Sound Advice Reviews
Perspective & Retrospective:
All aboard for voyages to days of yore, your transport there fueled by music. Come experience the "real feel" of having visited other eras, courtesy of two approaches for recent releases. One consists of material written in this century, evoking older times, inspired by diary writings or photographs left by those who came before. Then there are new recordings reviving genuine "relics," respectfully rekindling original style and spirit.
For vicarious visits to other eras, the itinerary of the earnest Legacy brings us first to 1859, in farm country; then we skip ahead to the decades of the 1940s and '50s in New York City. Two song cycles by lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, whose musicals have let us view various long-ago periods, deftly do the time warp again. Unlike their dramatic, throbbing songs "Journey to the Past" or "Back to Before," memorable pieces in their oeuvre, the time-traveling this time is often gentle.
With one exception, accompaniment is just piano. Without exception, the singer-actors handling the material (all being solos or duets) are top-drawer musical theatre pros whose voices can project intimate delicacy, burgeoning joy, or deep concern. We get sympathetically presented slices of life (often in the slow lane), with moods and mindsets captured, eschewing pretension. Some pieces can feel impressionistic. (Now re-mixed and remastered, the song cycles were recorded in 2004, the same year a workshop was held at Lincoln Center; the material had been in limbo since then.)
Texts of 1859: A Farmer's Diary are adapted from surviving written accounts of a married couple's day-to-day coping while working their land and working out their problems. Jason Danieley and the late Marin Mazzie were chosen to voice the farmer and his wife; a real-life wedded pair portraying this real-life Mr. and Mrs. makes things more poignant. They bring commitment and authenticity. In many of the glamour-free monthly entries concerned with crops, livestock, and harsh weather, there's more life-in-the-slow-lane drudgery than drama. (Examples of the plain lingo from the first three episodes: "Our neighbor stopped by/ To sell me his horse/ And he talked so hard that I finally gave in"; "I heard there's a concert/ At the schoolhouse tonight./ Too tired to go"; "I have been very idle today/ I am becoming positively lazy.") But elegant and wistful musical settings aided by artfully mood-establishing piano sounds and invested singing elevate the mundane, bringing a true sense of dignity. It's a cumulative effect, with the impact of the whole being more than the sum of the modest parts. When subject matter is sickness and a death, expressed tension and tenderness make for a more gripping audio experience.
Steven Pasquale and Sarah Uriarte Berry share the singing for Legacy's title number (a prologue) from the song cycle A Boy with a Camera. (They have three more duets and there's a solo for each, all with Steve Marzullo's adept piano work.) Lynn Ahrens' father was a dedicated photo-taker throughout his life, and surveying some samples led to her thoughtful commentaries and musings in the form of lyrics. Stephen Flaherty's musical settings bring out the affection and a longing for lingering in the cocoon of memory, circa the mid-20th century. It's a deep dive into the comfort zone of life-affirming nostalgia. Subjects include a crowd at Manhattan's "Columbus Circle," a joyous date for a young couple (her parents, pictured on the cover), and wondering what we don't get to see in snapshotssupposing what may lie "Just Beyond the Frame." Perhaps remembrances and ruminations skew rosy; musicalization and a filter favoring optimistic perspectives can be emotional equivalents of Photoshop software or camera soft-focusing. The singers are up to the task of bringing the still pictures to vibrant life, ennobling the characters. Performances are nicely nuanced, hushed or low-key for pensive moments, balanced by robust vocalizing elsewhere. Atmosphere is crisply captured (analogous to visuals' same accomplishment in the striking black-and-white photos, which are included in the physical CD's booklet along with all of Legacy's lyrics).
We're rewardingly returned to the rich voice of Marin Mazzie for the closer from the photo-generated pieces, the poetic "Something Beautiful," which glorifies and kind of personifies a tree as witness to all it surveys. Accompaniment is Flaherty on piano plus violinist Antoine Silverman adding gorgeous emotional weight. (This was recorded live, as was a version by Rebecca Luker included on the Nice Fighting You retrospective of the Ahrens & Flaherty output.)
Laden with love, fondly freezing time, Legacy delivers a collection of thoughtful, heart-on-the-sleeve vignettes.
Producer/director/sheet music collector Chip Deffaa's happy habit of championing early Irving Berlin numbers and bringing them to stages and recording studios makes for habit-forming immersion in sturdy old-school songcraft. With the material presented true to its period style, storied simplicity, and sentiment, we get gratefully yanked back to the years of ragtime, rah-rah patriotism, polite and coy courting, dance specialties, and spunk. Irving Berlin: Sweet and Hot is, at least, never sour and always warm-spirited. With a couple of exceptions of super-savvy singers who also serve as their own keyboardists (Daryl Sherman's glee with "Me" and a heartfelt medley by Steve Ross), the piano is in the capable hands of the series' usual accompanist, Richard Danley. His anchoring, straight-ahead M.O. is to keep tempo strict and firm, giving plenty of the melody line and drive.
The impact of music itself was a frequent topic for Berlin's lyrics, and several attractive instances of that are included to good advantage: There's the always-welcome bubbly Seth Sikes taking on "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," and two contrasting assignments for the rich-voiced Keith Anderson: the bittersweet, mature "The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)" and the peppy "Piano Man" (music by Ted Snyder).
The subtitle proclaiming Rare Songs, with an All-Star New York Cast is not fully accurate. Several well-known standards are pleasingly present, too. The customary Deffaa deference to discovering obscurities and still-green performers, not currently based in New York City, makes the collection a mixed bagbut one well worth the unpacking. There's quite a lot to delight and divert in game and gallant renditions of selections that are, like the performers, a combination of higher and lower profile components. With a generous number of tracks (26), let's not grumble about the inclusions of a few not-as-ready-for-prime-time time capsules. Much more than half full is the metaphorical glass containing this sweet, hot musical thirst-quencher. Yes, it's a lot to drink in, including one cute long-lost treat that's literally beverage-related: "A Syncopated Cocktail" once musically served in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. Cheers to Julia Franklin for her cheerily buoyant rendition.
This is the tenth of Mr. Deffaa's Berlin-focused recordings, but it's not a cast album of a retrospective revue or a stage piece with the legendary writer portrayed as a character. However, many of the performers he's employed in the studio or "on the boards" are on board again, and some of the included titles were essayed by other folks on prior releases in this series.
With this kind of project, for me, it's mostly about discovering songs; the singer is secondary and it's OK if the song sung is second-rung Berlin. With lots of this composer-lyricist's stuff stuffed in my head and on my shelves, I must begrudgingly remind myself that not everyone shares my wish list that prizes and prioritizes hearing something otherwise unavailable and undocumented (except maybe on another of Chip Deffaa's Berlin releases!).
Of course, if such things are also gold worth the polishing and are nailed by compelling pros, praise increases. Examples of this gratifying confluence are musical theatre veteran Jerry Dixon's grace and sincerity on "How Can I Forget (When There's So Much to Remember)?" and his plucky plea to President Woodrow Wilson suggesting the wartime strategy, "Send a Lot of Jazzbands Over There." (I'm not sure that would get through Congress now or then, but this fun spin really got through to me). Two irrepressible charmers who played leads in Deffaa musicals join forces for "Learn to Do the Strut," from The Music Box Revue of 1923; they are Michael Townsend Wright (who played Berlin) and Jon Peterson (title character in George M. Cohan Tonight!).
Sweet and Hot is just the latest reminder of the legacy of Irving Berlin, whose well of material is always worth the tapping (and some tap-dancing, sounds of which are also heard here). It's addictive taking a trip down the rabbit hole of what's out there representing the prolific tunesmith's work. He even wrote a dainty little gem referencing the girl who famously did go down a rabbit hole: "Alice in Wonderland," infused with endearing finesse in this recording by Giuseppe Bausilio and Emily Bordonaro. The lyric invitingly suggests a chance to "fly away into the land of dreams." And it advises where to look for satisfaction: "Just to the past let us gaze"the same sage advice applies to some sumptuous samplings of Irving Berlin's wonders.