Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Tamar of the River &
Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Some cast albums cast a spell and are easily accessible. Others are musical equivalents of old favorite recipe comfort foods and can be easily digested, too. The two items this week are not in that category for me. They're more elusive, each dense in its own way, yet with some very "simple" elements that will fail to engage some, but hold others. A beleaguered woman, strong and troubled, is at the center of each. Meet Tamar and Tess—one of the River, one of the D'Urbervilles. Both have tragedy and unusual trajectories. One of the Tess songs is "River of Regret," whose title has some applicability to the Tamar saga.


Yellow Sound Label

"Why do you sing to me? What do you want of me?" is the inquiry of Tamar. She is addressing the singing river, whose sounds are made by a group of singing cast members. Some of their wordless vocal sounds recall chants and incantations of various cultures, often percussive, with wondrous and/or powerful, shifting harmonies. "You don't have a choice. You go," is a lyric in "Go," which is kind of how the album may strike your ear and sensibilities. You'll either be swept along with the flow of sound or go away, resisting the could-be hypnotic effects. Dreamlike and seductive it is, earnest, sometimes relentlessly repetitive. Power surges come when things build and build and then there are sudden exquisite moments of stark beauty: a capella simplicities with a solo voice following a breathless silence. Haunting and occasionally harrowing swaths of music are broken up by pleading (and occasionally plodding) cries or the respite of gentleness. Along the way, Tamar interacts with her mother, the River Angel, men who block her path or smooth it, but most of all the River.

Tamar, a determined and indefatigable woman seeking peace between warring factions on either side of the blood-red river, is full of questions and quests. Margo Seibert, who played the lead female character in the recent Broadway Rocky, here has more formidable fighters on her hands: Nature and Humankind. Her striking voice is quite powerful and versatile, a veritable force of nature itself that she controls and uses like a paintbrush with broad and then delicate strokes. With the steadfastness of an archetypical heroine of the Joan of Arc variety, with almost Biblical or mythological proportions, she commands attention, whether in ethereal, folky fashion or adopting strident straightforward-march mode. In several sections, her intensity and high, throbbing soprano reminds me of the very young Joan Baez, bravely holding the banner of protest.

The adventurous composer, Marisa Michelson, conducts the small band and shares credit for orchestrations with pianist Matt Aument, with Shane Shanahan providing "additional orchestrations." Her voice is also heard on "additional vocals." Music and accompaniment figures are sometimes used mosaically, with tiny fragments fitting together with spaces in between and phrases echoed and building. Some of Joshua H. Cohen's lyrics are employed in a similar manner: short, crisp phrases and layers and carefully accented mantras. Melodic phrases leap and lap at each other—the concept of the sounds and songs imitating the movements of a river is used over and over and over until it loses some impact on this very long 20-track trek through a search for peace and meaning. Fortunately, also like a river, there's a range of moods and speeds and always the potential for a sudden new route. "River, I hear you/ River, I feel you/ Your heart cries inside me... River, I'll show you..." But then there'll be a dramatic turn or a graceful and fresh twist. There's also variety in voice qualities, female soaring and sweet sounds and male cast members with deeper sounds and a different flavor of anguish and stoicism: Mike Longo, Vince B. Vincent, Erik Lochtefeld as male soloists in addition to their being part of the many voices personifying the body of water with actual words and sometimes sounds that can be anything from a moan to a cry of defiance to a soothing balm.

Seen in various forms, in New York City and elsewhere, the piece first performed in 2010 now gets its world premiere recording. One wonders if the creators underestimate the audience's ability to absorb what's being presented, as lyrics have so much repetition of exact phrases and paraphrasing, and music and orchestrations tends to take a similar, echoing, reinforcing approach. "River, I come to you for solace/ River, take my heart... How could this have happened? How can this be real?/ Comfort me, tell me, tell me/ And I will follow, follow... fa-fa-follow... River, I come to you for guidance/ I'll do what you tell me/ Whatever you tell me... " (from "Solace"). It's a big part of the style and the whole music-as-river concept, but makes me a bit weary. Still, I admire it and relish it more in bits and pieces—an irresistible piano figure that becomes an anchor, strings as punctuation and guideposts, the sound of hammered dulcimer. This unique wrap-around sound experience with its percussive-heavy sensibility and epic aspirations must have been a challenge to produce as a disc, but producer Mike Croiter is the right man for the job. A skilled drummer himself, he and his Yellow Sound Label are building quite a reputation for recording adventurous musicals that break the mold and make their own world.


Stage Door Records

The truth is not always a publicist/marketer's best asset when drumming up interest in a musical that had a short run and wants a new life as a cast album. But text on the outside and inside of the Tess of the D'Urbervilles CD—and the press release sent to entice reviewers—all do just that. They state flat out that at the end of the last century, "the London critics were universal in their damnation" of this piece (a musical version of Thomas Hardy's same-named novel which has seen other musicalizations in varied styles, before and since) that closed after 77 performances, and even rub several chunks of salt in the wound by quoting from the reviews in the booklet: "A simpering romance"; "A real gold plated stinker"; "Three hours of non-musical torture." But there are earlier chapters in this show's journey. The notes so blunt about these harsh dismissals point out that a tour around England prior to the London opening received positive reviews, including words like "moving" and "landmark" and, in two reviews, "stunning." OK, now maybe we're intrigued. But there's a different set of differences for our consideration of the release from Stage Door Records.

We can't adequately get much of a sense of the score the British customers and critics heard, for the London cast only recorded six numbers from this sung-through musical for an EP. We get those tracks here, letting us hear only Phillippa Healey as Tess (one of the two women who shared the role) and two other performers playing the men in Tess' burdened life. The other 15 tracks are from a relatively high-quality demo recording of an earlier version, from 1998, made with a studio cast. But songs aren't in both versions. The first go-round had composer Stephen Edwards as his own lyricist while Justin Fleming came aboard some time later to start afresh with new material, all lyrics credited to Fleming.

The album begins with those six of the Fleming/Edwards songs that reached the stage. I was unfamiliar with the show and its history except for the aforementioned equivalent of a warning sticker that set my expectations low; still, I went in with an open mind, hoping for the best, but found the material and performances rather uneven, and frustratingly so.

I feared we were in trouble when the very first song of the 1999 cast began with one of my very biggest pet peeves in songwriting: false rhymes (for instance, "second time" supposedly rhyming with "intertwine"). While Fleming's rhymes are usually real, if uninspired and some overused, he uses "blissful" and "wistful" as sound partners, and then "dreadful thing" with "everything." Other language choices are too often flowery or bland, a near fatal combination with melodramatic, insistent, breast-beating music, especially when called back for encore after encore as lyric lines repeat with increasing fervor.

Some songs break what I thought was a cardinal rule of musical theatre writing: as the song nears its end, the character should be in a different "place" (mindset, emotion, realization) than he or she was in the beginning. And the audience should have learned something, too. In "Do I Love Her?" Jonathan Monks as Angel Clare does eventually answer the question in the positive, but what's left out is the key part: why? Still, he has that stalwart and sincere heroic sound down pat. As Tess, Phillippa Healey has an ingĂ©nue voice that seems to struggle to make big and high notes sound full and seems to be pushing—if not her voice, then the character's angst. She's crying out for love, answers, and understanding, while her character and the material cry out for more subtlety. As her other possible love, Alec, Alasdair Harvey is slightly more successful with his own pleas in "Save My Soul." All three combine, somewhat less than smoothly, in "Leaving the Past Behind."

It seems a grand Les Miz type of scope is being attempted, but is heavy-handed. There is a sense of bigness and tragedy in some musical sweep and the busy orchestrations for several pieces, in addition to two keyboards, with the cello used for foreboding and depth. While I had a lot of trouble getting through these six tracks with full attention, it did appeal to me a bit more—and felt more cohesive—each time I tried. Some lyrics are hard to catch, especially when the performers' sung lines overlap.

Now let's turn our attention to the songs with Edwards' own lyrics. While they have some clunkiness of their own, I do prefer them to the Fleming work presented. Edwards' words come off as more natural and less effortful, better matches for the set of melodies. Still, they lack clarity and specificity and tend to get stuck in the quicksand of repetition rather than move things to a new point of view or new plot point. In the all-Edwards song "River of Regret," Angel—a lovely-voiced tenor Mark Umbers—rues his past rejection of Tess. But it is still marred by repetition ("and yet, and yet, and yet," used twice, and "seek her and seek her and seek her" start to sound like a stutter; "Will she forgive me? Can she forgive me?" is less bothersome as the difference between the two possibilities). "Pray for me" and "God does not alter his plan" are lines we keep hearing in "Threshing Field" featuring the manipulative Alec (sung by Martin Crewes with sinister aggressiveness but a transparency that misses the opportunity to maintain tension).

Cathy Sara, to my ears, has a more appealing sound as Tess, evoking more sympathy and engagement. She finds layers of the character as a broken-winged bird. There is some delicacy and thoughtfulness in her work. In the lament/plea, "Come Back to Me," the self-pity factor is not overdone, and she finds variations and shape. The piano's swirling figures likewise show restraint and the violin is superb. (We have here just that instrument and two pianos; the violin is a major supporting player, creating and reinforcing many moods). It's notable that the musical supervisor for these 15 tracks was the composer.

Three other female voices blend nicely, flattering their songs. In "I'd Marry Him Tomorrow Morn," Deborah Stokes, Heather Craney, Eliza Lumley are sublime chiming in with their shared attraction to the same man. Some numbers have more voices, indicating an ensemble, such as "Chaseborough Market," and cast lists indicate that two actors listed for the studio demo are listed in the cast of the later production.

While hardly the lost masterpiece we might be hoping for, this Tess is not a mess. It has some very worthwhile things to offer, mostly in the 1998 version. Mistake? Misguided? Mishandled? To some degree. The collector and the curious—and the patient—will still find many instances of pleasure, but not buried treasure.

- Rob Lester

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