Our musical book is open to the "S" page this week for a songwriter named Scott (Alan), a show about a shrink called Sessions, and then recording sessions with two singers. Mr. Simeone and Miss Shulman are vocalists with very different kinds of albums, and little in common besides eclectic song choices. But let's start with a whole group of Broadway and Off-Broadway singers.
DREAMING WIDE AWAKE:
"I stand here naked with emotion," goes one line in one of Scott Alan's songs of catharsis, "Let Love Begin," intensely performed by Tracie Thoms. Naked with emotion and powerful describe much of his material. Scott wears his heart on his sleeve - both sleeves - and it's a big heart; he expresses his feelings with unabashed emotion. Run for the hills if you don't like openness and open wounds in songs, but you'll be missing some of our best musical theater singers treating a skilled writer's work with care and matching his passion. It's undeniably exciting stuff, but in some numbers, there is so much outpouring of gutsy drama and confessional soul-bearing in the writing that some performers' revved-up belting finishes risks overkill. But go for broke is the way here.
Several of the songs are from or cut from a musical theatre piece called Piece and may need more context to be fully appreciated, but they are certainly dynamic and polished, well served by the performers here. "Magic" by Adriane Lenox is nicely calibrated in its build, and balances its projected feelings of uncertainty and determination, with strings and piano working in concert, too. Liz Callaway is, as usual, masterful in cutting to the core of a song ("Goodnight"), getting the sincerity and simplicity and avoiding any temptations of goo or overdoing. A hilarious number cut from Piece provides welcome comic relief for this album: "At Seventeen" looks at that age from the (counter)point of view of a teenager and a woman of 43 - Carly Jibson and Jackie Hoffman, respectively, each nailing it.
This 13-song collection has many gripping and touching moments. What could be considered the smallest moment is in some ways the most heartbreaking: Spring Awakening star Jonathan Groff is disarming in a two minute and 46 second song of reluctant goodbye to an ex-lover where the feelings about the break-up are still raw. He perfectly creates a believable guy reeling in the moments where one is in shock, in denial, and still in love. Eden Espinosa's "I'm a Star" is bravura at its best - just delightful. On the more serious side, with songs that start tenderly and gather steam as the characters gather strength before coming down for satisfying cool-down conclusions, are two more standouts: on the subject of divorce, Danny Calvert on "Kiss the Air"; childhood longing in the very accomplished "Never Neverland (Fly Away)" by Stephanie J. Block. Other artists heard here are Shoshana Bean, Cheyenne Jackson, Katie Thompson, Josh Strickland, Jill Zadeh, and Shayna Steele backed by Michael McElroy and Capathia Jenkins.
The writer co-produced the album with his resourceful and creative musical director/ keyboard player, Jesse Vargas, whose playing is often the backbone to the work, subtly so or front and center. Instrumentation varies from track to track, with cello, guitar and French horn all effectively used. All of the lyrics are in a booklet containing some photos and brief but very heartfelt comments on each song and/or performer.
Dynamite was never so heartfelt.
Well, what would you expect a musical about a psychiatrist and his very troubled patients to be like? Care to place a bet? Turgid music or rocking rage? Rhymed anguish? Pop music for pop psychology with a toe-tapping ode to the id? Sessions fashions its depressions with touches of some of these things and various other routes. The show played New York earlier this year and an album with its 10-member company has been released by Original Cast Records, champion of the smaller musicals that often come and go quickly. Music, lyrics and book are by Albert Tapper who also produced the album and wrote another musical recorded for the label, Imperfect Chemistry, which explores another field of science with a much broader kind of humor. Here it's less about a wink and more about time to think with the shrink. There seems to be a determination to be jaunty and entertaining at times, while several heavy and/or earnest numbers weigh things down, making this a kind of manic-depressive affair. I wish the songs either dug deeper or went for laughs all the way. Still, there are some reasonably good performances despite some weak or workmanlike material.
The writer's plot synopsis explains how the songs fit in and whose neuroses are whose. Amusing is David Patrick Ford as a patient who would like to think he is Bob Dylan. Singing with trademark Dylan vocal inflections (but clearer in tone), his "I'm an Average Guy" is cute, and he plays his own guitar and harmonica. The other accompaniment on the album is by a five-piece band led by Fran Minarik (he also plays keyboards). Arrangements, orchestrations and musical supervision are by Steven Gross. There is a pop push to some of the adrenalin-infused numbers and more emotional underpinnings for the intense pieces. A battered wife character is sung with utmost seriousness, palpable emotional pain and powerlessness by Trisha Rapier with two major numbers outlining her immobile status. A central plot aspect has the psychiatrist struggling with attraction to an all-too-willing patient, among other issues, while being admired, scorned or doubted at various points by various characters. A likeable number with dash and good spirits by Scott Richard Foster with Amy Bodnar expresses one guy's desire to be just like the good doctor who seems to have it all, "If I Could Be Like Pete." And "You Should Dance" has a catchy, feel-good melody that becomes an effectively empowering tool that does the trick pretty well for the ending, making dance a metaphor for being positive and brave about facing life's struggles.
This mildly diverting 18-track album is what it is: an odd mix of fluff and heavy stuff, undistinguished but performed gamely. Sessions has some undemanding charms for the listener, and most won't be draining as real psychotherapy would be, with a few chuckles along the way and a few catchy melodies.
Some singers are an acquired taste and take time to appreciate. I confess to having mixed feelings about singer Marcus Simeone, based on some limited exposure in concerts featuring a variety of singers and one overheated CD guest appearance (on Jamie deRoy and Friends' The Real Thing). I'd shrugged, finding his work to be mannered and overwrought, oozing with heartwrenching sobs and coming on too strong. Some of that overly ardent approach and decorative vocal trimmings and tics, along with some switches in dynamics that feel "pushed" or manipulated, are present on his album debut. But the happy news is that much of it is quite appealing. Present are the influences of a singer I enjoy and who is his acknowledged musical hero, Johnny Mathis (around whose work he's built a tribute show). Neither singer is a stranger to sentimentality or those high tones with a fluttering in the voice to indicate a fluttering of the heartstrings and eyelashes. It can be keening, or touching - depending on how you hear it.
Thumbing through the dictionary to try to describe Marcus Simeone's voice, you might choose words like "soaring," "sweet," "stunning," and "strong." The word I wouldn't expect to choose from the "S" pages is "simple" ... but there are very affecting moments when he sings simply and purely and wonderfully. There's no denying that when he croons gently in his very high head tones, it can be truly arresting. An a capella bonus track not listed on the album's packaging is especially so: a tender take on the standard "I'll Be Seeing You" (Sammy Fain/ Irving Kahal), that farewell that may or may not be forever.
Bittersweet recollections are also sensitively interpreted in Johnny Mercer's lyrics. With unfettered flair, Marcus takes on a song that is seasonally appropriate, "Autumn Leaves." The sorrowful Joseph Kosma melody is not overdramatized. This lament leads into a lesser known Mercer lyric, one posthumously set to music by Barry Manilow, "When the Meadow Was Blooming." Singing with lovely understated guitar accompaniment by Kenny Brescia, it is a highlight. Also on the less-is-more side of the argument, a standout is the simply gorgeous lullaby-like arrangement of "Answer Me, My Love" by the late D. Jay Bradley.
Some melodrama invades other performances here. The title song is not the old standard from 1942 but a new piece written for the singer. Nan Selle fashioned a straightforward and romantic lyric that expresses contentment and optimism about a relationship, with a melody and arrangement by the talented Nicholas Levin. It starts gently but builds and churns power ballad style before coming down to earth again. There are also some change-of-pace uptempo numbers in this live set (the album was recorded live at the now-closed New York club The Encore way back in December of 2005), with comfortable excursions through several pop and R&B songs. John DePalma does a guest vocal duet on a perky "Dream a Little Dream of Me" that serves as a respite from the intensity.
Four of the tracks feature pairings of songs; the oddest being the awestruck innocence felt in "A Child is Born" (Dave Grusin/ Marilyn and Alan Bergman) with "Strange Fruit", the still-chilling 1929 song about a lynching. The spoken intro about the evils of the world and an over-dramatic use of echo rob the first song of its own innocence and don't allow to be enjoyed on its own merits. Likewise, the latter needs no added context, being a mournful piece and a direct attack on the jugular by its own considerable power. To his credit, Marcus shows admirable restraint on his vocals here, too, with what could easily be milked - but it isn't.
Music direction is by versatile pianist Barry Levitt, who can swing or play with great sensitivity but with enough taste to avoid going down mawkish or muddy roads. He and the singer are billed as co-arrangers for about half the tracks. A couple of others simply acknowledge that they are following the blueprints from pop records of the past. Besides the aforementioned guitarist, the accompaniment consists of two able and very solid New York jazz regulars, bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Brian Gryce. The sound is great, with the pluses of a live performance nicely captured: the pin-drop hush on ballads and the pulse of the rhythms on the up tunes and the cheering audience all very much a part of the experience. The patter is not extensive, but is programmed to be at the beginning of tracks, making it more difficult to skip over.
Marcus will be appearing on October 26th on Theatre Row at The Laurie Beechman Theater in the West Bank Café in a concert concert to benefit the local Seamen's Society for needy children.
UNDER THE RADAR
I'm so glad the next item was picked up by a label after earlier very limited self-distribution. Recorded in 2004, it's the debut of a classy vocalist I would not want to have missed.
Silky, subtle, sophisticated and shimmering, Deborah Shulman is pure pleasure to hear if you love a love song sung with an adult been-there, done-that sensibility. She can explore a sad lyric without overdoing the sorrow or skimping on the pure musicality. Two for the Road is a thoroughly classy affair with mostly downbeat material that focuses on self-analysis and self-awareness rather than self-pity. With several optimistic numbers, too, it's all well sung with elegance and a depth of feeling. The liner notes are as unguarded and unpretentious as the singing: she states that the arc of the repertoire chosen reflects her reactions to a difficult divorce and her recovery, followed by a new love.
Some theatre and jazz fans will recognize the pianist/ arranger: Terry Trotter who made a series of albums that are instrumental jazz versions of Sondheim scores and one of The Fantasticks, among others. He's joined by Tom Warrington on bass, Joe La Barbara on drums and guitarist Larry Koonse, who does some especially evocative playing. Terry Trotter's work here is key to the album's success: a sensitive accompanist and arranger, he and Deborah work together magnificently to tell the stories of the songs, often coming off as little character studies. They find surprising fragility and depth in what might be tossed off as just a bit of easy fun in "I Like You, You're Nice," (Blossom Dearie/ Linda Alpert). As a singer, Deborah is very much an actress who makes the most of the words but is sure-footed musically and has a basic prettiness to her tone that she rarely sacrifices for the sake of dramatic impact. The songs are strung out at length, never rushed, but the underlying melodic line and story are never lost in the leisure. They don't feel long, even the six-minute "Where Do You Start" as the Johnny Mandel melody is treated with respect while the Marilyn and Alan Bergman lyric is sung haltingly, as if she is discovering the thoughts as they tumble out in painful step-by-step realization. It becomes a three-act play.
The less interesting and successful tracks are a kind of easygoing take on Rodgers and Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again" absent of its built-in cute sarcasm, and a kind of lightly swinging "The Boy Next Door" with an odd arrangement that only gets to its wistful heart at the end. And only "The Meaning of the Blues" seems mired in glumville (OK, I know it's the blues, but it just isn't as intriguing as the others that seem to have more going on) and it has some less satisfying low notes. But beginning with the album's rich romantic embrace of its Mancini/Mercer title song to its closer, "Some Other Time" from On the Town, this is an album with so many impressive, detailed moments.
Deborah has an interesting background: she teaches voice, has performed in musical theatre (like Cats in California), has performed with groups, a duo (with Ann Jillian), and solo, produces shows and has written libretti for four children's operas. And she's just finished a second album that should be on its way soon: I can't wait. She's a gem. After Two for the Road, it'll be great to have one more for the road.And now it's time for me to hit the road.