Singer/songwriter Steven Lutvak has been on the edge of my radar for years, ever since Time Magazine profiled him in their 'people to watch' column. I have become familiar with his songs through albums by Julie Wilson (the wistful/melancholic "Inside My Body There's a Dancer"), Lee Lessack ("I'll Imagine You a Song," a number Lutvak wrote with Carol Hall, which has always had highly personal resonances for me), and Stephen Schwartz ("Rewriting History," a number he wrote with Schwartz). Lutvak has finally released a CD of his own and it is too bad I did not get it earlier, as it definitely would have appeared on my Best of 2002 list.
The album, The Time it Takes, showcases Lutvak singing fifteen songs that he either wrote or co-wrote, including those listed above. As he is as strong a singer as he is a songwriter, the album is a pleasure from beginning to end. Lutvak possesses a smooth, effortless baritone and a sharp intelligence that is reflected in his lyric writing as well as in his connection to the songs. Stylistically, he's hard to pin down as his songs run the gamut from traditional 'cabaret' ballads ("I'll Imagine You a Song" and "Inside My Body There's a Dancer") to high comedy (the hysterical "The Dinner Party," aka "The Bagelmakers to the Czar") to Manhattan Transfer-esque smooth jazz ("Beware the Anger of Soft-Spoken Men") to driving pop songs ("The Time it Takes," "I Wanted You to Know," and "Debby & Teddy & Me," a very Billy Joel sounding number about an unusual romantic triangle). Regardless of the genre, Lutvak's voice and personality shine through and make each of the songs gems worth discovering. For more information or to purchase this CD, visit stevenlutvak.com.
The latest of the Town Hall Broadway by the Year series released on CD is also one of the strongest. First of all, the year it celebrates, 1964, was an incredible year, containing hits like Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, and Hello, Dolly! as well as fabulous flops like Anyone Can Whistle and Bajour. And that's not including shows that were moderate, albeit forgotten, hits or misses like High Spirits, What Makes Sammy Run, and Fade Out, Fade In. Toss in an incredible cast of singers that includes Tom Andersen, Liz Callaway, Sharon McKnight and Craig Rubano and you have quite the evening, which thankfully was preserved on disc.
This is perhaps the hardest of the Broadway by the Year albums to pick highlights from, as every song is either a rare find or a well-performed rendition of an old favorite. Barbara Fasano proves to be the 'triple threat' on the album as she tackles comedy ("Home Sweet Heaven" from High Spirits and "The Friendliest Thing" from What Makes Sammy Run?), ballads (her rendition of "Ribbons Down My Back" from Hello, Dolly! being one of the strongest ever recorded) and big belt numbers (the premier recording of the title song from Something More by Sammy Fain and the Bergmans) with equal proficiency. Tom Andersen shines equally bright, however, with a pairing of a song cut from Fiddler, "The Richest Man in Town," and the song that replaced it, "Miracles of Miracles," as well as with a hysterical song from Something More ("Come Sta?"). He also has recorded one of the subtlest versions of "Anyone Can Whistle" I have ever heard.
Sharon McKnight displays her killer belt and dead-on comic instincts to great effect with "Mean" from Bajour and "You Mustn't Feel Discouraged" from Fade Out, Fade In (although the latter number loses something without the memory of McKnight dressed as Shirley Temple). Liz Callaway shines on all of her numbers, the best being "Talk To Me Baby," a beautiful duet she sings with Tom Andersen from the forgotten musical, Foxy. Craig Rubano gets a bit shortchanged in the transfer to disc, as his big solo, "Ciumachella," (a premier recording from Rugatino) was powerful live as it was performed unamplified, an effect that does not translate as readily onto the CD. But his duets (with Barbara Fasano on "You're No Good" and Liz Callaway on "A Room Without Windows," both from What Makes Sammy Run?) are highly enjoyable. And Alix Korey displays why she is the queen of the belt with powerful renditions of "Cornet Man" and "The Music that Makes Me Dance," both from Funny Girl.
Like the show, the album features 'Barbra Streisand' and 'Carol Channing,' or at least two of their strongest impersonators (Steven Brindberg and Richard Skipper, respectively). Unfortunately, their performances rely heavily on the visual, and the translation to disc does not do justice to what occurred on stage.
Having opera singers attempt Broadway is always a chancy proposition. For every Dawn Upshaw and Jerry Hadley who get it right, there are disasters like Samuel Ramey's Broadway album or the Three Tenors attempting "Memory." Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel, two of today's most popular opera singers, have joined forces for an album of largely modern musical theater numbers entitled Under the Stars to mixed results.
While there are some lovely moments on the CD, they usually occur when either singer has chosen (or has had chosen for him or her) a Broadway song with at least a touch of operatic color to it, such as Drood's "Moonfall" (which suites Fleming's voice and overwrought tendencies) and Les Miserables' "Stars" (which fits Terfel's voice to a 'T'). The puzzlement of the album is why more songs from the pre-amplified Broadway era weren't chosen, as they usually are more suitable for a larger voice. Even more puzzling is the fact, that when they do perform songs from the standard Broadway repertoire, the numbers are ones written for parts and/or performers that focus more on acting ability than on singing, such as "Hello, Young Lovers" from The King and I and "Seventy-Six Trombones" from The Music Man.
Another major problem on the album is that there just aren't that many musical theater songs written for bass baritone and soprano. Thus, the two sing together on less than half of the tracks, and oftentimes when they do sing together, the keys are altered to such an extent in order to fit their respective ranges that notes are flipped and altered to the point of warping the melody. While the idea of two Anglo Saxons singing "Wheels of a Dream," one of the few theater songs appropriate for both of their voices, borders on the ridiculous, they do a good enough job vocally (although listening to it makes one admire what Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald brought to the song all the more).
Oddly enough, a duet that would seem to be natural for the two of them to perform, "All the Wasted Time" from Parade, has been transformed to a solo for Fleming to almost comical effect. Sung with a chest voice that does not quite work for the song and a puzzling amount of octave flipping, the song becomes an overblown aria more fitting for Norma than Parade.
Lately, I have come to realize that Betty Buckley is the female equivalent of Mandy Patinkin in that, while both are superb interpreters of a song and incredible actors, like suicidal lemmings, they cannot seem to resist flinging themselves over the cliffs of self-indulgence. Thus, it was with a degree of trepidation that I popped Betty Buckley's new CD, The Doorway, into my CD player.
At first, it appeared that my fears were unfounded as the first half the CD is simply exquisite. The first track, "The Doorway," is a beautiful and stirring number written by Betty (with assistance by Allen Farnham for the music) that soothes the listener and brings one tenderly into the world of the CD. Indeed, the first six tracks are all refreshingly restrained and are some of the best work she has ever recorded. Ricky Ian Gordon's "Sycamore Trees" is a piece of stunning storytelling in her hands and a pairing of "Meditation" and "I Concentrate on You" is a soothing piece of Latin inspired jazz. Even "Autumn Leaves," a number she has already recorded to great effect, is given a deeper, more melancholic rendition that is extremely haunting.
Oh, that she had stopped there.
Unfortunately, from track seven on, the album radically changes tone into a 9/11 tribute album. While I appreciate the sentiments, the result is ill-conceived and even more poorly executed. The section starts with a three-and-a-half minute instrumental jazz improvisation entitled "A Loss Of Heroes" that fails to capture the horror and tragedy of 9/11 (and indeed, I doubt anything less than a full orchestra and choir could do so). She follows this with six numbers that form two identical medley paths: the religious inspirational song ("St. Francis Prayer" and "For the Beauty of the Earth"), the patriotic number ("America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America"), and the pop inspirational song ("Bridge over Troubled Water" and "Imagine"). While each song is beautifully done, one grouping would have been more than enough. Having two is more than overkill and dilutes the imagery and power of the intended message.
Ute Lemper is like midwestern weather: if you don't like what she's singing, wait five minutes and something completely different will follow it. Among the genres in which she has recorded are musical theater (Life is a Cabaret, the London Cast Album of Chicago and City of Strangers, which includes some of the most hardcore versions of Sondheim you will probably ever hear), adult contemporary/cabaret (my favorite of her albums, Crimes of the Heart), German cabaret/theater songs (Berlin Cabaret Songs and various Kurt Weill albums) and modern pop (albeit pop of the darker variety ala Elvis Costello and Nick Cave in Punishing Kiss). Her new CD, But One Day , is a kindler, gentler Punishing Kiss by way of Crimes of the Heart and contains songs written by Lemper that appear to have been influenced by her association with Cave and Costello, as well as various French and German cabaret tunes.
Ute is one of the few performers who does not merely inhabit a lyric, she tears into it, stretches it, and alters it to fit her sensibilities. The results can be a tad off-putting, but they are never boring and are often highly engaging and visceral. Her dreamlike take on Kurt Weill's "September Song" (which features the original lyrics from Knickerbocker Holiday and not the more 'friendly' pop version) is as chilling as it is beautiful. Her vision of Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam" revels in the city's dark underbelly and calls up images of a tired prostitute watching the squalor of humanity while smoking her tenth cigarette of the evening. Lemper's songs are surprisingly accessible and lyrical, such as "I Surrender," with its hypnotic orchestrations and vocals that sooth one to oblivion and "Lena," which features guest artist Laurie Anderson.
The only misstep on the album is the inclusion of Brel's "ne me quitte pas," ("If You Go Away") as one just cannot imagine Lemper ever begging anyone to stay so she can be the 'shadow of his shadow/the shadow of his hand/the shadow of his dog' so she can cower in the corner and adore him. One more easily visualizes her flicking her cigarette, singing 'and I am telling you, you are going,' calling her next boyfriend on the phone and going on with her life.
Oh happy day. Fynsworth Alley has not only re-released one of my favorite CDs, Maureen McGovern's The Music Never Ends: The Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman , but they have persuaded her to record an additional three bonus tracks for the album. The album is one of the smoothest vocal albums ever recorded and is a joy from start to finish: if one is looking for an adult contemporary 'make-out' album, this is definitely one for the collection. From the sensual opening track, "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" to what was the original ending track, "I'll Never Say Goodbye," this is one romantic album. The three bonus tracks ("I Have a Feeling I've Been Here Before," "I Was Born In Love With You," and "What Matters Most") are equally delightful and fit perfectly with the rest of the album, making for a seamless whole.