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Kind of Cabaret: Two Interesting Vocal CDs

One can wail, one is more inclined to nearly whisper. Broadway's Aaron Tveit can rock out or knock us out with a snuggly old love song in his live recording from the cabaret 54 Below in New York. The city's newest cabaret room, The Cafe at Broadway, opened with a much more low-key singer, the captivating Maud Hixson, whose debut album surveys the work of composer Michael "Mickey" Leonard. Both are accompanied by instrumental quartets with the pianist as musical director.


Broadway Records

Feisty fellow that he is, with a blazing voice that can soar or calm, Aaron Tveit is a recent entry into the annals of Broadway matinee idols who've also made headway on the big and small screens. His charisma and enthused energies translate pretty well to disc on his debut solo album, recorded live at his hot-ticket engagement at 54 Below in Manhattan in May. Impressive with his on-fire performances of loose cannon young men on the cast albums of Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can, Tveit reprises selections from those shows and does one song ("One Song Glory") from Rent, wherein he also performed, first as the on-call guy if the actors playing either lead was indisposed. It's a powerful voice with zeal and real star quality, and a likeably varied set list from show tunes to pop to country.

Clearly having fun and on a high, the first-timer-but-confident concertizer comes off as very happily basking in the glow of fan worship, but working for it, too. (Screams and wild applause can be heard by an audience that seems to be with him all the way.) There's no denying the charisma and chemistry. But don't look for much in the way of creative re-shapings of material. He's pretty loyal to original versions, though they may be scaled down or electrified. When he reaches back to his high school production of West Side Story, you can hear the imprint of the original characterization and the basics of the original arrangement; in tempo and timing, it's more Tony than Tveit.

Sound quality is not as crisp and clear as we've come to expect with this quickly-accumulating series of live recordings from the venue, but the rafters ring even if sound is sometimes muddier than desired or editing seems in need of a few tweaks. Accompaniment is provided by his instrumental colleagues from Next to Normal: from the New York run are guitarist Eric B. Davis, Michael Blanco on bass and Damien Bassman is the drummer, while pianist Bryan Perri of the out-of-town production is musical director and did many of the arrangements.

Out of context, alas, the numbers from his Broadway shows don't rise up to the drama and intensity of the cast recording versions. From Next to Normal "I'm Alive" feels unfocused and not motivated to do more than be a romp or rant, but its purpose here is as opening number, so maybe it's about being more generically present and a force to be reckoned with. The score's "There's a World" fares far better in drama and vocal effect, retaining some of its mesmerizing seductiveness. And, logically, "Goodbye" from Catch Me If You Can functions as a goodbye song—well, it's "the end" with the exception of the obligatory cabaret encore.

Four pieces are presented as song pairings—not two numbers intertwined, blended or "mashed up," but in each case one just flows into the other amiably enough, without returning to the first. And they are given kind of equal weight and generous time so it doesn't ever feel like one is just there to set up the other or that the second is an afterthought to a main piece. But they are notably kindred in spirit and genre/era.

Selections range in theatrical time from a 1935 Rodgers and Hart number (the evergreen "My Romance") to a decade later with an abbreviated version of Rodgers (now with Hammerstein) via Carousel's "If I Loved You" through Rodgers's grandson Adam Guettel's "Hero and Leander." These three are on target, effective dramatically, with a non-showy, purer vocal tone and a sense of vulnerability. While not breaking any new ground, they work and he delivers. The same can be said, with a nod of appreciation for material quality and persuasive performance, for the Brian Lowdermilk/Kait Kerrigan gem "Run Away with Me" (the plea to hit the road as a couple, heard in their musical The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown). Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" stands out among the several non-theatre numbers, perhaps emboldened or dignified—or at least mood-primed—by its partnered Carousel love ballad.

There's a definite youthfulness in the approach to acting, tone, song selection and certainly the patter, peppered with telltale signs of shorter-in-the-tooth cabaret artists (he turns 30 next month). For example, calling the audience "guys" instead of "ladies and gentlemen" and exalting something good to the favored word "awesome." While the energized appreciation of the "wow, here we are/I love this stuff" may be somewhat refreshing and ingratiating, it can be wearing. What bugs me is Tveit's constant use of inserted "y'know" and "um" and repeated words as stumbles his way around spilling his thoughts and stories. Nobody wants a robotic recitation instead of a sense of conversation, but if a performer can't break those irritating habits and learn patter without them, maybe it should be rethought. It really mars an otherwise entertaining live CD. The commentary is all Tveit-centric from college tales told out of school to similar statements of the coolness of any number of "next song" entries. (Longer chats are tracked separately.)

Next time, I hope this talented performer and musicians he works with will dig deeper to personalize songs and find less-exposed material. But, meanwhile, I can't help but enjoy his verve and nerve and some mostly solid, skillful renditions of fine songs in his very attractive, multi-colored and flexible pop/theatre voice.



With no shouting or showboating, the gentle-voiced, very musical Maud Hixson charms. She makes a good thing out of understatement in Don't Let a Good Thing Get Away. Smooth as silk and just as classy, her unruffled way with a melody and lyric is focused and focuses on storytelling and mood. And there's a smile in her voice. It's light, but creamy. The repertoire is all melodies by Michael "Mickey" Leonard, with various lyricists, including four from the wonderful 1965 Broadway score with Herbert Martin's words, The Yearling. Although things remain in a land of limited dynamics and discretion rules, it works because her sound is so warm and appealing.

Things rarely become too mellow for too long, largely due to the somewhat contrasting arrangements and generous jazz-inflected, tasty, never-bland instrumental breaks. Pianist Tex Arnold's quartet arrangements can involve complex figures with lots of notes in contrast to the simplicity of Maud's minimalism and mellifluous, simple lines. On first listening, it's sometimes a distracting mismatch, but the wisdom of what comes to feel instead like complementary compensation comes to be appreciated. Still, I would have been happy with some sparer choices to keep the vocal spell going. She has a kind of hipness and comfort level with the material that inspires confidence and a desire to follow her in her style and stylings. But these are sublime musicians in their own right who can settle into giving her burnished, muted, moody ambience without ever risking "Easy Listening" blunted blandness. Cornet jazzmaster Warren Vaché is generously spotlighted, becoming a real voice of expanding on established flavors and commenting on them almost like an elucidating narrator with descriptive footnotes. He gets it. Sterling bassman Steve LaSpina is an excellent choice, very in the groove, seemingly able to come to the forefront or blend in as needed without making the switch jarring. One of the all-time greats of guitar, Gene Bertoncini adds immeasurably, even he seems underused at times. But in "Where Do the Lonely Go?" (an earlier Martin lyric), the Gene sheen is front and center with his own arrangement, and it's just glorious.

The album showcases the Leonard library of music in its various shades, but makes it clear that he's been attracted to particularly intelligent, literate lyrics. There's a maturity about many of them that shows characters' self-awareness and a refreshingly adult, lived-in perspective. Cuteness and apple-pie innocence seem to be anathema. This starts with the witty, wordy ways of Broadway veterans Carolyn Leigh on the title song and the trio of lyrics by acerbic and quirky Marshall Barer (best known to some as the lyricist of Once Upon a Mattress, but a slyly mischievous poet in other ways). Barer is represented by two premiere recordings: the braggadocio's smug self-congratulations for having an abundance of "Old World Charm"; and a retelling of the innuendo-filled entrapment tale of "The Spider and the Fly." And then there's the wistfulness of a mature person's looking back on the by-far best in a series of underwhelming romantic liaisons with men, one where it was "Not Exactly Paris," but it remains memorable and missed. ("It was not exactly marriage/ Didn't have the longest run ..." runs Russell George's bittersweet lyric.)

The Yearling's songs are treated with care, but Maud puts her own stamp on them. The jazzy, circular number that often is expressed as ebulliently playful, "I'm All Smiles," becomes a more conspiratorial private secret of a new love or infatuation. The cut "Growing Up Is Learning to Say Goodbye," recently unveiled on Original Cast Records' Lost Broadway and More, is a major highlight, the singer's reading showing a very convincing thoughtfulness and grown-into wisdom. Serenity absent any burning need for justification of why she loves a longtime partner/spouse makes the score's "The Kind of Man a Woman Needs" and the most-often-recorded "Why Did I Choose You?" feel more reassuring than reflective or revelatory. Lyricist Herbert Martin's well-crafted, but natural-sounding, words are treated with respect and even awe. The same goes for his recounting of a visit to his old home, "Childhood's End," revisiting abandoned playthings and bedroom, recorded here for the first time. It ends a 12-song album I listen to frequently.

Maud Hixson was the opening attraction of Manhattan's new cabaret venue, The Cafe at Broadway on West 53rd Street, and I was happy to see her present the contents of the Don't Let a Good Thing Get Away album before a sold-out crowd. Alas, it was only for one night, so I guess we let a good thing get away ... for now. I look forward to more Maud.

- Rob Lester

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