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Youthful Sounds ...
Irving and Isabela

By the time Irving Berlin was a very young teenager, he'd run away from home and was singing on Manhattan's streets and selling newspapers for coins. Years later and some blocks uptown, songs he wrote were mainstays on Broadway. Broadway is where Isabela Moner landed at age 10, in the cast of the Evita revival. Now, at the ripe old age of 14, the talented actress-singer has a CD on the market. And there's a cast album from a New York City revue of some of Berlin's youngest efforts, with a mostly very young cast of folks in their teens and twenties who enthusiastically and joyfully embrace the antiques.

Chip Deffaa Productions

The show's poster/album cover art comes from the picture on the sheet music of Irving Berlin's breakthrough hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." As the opening lines of its chorus invite, "Come on and hear! Come on and hear ...," I offer the same ebullient enticement for this collection of his early work recorded by the company of a song-stuffed revue. That's largely because so many of these spiffy numbers are anything but overly familiar. Think you know your Berlin oldies? I beg to differ and dare you to be indifferent to the gleeful "I Beg Your Pardon, Dear Old Broadway" in which the ensemble offers a mea culpa for thinking any other place could compare. Another company number, the obscure "Bring on the Pepper," will pep you up, too. Chip Deffaa's Irving Berlin Ragtime Revue also brings several numbers from the very first pages of the Berlin songbook, when he was "merely" a lyricist, working with composer Ted Snyder, and we also get the collaboration with George Botsford called "The Dance of the Grizzly Bear" which is brightly sung by some female members of the large number of players.

As the show's title suggests, director/arranger/writer/album producer Chip Deffaa gives much attention to those infectious rags which were all the rage in the first chapter of the songwriter's prolific career. So, besides that obligatory first smash about the "ragged meter man" who leads a rousing band (another big group number sung with happy abandon), the rag songbag spills over with those of varied flavors. Meet the "Ragtime Soldier Man" and hear the "Ragtime Violin," and of what happened "While the Band Played an American Rag." The obvious conclusion is that "Everything in America Is Ragtime" (reprised as the show's finale), but the world view comes into view with "The International Rag." Or step to "The Syncopated Walk" at a quick clip and what everybody's doing in "Everybody's Doing It" is being a "ragtime couple" dancing. And if you're tired, slow the pace for "Dat Draggy Rag."

But wait! We're not done! There are a couple of items with melodies supplied by the aforementioned Snyder: "That Mysterious Rag" and "Wild Cherries Rag." This banquet is quite a big taste of this style, but it's all quite fun. And while Alexander may have a bugler and others, this revue's singers have a one-man band which does the trick neatly. It's Richard Danley, Mr. Deffaa's longtime pianist whose informed competence in such sparkling fleetness is the perfect match. The agenda is clearly to pack as many numbers (over 40) into one show and album, but I can't help wishing there were some generous instrumental solos or an overture. As it is, many tracks are very short and sweet, with timings close to just a minute not rare here.

One of the major charm factors for this piece is witnessing the vim of these mostly young people as they take on these oldies, not gingerly as if they're alien. They jump in and sing them with fresh pleasure. That came through more watching their faces aglow in the show when I attended it. There was also some lively choreography. As an audio-only experience, the unevenness of the vocal skill levels is more apparent, and some performances betray a lack of polish or truly comfortable-sounding "ownership" of the material. Some actors fare far better on one selection than another. The youngest cast member, Jonah Barricklo, mostly manages to translate his playfully bright energy and zing to the audio format. And, while the rareness of the material compensates on those items for casual collectors or devotees when the performances aren't as radiant as the songs are rare, weakish work on the more familiar titles makes them the overall low points. But there's so much that's worthy and wonderful and my theory is that it's better that so many of the stronger performances are on the little-known things we Berlinophiles would prioritize anyway. And with 44 tracks, including reprises, the majority are majorly enjoyable and make the album well worth the investment.

Before recycling and jukebox scores were common terms, then "new" Berlin movie projects brought back some of his older stuff. For example, if you know the material used for Easter Parade starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, you've encountered a few other otherwise seldom-sampled choices, like "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam" and the complaint about hearing lovey-dovey neighbors indulging in cutesy pet names, "Snooky Ookums." Emily Bordonaro and Michael Kaspar find some juicy energy for both of these. Speaking of re-using material, what became the well-known "Easter Parade" began life with the same Berlin melody, but a totally different, unrelated lyric which we hear here, "Smile and Show Your Dimple" (those words were the first line of the later-familiar chorus).

A veteran actor with a smooth and soothingly mellifluous voice, Keith Anderson, greatly enhances the CD with his appearances on several numbers, like the oddity called "Araby." The gloriously voiced award-winning cabaret performer Carolyn Montgomery-Forant, who was a sometime guest star in the revue's run, here guests as well for alternate versions of two better-known of Berlin's bumper crop, the attractive ode to an attractive lady who is "The Girl on the Magazine Cover" and the irreverent advisory, "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil." Anderson shares duties on both versions of the latter (first with Rayna Hirt) and cast standout Andrew Lanctot is also heard to great effect sweetly crooning while mooning over that magazine model. He also provides poised professionalism elsewhere in what are some of the highlights, especially "Montmartre," which also brings welcome wistfulness in what is otherwise a very "bouncy-heavy" repertoire. In the show, he also plays Berlin himself. (Occasional lines from Deffaa's narrative script are included on the recording.)

The dedicated musicologist and all-around theatre Renaissance man Deffaa indulges in his own justifiable "recycling," bringing back some actors he's employed before, in productions like the recent Theater Boys and two others which, like this one, also played at the historic 13th Street Repertory Theater in Greenwich Village: the two-person Irving Berlin's America and the one-woman One Night with Fanny Brice which include a handful of the choices also included here. (These shows, as well as other musicals about other vaudeville favorites, George M. Cohan Tonight! and The Seven Little Foys, all resulted in cast albums on the Original Cast Records label.) The self-confessed Berlinoholic will be coming out with another album of the iconic writer's material from his quintet of stage projects, one called Irving Berlin & Co., and the bios included in the booklet indicate that some from this same cast are involved. Hurrah for Deffaa and his continuing efforts to champion the champions of early musical entertainment.


Broadway Records

I don't know if student Isabela Moner was assigned to write the usual "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay when she went back to school this month; if she did, it would include mention of something her classmates could not likely write about. She was preparing for the release of her first CD and her summer also included her 14th birthday. Other seasons had found her playing Wendy in a new musical take on the Peter Pan story called Fly, in Texas. Her Broadway credit is being in the cast of Evita (the revival, obviously), in her native Ohio she did productions such as A Christmas Carol, and you can bet your bottom dollar that she has played the title role in Annie, a plum role for any girl pursuing acting in musicals. Les Misérables is also on her résumé. Lately, she's been traveling with a younger set's idol, Dora the Explorer; that is, she provides the voice for Dora's pal in the popular animated series' spinoff.

Her exploring here focuses on some decidedly contemporary sounds in covers of songs made popular/co-written by pop stars such as Beyonce and Bruno Mars and numbers by another performer who was once a teen recording sensation herself, Debbie Gibson. Her producer, Peter Stengaard, began his own career playing in bands at the age Isabela is now, in his native Denmark. In addition to the teen-friendly material that has the definite taste of bubble gum, the CD's last three tracks, recorded way back in 2013, bring her to samples from musical theatre scores.

While obviously modeling herself somewhat on her own American idols, much here is disarmingly effective. While some feels like a borderline case of playing dress-up in an older sister's clothes, and you might wonder a bit uncomfortably what she is begging for "Mercy" about in her angsty performance of the number by that title, she rarely plays the cute card or sounds way out of her comfort zone. Her fun becomes our fun, infectiously. The girl is a pro. Actually, of the lighter fare the most successful is her single/video entry, "Dream About Me," which she co-wrote with her father Patrick. The bouncy entreaty to be the focus of a crush's nighttime reveries is playful, its assertive "command" has a built-in wink. Stengaard's collaboration with Rebecca Johnson, "Every Girl," is a musical marshmallow that goes down easy, and has charm.

While band members are indicated for some tracks, the producer and the singer are credited with playing the only (unspecified) instruments on several of them. (One booklet photo shows our teen queen strumming the ukulele.) She's also credited as providing her own back-up vocals. Her voice is solid, she sounds her age, and the voice has sweetness and punch.

One classic oldie from decades before Isabela's time is included: "The Girl from Ipanema," the bossa nova mammoth hit from the 1960s here gender-reassigned as "The Boy from Ipanema" to be her (and many other girls') big beach-strolling crush. She sticks close to the original's tempo and phrasing, sounding delightful on this, bringing some freshness to the onetime ubiquitous international tune.

Theatre composer-lyricist Paul Scott Goodman (Bright Lights Big City and the currently in New York Daddy Long Legs) is twice represented in rewarding (and quite contrasting) numbers. One is based on a poem by George Bruce and is simply called "Sing"; it is simply lovely and artful. The other, from his score to Rooms: A Rock Romance, features convincingly played impatience. The driving "Bring the Future Faster" may be ironically at odds with the album's title Stopping Time, but that impatience seems right for a teen eager to grow up. (Speaking of growing up, Isabela can also be heard on the live album called When I Grow Up on the same Broadway Records label, on a couple of tracks of that CD featuring a bevy of very young Broadway veterans.)

"Everything" will be familiar from the version of the A Star Is Born starring Barbra Streisand. The Rupert Holmes/Paul Williams number works very well indeed for a younger person, its wide-eyed wanting to do everything from painting The White House another color to fantasizing about having a twin and curing the common cold seems even more right for the unrealistic naïve goals a kid might have. The diction in this performance seems studied, hitting the final consonants hard from the first line. I noticed from her website's video clips that she had done this one live, so maybe it's a habit from a director's note given for that assignment. Another kind of note, the song's final belted one, shows spectacular power, a facet not much on display for the CD, but it's clear the gal has chops.

The CD ends with a big nod to the iconic number representing her Evita days. The score uses the melody best known as "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" in various guises. The children sing it, Che spends some time with the melodic line, and then there's that famed balcony scene for the title character. Isabela sings some of it in Spanish, some gently, some more forcefully. But, thankfully, she doesn't go for broke. (Well, OK, a part of me almost wishes she did.)

Bottom line: Isabela Moner has real skill and confidence. The pop fluff I first resisted, as I generally do, grows on me with repeated listenings. Taken for what the album is, it's rather impressive, cotton candy sound and teen Argentine and all.

- Rob Lester

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