Sound Advice Reviews
Two London cast recordings and
Let's check out two London cast recordings of newer musicals–The Pleasure Garden and It Happened in Key West–and then turn our focus to southern California to report on two singers based there with standards-filled releases. Beverley Church Hogan, in her second release, works with a band that includes percussionist Kevin Winard and bassist Lyman Madeiros. Both also contribute to Dan Olivo's debut offering.
THE PLEASURE GARDEN
The plot of The Pleasure Garden involves people in the 1800s of various classes whose gender, background, sexuality, and life choices are not always what they seem to be as they flirt, fuss, and fret in song. Then there's a proposed duel, proposed jobs, going for a ride in a hot air balloon, and going off to fight in the Crimean War. And it's all bookended by scenes in the present day. To borrow the title of one of the show's songs, "It's Complicated"! The twists and turns and unorthodox characterizations are ingredients that make this cast recording of the British musical diverting and daring. It mixes charm and cheekiness, archness and sincerity, not always making for an easy blend, but the craft of the retro songwriting and the strong cast work wonders.
There's much to admire in the writers' work, their third collaboration with some LGBTQ content (well, featuring at least one of the categories represented by those initials). The talented pair are Charles Miller, a composer with a sense of old-school lilt, and Glenn Chandler, a lyricist with nifty rhymes at the ready, who also wrote the book. (The recording includes some dialogue, much of that in the early sections.)
London audiences attending the show in person last fall at the Above the Stag Theatre had the added historic sense of being right in the same area (called Vauxhall) where almost all the action unfolds: in the remains of the public park, once an expansive (and later, expensive) area for entertainment, fireworks, food, and the aforementioned balloon rides, with shady spots off the beaten pathways for lovers' rendezvous. And the musical certainly has its share of such would-be, could-be, and never-will-be lovers. Among them are an upper-class man and wife currently in the market for flings with new partners (both seek the male variety). Pointedly surnamed Lord and Lady Lovelock, they're played with panache by Rory Charlie Campbell and Ashleigh Harvey. They make their presence and polish felt in several numbers.
Tom Restless (another clue-giving moniker) is a sympathetic protagonist, antsy about growing away from his job as gardener of the flowerful Pleasure Garden. Sam Baumal is immensely endearing in this role, especially in his parts of the splendid early songs–"Love Came A-Walking My Way" and "The Loveliest Blossom on the Bough (And How!)"–which present a lad besotted with love and love songs (like the one he's writing). Included in these exuberance-filled early segments are adorable rhymes for garden-specific words. The glut is a joy to hear, even if he's meant to be too green and callow as a wannabe tunesmith and Romeo. Joining in along the way is versatile-voiced Jay Worley as his crush, a clerk by the name of Ralph.
Score highlights for me include lovely reprised numbers that set up each act and reference a real or imitated nightingale. Then there are a couple of cute comical bursts of energy: Steve Watts nails the needed irritation when addressing his character's choice to be what he is when he asks the musical question "Can't a Hermit Be a Hermit?" Another dash of delightful spunk comes with Ben Amora Wong proclaiming "I'm Doctor Watt." There's a rewarding variety of vocal colors and timbres in the cast, as he and Jennie Jacobs deliver some of the stuff that would warrant spoiler alerts if I detailed them here. (The CD's booklet has a detailed plot synopsis, but not the lyrics, although there are comments from the writers and director Fenton Gray, along with color photos.)
With The Pleasure Garden, recording producer John Yap of JAY Records grabs a collector's attention with this latest fine addition to his bounty of releases of premieres and deluxe studio creations of classics. This one, in good ways, feels like something from the British musicals of the old days. It will be interesting to see what kind of life the show has in the future.
IT HAPPENED IN KEY WEST
Musical theatre can make the most unlikely, unlikable characters entertaining and enthralling: unscrupulous politicians, monsters, vampires, thieves, an opera house phantom, even a demon barber in a tale involving throat-slashing and cannibalism. So how about a show with a destiny-obsessed male protagonist who takes a fated-to-be-mated-forever prediction literally, takes the wedding vows "to have and to hold" to extremes, and denies the finality of "till death do us part" so that grave-robbing, corpse "repair," and long-term necrophilia ensue. Unsurprisingly, that guy in this odd saga, It Happened in Key West, is officially accused of being insane, and you might think the same of me when I opine that the songs herein succeed spectacularly in being either wildly, irreverently funny or heartbreaking. And they sidestep temptations to add to the creepy truth with Grand Guignol-style horror. But hear me out. Or, better yet, hear it for yourself. Oh, and did I mention that it's based on a true story?
Yes, it really happened. In 1930s Florida, a fellow going by the name of Carl (played adroitly, with grand style, by Wade McCollum) pursued a woman (Alyssa Martyn is fetching and bright-voiced as Elena) and was convinced she was his fated partner. The incurable romantic was determined not to let anything stand in his way–not her initial unrequited feelings, her family banishing him, the detail that she was already married, or that she had a serious disease and would probably die. And she did. Convinced he heard her voice, he took her dead body to preserve and serve as his live-in (excuse the expression) partner. Amazingly, it went on for years. So, don't blame (or credit) the writers for concocting a seemingly ridiculous, implausible, tasteless plot–but applaud them and the cast who manage to take macabre facts that could otherwise turn your stomach and turn them into a show that goes from wacky and winking to uber-romantic with metaphysical overtones. Music, lyrics and book are by Jill Santoriello (A Tale of Two Cities), with Jason Huza contributing to the lyrics and book. Jeremiah James worked on dialogue; his billing also includes "original concept by."
Our grave-crossed lovers are given the most impactful and largest share of material on the 17 tracks. (Lines of dialogue are peppered throughout some numbers.) They are supported by other able performers, some playing more than one character, in small and large group numbers. Andrew Hopkins, one of two keyboardists, leads the effective band which has five other members.
Like many musicals of the Golden Age, some It Happened in Key West songs, by design or happy accident, could work out of context, in concerts or cabaret or cover recordings, due to their avoiding lines tying them irrevocably to the specifics of the story and characters. Those who do know the show, though, would smile knowingly at the words that work well within this story or generically. For example, with the ingenue number "I Feel Loved," either a dead character or a vocalist very much alive can reflect on her present state, compared to past relationships: "I'd be missed by man/ Who'd resist any plan/ To be parted from me ... And it's funny, but I've never felt so–alive/ ... I feel loved, like I never was loved in my life."
Here's a spiffy sample of the clever, rhyme-rich lyrics, as hospital technician Carl boasts of his expertise and machinery to his patient, from "Don't Worry About a Thing": "Maybe I forgot to mention/ But this is my own invention/ Put aside all apprehension/ As it also eases tension./ With my ten advanced degrees/ I'm versed in all varieties/ Of ancient eastern therapies/ That work in shutting down a sneeze."
Arguably, the creators' and cast's secrets to the seduction of a wary audience that would be settling into unsettling subject matter include winning us over first with wild humor, peppy energy, and a little snark ("Wrecked in the Keys," "Elena," "Don't Worry About a Thing," all group numbers with the merrily madcap McCollum featured). We are disarmed. Then, intrigued and intoxicated, we become open to the idealistic expressions of devotion and contentment ("Undying Love," "At the End of the World," both reprised).
Recorded in performance (the applause is not intrusive, and sound quality is very good) during its summer 2018 run in London, this so-far-digital-only capture was not released until this year. Six months ago, a one-night-only concert presentation in New York City at the Abingdon Theatre brought It Happened in Key West back to life. The digital booklet, with color photos of the cast in action, has all the delicious and ardent lyrics; in numbers with several people interacting, character names do not appear as they often do in other such booklets, but there won't be much confusion, thanks to the contrasting voices and personalities and the detailed plot synopsis. (The only miniscule misleading thing is the first track indicating an "Overture," but that ends up being all of 15 seconds.)
This trip to the dark side might brighten your day.
BEVERLEY CHURCH HOGAN
While Beverley Church Hogan's recording titled Sweet Invitation only has nine tracks, they are nine very good reasons to recommend it as a classy, cozy collection. Nothing is too showy, shrill, belty, or bombastic. But it's lush and lively. This singer really makes each number an invitation to let a listener reap the fruits of her loving labors exploring songs to find new shadings and points of view. Phrasing is excellent. It is crisply communicative, with great attention to nuance and key words. Her crisp diction, discretion, and distinctively deep voice add to the specialness and sophistication. And the arrangements are a big part of that.
I am impressed with the whole endeavor, but "I Got Lost in His Arms" from Annie Get Your Gun stands out as the most accomplished and original treatment of a standard we've heard many times. (And now I've happily played Sweet Invitation many times, and it still knocks me out.) Well-chosen liberties are taken with some notes in this 1946 melody that actually heighten the ballad's drama and wonder, making it a warmly recollected realization. Another classic show tune, "Falling in Love with Love," gets a quick-tempoed race through the Richard Rodgers music without risking a disregard for the dismissive attitude in Lorenz Hart's lyric that was first presented in The Boys from Syracuse on Broadway back in 1938. Introduced the previous year, the Billie Holiday specialty "I'm Just Foolin' Myself" (its title often shortened to just its last two words) provides a chance to have some breezy fun while also taking on the persona of someone who admits that her professed ambivalence about a romantic relationship is self-protective bravado; she wasn't born yesterday.
The band sounds splendid, but never upstages the singer. This is Beverley Church Hogan's second recording. The first, Can't Get Out of This Mood, came along in 2019 and she is now reunited with three talents who worked on that debut: the superb pianist and arranger John Proulx, percussionist Kevin Winard, and bassist Lyman Madeiros. New to her team are the very present and shining guitarist Grant Geissman, sax player Bob Sheppard, and drummers Clayton Cameron and Dean Koba. With the exceptions of Koba and Proulx, all the aforementioned gentlemen have been heard to good advantage on some of the vocal outings by Sweet Invitation's producer, the ever-cool Mark Winkler whose last treat was called Late Bloomin' Jazzman. Speaking of late bloomers, publicity and other write-ups of both B.C.H. releases often made note of her exact age. Suffice to say she'd already been born before any of the songs mentioned above were born. Knowing this, perhaps it's no wonder that some lived-in wisdom rings so true. Cases in point: "Here's to Life" from its opening assessment "No complaints and no regrets" and the weight of the woe "When October Goes" each year ("It doesn't matter much how old I grow").
There's a blithe acceptance of risk versus rewards as the singer makes her way through "What a Way to Go" ("We may last a lifetime or we may only glow"). The lyric and music are by June M. Tonkin. (The physical CD's song list, unfortunately, doesn't give credit where it's due, as it indicates writers who penned one of the other songs with the same title.)
Sweet Invitation has the sweet smell of success.
With an easy and unpretentious style, singer Dan Olivo zips through a dozen feel-good numbers for his debut collection, Day by Day. He seems to invest the most personality and pizzazz with things that let him be playful, without veering into smirking or smarm. Crooning straightforwardly ardent lyrics indicates a comfort level roaming into Romeo territory. Could he dig deeper and more fully inhabit songs? I think the potential is there; he has also done a fair amount of acting, so it would be interesting to hear him tackle material with more complex emotions, and some renditions might benefit from being done in a slightly lower key. Mr. Olivo comes off here as more of an "entertainer," albeit an able one who's content in that role. He has regular gigs at supper clubs in Southern California.
The decades of the 1920s through the 1960s are all represented. Then there's "Come by Me" by Harry Connick, Jr., circa 1999, getting a more contemporary sultry styling. Joining the festivities for "It's Only a Paper Moon" ("If You Believed in Me") is the duo billed as Black Market Reverie (Renee Myara and Lyman Madeiros). The extra vocal presence presents a fortuitous combination, with chemistry and charisma that kick up the adrenalin quotient. And they get bonus points for including the introductory verse and an authentic vintage vibe for this 1932 sweetheart of a song.
Day by Day is named for one of the three memorable classics from the Great American Songbook with lyrics by Sammy Cahn (but different collaborators). "All the Way," the Sinatra hit, is most convincing, greatly aided by the graceful piano accompaniment and solo by Joe Bagg on this warm, relaxed cut. Not taking their time with "Time After Time" makes the short, brisk arrangement–with much space given over to the band–gain a sense of joy instead of the more typical reflective path. The title is correct on the back cover of the physical CD, but is accidentally listed as "Time After After" on one of the inside panels, making me think at first glance it would be a cool commentary of a metaphysical imaginings about infinity. Hmmm, I'd still like to hear such a creation! Rather than use those inside panels just to repeat the song list in a large font (with the writers indicated this time) and have a big photo of Dan Olivo, customers might rather have some liner notes and at least the names of the musicians. (They are listed on the bandcamp.com page where the project can be ordered, but credit on the physical product should still be de rigueur.)
Instrumentally, there's agreeably aggressive underpinnings and solos from sax, brass and keyboards. This muscular band gets quite a bit of focus. It's a team effort. Most arrangements are by Ian Robbins, guitarist and producer. There's sprightly keyboard work by Joe Bagg and more fine work by Kyle O'Donnell (sax and flute), Jamelle Adisa (trumpet), Garrett Smith (trombone), and Kevin Winard (drums/percussion). As presented on Day by Day, Dan Olivo's debut studio set may not be overwhelmingly groundbreaking, considering the ever more crowded field of singers tackling mostly standards, but hearing the guy breaking into song is an enjoyable way to spend some time.