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Matrimony & Maxine: It Shoulda Been You and
Maxine Linehan's Beautiful Songs

While the intended bride and groom in the original musical It Shoulda Been You are not the perfect match in the story of a wedding day ruled by Murphy's Law of things going wrong, there are some very good matches evidenced by the cast album. These include fine matches of character to performer, as well as the music to the lyrics (even though several lyricists were involved). And a quite beautiful match indeed is the gorgeous voice of singer Maxine Linehan with the chosen Beautiful Songs that make up her album and the cabaret/concert show it represents. Her own marriage to Andrew Koss is a blessed union: They met in the recording studio he runs; he's her guitarist, keyboardist and album co-producer; and he wrote one of the CD's songs for her.


Ghostlight Records

It was poet Robert Burns who famously observed that "the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry," and that sure is true of the plot of the quite funny It Shoulda Been You where the intricate plans for a lavish wedding hit many bumps in the road before the audience and the couple's families get the biggest plan-changer of all. The cast album is a zippy treat with tension played for laughs on a wedding day that will surely be memorable for all involved, but not in the ways usually expected.

Listening to the disc, you'll soon see that the wedding starts with two strikes against wedded bliss and blending families: different religions and backgrounds and personalities, the couples' mothers are already gritting and grinding their teeth. And brought up for the first time on the wedding day itself is the insistence on a pre-nuptial agreement which causes disagreement. And that's just for starters.

After two regional productions, the musical made its way to Broadway this year and lasted four months, this cast album not released before that closing. While its somewhat thick shtick and sitcom tone didn't sit well with some critics and audiences, those with a taste for whipped cream and matzoh balls and spice enjoyed it and laughed a lot. This cast album presents some sharp comic performances from pros like Edward Hibbert as the dry, unflappable wedding planner and Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris as the opposites-don't-attract mothers. The immensely likeable Josh Grisetti (as an ex-boyfriend) is terrifically talented with bright energy and a sweet side.

As the bride's older sister who's taken on much of the planning burden and none of the glory, Lisa Howard shines sympathetically, and the high-powered Howard explosion of "Jenny's Blues" is a knockout. Many will recall it as their introduction to the score when she seethed and belted her way through it at the Tony Awards. It's a showpiece for a performer, this combo of a burst of anger and thirst for adventure and lust. But, for me, it's not the highlight of the score or the album's performances. Its defiance and taking the reins is not in the league of something like "Don't Rain on My Parade," though the exciting Lisa Howard and the character she portrays have us rooting and electrified. Though nowhere near as showy, I more enjoy the more nuanced emotions that come through in other numbers, showing range and teamwork with others.

Barbara Anselmi's melodies are ingratiating and she has a flair for ear-catching strains of music in the musical comedy wheelhouse. The music sounds bouncy and crisp. Sound is unfussy and clear. On keyboards, Lawrence Yurman leads the small band of colleagues playing his own arrangements, with Doug Besterman's orchestrations for these eight players. I especially like the soft-shoe number for the groom (David Burtka) and his dad (Michael X. Martin) called "Back in the Day."

Anselmi also has a gift for gentle bittersweet melodies and can make an upbeat number a rollicking romp. She began the project in the BMI workshop for musical theatre writers and spread the initial lyric-writing assignments among several classmates. When Brian Hargrove, who wrote the laugh-out-loud libretto, took over lyric-writing responsibilities, he kept the others' work (seven songs) and added to the score with his own wordsmithing. Two other early-written lyrics, both of which come very early in the show, are particular gems that bring depth and delicacy and three dimensions to Lisa Howard's clearly central and grounded character: "I Never Wanted This" (by Michael Cooper) and "Perfect" (by Carla Rose Fisher). The title song's zingy words came from Will Randall's pen and the group number is served well by Daly as the bride's bulldozingly bossy mom, the calmer, cheery Chip Zien character as her husband, Anne L. Nathan and Adam Heller as odder members of the family tree (they double as Hibbert's assistants), and Grisetti's hapless spoken reactions. Jill Abramovitz's contribution, "What They Never Tell You," is a low-key solo for Tyne Daly about the sobering truth that marriage is not the fantasy "where everything is pretty, pink, and perfect."

Ernie Lijoi contributed lyrics for two contrasting numbers. One is the over-the-top parody of formulaic pop power ballad duets of mutual devotion, "Love You Till the Day," which Nick Spangler and Memphis' Montego Glover ham it up pretty well, though I'm left feeling it's not the hoot it wants to be in construction or vocal execution. (It does work better when seen, as the actors do some physical grandstanding and posing.) The other is Jenny's tender lament about being typed as nice and pleasant looking, but not "Beautiful" and (as her mother never stops pointing out) overweight.

So, yes, Mr. Hargrove had a considerable headstart with some ready-made highlights raising the bar. But he came up with some more fine work that the cast interprets and delivers with panache, directed by the partner in his own marriage, David Hyde Pierce. The ensemble piece "This Day (Opening)" lets them toss about quips and plot-advancing/plot-enhancing lines in dialogue and sung exchanges, like the mother calling her daughter a virgin bride, interrupted by the denial of that categorization to be rejoined by "Let me have my fantasy, please," and the whole shebang building to a conclusion as all sing, "We'll be dressed/ Smart and snappy/ While we're happily unhappy/ With our hearts on display." The concise "I hate 'Nice.'/ Nice is wrong. /It's pretending you're weak/ When you're strong" is one of many moments when Tyne Daly nails a Hargrove line; this time, in "Nice," she's trying her best to bite her tongue and smile and make nice with the groom's mother "when you just wanna punch her."

Hargrove and Aaron Finley (who understudied and then replaced Burtka) add their voices to the group songs. And last, but not least (though she's hardly getting the bulk of the singing or spotlight you might expect her character to have in a play about a wedding), here comes the bride! She's played by Sierra Boggess, who spends much of the saga as an offstage or dashing-about bundle of nerves, contributes a lot less than major weight to "Perfect" and the group numbers, until the plot thickens and the pot boils over and she finally gets her solo ("A Little Bit Less Than") and brings gusto to it.

It Shoulda Been You is diverting and highly entertaining. The tension-filled relationship with Tyne Daly as the hard-to-please mother critical of daughter Jenny from the get-go has a satisfyingly warm conclusion and she becomes genuinely "Nice"—even as the best-laid plans of nice mom and Jenny take a major detour. For those who like a modern take on old-fashioned musical comedy, this fun and funny one shoulda been just what the doctor ordered.


Honey Bun Records

Rather than the short title Beautiful Songs, it would really be more accurate and thorough—though unwisely immodest—to call this CD Beautiful Songs That Are Sung Beautifully by a Singer with a Beautiful Voice (with Beautiful Arrangements Beautifully Played). Strings, flute, and elegant keyboard work (and more) bring out the lushness of unabashedly romantic melodic lines embraced by the acting and singing skills of a performer whose voice can throb with passion, croon gently, or radiate with joy. Without sacrificing musical values, lyrics are phrased with a point of view as clear as the tone. Voice and instrumental performance are like ideal dance partners sweeping across the room, although there's no concern about who's leading whom.

With material encompassing a wide range of material, gloriously rich-voiced Maxine Linehan finds beautiful songs everywhere. These range from the traditional piece associated with her native Ireland (the ageless "Danny Boy") to the Beach Boys' hit "God Only Knows," to "One" from U2. Also represented are musical theatre giants who wrote both the melodies and lyrics—Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim—and stops along the way from Mexico ("Sway") to Paris to "Never Never Land."

While my favorite track is the emotionally naked yet still gorgeous version of the pop-folk item by Matt Alber, "End of the World" (popularized by his own recording in 2008), there's plenty of theatre music here. The classic "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" passes a difficult major litmus test in that it's such an almost inescapably formal declamation, yet the treatment here is anything but stiff. It is fluid, thoughtful, and emphasizes the dignified and stately 82-year-old Jerome Kern melody without a stentorian stance or donning formal wear. The wear and tear of a broken heart comes through, presenting a vulnerable person who has loved and lost at quite a cost, but philosophically viewing the Otto Harbach's lyric's lesson about what can happen "when a lovely flame dies."

Grand Hotel's "Love Can't Happen" is a refreshing choice impressively taken on. Peter Pan's idyllic home, "Never Never Land," sounds quite inviting and magical with Maxine conveying the needed sense of wonder and the aura of proud ownership. The arrangement takes some liberties with telescoping and rearranging some words when a section is repeated, but it's effective and, after all, liberty is what Pan's world is all about. One track that, for me, is a misstep is the combination of two mid-1960s Broadway souvenirs: Anyone Can Whistle's cut "There Won't Be Trumpets" and "A Quiet Thing" from Flora the Red Menace. The reason I object to it is one not everyone will agree with, and it's not because there's anything bad about the singing. It's just that I think if a singer came up with a unique pairing of two songs from different sources that the idea is that singer's property and for someone else to do it in a generally similar fashion feels like an uncreative copy. In this case, Barbra Streisand got there first. Maxine and her team are too creative and talented to have to simply follow someone else's inspired recipe when they could come up with their own.

Can-Can's "I Love Paris" (with its introductory verse shifted into the middle of this Cole Porter Parisian love letter) has a convincing unwavering affection for both "this timeless town" and the bottom-line true reason the person truly adores it so—"Why oh why do I love Paris? Because my love is there."

That same concept of being more than content in a big city because one inhabits it with a true love comes in a contemporary, custom-made piece. Husband/co-producer/band member (guitarist and one of two keyboard players) Alex Koss also shows his distinct voice as a songwriter with "I Think of You," which was a birthday gift for Maxine. (It must be nice to have an in-house in-love multi-tasker who also runs the recording studio!) The number is a keeper, with lines about the challenge of staying calm and sane in the big city with its intrusions recast or ignored more blithely when one is refocused on a loved one: "Never knew sirens could sound like a musical" and "A two-block walk makes me three hours late." The couple, now proud parents of two, have made their home in New York City, as reflected in this selection, the first I'm aware of to use "MetroCard" or "iPhone" in a lyric or to reference those many enthusiastic promoters for the comedy clubs, stepping in front of pedestrians on the streets in the Broadway area, discount coupons in hand, with their supposedly surefire opening line, "Do you like comedy?"

Maxine Linehan, who held her own in the opening night of the annual Cabaret Convention this week among veterans like Christine Andreas—who also sang I Love Paris" and a trademark of Edith Piaf, as Maxine does here, with "Hymne à l'amour," the release nicely timed to Piaf's centenary—has been gathering quite the buzz over the last year or so. Scott Siegel has featured her in several concerts and he created and directs the Beautiful Songs project.

In Manhattan, at Feinstein's/54 Below tomorrow night (Saturday, October 17, 2015) at 9:30, Maxine will be singing this material and then will be performing her tribute to Petula Clark, represented by the first of her three CDs, on November 2 at the Metropolitan Room. A song introduced by Miss Clark many years ago, "Walk Through the World with Me," from the film musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Leslie Bricusse) is the opening track here, and just one of many interesting—and beautiful—strolls through her gratifying world of Beautiful Songs.

- Rob Lester

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