Things are looking up as we look back at big two blasts from the past this week, the very real Patti LuPone in the first issue of live shows from 1980, and a fictitious girl group using real songs from the late '50s and '60s for a musical comedy imported from the West Coast. The swinging part of that area comes in Under the Radar. And, looking South, there's Dixie-dipped delight and drama from Philip Chaffin's When the Wind Blows South, encompassing several decades of music.
Step into the time machine and ask to be taken to the year 1980 on one of 27 Saturday nights at midnight in New York City, and there you are. Enjoy. Patti LuPone, after her nightly power-packed performance in the title role of Evita did a nightclub act that, until now, lived in audience members' memories (and lived on in a re-creation in recent times by singer-actress Leslie Kritzer). Culled from the LuPone archives (a shoebox of cassette tapes in the back of her closet, liner notes tell us), the first commercial release is here. Devotion, determination and digital technology bring the not-professionally-recorded old tapes into acceptable sound for a CD issue. That searing, soaring voice would cut through any river of audio mud, and the mix and match (and studio re-mix) of the several preserved nights, thanks to producers Joel Moss and Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom Records' Kurt Deutsch, brings the atmosphere and almost relentless tigress energy to disc.
With its captured ambience and included Patti patter, some listeners will be bewitched, some bothered and bewildered beyond belief by the brash bravado and excesses and eccentricities. The adjective "fierce" comes up several times in the booklet's liner notes and old reviews of the act. It's an appropriate description. Yes, like her Evita performance, it is a tour-de-fierce diva extravaganza with plenty of extravagances. No holds barred, in your face, it energizes or exhausts or both. Subtle it's not. Well, she has her moments. For those who know the star's style and guile then or now or in-between, the expected savvy go-for-broke panache is captured in full array and full blinding, bloom and boom.
The set list includes two Evita cathartic and assertive proclamations, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" and "Rainbow High," and one other track that is another flipping-back page from her songbook (well, several pages; producer David Merrick notoriously hatedand wanted cut"Meadowlark," because it was too long). Though versions these three LuPone career highlights are available on other recordings, youthful and emotionally naked theatricality here is certainly exciting. The repertoire includes other show tunes not suitable for the shy, and Patti steps up to the plate and confidently belts out, with voice-to-burn intensity and a paucity of nuance or shading: "I Got Rhythm," "Love for Sale" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." She shows a softer side with some sensitivity in the life philosophy of "Look to the Rainbow" from Finian's Rainbow, sung largely a capella, but be forewarned that this island of glory is less than a minute's worth of singing: one verse, one chorus. It's a respite and also a lead-in to a rowdier number.
Some numbers theatrically or cinematically cross-fade into each other, genre be damned, and thus we get a melodramatic reading of the old standard "Street of Dreams" and its faded glory and disillusion segueing into a Bruce Springsteen/ Patti Smith lightning bolt, "Because the Night." There's a disco number, too (hey, it was 1980): "Heaven Is a Disco" by Paul Jabara is a fun or frightening flashback, depending on your perspective and preferences.
As he'd later do for the Kritzer re-make, pianist-musical director, background vocalist David Lewis is musical director, joined by four other musicians. He's also listed as co-producer with the Kritzer show director, Ben Rimalower, and the set list included an admirable original by Lewis and Norman Dolph, "Everything I Am," allowing for some revelation of the soul behind the stance.
In a moment that would seem almost ripped from an old Hollywood movie, the new star is caught bowing to kowtowing to one celebrity in the audience, gushing and drooling, "I want to be in this man's musicals someday!"; she adds, as if given a genie-granted wish, "I hope it happens." Saying that and screeching "yay!" four times breathlessly, she acknowledges the object of her affection and intention, Stephen Sondheim. Funny how some dreams come true. Included on this CD is a number from his then-current original production of Sweeney Todd, "Not While I'm Around." The rest is eventual history, and I'm pleased to know that this mixed bag of tricks and tics and titanic talent is caught as a moment of history, too.
Philip Chaffin's newest solo album is his most satisfying, after two prior releases that were quite strong and rewarding. Not just a sturdy and robust musical theatre singer (that side, quite prominent before, remains a facet), his previous firmly established way with ballad crooning has risen to a new level, with more colors and textures to the voice. More nuanced and thoughtful in his readings of love songs, and more vibrant and looser in his up-tempo work, this album is a joy. With sometimes understated creativity, the excellent, elegant and effervescent choices by music director Sam Davis (conductor and sharing piano duties with Paul Masse) make this extra-interesting to listen to over and over. Woodwinds, brass and strings are used very effectively, with wise and warm servings of Dixie charm and ambience the album title (Harold Arlen/ E.Y. Harburg, 1936) correctly suggests as theme and flavor. That can mean subject matter of the lyrics (as in "Pardon My Southern Accent," the adorable and zippy Matt Malneck melody for the lyrics by the state of Georgia's huckleberry friend, Johnny Mercer) to numbers that would not be the usual suspects suddenly getting a Southern-fried covering. But don't worry: the honeysuckle and honey are not laid on by the ladleful, and the great guitar work by Kevin Kuhn and John Widgren doesn't get all twangy and corny by any means.
Repertoire-wise (and it is surely a wisely chosen repertoire), there's a little of everything. The singer seems at home with pretty much everything, as he goes from pop to folk to folksy drawling to slam-bang Broadway belt. He could still benefit from letting go even more on the more vulnerable or volcanic moments, but some reserve (call it discretion or class) seems to come with the territory of Chaffininity. Opening up and coming out beyond his own zone of Southern comfort would, and sometimes does, bring things to the next level of theatrical gut-spilling.
Fans and followers of the scores from musical theatre and musical films will relish some selections off the well-beaten path. The song Jerry Herman added to the movie version of Mame to give Robert Preston as the beau named Beau a solo, "Loving You" fits the bill, as it took place on the character's Southern plantation and has some Southern specificity in the lyric. It's also imbued with much celebratory selling points brought to the fore by Philip at his sincere and serenely sweet best. Ebullience comes forth contagiously in "I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side." Beyond these rarely heard numbers, there's room made for familiar fare like "Old Devil Moon" and "Love Walked In," as a standard old favorite, and "In a Sentimental Mood" as, well, a sentimental favorite. Newer writers get their turn to shine in the Southern sun, too: Michael John LaChiusa's "The One I Love" belongs to someone with a different sensibility in the musical Hello Again, but Philip makes it fit his own skin and his own actual Southern roots. The Ricky Ian Gordon/ Richard Nelson score of My Life with Albertine gets some new life with a fresh and compelling version of "Is It Too Late?" The whole score of ... Albertine is also on the PS Classics label, and spending years producing and supervising recordings of so much intelligent music must rub off on Philip who is usually producing, marketing, or planning other artists' CDs for the label with partner Tommy Krasker, who lovingly produced this musical equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast.
THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES
Just plain fun with merry musical nostalgia and spunk with a big wink is how I'd describe The Marvelous Wonderettes. Now playing Off-Broadway, the show is a recent transplant from California, beginning as a shorter piece in the '90s, a double dip into music of the late '50s in act one and late '60s in act two (a Christmas-themed sequel is already in production out West). We get the sense and sensibilities of the personalities and plot about the ladies singing as the girl group, The Marvelous Wonderettes: sometimes squabbling, sometimes female-bonding, sometimes passive-aggressive, but certainly in harmony in the musical sense. Vocal blend and back-ups are a big part of the raison d'être.
For just musical pleasure by the four women and the band, the skillful drive down Memory Lane stands on its own. The other levelknowing and appreciating the offstage personalities of the fictitious, frazzled, friction-filled femalesdoubles the pleasure so the album doesn't just feel like yet one more "not the original artists" retread of pop hits of the baby boomer radio days. Though the disc is packed to the satined gills with songs, I wish there'd been room for more snippets of dialogue to give more of the shoehorned contexts that become inside jokes in the theatre. Some of the distinct personalities come through in the singing approaches and spoken asides or quick spoken comments. The actresses reveal the characters' underlying optimism and not-so-inner bitches through attitudes they strike in song and speech. Because of her distinctively daffy, ditzy vocal characterization, Bets Malone's personality, whine and chirpiness come through most prominently. Beth Malone (not related) is deliciously strong in her own more assured way. So is Victoria Matlock, who has a lock on her "I'm so pretty, don't you envy me" teen queen with a sense of entitlement and little sense of fairness or humor. Special nods go to the belt and brio of the lovelorn, love-worn characterization by Farah Alvin (also memorable on another PS Classics cast album of a marvelously wonderful Off-Broadway score, I Love You Because). We love them all because they're endearing or a joy to love to hate, bringing back high school archetypes we grew up with and away from.
The almost non-stop pop ranges from "Lollipop"'s innocent carefree pleasures to the teen laments and teen angst and teen dreams that may never come true. We get the hopes for a "Dream Lover" and the lament for the dearly departed "Leader of the Pack," (yes, the repertoire overlaps with other jukebox musicals and revues, like the one titled by that number). Along the way, we revisit the Connie Francis hits "Lipstick on Your Collar" and "Stupid Cupid" and Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" and the early feminist "You Don't Own Me." The ownership and attitudes of the songs because of the plot's conveniently coincidental use of some boyfriends' names, etc., winks shamelessly at this convention co-opting, but it has its price. As a listening experience (in the second half, mostly) there is some diminishment of the potential for drama or musical "teeth"for example, making "You Don't Own Me" into a group number and making some lyrics removed to third person ("you don't own her" for the other three commiserating comrades). The lighter stuff in the first act works better all around, when they pounce on the drama and rock ranting fairly well, and it gives us a change of flavor from the cotton candy.
Sound-wise and corralling all the energy and puffery in so it really works as audio-only, divorced from its theatrical experience, credit goes to Jeffrey Lesser, who's made a couple of PS Classics albums feel like classics (such as the recent exquisite A Long and Winding Road from Maureen McGovern).
UNDER THE RADAR
Now the wind blows East. Blowing a hot band/cool jazz wind under the radarwith highlights like "Summer Wind"is a Pennsylvania college band that makes the grade. Presenting a recording of its talented students and one alumnus "ringer" swinger, their clear, youthful, energetic sound is as fresh as a breeze
Their sound is bright and their music is tight, and everything seems just about right with the Jazz Ensemble from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Under the leadership of Kevin Kjos, these students have learned their lessons well and apparently studied the masters; they are bursting with energy. With 18 players in the band and two singers, instrumental tracks, ballads and sassy swingers, the tempi and feel are varied to make for a very satisfying 13-track album.
Brass prevails, appropriately for the often punchy charts that consciously salute or are even transcribed from iconic records of the past. There are four trombone men, five trumpeters, four sax players (two doubling on flute, with one also on clarinet) in addition to piano, bass, drums and guitar. In some mixes, the band sounds a bit muddied where one wants individual sounds to jump out more. For me, the mix has too much bass, though I can never really have too much BasieCount Basie, that isas that music icon and his legacy are saluted on a few tracks. There are three instrumentals: "Moten Swing," "Corner Pocket" and "Fos Alarm" (named for its creator, Frank Foster, leader of the Basie Band for a decade, it includes a quote from "Over the Rainbow" in its power pack that closes the album).
Kristin Grassi, with an especially clean and appealing sound, was voted by jazz bible DownBeat Magazine, as the Best College Vocalist last year. She shows her bright sound and ease with lyrics as she sails through melodies on four numbers, including the title song. (Yes, "The Best Is Yet to Come" is appropriate for skilled young musicians with their lives and careers ahead of them.) She shines on this and her two loose, fun numbers associated with Nat King Cole, "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Orange Colored Sky." However, it's "Summer Wind" that is the most impressive because the ballad allows her some room for interpretation and sensitivity. Showing originality in her phrasing, the song becomes more wistful and romantic than I've heard it in more experienced hands.
Kutztown alumnus Jim Cargill gets a homecoming, sitting in with his college band, and shows he's ready to graduate to the big time in music. With a strong and assertive voice that has warmth and humor as its secret weapons, rather than just relying on power or swagger, he sets off sparks. Absorbing Rat Pack party style like a willing sponge, he brings a zest and flair rather than blind adulation and pale imitation. His "That Old Black Magic" has its own zingy magic, despite the uber-homage to the Sammy Davis, Jr. recording, complete with comical asides and tics and slick tricks. Jim does not come off as a wanna-be/close-but-no-cigarhe has the cigar, and lights it, and is smoking. I've seen him several times singing in New York City (he's toiled as a singing waiter at the fun-time Ellen's Stardust Diner on Broadway, and I've caught him in group shows, such as the monthly Grace Notes Singers' Soirees and the MetroJam at The Metropolitan Room, where he tends to music and tends bar, surrounded by music and picking up tips of both kinds).
What a treat to hear these young people look back on this material as they also look ahead to their future. It's one more reason to think our mutual musical future for the classic songs is in good hands.