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Shades of the cool 1950s with
Cry-Baby and The Royal Bopsters Project

Back in the 1950s, when Broadway audiences were first introduced to the score of The King and I, finding Neverland in Peter Pan, and cheering the local New York baseball team in the world series in Damn Yankees, other kinds of music were flourishing, too, as this week's items up for review remind us. Early rock and roll rolled around—as the rollicking musical Cry-Baby, finally on disc, celebrates with its punchy pastiche score. And jazz was spawning legends with bebop and vocalese for the hip to dig, as lovingly recreated in The Royal Bopsters Jazz Project. Both albums work as nostalgic rekindling and living, breathing stand-alone pleasures.


Broadway Records

If patience is a virtue, it's been both tested and rewarded when it comes to Broadway fans waiting years for recordings of scores of shows long after their runs. That is sometimes a matter of the material being released from a vault (or litigation about the rights), funding delays, or a new production or concert inspiring new interest (and probably a new cast). Cry-Baby's seven-year delay is now over. The musical populated with teens and their families—those labeled "squares," the cool cats, and the "bad boys" like the title character with time spent in "juvie" (detention center for juvenile delinquents)—lasted just two months on Broadway. But it had its admirers and the better-late-than-never cast album, as I hear it, presents a good case to give the score another hearing. The album is peppy and full of laugh-out-loud moments with almost the whole cast reunited. So, technically, it's a "studio cast," as it is dutifully labeled, but it's awfully close to complete as the cutely emblazoned tagline states: "88.4% of the Original Broadway Cast."

The very entertaining songs echo the various styles and sensibilities of 1950s pop music, notably rockabilly for the title character's swagger and glee. The film used authentic records from the period, including an oldie that shares the piece's title, but the all-original score is pastiche of the best sort: it emulates and embraces the genres and stylistic trademarks, going them one better with affectionate parody and the astute cleverness and craft of the lyrics.

Co-writer David Javerbaum had won me over years ago with his wit and polish on lyrics for a terrific little musical called Suburb, happily preserved on disc. The guy knows what he's doing and this time he collaborated with songwriter Adam Schlesinger, known for being a part of the pop group Fountains of Wayne. The result is a set of spiffy numbers with a fresh tang, but fully immersed in the period. Their joint efforts gently mock the rock of the era while at the same time making one yearn for its simple joys. Most remarkably, the songs stand on their own as fun romps. It might be a whole lot of fluff with no respite for some who want something more weighty or a change-of-pace message song (like we get in Hairspray, another musical derived from a John Waters film, also set in his own Baltimore). Certainly this show otherwise follows in its dancing footsteps, and could also be considered, I guess, a kissing cousin of Grease, Footloose and Memphis. But it's sweeter and has more smarts at its heart than most such shows pushing buttons to harken back to the "good old days."

Schlesinger and album producer Steven M. Gold, as two of the non-original cast members, take on some roles as well as being credited as the two "additional musicians" joining the six-man band. Both play keyboards, as does musical director Henry Aronson (and Gold is also on harmonica). Schlesinger and Gold, who did the CD's mixing, are also credited with the orchestrations in a three-man team along with Chris Jahnke. The sound is just right—not too "pop," not too glossy or dramatic, but the mix of theatre and rock 'n' roll unpretentiousness that is its raison d'etre. The album is dedicated to the memory of the late Mark O'Donnell who co-wrote the book with veteran Thomas Meehan (these two also crafted Hairspray's book).

James Snyder, who recently returned to Broadway in If/Then, made his Broadway debut in the title role (which was played by Johnny Depp in the 1990 film). He gives it his all, digging his boot heels into the brooding and bombastic ballyhooing in a style mixing Elvis Presley -ish musical theatre characters like those in All Shook Up and the Birdie of Bye Bye Birdie. And, if a uniquely distinct personality doesn't leap from the disc, he's a dynamo with pizzazz and fits the bill. A bit more danger and irony would have brought things up to another level, but the needed restlessness and charm wiggle through in his renditions of "Do That Again" ("It's like you covered me in honey/ And then dunked me in bees") and the ridiculousness of the empty-headed uber-generic, itchy rock redundancy anthem with the title which is also unapologetically the bulk of its repeated lyric: nothing less than "Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)."

Elizabeth Stanley (recently seen as anthropologist Claire in the On the Town revival) is the "good girl" Allison who has eyes for the "dangerous" Wade, nicknamed Cry-Baby. The two separately gripe that "Nobody Gets Me," and they combine their opposites-attract energies with that just-mentioned "Baby ..." number and the wonderfully done pseudo-love song "I'm Infected," comparing a case of mutual love pangs with suffering from ailments such as measles and stoic stab wound survival. ("My thoughts are so unclean/ I think Cupid slipped a mickey in my polio vaccine.")

Chester Gregory II brings high-flying vocals as Dupree, with the juicy "Jukebox Jamboree" and such, enlivening the already snazzy proceedings. Add some doo-wop and harmony vocals of the street corner and vanilla styles and you've got the cream of the crop of 1950s harmonies. Alli Mauzey is a major asset as a fawning female with a crush of epic proportions that contributes to her shaky grip on things. Her big number, self-describing her behavior as that of a girl with a "Screw Loose" got some attention at the time and is occasionally done as a character showcase outside the show. The originator's spot-on nutty and panting rendition shows you why.

Others pros such as the fearless Carly Jibson and the ebullient Christopher J. Hanke add their contrasting colors to the colorful carnival of characters. Best of all is the ever-hilarious Harriet Harris, making the most of her pompous, self-aggrandizing women's club president character chairing the cheer that is "The Anti-Polio Picnic." Every moment of cluelessness, misguided guidance, and passive-aggressive duplicity is nailed, as she did recently in It Shoulda Been You. Her grand solo confession, "I Did Something Wrong, Once" is a master class in comic wizardry and timing.

Cry-Baby may be a far cry from classic, but it has a lot going for it and is a barrel of fun-filled performances on this swell cast album. Good things come to those who wait, and this is very good indeed.


Motéma Music

The term "an embarrassment of riches" is the best I can think of to describe the historic and seemingly unbelievable cross-generational, cross-pollination triumph that is The Royal Bopsters Project. Modern-day singer-arrangers who are inheritors and admirers of the jazz legacy that came to flower in the 1950s collaborate with their still-working-in-the-trenches heroes. A live version of the CD was recently presented at Birdland Jazz Club.

As author/musicologist James Gavin tells us in his illuminating liner notes, the project began as singer/music educator Amy London's desire to honor and work further with a giant among idols, the great jazz singer Mark Murphy. Beset by numerous problems as time took its toll, he'd moved to the Actor's Home in regretted retirement five years ago at age 78. She befriended him and without a doubt rejuvenated him with a combination of personal and professional bondings, bringing him with her to concerts and her classes where he eventually performed with students. In these recordings from 2012 and 2013, but just released this year, he sounds in splendid form, like the Mark of his magnetic mature recordings in his long career of putting his stamp on standards and a wide range of other material.

Soprano London, whose solo albums are remarkable as well, brought in fellow educator/singer Holli Ross, an alto. The male members of the new quartet are Darmon Meader, the gifted tenor who is founding member of the great harmony group New York Voices, and one of London's students as the junior member, the talented bass Dylan Pramuk. The resulting blend is nothing short of glorious. When their guests join in to be featured and/or held in a supportive, swinging hammock of harmony, it's history and heaven all at once.

The gorgeous labor of love recording project, an outgrowth of the concert at The New School, where the talented London teaches, began as a Murphy tribute with his participation and a collaboration with other singers she's known. He participates prominently on four tracks, with more icing on an already very rich cake coming from one guest spot each for four more jazz vocal masters: Sheila Jordan, Bob Dorough, and the two surviving members of the trio that defined vocalese and inventive jazz harmony group singing-Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Jon Hendricks, also the king of setting lyrics to famous solos by iconic instrumentalists, starts off the album as a featured singer on a piece he wrote with Gigi Gryce, "Music in the Air," also known as "Wildwood." It was first recorded as an instrumental in 1954.

What a sublime and satisfying blend this is for us and certainly for its instigator, Amy London. Imagine it: to sing with two peers she's known and worked with as far back as the '80s and then to join with these role model superstars who are in their 80s and beyond, plus prize student Pramuk who was born in 1981, the year Holli Ross's collaboration (with Ray Passman) on a lyric for a Miles Davis composition first appeared on a Mark Murphy album. He heroically reprises here, with Holli also spotlighted. That piece is "Boplicity" which became "Bebop Lives" and the 1981 Murphy album was his tribute to author Jack Kerouac, iconic 1950s figure. And on another track here, "Bird Chasin'," also known as "Chasin' the Bird," Mark contributes in a spoken manner with a selection from Kerouac's signature memoir "On the Road." The lyrics are Amy's and the arrangement is Pramuk's in this team effort. Jazz lovers know that "the bird" was Charlie Parker, who composed the melody based on the chord changes in George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," which first came on the scene in his Girl Crazy Broadway show (with brother Ira's words) back in 1930, the year Annie Ross was born.

Annie (no relation to Holli Ross) is magnetic on her "Music Is Forever" love letter to the many now-gone jazz giants, which she half-speaks as the younger voices swirl around her. She's also the co-writer (with David Ball) of the CD-ending "Let's Fly," where Amy at last gets her solo. She's joined just for this track by her husband, guitarist Roni Ben-Hur and they quote Annie's signature song "Twisted" as well as the Sinatra standard "Come Fly with Me." And she adds some new lyrics and co-arranges with Pramuk on this one. The two do the same duties for Bob Dorough's guest spot revisiting (after a mere half century) his composition "Nothing Like You Has Ever Been Seen Before." His ageless sprite personality and likably gravelly voice with spunk are, as always, a smile-inducing delight. For the jazz-cautious, it's one of the most accessible selections, maybe a good place to start.

A summit of Steves coincidentally makes up the band: Steve Schmidt (piano); Steve Williams (drums); Steven Kron (percussion), with Sean Smith on bass, except for Sheila Jordan's cut, where her longtime bassist Cameron Brown sits in.

There are two Horace Silver pieces: "Peace," which puts the uniquely compelling, ethereal Sheila Jordan center stage and "Senor Blues," with Murphy again proving he's back in fine fettle. But you can choose virtually any cut on this album (most of which are of generous length) and just be knocked out by the virtuosity and thrilling vocal blend that salutes and brings back the 1950s heyday of the styles that defined jazz vocal magic with vocalese or lyrics.

Note: This CD was released in September and I eagerly dove into it and then wrote the above review prior to hearing the sad news of Mark Murphy's passing on October 22. We've lost a giant of jazz singer, but clearly his influence and legacy will live on to influence generations to come.

- Rob Lester

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