Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Live from New York City ...
a theatre Journey with Lea Salonga and
a Parade of songs from Jack Donahue

The house lights dim and the band begins. We turn our attention to the singer that the nightclub "is very proud to present" taking a turn in the spotlight. A recorded souvenir may lose something in the translation, and is always a risk if only one night is recorded "as is" with no sneak tweaks. The chemistry and tension, the personality and energy captured can be a plus, increasingly different than studio work nowadays with technology´s temptations and instruments that might have been recorded separately before or after. And, in live performance, there's someone to sing to, too.


LML Music

Like any live performance preserved for CD, The Journey So Far can only take you so far into the experience of really being there. There is no element of surprise and "I wonder what she'll sing next ... " as you've almost certainly at least glanced at the song list on the packaging or online before ordering it. And, in the case of this Lea Salonga CD, recorded at New York City's posh Café Carlyle, it takes a while to get past the "cute" opening stuff before there's more rewardingly rich singing. She dives in after a while, but sings the whole ((not very musically varied or interesting) opening number in her native Filipino language and then begins animated patter in the same tongue. It's all for effect, and to firmly establish that after doing theatre in her homeland, she procured a starring role at age 18 in a show headed for London and then New York, will be telling us a lot about the cultural differences and growing up. Her "journey" is special in that way and it's very much the focus of this act, and the recording includes more patter than many such releases. Her charm and eschewing of grandness are evident and played up, playfully, with her speech having a musical lilt and a way off lowing yet sounding rehearsed and precise. Individual words and phrases are carved out, separated, with many words in the same sentence tending to be underlined for stress and impact, with crisp pauses between them. (Credit is prominently given in the packaging to a scriptwriter for the talk, centered on the personal itinerary of this "journeying" through life and show biz, pointedly.) But the points and the "I was so young and naïve"-type anecdotes are effective, including her re-enactment of what a 7-year-old old who doesn't know a monologue from a marshmallow does when called to her first audition.

The way she began to sing brings "Sing," the perky ditty from "Sesame Street," and being cast in the title role of Annie brings "Tomorrow," but they are more light renditions than interpretations. When she mentions being cast as a young child in The King and I, she does one of the older female character's (Tuptim) duet songs, "I Have Dreamed," and we begin to get into some real acting and emotion, but then we're pulled out by another mini-serving of the "Sesame Street" number at the end. Her medley of the standards "My Romance" and "Let's Fall in Love" feels forced and gimmicky as if she's found two songs about a unique subject, instead of the one seventeen kajillion songs are about. In fact, they are about two rather different points: she begins with the one where someone is decidedly already contentedly in love ("My Romance") and then the other one which considers what might happen if she tries to "make a go of it"—then they are intertwined a bit laboriously.

Singers who've recorded prior albums or cast albums/soundtracks will naturally be expected to do things in concert that brought them fame and fans, and some live albums will thus bring back-by-popular-demand repeat visits. Naturally. But her star-is-born journey about Miss Saigon doesn't result in any songs you know from that score on the CD, but we do get a very attractive cut song from it, and it's one of the most attractive pluses about the album, not just for collectors of musical theatre's treasured trims and toss-outs, but for anyone who enjoys a powerful number powerfully performed. "Too Much for One Heart" is not some esoterically abstract, floundering incidental "No-wonder-they-cut-it" things: it throbs and thrills, and is very much in the fabric and specific mindset/perspective of her Kim character. Drawing on her reference point and understanding of the character brings out a whole different kind of performance and fullness, entirely satisfying and involving. She also does well revisiting Les Misérables' "On My Own" and two of her princess numbers from animated movies, one with a "surprise" guest star from the audience.

From Broadway, Larry Yurman leads the small band and plays piano with class and distinction. Jack Cavari's guitar makes notable contributions to mood. Some poppy, percussion-heavy arrangements feel a bit lounge-y and all parties seem most comfortable in the sensitive or musical theatre elements. Several musical theatre songs are in the mix, and the most effective and nuanced is a medley of two from They're Playing Our Song: "Fallin'" and "I Still Believe in Love." Brava! The Marcy Heisler/Zina Goldrich team—their songbook often bookmarked for zingy, well-crafted comic relief songs by ballad-heavy nightclub acts—is represented with the more than serviceable at-your-service promises in "There's Nothing I Wouldn't Do." The encore is a gentle lullaby mix dedicated to the performer's daughter, asleep upstairs (she hopes) in the Café Carlyle performers' suite. Despite the scriptedness and character pieces, the sweetness feels like the most prominent, natural and irrefutable part of who she is. Joyful, radiant, sunshine-bright in personality and very pleasing vocal quality, that's what stands out here, too.


Two Maples Music

Usually intriguing and often intense, rather jazzy and clearly one to not always musically follow the parade, Jack Donahue presents another CD that does not get filed under "Easy Listening." Songs for background music ear candy is not his taste. He often comes out muscularly swinging in jazz or comes off cerebral, and can manage to combine the two now and then. It's been noticeable and evolving in his prior three albums and live performances and this new one, recorded live except for the bonus track.

We get two songs from a big Broadway classic (Hello, Dolly!, but reinvented), two more Broadway songs (one cut from its score), two from Off-Broadway, two pop classics by Jimmy Webb, and three more. Most was recorded at Birdland and a little at the Metropolitan Room. There's some self-effacing and enthusiastic patter, but he's not a big talker. He's surely a thinker, crawling inside himself and the material and then bursting forth. He's, as they say, into it.

One habit prominent here in live performance is not adhering strictly to a lyric as written—he doesn't change big swaths of words at all, but we find him repeating a word (presumably for emphasis), slipping in extra one-syllable words within a line, substituting another, repeating a word as he goes. Perhaps it's done when he's so wrapped up in the emotion, so eager to communicate and emphasize feelings. Certainly the arrangements and musicians give him wide room to be loose, backphrase, stretch out. Some may willingly accept this as an interpreter's and he's hardly among the first who do this, but it can be distracting to those who love and know a lyric by heart, especially one that's poetic. For picky me, he'd be more effective if he trusted the material, and himself, and realized that he doesn't need to add anything—he has the actorly skills and musicianship to deliver it all.

While Donahue can be dynamic and powerful, his vulnerability and a sense of self-questioning, turning things over and over, brings everything under the microscope. Songs that especially allow this mindset work well and are a strong suit: "Didn't We" and "I Wonder What Became of Me" are prime examples of a thoughtful, brainy person at work. And on the subject of brains, his "If I Only Had a Brain" is full of heart and the courage to take it seriously and sweetly. Most notably, he includes the rarely-done verse you didn't hear the scarecrow sing in the movie The Wizard of Oz as it tell his history in third person which he tells, in different words, in dialogue. It's a delight.

The Hello, Dolly! numbers are the most inventive and they're quite reupholstered musically, with non-traditional arrangements by Erik Privert, the bass player. But their basic moods remain. "Before the Parade Passes By" might be less cathartic and triumphant, but its fervent determination is just reshaped and more subtle, more hip. "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" is re-tailored in a way that still suits its ebullience, but its rethought rhythms and rousingness still soar—in a new way that owes little to musical theatre and much to musical adventurousness. One of the few lines of patter included shows Jack's casual, self-deprecating side, admitting before singing that he'd messed up the song in every rehearsal. (Spoiler Alert: He does a great job and nails it.)

He jumps into "Haven't We Met?" (also a smart Privert chart), the jazzy swinger his patter tells us is done "with a new coat of paint." It's nifty and full of bright energy, showing the jazz chops he's honed. The studio version of "Lazy Afternoon," accompanied by the exquisitely elegant piano work (and arrangement) of Fred Hersch and Marcus Parsley's evocatively moody muted trumpet, is sublime. This number is so often just taken at face value and its title's adjective to be languid and slow to the extreme, stretched out to hypnotizing-to-sleep effect, rather than keeping in its seductive quality, mystery and hushed awe. They get it all.

- Rob Lester

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