plus the requisite screams of fright, thankfully somewhat muffled and brief, making the listening experience less ear-splitting than you might fear the fear would prompt. A couple of numbers prepare the actual audience or the characters for what experiencing a scary play will be—a bit scary, yes, but enjoyable. And, in that promise/prediction, they're rather correct.

Cellar Live Records
CD, digital, and vinyl

Looking for variety in song styles and versatility of performance? You'll find it on the rewarding release named Michael Stephenson Meets the Alexander Claffy Trio. If the title suggests all parties are meeting for the first time, we must ignore that because singer-saxophonist Stephenson and bassist/bandleader Claffy have been friends since they were 13 years old. But, no matter. Listeners will be glad they met up in a studio to give permanent record to their chemistry and chameleon-like comfort with varied genres. That connection benefits a collection of classic ballads, two sizzlers written by Ray Charles, jazz, rock, soul, and the My Fair Lady favorite "On the Street Where You Live."

Michael Stephenson and the band shine, adding their own personal touches even to songs so many have covered for decades. The road well traveled that is "On the Street Where You Live" is well worth another stroll and makes one want to hear them on other Broadway classics. The voice can be silky-smooth and project true tenderness, as it does on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," the 1940 Johnny Burke/ Jimmy Van Heusen dewy-eyed tale of being romantically besotted. For me, it is thoroughly on target, far and away the highlight here. The melody is luxuriously spun with affection, and the phrasing of the lyric gets all the awe and belief in everlasting love with which it could be imbued. In the same sensitive mode, 1934's "For All We Know" ups the emotional ante with reality-checked tension of the future being unpredictable ("... we may never meet again ...tomorrow may never come"), but remains cozy in its carpe diem sensibilities. And the old country crossover hit, "Tennessee Waltz," is duly sentimental without being corny or clunky at all.

Velvety vocals are just part of the potent picture, as instrumental elements carry the ball a lot. On the sole cut without singing, the blazing "Did You Call Her Today?," Stephenson's sax playing soars in this piece by a saxophone giant of yore, Ben Webster. Claffy's bass is agreeably assertive, easily able to prominently lead the way instead of being more of an understated pulse. On tracks like the standard "Sweet Lorraine," one really appreciates the instrument's ability for muscle and attractively playing, laying down a melody line on its own. Elsewhere, focus shifts to pianist Julius Rodriguez, who can be effective with crisp, economic phrases as well as almost go-for-broke rollicking, lengthy spotlight turns. Drummer Itay Morchi and guest Benny Benack III, the dazzlingly terrific trumpeter, add energy. The latter's high-octane solo is welcome on "When a Man Loves a Woman," enlivening an adrenaline-challenged treatment that seems to choose to ooze mellowed-out confidence with a vocal that could also use a little more attention to diction.

The Ray Charles numbers, "Ain't That Love" and, especially, "Greenbacks," display sassy strutting and attitude, with a wink. The singer is at home in many styles; earlier, billed as Sonny Step, he also showcased his elastic voice in a more contemporary, less acoustic ambiance. I can't wait to see what musical steps he'll take next.