Sound Advice Reviews
The Man Who Saved Christmas and
Merry Christmas from the factory where they make the toys, and then meet singer Mark Jennett, not cut from the same cloth as many of the retro crooner boys.
THE MAN WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS
Fans of old-school musical comedy (bouncy melodies and smile-inducing lyrics) who lament that "They don't write 'em like that anymore" will be happy to know they can be proven wrong. Intentionally evoking and embracing earlier decades' lilt and cheer, composer-lyricist Ron Lytle's musicalization of The Man Who Saved Christmas (subtitled "A New Old-Fashioned Musical") is a welcome treat. The stage piece is based on the true story of a time during World War I when toymaker A.C. Gilbert was asked to convert his factory to one that would produce items for the war effort, with the government also encouraging citizens to purchase war bonds instead of Christmas presents. Gilbert finally balked, influencing cooler heads and warmer hearts to prevail. Thus the press dubbed him with the nickname that is the title of this merry show as well as a TV movie in 2002. Take Christmas and toys and add romance, gumption, pluck, kids and songs and what have you got? You've got the makings of a musical that could be sweet as a candy cane and brisk as a sleigh ride or could cave in from its own heavy weight and lack of subtlety like the densest of difficult-to-swallow fruitcakes. Fortunately, it all comes out deftly delicioussweetness and light, invigorating for all its chipper zing.
The change-of-page sassy faretheewell showpiece number for Michael P. Mendelsohn reveals some of the more wise-guy gumption more prevalent in the same writer's Oh My Godmother! cast CD, reviewed here in the past. He's the ensconced resident playwright/director at East Bay Children's Theatre in the San Francisco area, where he has come up with new takes on old tales. They're currently at work on the tenth anniversary production of his first piece for them, a version of the tale of "The Shoemaker and the Elves" called There's No Business Like Shoe Business. There are no elves around on The Man Who Saved Christmas, or shoes shod by them or glass ones for Cinderella. This new cast album is indeed family-friendly, but it's not an aimed-at-the-kiddies thing. Its sensibilities appeal to an informed musical theatre admirer who loves tuneful and limber scores performed with flair. Debuting on the boards in 2006, it's been discovered by theatres around the country, and now the disc belatedly can have a spin and cast album collectors can rejoice.
The writing and performances and orchestrations (Stephen Hearson) are valentines to many a score of yore. Accents and underpinnings in the instrumentation where individual sounds stand outpiccolo, clarinets, and oboe in additional to the usual suspectsare a huge asset. The plinkety-plunk spunkinesss make the endeavor like a brightly twinkling Christmas tree in sound and colors. Musical direction is by Cheryl Yee Glass. Indefatigable singing is jolly, even though a couple of the voices aren't as technically precise, pristine, or dazzling as might be ideal. The children's big number, sung by a big chorus of 13 (separate from the adult dozen) asking "What's Wrong with the Grown-Ups?" is enthusiastically rendered. There's no lyric booklet, so you might miss some words on a first hearing of this and other group numbers (one having a counterpoint section), but they're worth leaning in to catch as they gallop along.
Pastiche rolls ahead and pep rules the day. We might be in an innocent 1930s musical where boy meets girl, boy meets toy, finds a new career, and that love interest, his new boss's secretary, returns his interest. When the newly-in-love couple looks forward to their first holiday together and sing to each other "All I Want for Christmas," no spoiler alert is really needed to know that the two words following the title phrase will be "...is you." Sure, it's been used as the concept for other Christmas songs, but it's inevitably "right" here. Singers Ryan Drummond and Melissa O'Keefe make it work, with simple sincerity. It's warm rather than overheated, and there's no condescension, coyness, or campiness detected on the radar screen.
One number emphasizes the stiff-upper-(quivering)-lip attitudes about families separated by the call of wartime service ("Daddy Has to Leave You") and is suitably sentimental. But the kind of glibness that more deserves the medal of honor is what's found in the writing and performance of zippier pieces. For example, the rushing-for-readiness toy-making staff recalls the factory workers in The Pajama Game as they buzz around in "We've Got a Lot to Do." There's a lot of fun and frolic throughout the score, cute in the best sense of the word. Drummond and company in "A New Man" epitomize the convention of musical comedy characters bursting with happiness into song where playful lyrics with lots of rhyming and "invented words" successfully suggest a celebration situation. In this appealing romp, the inclusion of the word "grand-ish" makes us think of "Something Sort of Grandish" (E.Y. Harburg in Finian's Rainbow), and impressively stays on the newer twists and turns of the road he paved elsewhere in the lyric: "I feel 'oh, boy!'-ish and overjoy-ish." And, in true colors of tradition, our hero boasts, "I am a new man since I got a brand new girl." As this blissful new man is holding that last extended note with triumphant glee, the chorus is reinforcing the statement by simultaneously cheering him on by repeating the whole line.
In the long-lined tradition of musical theatre songs about happy human pairings, such as Victor/Victoria's "You and Me," this score's same-named item resembles their spirit rather than their actual content. A section of its melody line and tempo, instead, reminds the ear of an old Rosemary Clooney hit, "This Ole House." At other points, this catchy score has licks that sound like Chicago's "Mr. Cellophane" at a faster clip or the insistent seductiveness suggesting melodies in Ragtime. These are all good musical models and the gee-whiz verve redolent of far more innocent, wider-eyed early musicals is the main template. But The Man Who Saved Christmas saves plenty of room for originality and sparkle.
In "You and Me," there's real polish and panache in the first version sung with zeal by Chris Vettel as Gilbert when Drummond's character joins his staff. Mostly new words and a slower tempo refashion the old-fashioned paean to pals and workmates to make it a sentimental statement for a devoted married couple when Vettel and Sheelagh Murphy (playing Mrs. Gilbert) get to its somewhat hidden heart. It works both ways. The reprise for man and wife is darling, and the earlier male-bonding version is rich in rhymes (Examples: "With acumen/ Soon we'll be zoomin'" ... "It seems to me that you're warming/ to this partnership I suggest/ I admit that you're habit-forming/ ...I've acquiesced" ... "We're unstoppable we're unfloppable, we're unbeatable, undefeatable, we're unshakeable, take-the-cake-able." I guess that last hyphenated phrase is a standout not just for me, as it also became the name for the record label for this cast album produced by the songwriter. And what a spiffy, splashy pleasure it is. With most song subject matter not directly centered on Christmas, it's something that we dyed-in-the-wool fans of sprightly musical comedy scores will play in any season. But the timeliness of the release and the plot-ending "A Very Merry Christmas After All" ("when the gifts are in their wrapping and the icing's on the cake") makes it the ideal gift for some folks I suspect are on many of our Christmas lists. And you'll probably want one for yourself.
London-based singer Mark Jennett has released a new CD and he knows and shows that a flame kept low for a slow-burning fire can be more effective than the dramatic, fiery, attention-grabbing vocalizing many prefer. It takes talent and focus to be mellow and yet mesmerizing. Mark takes the tempo and drama in low gear, but never sounds dispassionate or too offhand. With his spare approach, ever open to subtle shifts in emphasis and taking liberties with notes, he is often more the actor-interpreter than the Broadway-beamed grandstander. A quiet confidence informs his stance and phrasing, with vulnerability perhaps cloaked in a jazz man's hip assuredness. While he doesn't use a lot of vocal heft at all, or showiness, there's no doubt of his inherent musicality and grasp of the material. There's a respect implied and an understanding when he and his arranger go into uncharted waters. Jennett and Geoff Gascoyne, the arranger-producer-band member (bass, organ, synthesizer and glockenspiel) have the rare ability of making songs sound in the moment and owned, without the whiff of gimmicks.
The impressive band, which gets some generous-length instrumental time slots on the 14 tracks where vocalist Mark powerfullysorry, gentlymakes his mark quite quickly and comes back for the finish. Keyboardist Rob Barron, trumpeter Martin Shaw, drummer Sebastian de Krom and sax/flute man Andy Panayi make for an ensemble that works well together and separately. Moods set are intensified or expanded with the instrumental breaks that don't feel like "breaks" from the established moods and attitudes. Most tracks are longer than four minutes, so there's a no-rush, no-hurry feel. Plenty of time, but no time to be bored. It's engaging. Even at his cooler jazz turns, there is always something going on, something at stake, when this singer is digging into material. Like his first album, 2009's The Way I Am, this offering has representation by Cole Porter ("Just One of Those Things"), Cy Coleman ("There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"), Randy Newman ("Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear") and Rodgers & Hammerstein ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught").
Purists who don't like their show tunes and contexts shaken up much may raise eyebrows and even bristle when all musical shackles are shorn. Gypsy's "Some People" has more grit than unbridled rage and bravura. He includes discarded sections found in Sondheim's book of lyrics, "Finishing the Hat," like "Some people can sit around, under glass 'til they're underground." It may not be the clear-eyed 100% determination we think of with this number, but the judgments and rejecting of expectations are there in spades. And I pick up some sad worry that adds its own drama. Somewhat similarly, Sweet Charity's "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" rebellion is strengthened by its weaknessmaybe this is as good as it gets, will he succeed and find something better? Mark won't go down without a fight. "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever becomes surprisingly hip. And while it may seem sacrilegious to scat-sing during "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," South Pacific's specifically intense philosophizing about prejudice, there's still some attitude in there that kind of works. Certainly this album is full of surprises.
Pop songs suit Jennett as well. Sung back to back, Bacharach/David '60s items avoid the trap of the seductive melodies highjacking the meaning of the words: "Are You There (with Another Boy [Girl])" shows some insecurities and sorrows and the tainted-as-male-chauvinist "Wives and Lovers" led to a lengthy disclaimer and theorizing on his website. I miss some of the expected light playfulness in Randy Newman's quirky "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear," but I enjoy the clarity and ease of the vocals and like hearing bass and piano exploring it. Atypically sustained notes on the final word of the lyric here and on "On Slow Boat to China" (Frank Loesser) show that the guy has more vocal power than more muttering, clipped style betrayed. The "Boat" ride is choppier and more assertively rhythmic than I'd want for the loneliness and insecurity this number can have in a more mature setting. But its details and embellishments somewhat make up for the bulk of the treatment being less sympathetic. However, Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance" captures a bittersweet pensiveness that makes it an album highlight.
Clearly Mark Jennett is not a cookie-cutter vocalist. With eclectic material, he still makes it all sound like he's living in the skin of each song. And he has that very rare ability to make a song you know by heart still touch your heart and seem to reveal new facets in a new light.