Next to Normal is nominated for various theatre awards, and its cast album has a winning combination of a solid cast and solid material, expertly produced for its recorded legacy. In the cabaret world, Monday is the annual presentation of the MAC Awards, and some of their nominees are newly represented on disc.


Ghostlight Records

In a Broadway climate where musicals are often frothy or flimsy film retreads or revivals, a grown-up musical that is serious and emotional—and new—is a welcome guest. You might think a musical about coping with a psychiatric disorder would turn into a murky, moribund melodrama or a cheesy Fringe Festival candidate, but Next to Normal goes to neither extreme. Handling a very heavy subject that might be hard for some audiences to handle, and a hard sell, nobody sells out here. Unquestionably, it is intense and at times chilling. But it is also quite accessible and flows naturally, the characters seeming real, and many of the songs conversational rather than arty or ponderous. Tenderness tempers the torment, and the blessedly nuanced and calibrated work by the performers makes their characters immensely sympathetic and believable. Angst and singing that is achingly beautiful or exciting aren't mutually exclusive. The convincing and riveting performances by the cast make for compelling listening. Lyricist/bookwriter Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt have given them rich, often artful material to work with in this highly emotional work. Quite palpable are some characters' desires to seize the day, with so many challenges to just get through the day. Perhaps part of what keeps this from feeling like a relentless roller coaster ride in Angstville is the variety of musical colors; and having characters build to highs and pause to reflect, even if raging inside, is wise, as the tension and engagement remain.

When things get explosive or shrill, with storms of fury, it usually seems justified, and most of that falls to Alice Ripley as Diana, the psychiatrically troubled and medicated woman. It's appropriate for the character to sound edgy—she is on the edge; she does lose control and rail and wail. Ripley rips into the arias of breaking-point explosion, like "The Break" and "You Don't Know," dramatically, causing chills to go up the spine. One might wish her vocals didn't quite sound so steely and harsh so often, but it works for the story and character. Notably, many of the tracks are short (under two minutes). When there's a break from the shrillness and keening quality in the numerous moments, it's all the more effective as she expertly conveys the woman's bewilderment, energy-sapped lamenting and sense of loss. The many moments when we see the more stable and happy marriage relationship that had been present, it is truly heartbreaking. As Diana's husband Dan, J. Robert Spencer turns in a remarkable acting/vocal performance, with much variety in tone. Sounding gorgeous and loving and sincere in his prettier, high voice or showing grit in the lower gutsier sound, he brings us a man we care about. Similarly, Alice Ripley's fearless performance and their interaction make it hit us that tragedy and heavy medication effects have caused both of them to feel the loss of the woman who once was.

In other roles, Jennifer Damiano and Adam Chanler-Berat are believable and disarming as teenagers in a developing but awkward attraction. Then there's the dazzling Aaron Tveit, in a role that has aspects of the metaphysical or imagined presence, alternately revealing a wailing rock star quality and a beautifully controlled and just beautiful voice (as the situation requires). Either way, it's his haunting kind of pleading that is the highlight of this recording that truly sticks in the mind. In a more non-showy, down-to-earth role, Louis Hobson adds an interesting and appealing vocal color as the doctor

Kudos to the very present, connected playing of the seven-person band, led by pianist Charlie Alterman. The excellent orchestrations, by the composer himself and a Goliath in that field, Michael Starobin, sound superb, especially in the theatrical but intimate ambience created by the producers and engineer. Be prepared for high class, highly skilled enterprise with this listen—and a heartwrenching one.

And now for some quick looks at several nominees for awards from MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs), nominated either for their CDs or live performances (a few nominees for Outstanding Recording in cabaret or jazz, were already on my Top Ten for 2008: Stacy Sullivan, Elli Fordyce, and Shaynee Rainbolt).


Original Cast Records

An artful singer-pianist who presents a song with real panache and great joy, Barry Lloyd's collection of live performances over the years is smart and sassy entertainment. Best known in San Francisco as a performer and a musical director for various singers, he's made some forays to New York City in recent times. His first CD as solo singer is nominated as Outstanding Cabaret CD and it shows his comfort level with audiences and his stylish and playfully saucy presentations of high class show tunes and standards. He has a taste for dusting off neglected show tunes by the greats, like Rodgers & Hart, who are well represented on this album. At will, he can go from innuendo-laced glee to a convincing, no-gimmicks delineation of a dramatic ballad of loss. His singing and piano playing are clearly the work of a man who knows the material inside out and loves it like a cherished friend. There's something rather grand about it all, in his dishy, devilish bursting-at-the-seams love for the repertoire, that's all part of the showman personality.

This album, with a generous bounty of songs, is great fun and the guy is a real pro—old school but full of juice and jumping with joy.


In crooner and classic bandsinger mode, Todd Murray presents a mixed bag of tricks. The smooth bass-baritone takes it easy and breezy and sometimes splashy. I think he's best here on the simpler romantic ballads like "Stardust," and I'm pleased to see another recording of one of the strongest new songs of recent years, "Time" by Barry Kleinbort and Joseph Thalken. I would prefer to see Todd go deeper into the lyrics more often, as he does successfully and with "swoon-ability" on a marvelous "I Fall in Love Too Easily." Though I'm not crazy about all the songs and arrangements (some of the uptempos have some bright appeal musically but get a bit "busy" and brash at the expense of a lyric's sensitive sides), his exuberance and goodwill win points and start to nearly win me over at times.

Notably, there are two duets that are great to hear. One is the album's highlight as he combines forces in "Teach Me Tonight" with the dazzling Marilyn Maye; this is a deluxe, energizing sparkler. Musical theatre fans will be pleased to know that, with a casual but earnest conviction, he and partner Douglas Sills share the responsibility of global domination with a duo power play on "If I Ruled the World." This is another Cabaret CD nominee.


Quannacut Records

There's another take on "If I Ruled the World" on Baby Jane Dexter's just-released CD. She's nominated in the Major Artist category for her live shows, and this is a live recording of her latest act. With the exception of her first recording, all of Baby Jane's albums are recorded live in clubs where one gets a sense of her connection with audiences and outsized personality, often seeming a steamroller at full steam. Something new and refreshingly mature and more disciplined has characterized her recent work, quite evident in her new show/CD, If. For those who like singing on the bombastic and boisterousness side, this bluesy diva has always found fans in a long career. Now, there's much more and, though she still has her hurricane moments, it's not always that approach as a matter of course (or coarse) and there is, yes, subtlety, but it's so much more than a wild ride on a one-trick pony. And it's all more in control.

If is a theme show. Most of the songs explore some aspect of "what would happen if ..." or "if only." So, there are regret and resentment, bittersweet moments and longing, and she really goes to all those places. In her tender, serene "Why Did I Choose You?" from the Broadway musicalization of The Yearling (Michael Leonard/ Herb Martin), the "if" in the last line gets the focus because of the show title, as Baby Jane sings, "If I had to choose again, I would still choose you." Likewise, in her moving rendition of South Pacific's "This Nearly Was Mine," we don't so much bemoan the lost chance but wonder what might have been different if ....

There are only two musicians here, and both are top notch: bass player Boots Maleson and pianist/musical director Ross Patterson (whose skillful work some TalkinBroadwayites know from the Broadway by the Year concerts and CDs). The album sounds great, with the live cabaret audience experience really felt. Merci beaucoup for the skillful work of album producer Jean-Pierre (J-P) Perreaux, who has not just talent but a head start, as he is the sound technician at the Metropolitan Room, where the act was recorded, and is nominated for (another) MAC Award for his cabaret sounds and lights work.


Brannock Productions

The only MAC Debut nominee to have a solo CD album in release, Kevin Dozier's is a lovely, lovely, love-filled listen. Projecting a gentle soul, even a butterfly-fragile one, and with a rhapsodically romantic spirit, his voice is an exceptionally pretty one, and very musical. With breathy, close-to-the-mic singing, he is all sincerity and heart on the sleeve. But a certain modesty, not mawkishness, rules the day because, though fervent, he shows taste and restraint. He has employed Christopher Marlowe, the simpatico sensitive arranger-pianist-producer who was so successfully partnered with the late cabaret favorite Nancy LaMott. In fact, one of the tracks is a medley of two Irving Berlin classics that Nancy and Christopher had worked up for her, but didn't record: Combined and intertwined, "Always" is not just the usual vow of mutually felt eternal bliss; dominated and haunted by the love-loss lament of "Remember," it becomes a song of unrequited love. It's just one example of the thoughtfulness and drama in the renditions on an album that includes show tunes "Soon It's Gonna Rain" (The Fantasticks), the mantra "Love Changes Everything" and Oklahoma!'s "People Will Say We're in Love." Though much is high-voiced, gentle spirit crooning and cooing, Kevin occasionally opens up and uses a stronger, bigger sound in a few numbers that build dramatically.

Occasionally, instrumental figures become distracting, like the uncharacteristically too-insistent piercing piano figure in part of "Over the Rainbow," but it is redeemed by the creativity that follows (various instruments, most effectively a cello, appear in different combinations throughout the album). Perhaps saving the best for last, the CD concludes with a warm rendition of an excellent song, "Before We Say Goodbye," by Tom Andersen and Ian Herman. Kevin projects thoughtful intelligence as he and Marlowe set and sustain a mood, knowing the value of a pause. This album is worth the pause in any day to relish the honeyed and wise Love-Wise.


Hullarious Records

Nominated for her jazz performances, Laura Hull's third CD is a professionally competent effort and quite enjoyable. She has a rather clean, open sound with some widening vibrato on notes here and there. Not groundbreaking or showy, she doesn't reinvent tunes or copy a certain jazz diva; a drinking-in of various influences is evident. For new, she goes for nuance rather than reinventing a wheel that has for years merrily rolled along. There's a sense of joy and taking it easy. Even the potentially lonely lament, "I Keep Going Back to Joe's" is relatively cool, calm and collected. Guys and Dolls's "I've Never Been in Love Before" avoids any sense of awestruck discovery of first time or trepidation; she's just pretty darn happy about it and celebrating. Easygoing and no frills seems to be her M.O. and it makes for a cheery, if undemanding, listening date with ten tracks. Two pretty much share a title, but they are two different songs called "How Little We Know." The one with music by Philip Springer and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh had actually been published as ("How Little It Matters) How Little We Know" so as not to be confused with the one that preceded it in songwriting history, by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. Laura skims through each, like a skater gliding over the ice.

The album was arranged and produced by the singer and her pianist, the ace Pat Firth. The title tune, by Tom Waits, would be more effective without the laconic drum beats and loungey string additions that distract from the emoting. Otherwise, we're in piano-bass-drums territory. If a light romp is your jazz tempo, Laura is your gal.


Kopaesthetics Records

Spider Saloff's all-Cole Porter CD is nominated as Outstanding Jazz CD, and she will honor her commitment to perform at the Metropolitan Room at the end of May and perform at the MAC Awards on Monday with MAC President Ricky Ritzel despite the tragic loss this week of Bob Drake, her husband and co-producer of the album.

Spider and Porter seem a logical match, as this jazz-singing veteran has a taste for the playful and jazzy. This is a live recording, and there is lots of talk, but it is tracked separately, so skipping/programming is very do-able. Sounding casual but enthused about the 17 chosen songs, she zips through the program with an easy confident air. She may have been more focused on entertaining than staying diligently true to every aspect of musicality, as some notes here and there seem lazy or not quite precise. It's the kind of thing that wouldn't fly in a studio recording, but one often has to have the trade-off of losing some musical solid ground for flying free and fast in an in-person recording.

Spider is accompanied by pianist Jeremy Kahn who matches some of her spunk and splash with the zingier Porter picks. However, sometimes he just seems to be kind of banging away where we'd want more creativity or more warmth. The program is mostly the famous, well-covered Cole classics: "Night and Day," "Love for Sale" "Just One of Those Things," but there are some less-oft tackled excellent pieces like "Weren't We Fools" and the odd little "Tale of the Oyster." Spider gets some laughs and puts on her fun hat just fine for that and "The Laziest Gal in Town." Hip, jazzy Spider Saloff is a dedicated and devoted cheerleader for Cole Porter—and three cheers for that shared passion.


Ever-ardent Scot Albertson is MAC-nominated as a jazz singer, although to me he seems very much the more straightforward old-fashioned crooner or band singer. He has consistently worked with the adept jazz-leaning pianist/arranger Daryl Kojak (also nominated for a MAC for his collaborations with various singers). He can be oh-so-serious in his love songs, sincere to a fault. In looking at the potential for romance, his cup is always half-full—of rose petals. A deep-voiced singer, he also employs light head tones. His repertoire on this fourth album is mixed, with jaunty pick-me-ups like "Save the Bones for Henry Jones" to give us a break from the florid or torrid renditions. I could have done without yet another version of Phantom of the Opera's "Music of the Night" ... by anyone. But there are some gallant and grand flourishes here. Scot is a fan of the medley, and gets in a very full program of music that way. He sounds more comfortable with some songs and styles than others, gamely driving down jazzy upbeat avenues, but I think Scot is a lot more at home on the street of dreams—a romantic thoroughfare washed with tears occasionally but lined with long-lived love songs.


Recorded at the Manhattan cabaret venue where she is also the singing co-host of the weekly "After Party" late night open mic, powerhouse singer Alysha Umphress' Live at the Laurie Beechman sizzles. A belter with a knack for raising the roof (and a few goosebumps), she can also scale back and, to employ the title of one of the tracks, "Try a Little Tenderness." She's quite successful whether luxuriating in cozy cooing or taking on something she can blare with flair like Funny Girl's "Cornet Man."

Things get off to a strong start with "Celebrate" by Jeff Blumenkrantz and she establishes right away that she's a force to be reckoned with; luckily, she also knows just belting for its own sake is not enough. With the added advantage of the musicianship of veteran pianist Barry Levitt leading the small group, there's a jazz leaning on some tracks and that's the category of MAC nomination for her live shows like this one, but this is a mixed-genre collection. What's striking about this CD is how differently Alysha these songs can be approached and arranged. She has songs that appeared on no fewer than three of those by MAC nominees above. Her assertive, enthusiastic, brash, sassy-but-not-coy "Teach Me Tonight" is quite different from Todd Murray's duet with Marilyn Maye. Like Kevin Dozier, she has "Over the Rainbow," here an intense, melisma-soaked version sung partly a capella as her encore. Like Baby Jane Dexter, she sings "Spinning Wheel" but takes it for a wilder, noisier spin. Her sensitive side is revealed in "I'll Close My Eyes," a song she seems to be very at home with and it's a standout for its sensitivity. But when she chooses to belt and emote, hold on to your hats!

Next: back to normal format of a few CDs explored in the column, including some show tunes from about half a century ago and a bit of today.

- Rob Lester

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