Sound Advice Reviews
Arlington and Brooklyn Crush
Here are two contemporary musicals whose scores on disc are among Broadway Records' cluster of recent releases. Neither would be mistaken for a Rodgers & Hammerstein-style musical or a wholesome romp, but here they are.
Her soprano has graced productions of Fiddler on the Roof (she's currently Tzeitel on Broadway) and a San Francisco concert and CD of West Side Story opposite Cheyenne Jackson, with New York City cabaret appearances at Feinstein's and just this week at Birdland. Also this month, Alexandra Silber lends her talents to a premiere recording of a challenging piece she's performed on stage in presentations of both coasts. In the unusual musical Arlington, named for America's National Cemetery for war heroes, she plays a modern young American whose dad, brother, and husband all have known the horrors of various wars. In the long beginning sections of this basically one-character piece, she seemingly talks (that is, sings) a blizzard of words to focus on anything but those fears and memories. The remarkable marathon performance, which has had productions in New York City and San Francisco, makes for an impressive tour de force recording.
It begins with the sound effect of rain, whichlike the saga about to unfoldstarts off innocuously enough and continues, building in intensity and tension and discord (piano appears, likewise morphing) and suggests a storm. The character, Sara Jane, runs off at the mouth about minutiae in a self-interrupting, self-absorbed cascade of min-rants. Clarifying her clarifications, explaining and excusing to excess, she's the kind of non-stop blabbermouth whose overheard non-filtered, rather immature cell phone conversations or Twitter tweets would drive most of us batty. (Like, "Like, one time I dreamed I was sitting in a tree and I was eating a leaf. Just chewing on a leaf. I mean, okay, that's kinda boring. But then I thought about it and maybe - I was a caterpillar once. In a past life or whatever ..." and this: "This one woman, this seminar woman, she's wearing this green hat, this horrible green hat. But she actually was pretty. In a Demi Moore evil princess sort of way.") Way before she gets much further, you might feel like strangling her or pushing your "Pause" button.
But it's also quirky and amusing in its way, and you know there must be more below the surface, or why would someone (Victor Lodato, in this case) write a straight play about the character and then do so all over again, recycling the piece as a musical in collaboration with composer Polly Pen, leading to productions and now this recording? The blather becomes rather annoying, to be sure, but we soon have the evidence that it's self-protective armor that will be chipped away and then become ineffective. All the while, pianist Ben Moss darts about the keyboard as Silber's sung fits and starts of musical mini-bits and spoken asides are accompanied or given contrasting dashes of sound. And, occasionally, he sings a bit in a "less is more" potent presence as the men she misses and recalls.
The musical began as a twenty-minute piece and then was expanded. The whole thing is on the disc and the booklet indeed contains the whole "more is more" mountain of words, along with numerous full-page color photos from a production.
Miss Silber's soprano chops are only called upon to really shine in a few moments, as this is more of an acting piece, though it does certainly require vocal control and contrasting colors to avoid the potential monotony. And she sure succeeds as an actress, especially effective in the chattering moments where she clings to the view that the war as viewed on the TV screen "hardly seems real, you know./ I mean is it a war [?]. Isn't it a war ..." with her husband stationed in "a desert or whatever it is." Her voice and manner and control change believably when the character unintentionally gets quite drunk with wine her (unseen) mother brought over when Mom debuted her new plastic surgery. And when things get more serious and there are more and more grim reminders that war is hell for those in it and those left to wait back home, there are new depths and colors shown. Words, once so casually and liberally sprinkled, suddenly are called upon judiciously to have specific meaning. This is best exemplified when the lyric and actress pointedly state that the softer "Innocent people die in a war" is a copout for the cold, uglier truth in plain speak: "Nothey're killed!" And a quirky innocent song of childhood is impactful in ironic reprise.
The scenes or sections are just designated as "Prelude" (The Storm), then numbered as "Part One," etc. and, within these numbered sections, two or more smaller segments are separately tracked, identified by their first word(s). The section before the final one is an instrumental one, though things are too dramatic too think of it as a "respite." But there is no doubt that Ben Moss is a strong and crucial partner, a real "co-star" as both instrumental backbone and one who fleshes out the drama even with the most economic of chords and phrases. And his singing is dramatic and riveting.
Those looking for bouncy musical theatre and long-lined melody certainly won't find those here, and rhyme is even scarcer, but the patient seeker of real drama and character knockout punches will find rewards. Unsettling, thought-provoking, and jolting, Arlington ends up being strong medicine with a message that burying the war dead is easy compared to burying the memories, the ripple effect, the post-traumatic stress, and the nagging truths that there are no easy answers for those whose eyes are open and those whose eyes are justifiably full of fears and tears.
If hipsters and slackers and the sarcastic, sexist or myopic types are your kind of peeps as musical theatre characters and your favorite words in lyrics are the ones that, if your parents had caught you uttering them, perhaps caused them to threaten that they'd "wash your mouth out with soap," or are words that don't rhyme all the timeand when they do, they're often the plainer wordshere's a musical for you. It's now called Brooklyn Crush, and had a recent Off-Broadway airing, though its title in earlier stage productions was F#%king Up Everything. Although the notorious "F" word is no longer in its title and that old title song has been banished, the FCC would still be bleeping the same radio-banned word in several of the lyrics in the score as sung on the new disc. It's used casually in the way it and similar expletives pepper the speech of some born in recent generations and might still be blush-worthy or annoyances to some and cause a gleeful giggle to tittering tweens. It's all blithe and bland banter as employed here for some characters who have other attributes that make them obnoxiously juvenile if you care to spend some time with them.
But better to not take Brooklyn Crush seriously or not take them to disc or iPod at all if you're looking for higher craft, depth, or something more than a guilty pleasure with some amusing moments and some that may be surprisingly sweet. Despite the arrested-development focus at crotch level, and the crassification, the musical has more schlock appeal than shock appeal. And for some, it will have some rock appeal as it is a rock musical of sorts, some of the time. For the trendy downtown Brooklyn 20-something poseurs in the tale, their brash-trash rock band is cutely called Ironic Maiden. And everybody wants to be cooltoo cool to care, too cool to commit fully to a relationship, too cool to be at risk of being too sincere, too cool to have time for much except being cool. Lest you're in doubt, it's all done with a wink and affectionate acceptance of the edgy, the endearingly neurotic, and the easygoing going-nowhere types. (Douglas Widdick as "Tony the stoner" glibly sings the dude's ode to his favorite thing in life, "We always get along/ Like Cheech and Chong/ 'Me and My Bong.'")
Our sort-of hero is the underdog semi-nerd played by Max Crumm, who in real life had his Broadway debut as the male lead in the latest Grease revival earned via a TV contest, has a less colorful life in this show as a guy named, in ethnic diversity, Christian Mohammed Schwartzelberg. Unfortunately, the songs never employ his character's charm in the show that came through when he employed the tools of his trade as a puppeteer who had on hand(s) his oddly chosen round-headed felt friends. (Although I didn't see the recent productions of this show, I remember it from attending its earlier incarnation in the 2009 NYMF festival of new musicals, where I found it to have some charm as well as smarm. Both elements remain.)
Both Christian and his longtime pal, the cocky sex hound Jake (the appropriately strutting Jason Gotay), are attracted to Juliana (played by Katherine Cozumel, who refreshingly manages to avoid being affected by the surrounding sleaze). In a kind of likeable latter-day cousin of the oldie "How About You?" where a couple compares notes about favorites ("I like New York in June/ How about you?/ I like a Gershwin tune ..."), "Something I Just Like About You" for Juliana and Christian is one of the better moments in David Eric Davis' score. It has some comfortably rhymed specific faves such as "I like conceptual art/ And a taco cart," but Davis also seems to think "roaming around" and "settling down" rhyme. Or maybe there's a cop-out: it's supposed to be the two people improvising a song. Lisa Birnbaum, as Arielle, gets a lyric that shows some playfulness within a structure, listing the things she has on her bucket list (though the song's title smirkingly uses the character's preferred name for the list, which rhymes with "bucket" and gets us back to that beloved "F" word). The goals are listed alphabetically; for example, when she gets up to "J," she name-drops that she's had sex "with J. Lo. JT, J. Law, Jay-Z, and Justin Bieber." Sex and related body parts are never far from center stage concerns, with two songs bringing up erections and an ode to "Arielle's Areolas" which is about nothing but (the phrase is repeated 14 times within the song, in case you missed it).
Dawn Cantwell (who pines for friend Jake in "Awkward Silence") and the minimally heard George Salazar round out the cast, with a four-man band on hand for the varied-styled songs, from the dive bar frontal assault rock attacks of Ironic Maiden to the more wistful numbers that approach genuine emotion. The cast is game and plucky, showing some discretion and flashes of tenderness ("Falling") and proud self-awareness ("Take Me as I Am"), albeit in broad strokes.
Brooklyn Crush, like junk food, is an acquired taste many acquire easily, not expecting it to be filling and deeply satisfying. But you might wonder if your taste, time, and money could be better served with something richer and ultimately more satisfying. As a theatre-entrenched theatregoing friend of mine sighs when exiting a venue after sitting through thinner but somewhat diverting fare, in shrugging understatement, "Well, it wasn't Sondheim." 'Nuff said?