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From JAY (Records) Jay (Armstrong Johnson)
Review by Rob Lester

The recently released recordings we lend our ears to this time are the cast album of a 2013 Off-Broadway production of The Landing by John Kander and Greg Pierce, preserved for posterity by JAY Records. And Jay Armstrong Johnson's cabaret act is available, too; its CD release will be celebrated with a one-night return gig coming up near this month's end.


JAY Records

Compared to the bright pizzazz and zip that marked much of his work during the long partnership that composer John Kander enjoyed with Fred Ebb, The Landing shows a mostly gentler, subtler side. I'm quite captivated by the charms of this recording of the much-anticipated new career chapter: a collaboration with impressive lyricist and bookwriter Greg Pierce. And his skills and range with dialogue—on its own and how it melds with sung words—are on ample display here because the plentiful dialogue has been recorded, too. Pierce and Kander have "Story by" co-billing.

The Landing is the name used for the production that ran briefly a few years ago as well as for this recording provided, but it's actually the title for just one of three musical stories that made up an eventual full evening of theatre. They were strikingly different-toned scenarios all performed by the same four-person cast—one woman, two men, and one boy—accompanied by an instrumental group that also numbers four players. The production ran at The Vineyard Theatre in New York City in October and November of 2013 and was recorded several days before the end of that run. Some sung sections are brief or alternate with spoken interchanges and others are deeply woven into, and dependent on, character perspectives. Thus, the decision to record all that dialogue seems sage and makes the initial full exposure both emotionally impactful and immersive. Underscoring helps keep things flowing and enriches the well-acted dialogue, but the sections without singing exist as separate units that can thus be skipped over if desired when revisiting or skimming the material.

The album takes up two discs, totaling 46 tracks, 18 of which are less than a minute and a half in length. (Ten of them exceed three minutes in playing time.) The booklet accompanying the CD package includes all the words of the three scripts, with the sung material indicated by being in all capital letters. Four large color photos from the production are included, plus a quite brief introduction by the writers, and the theatre and recording studio credits.

The four actors show considerable versatility in their roles across the three pieces, all of which include some sympathetic narration; thus, Julia Murney's participation in the eponymous final story is "just" as storyteller and the role played by David Hyde Pierce (yes, a blood relative of the wordsmith—they are uncle and nephew, like two characters in The Brick) in the opener, Andra, is the same, plus two quick cameos. Paul Anthony Stewart plays contrasting major roles in the playlets, and is kept quite busy in the very quirky middle item, The Brick, in which he picks up six additional small roles, ranging from the hard-sell, blaring-voiced infomercial spokesman selling the title item from the actual wall on the site of the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre ("Bring the murder and mayhem right into your very own living room," he enthuses) to a cheery neighbor lady.

The characters of the boys essayed by age-appropriate young actor Frankie Seratch may not be as strikingly different from one another, but Seratch sounds wholly natural and at ease in each role, and the key attitude in each is distinct. In Andra, he has some initial wise-guy cockiness with sensitivity lurking beneath that; in The Brick, he is a curious and more innocent (but still lively) kid, sweetly and patiently protective of his odd and somewhat unhinged aunt; and he's a decidedly placid presence with an air of mystery when playing the boy The Landing's gay male couple seeks to adopt.

Kander's music is consistently engaging and fresh, always in tune with tone, from the wistful wonder of the boy fascinated by the omnipresence of "Numbers" in Andra ("There are numbers all around us/And they're changing all the time") who finds comfort in the more finite exactness of math, admitting he has few friends and that "People are weird." In the same ingratiating performance, when Stewart tells him about myths and constellations, and he absorbs it all, we're brought into a welcome web of the worlds of fantasy and science, both in "World Through My Telescope" ("You'll see Venus and Mars/ And a billion stars/ With a billion stories to tell/Oh, the world through my telescope/ Is soft and still and light/ And I can't wait/ Another day for night").

The rhyming just quoted may not be clever and sophisticated, but much is in the voice of a schoolboy, so that would not be the most appropriate choice. And if "Mars" and "stars" and rhymes that have been used in "Fly Me to the Moon" and many other songs and "light" and "night" have been partnered as far back as "Silent Night," Greg Pierce is no slouch when wordplay is appropriate. Julia Murney deftly swirls through another verse employing the word "night" as The Brick's excitable aunt describing a scene, with simple yet delightfully close rhymes spiced up with alliteration: " ... And the fight and the rain/ And the night/ And the sin and the gin/ And the gang and the gun/ And the fun ..."

Stewart also swims swiftly in similar word-dense waters supplied by Pierce at his pithiest in "Where Did You Go" when warning of the possible dangers ahead: "Treachery/ Lechery/ Divorce/ Remorse/ A shark-like fin/ Bark-like skin/ Dizziness/ Frizziness/ Gout/ Drought ..." and as the verse winds down, the language becomes inventive in a Yip Harburg-esque way, rhyming "lunacy" and "goonacy." Pierce's poetic side is demonstrated in a major number in this same middle story, when metaphors concerning water take the spotlight, the aunt proudly describing herself as "I am 'White Water,' racing along.." while "Some people are ponds/ They stay in their place ....Some people are lakes/ They wanna stay put ..." The defiance and determination about not becoming like the fearful or complacent folks makes this a kind of cousin to the character-defining number with Stephen Sondheim's words in Gypsy whose title shares the comparative phrase used here: "Some People" (with a more plain-spoken woman describing the stationery set with words such as "Some people sit on their butts...") (Fans of fun facts in musical theatre history may recall that the long career of John Kander had an early resumé-builder gig on the payroll of that 1959 blockbuster as dance music arranger). "White Water" is the rare item in the score as recorded here that allows for any consistent big-voiced bravura singing. What we have here is more a display of low-key characterful sung stretches showcasing the actor-singers' nuanced emotional levels satisfyingly and often warmly shown.

With all this dialogue recorded in big swaths or see-sawing with song, I'd like to quote a few snippets to show that it is miles away from being dull plot-advancing chatter or clunky, wedged-in song cues. These people do sometimes speak with colorful language that makes them good company: Carpenter Ben (Stewart) describes his attachment to the constellations like Andromeda whose nickname gives the opening tale its title: "I fell in love with Andra when I was your age. I could always tell she was watching over me, especially when I woke up in the middle of the night and I felt like I didn't have a single friend. I could just open my window and—there she was."

David Hyde Pierce actually speaks and sings while personifying The Brick. A talking brick? Yes, and with an accent, and odd figures of speech in his speeches, the accent indicated in the adjusted spellings: "You got the short legga tha trousahs. You got a mashed potata life with a mashed potata hubby who sits around watchin' the boidies go tweet-tweet ..." A TV news reporter (the ubiquitous Stewart) gets to inform viewers of a gory news item with alliteration to the max: "They were last seen at a bar called The Babbling Baboon before being buried in a barrel abutting the backyard at Bridget Babcock's 'Bubbling Brook' Bed and Breakfast." A padded room in the loony bin is described from a child's point of view as "this cool room where all the walls are pillows." A tense moment between the two men in the titular piece, discussing differing takes on child-rearing, goes: "Maybe we should have agreed on a strategy before we ..." which is interrupted by the reaction: "'Strategy'? Maybe we should treat him like a son, not a battle." While plenty of the dialogue throughout all the stories is more laidback, everyday speech about meals and bedtimes, there's something nice about these slice-of-life vignettes that makes us engaged and anticipatory. Director Walter Bobbie's work is admirable in keeping things with a real feel and unrushed, but never lugubrious, tempi. Obviously, there will be less intrigue if your listening sessions are frequent.

Of course, while the spoken passages have a real pull, it's the lyrics and music that cement the enjoyment. Graceful, committed performances by the fine quartet of actors singing with the quartet of musicians bring a rich and rewarding listening theatrical experience. That sublime foursome of musicians consists of conductor-pianist Paul Masse, woodwinds man Vincent DellaRocca, cellist Vivian Israel, and percussionist Greg Landes. Adding to their past glories, David Loud as music director and Larry Hochman as orchestrator contribute their invaluable talents to create a vivid and varied musical palette.

There is so much humanity so well etched and evoked throughout the three parts—with common themes of loneliness, connection, love, family, and breaking out of the boxes people find themselves in. Taking in The Landing's multi-part auditory "permanent record," quite like an old-time radio play of the 1930s or '40s, we are engaged, but the emotional effects linger long after. They include a metaphysical element in final moments and the midway comic treat of the talking, destructive Brick that is oddly just as moving as the two serious companion pieces. And those of us who've long swayed to and hummed the music of gifted John Kander from back to his little-known pre-Ebb score of A Family Affair to the prodigious Kander & Ebb canon including, just to name the three starting with the letter C, Cabaret, Chicago, and Curtains (the last with help from Rupert Holmes), now have this quite different but top-notch set of songs, lovingly and caringly produced by veteran John Yap to relish, with an eager eye towards the next Kander & Pierce piece. I, for one, can't wait.


Broadway Records

The enthusiasm and bonhomie of Jay Armstrong Johnson goes a long, long contagious way toward making the live recording of his nightclub act a cheerful and cheering listening holiday. It's frisky fun. The set is one that took place recently at the popular Manhattan venue Feinstein's/54 Below and if you check their calendar, you'll see he has a return gig coming up on October 30, a CD release party for this project, with a promised "Halloween twist."

Acts by musical theatre performers at this Broadway-friendly spot putting the spotlight on their musical talents in genres not restricted to the musical theatre canon has resulted in a flurry of releases on the aptly named Broadway Records featuring folks including Patti LuPone, a cluster of kids who had roles in musicals, and repeat-releaser Norbert Leo Butz. Johnson's repertoire mixes pop, a little religious music as a nod to his church-singing early days, and both familiar and little-known musical theatre material. There's a fairly large amount of spoken material included, and while the chatty fellow, pumped up and grateful to be presenting his own act, mentions his Great White Way roles as one of the three sailors going On the Town on leave and a Texas man (like himself) in the brief run of Hands on a Hardbody, material from neither show is heard here.

Jay joins with others for a mash-up trio of two songs from Hair, the revival marking his Broadway debut, with a pop number sandwiched between them. We hear "What a Piece of Work Is Man" (words courtesy of Shakespeare) and "Walking in Space" (here called "How Dare They Try"). In between these is "Lay Me Down," a number J.A.J. calls "Hair-esque." The familiar theatre songs, like other tracks, feature other strong singers prominently lending their voices in harmony. The likeable Lindsay Mendez duets on Annie's chipper "I Don't Need Anything but You," borrowing the reupholstered grooving treatment fashioned by Jeff Blumenkrantz for the vocal teaming on a recording with Jay's On the Town castmate Alysha Umphress. "Johanna," from Sweeney Todd, represents his credit in a concert version of the Sondheim score with Bryn Terfel in the title role. It doesn't quite soar the way one might hope, and sticking with a distancing British accent appropriate for the London-set musical keeps it locked into the original context as a set piece, instead of suggesting it being felt in the moment as a communicative singer in the nightclub setting.

From a produced musicalization of Romeo and Juliet (Jeff Buckley), in which Johnson won the male lead, comes a winning "Everybody Here Wants You." It brings forth a sultry, coiled performance that shows off his falsetto. A potent musical theatre moment arrives with the solo called "Lost Boy." It's a thoughtfully delivered number from Darling, the score of what he calls a "dark reconstruction" of the "Peter Pan" story. It has music, lyric, orchestration, and arrangement by younger generation theatre man Ryan Scott Oliver.

The autobiographical framework cues songs to acknowledge various roads taken in life: the church roots in the spirituals "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "Oh, Happy Day" melded together; one of his dad's favorite rock oldies, "Rosanna," and an ode to ...wait for it .... fried chicken, saluting his favored late-night, post-show fast food meal. And, to their credit, the glib and goofy obscurity found on Youtube, "The Chicken Song" by Logan McWilliams, gets a full-out treatment that's adorable and funky. Some of the amiable but rambling patter can descend into TMI better left out, like being in therapy, getting sick while understudying, studying yoga, what subway he takes home, his habit of vomiting when he ate too much before performing on Broadway. Ah, the glamorous life of show business!

Childhood friends join in on some of the numbers, some quite prominently, with full-bodied harmonies wailing, and the star does them a disservice by introducing them as merely "my back-up singers," the same term used in the printed credits. Often, they feel like more of a real ensemble. He does introduce them prominently, their names stated and their talents praised, as he gives them shout-outs to the cheering throng (besides those mentioned elsewhere, other singers adding their talents are Todrick Hall and Allison Robinson). Amanda Williams Ware shines as full vocal partner in "Thank U" by Glen Ballard and Alanis Morissette, recorded by the latter pop star, following a story about how that singer's hits were a jinx. (It's a long story ....and you'll hear it here as another long story that the audience finds fairly entertaining.)

Whether it's a sweet encore lullaby, "Gavin's Song," or the rambunctious "Who Knows Who Cares" by Kelcey Paul Ayer, Taylor David Rice, Ryan Clinton Hahn, Matthew James Frazier, and Andrew Jeffrey Hamm, Jay Armstrong Johnson, singing friends Amanda Williams Ware, et al. go straight to the heart of the songs. Pianist/music director Rodney Bush is credited with many of the musical settings, some in partnership with the singer. Seven more players are in the band, too, with a guest banjo player for a number called (what else?) "Banjo." The high spirits and love of performing come across here with flying colors in this recital of varied musical hues.

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