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Laura, Laura, and another Laura

So, here's the Laura list: Laura Osnes, Laura Benanti—both Broadway leading ladies—and our last Laura surnamed Ainsworth is the rare songbird species of jazzy comedienne/vamp. While the Osnes oeuvre is all Maury Yeston, both Ainsworth and Benanti have a mixed bag of show tunes and pop, and—fun fact: each acknowledges Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyric to the title song from the classic movie Laura.


PS Classics

The warm springtime breeze that is Laura Osnes's voice and persona brings delight throughout her new recording, a collection of material with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. The artful craft of his songwriting is well showcased here. On serious numbers (which is most of them) Laura and her musicians, led by arranger/pianist Fred Lassen (except on one track), set clear moods and characterizations immediately and build on them. There's no sacrifice of musicality or the legato flow in order to make "acting choices" that interrupt the melody. The music swirls and has a life force of its own accentuated. Innocence and hope are convincingly portrayed and don't seem forced or put on. And, as usual on a PS Classics album produced by Tommy Krasker, the sound and balance are spectacular. The accompaniment gets as much spotlight as the vocals; they work together as equally weighted components. Aurally, it's an embarrassment of riches; there's a kind of modern classical feel and purity of sound and an absence of schmaltz or cheap sentimentality.

The centerpiece of the CD is the song cycle December Songs which takes up 10 of the 17 tracks. Although I admire this ambitious piece, a one-sided version of the aftermath of a romantic break-up, I must confess I wasn't really looking forward to another slog through the rather morose wallow in self-pity. I'd already heard three women tackle this parade of pain, and the character's gloom can be agonizingly heavy, almost relentlessly so, despite the elegance and integrity inherent in the separate pieces. What a nice surprise to find that I was wrong—this is a truly fresh take that is not at all redundant. The remarkable thing is that Laura and the musicians stay true to the piece, they don't lift the cloud by artificial means and artificial sweeteners; it is still sorrowful, but there's so much more. As she does throughout the album, Laura really sings the melody lines' hills and valleys, whether they be strikingly simple in their impact or complex. The melody is center stage, with singer and orchestra working together, but the emotions and key words are not lost in the swirl. They get emphasis in subtle, the tender ways they are shaped, rather than underlining them in big, big, bold strokes or getting whispery or inserting dramatic pauses.

Another thing that makes the Osnes version different is the color and youth of her voice. It suggests an early-experience romance that implies hope for a future, rather than the be-all/end-all great love of one's life that is nigh impossible to recover from. While she's broken-hearted, she's not broken. The character retains a sense of wonder (especially in "Bookseller in the Rain") that can't be squelched. She's releasing her sadness and it's a healthy relief and release. In "Please Let's Not Even Say Hello," there's something of a dried-eyed perspective (as opposed to dry-eyed); she's cried, she's had some distance and healing. She's being self-protective. She's not going to fall apart. Emphasizing instead the prettiness and delicacy of the musical line is refreshing. It feels like there's been thinking going on between crying jag, making the lady someone we can root for, rather than just feel sorry for.

Five other Yeston scores are represented with one number apiece. Two winning pieces were written just this year. The title song and "I Still Hear the Music" (arranged by Larry Hochman) are both highlights, glittering with tenderness and affection. On the older side is the 1978 independent folky song "Danglin'." Some welcome spunk comes with a medley of "Shimmy Like They Do in Paree" (from the recent Death Takes a Holiday) and Grand Hotel's spiffy "I Want to Go to Hollywood."

Laura sounds cozy and serene, sensitive and pensive on this studio excursion. It's a mostly adult point of view, but the sweet ingĂ©nue warmth is present without being cloying or seeming put on. I find it more satisfying and consistent than her debut solo album, a live CD with distracting chattery patter and guest duet partners. This album is based on a show Laura did at 54 Below, which is where the next album was recorded by our next Laura ...


Broadway Records

Although, in the patter of her live album, Laura Benanti paints herself as a New York dork of a kid grown up and insists she is still uncool, her grace and confident air makes it kind of difficult to believe she was ever less than classy and at ease. She talks to and joshes with the audience as if they are all old friends. The self-deprecation keeps her down to earth and casual, but the glimmering and smooth soprano sound spells polished skill, and its elegance can't be dismissed or disguised. And that's a good thing; it's a gorgeous voice and a flexible one, adapting to different genres. The relaxed manner kills any worry of stuffy, distancing formality that some legit sopranos can project. On some numbers, she seems more poised to entertain and be lighthearted—and in others she digs in deeper as an actress.

Numbers from musical theatre, naturally, figure prominently in the set list. From Guys and Dolls she takes on one of guys' solos: "My Time of Day," but it misses some of the hushed near awe felt by Sky Masterson (and its night owl songwriter himself, Frank Loesser). Benanti takes it with more brightness, and addresses it directly to the crowd before her as a would-be Cabaret 101 audience-ingratiating moment, changing the last line (both times through) to "and you're the only folks I ever wanted to share it with me." Lerner and Loewe are represented by two breezily done numbers, also created for male characters: "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" (Gigi) and the My Fair Lady classic whose title she adapts as "On the Street Where I Lived," referring to the nostalgia that she lived down the block from the venue, 54 Below, as a child. Childhood incidents pepper the patter, and most are amusing. (I saw the return of this act, in fact mostly intact, just last week and still smiled at many lines when playing the CD after that evening. Her timing and playfulness with the crowd is expert.)

Her own Broadway resumé gets some attention only in the last two songs, with spot on versions of two very different pieces. They are a nicely shaded version of Nine's reflective, mature "Unusual Way" and the high-energy, frantic series of rattled-off lengthy telephone messages, "Model Behavior" from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Songs she and/or her musical director, Todd Almond (on piano throughout, and sometimes on additional vocals), wrote are captivating change-of-pace tracks. Benanti's disarming, quirky pieces are fun and contrast certainly with his art song-esque theatre pieces which are captivating in a richer way, and their non-traditional daringness boasts honesty and exploration of both character and musical structures. His playing and arrangements are exemplary and totally supportive, and their chemistry as friends and collaborators is palpable. She pulls out a ukulele and he switches from piano to accordion once. He adds a wistfulness at times, and his voice (as it is on his own CDs) is haunting yet warm. Bass player Brian Ellingsen, drummer Rich Mercurio and especially Ann Klein (guitars, banjo, mandolin) bring their talents to a fine musical team, with no "showing off" quotient. It's Mr. Almond who is, happily and rewardingly, the co-star.

For my taste, it's the more dramatic pieces that have the staying power. The "lite" and perky parts are cute, but a few tracks seem a bit wan or wanting for more commitment. Good-mood glossing-over is maybe more endearing and cheering in person with the twinkle in the eye of Laura The Entertainer, but with an audio audience experience only, it might wear thinner. But she won a Tony in Gypsy wherein, indeed, she sang "Let Me Entertain You"—and she does know how to do that. The album may not often be meaty, but it's mighty clear that we hear how her cheer here has pleased the cheering crowd. Oh, and by the way, that sunny, once-over-lightly approach to the opening number, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned," sounds sentiment-challenged and has lots of audience laughter during the instrumental break. CD listeners may puzzle over that; the explanation is that there's a raison d'être: a sight gag of the professed "old-fashioned" gal pulling out her cell phone and texting intently. Nevertheless, throughout the disc (her first solo release), it's always a pleasure to hear her marvelous voice glide and glow.


Eclectus Records

It's present throughout, true, but the wink is evident if you look at the packaging first. Laura Ainsworth's second CD's cover has her posed like an unsmiling, red-headed, headed-for-trouble femme fatale in a B movie (film noir wannabe) or gal gone bad on the cover of a pulp novel, in a red gown and long white gloves, holding a smoking revolver. Prefacing the album title, its sprawling lettering promises "Love as an exotic FANTASY, a bargain, a ... Necessary Evil." It's a snippet from the liner notes which expand on the conceit: "On the surface, this tootsie looked like a roller coaster girl: plenty of curves and lots of fun, but grown men would be crying before the ride was over ...  She could hold a note longer than my ex could hold a grudge, and caress it in ways that were illegal in 17 states." Got the mood? Got the idea?

Laura Ainsworth's website labels her a singer and comedian and she definitely has her tongue in her cheek, but this song stylist has an attractive enough voice and a snazzy, jazzy band to bring more to the table than a ride on a one-trick pony. Fortunately, she doesn't overdo the sex kitten meowing or stripper-style strutting. She projects a tough cookie with a sweet marshmallow cream center. Some numbers are played fairly straight, putting the camp and the vamp aside. And, while she isn't in the league of the heavyweight torch singers, belters or drama-servers, and I don't claim she strikes me as laugh-out-loud funny/smart in the way some sultry ladies kidded sex, her work is enjoyable in its "period" way ... and then some.

She gets into it, throwing herself into the material. Oldies like DeSylva/Brown/Henderson's "One More Time" finds its take-your-time groove and the title song (by Redd Evans) plants its musical feet in the proceedings immediately. Both are enhanced by an assertive, collection of brass figures that's old-fashioned fun and feisty.

But she and arranger/producer/keyboard player Brian Piper are smart enough not to lay anything on too thick except joy. The mood set by the cover and first few tracks is suddenly dropped after the first five numbers, and I missed it until I got the sense of the whole album and went back, knowing it was just the first act, so to speak. They'll lay back for a frothier romp that smiles or a break for sincerity via vulnerability with a classic like "My Foolish Heart" with a languid relaxation and, from out of nowhere on this mid-album track, for the only time, we get a generous-length violin appearing and taking a solo. It's emotion-laced work with flair and discretion by Steven Story and comes just when you think you've nailed this Laura as pretty much a tough-as-nails dame unlikely to let down her guard so much and the "act" was going to substitute, even if agreeably, for any depth. However, Francesca Blumenthal's modern-day honest self-assessment of a woman who always falls for "The Lies of Handsome Men" is less successful in cutting to the bone. It's been recorded by some A-list female vocalists with searing honesty and simplicity, and seems cluttered and not wounded enough here.

Two Harold Arlen melodies are present and pleasant to hear ("Hooray for Love" with Leo Robin's lyric and "Out of This World" with Johnny Mercer's), but the renditions and arrangements drag and droop a bit and are undistinguished. "Out of This World" feels too long at over five minutes. But it's Mercer who inspires the clever last selection: "Last Train to Mercerville," an ode to the writer by Lee Charles Kelley. The lyric incorporates many Mercer song titles and snatches of lines from "I'm Old Fashioned" and other indelible members of The Great American Songbook ("Down on 'Skylark' Lane, past 'Early Autumn' Hill, 'Laura' rides, too ... 'In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,' 'I Remember You.'") It's a song-lover's love-fest. And the melody is catchy and cool, too.

Here's one more Laura making an impact—not groundbreaking, but the kind of approaches generally that have attitude and stand their ground. Whether they'll stand the test of time is another issue, but there's enough here to make me say it's worth the spin.

- Rob Lester

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