Sound Advice Reviews
Lorelei Lee & a Peggy Lee tribute
Two legendary ladies surnamed Leeone fictional and one realget new looks in recordings released this month. Lorelei Lee is the gold-digging heroine of the novel, straight play, movie and musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The original musical gets an encore with its City Center Encores! cast that took to the NYC stage this spring. And cabaret singer Stacy Sullivan takes on the songs of Miss Peggy Lee.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
If we assume that it doesn't have much more on its musical mind than being fun and fizzy, silly, smile-inducing and saucy, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes zips along on its merry way and goes a long way towards succeeding. The cheery 1949 score is back with a new cast album from this spring's limited-run production by City Center Encores! that makes for entertaining listening with some sparkle and spunk. If you're a newcomer to the piece, let's put it simply: don't look for depth in emotion or characterization. This is a cartoonish romp written and played with broad strokes. With the craftsmanship of prolific composer Jule Styne and the naturally flowing lyrics of Leo Robin (all included in the booklet), the original snazzy group vocal arrangements by Hugh Martin and a 30-person orchestra directed with snap and razzle-dazzle energy by Rob Berman, this is whipped cream prepared by master chefs. The sound is crisp and bright.
Megan Hilty, very visible lately as a leading lady on TV's "Smash"with a first-season plot about making a musical about Marilyn Monroetakes on the Lorelei Lee part Monroe played in the film adaptation, the role the one-of-a-kind Carol Channing memorably created in the original Broadway musical version, which she revisited in the revamped semi-sequel/semi-revival called Lorelei. To her credit, the Hilty take little from either of these two most well-known star performance personae. Though far from doing Lee listlessly, her energy is a kind of girlish swirl of perky, plucky, and generic joy, unfussy and maybe sometimes unfocused, but still projecting a confident air and good humor. When the song calls for playfulness, she purrs and pouts, but still sings role, tending to build to a belt for the endings. It's a generally a likeable and zingy performance that seems unforced, usually blithe if sometimes risking being bland as the titular preferred blonde. More straightforward than others who've tackled "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the role and outside the show, she doesn't punch and play up the punchlines, so it's more of a celebratory strut than an all-stops-out tour de force.
The other characters along for the ride on this shipboard romance/money chase bring some appealing performances. Leading the pack is Rachel York (who's embarking another ship-set musical revival as star of the new national tour of Anything Goes). She is traveling companion Dorothy, and her creamy vocals and light touch, with plenty of pep and welcome brio when appropriateand they often areare big pluses here. This actress's smarts in highlighting lyrics and knowing when to flirt and when to flaunt, her flexible voice and sunny attitude, are highlights. Aaron Lazar, in his duets with her and his solo ("Just a Kiss Apart"), brings the requisite romance and optimism without being cloying or cardboard-esque. He has warmth. Clarke Thorell as Lorelei's beau, bidding "Bye Bye Baby"and sharing the one-minute-long title song with heradds more leading-man-worthy dash and fine singing.
Group numbers featuring those jazzy vocal-group style harmonies devised by Hugh Martin make more rewarding and agelessly hip sounds to enjoy, especially in this clear and clean modern sound design. While there are many short tracks, the longest at six-and-a-half minutes is one of the spiffiest and features none of the main players: Phillip Atmore, James Grimes, Megan Sikora do splendid work with the tale of the Mississippi gal who reinvents herself in Paris, "Mamie Is Mimi," with its rhythms and panache that might be a cousin of any of the three songs written for Phyllis's show number in Follies.
Billed as the "first complete recording of the score," its 27 tracks include dance music, reprises, "Button Up with Esmond" and the group number listed as "Park Scene" which credits here don't indicate is actually mostly a mash-up of a few old French children's songs, then culminating in a chorus with the line "Tout le monde prefere les blondes," which translates as "Everyone (literally, 'the whole world') prefers blondes." The track is in French, as is "Coquette." Complete? Yes, if that means the complete Broadway score, but completist collectors of all incarnations will note there's a song on the London cast recording not heard elsewhere ("You Kill Me"), the recording of the short-lived Broadway revival starring KT Sullivan interpolated "Ride on a Rainbow," and there were additional songs for the movie by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson (Lorelei used some of the score and there were new songs by Styne and frequent collaborators Betty Comden & Adolph Green).
This is a happy and splashy tour of the score, with a few lines of dialogue, and those ever-fresh Jule Styne melodies weave their satisfaction-guaranteed ageless wonders.
Some may miss the mystique of "Miss Peggy Lee" (as she was billed in the latter part of her career) in these less aloof, cozier stylings by Sullivan. The uber-cool of Lee is replaced by warmer sounds. There's a kind of bright glow rather than a gray carbon-copy shadow labored impersonation would bring. Hooray for that. There are eight titles co-written by the tributee, who died ten years ago. Rather than be corralled into a "greatest (commercial) hits" set list and signature songs, the repertoire is an eclectic mix of standards the icon got to at some point in her long career and huge vinyl output and Lee-associated items done in a non-aping but affectionately knowing manner. The giant trademarks "Fever" and "Is That All There Is?"neither a Lee compositionare noticeably absent (except for a quick quote from "Fever" at the end of "Cheek to Cheek") and aren't missed by this listener and longtime Peggy fan. After all, neither is as flexible as most of what's been chosen and both are indelible as they were done by the legend.
The two ladies share a certain low-key moodiness that can tastefully segue into sultriness and a breathiness that suggests honesty and intimacyintimacy of communicating feelings or attraction, but not tiresome put-on seductiveness. And, there's the sense of Lee's firmly entrenched and assured rhythmic swing anchored by top-drawer jazz musicians. There are just three of them: the indispensible partner, creative and sensitive master pianist Jon Weber (her co-producer), attentive and skillful bassist Steve Doyle, and the grand master of taste and mood enhancement among guitarists, Bucky Pizzarelli. Arrangements are credited to the teamwork of Weber, Sullivan and Doyle.
Selections by writers of musical theatre and films, from the vast number of possibilities, include The Music Man's "Till There Was You," a sublimely ungirdled "I Got Rhythm," and three Rodgers & Hart gems: "My Romance," "Nobody's Heart (Belongs to Me)" and "Lover." "Lover" is representative of the eschewing of lazy copying: rather than usurping the Peggy imprint with its somewhat frantic, busy treadmill of an arrangement, its rhythms shift and change over and over as it goes along, yet it still has an inner determination and is in its own way far, far afield from the waltz lilt that Rodgers intended.
This album is a true showcase for the versatility and vulnerability of Stacy's skill set and mood variations (high drama, romance, finger-snappers, sly humor, laments, story-painting) as well as the breadth and depth of the compositions of her subject, representing collaborations with several different writers, including three representing her first husband and great love, the late guitarist Dave Barbour. In the case of the title song to the film Johnny Guitar, we might be safe in also feeling his shadow as she was this time the lyricistto Victor Young's melody. It's truly haunting and drenched in bittersweet melancholia, with a wistful and aching sensibility in the vocal's colors and phrasing and treatment of the melody and accompaniment. On the other hand, for fun, there's a fine winking "He's a Tramp," which Lee co-wrote (with Sonny Burke) for the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp wherein her voice was used.
Note that the CD is endorsed in the liner notes by Peggy Lee's granddaughter, Holly Foster Wells. The lady's legacy is in good hands and Stacy Sullivan is in good voice and good company with these collaborative and creative musicians.