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Dynamic Duos
Reviews by Rob Lester

Songs can often seem twice as nice when two voices combine and two stars share the bill. Here are three recordings where twosomes bring some dazzle, including quite a few theatrical numbers, not all of which were conceived as duets. One documents a nightclub performance by married Broadway stars (including some solos for each) on their 20th anniversary, another marks the 25th anniversary of frequently collaborating cabaret artists, and the third—in this year marking the 30th anniversary of his death and the 100th anniversary of his starting his own music publishing company— features immortal Irving Berlin material performed by various paired performers.


Broadway Records

It's both bittersweet and joyous to have and to hear a recording of the late Marin Mazzie with husband Jason Danieley in their final joint nightclub engagement in 2017. Some of the numerous included spoken comments refer to her battle with cancer and indeed some lyrics take on a different meaning and weight in that light and in retrospect. But this was not a pity party, rather a grateful carpe diem celebration of their 20th anniversary—and their strength. Both are in top form, singing with power and commitment.

The night began with what at first seems like a random combination of three old non-theatre songs jammed together, with the explanation that each was in a stage piece they did in their first project together. Then we understand the justified nostalgia trigger point, even if the mismatched mix still comes off as odd and disjointed. In the first of several chats filled with fond, grateful perspective, they reminisce in a down-to-earth way between heavenly episodes of singing. The generous program ends with their affectionate duet on the standard they danced to at their wedding, the Gershwins' "Love Is Here to Stay." There's also warmth in Marin Mazzie's solo of "Hello, Young Lovers," which she got to sing (but not record) when she performed in The King and I in 2016. But the concert is not all sentimental and serene; witness this lady's grit and an eyes-wide-open reality check on Kander & Ebb's "And the World Goes Round," for which she sets up our listening by referencing the point of view she gained via her health battles.

The occasion inspired a retrospective of career highlights, which, naturally, means that fans have had access to their earlier renditions of some of the material. As on their prior joint live album, we're treated to their deft work on the Ahrens & Flaherty song "Opposite You" and their sumptuous five-part Sondheim medley. And, in stirring solos, they recall past roles and their subsequent cast albums. We time-travel "Back to Before" to her time in Ragtime, and in Kiss Me, Kate; also brought back is her radiant way with Fiorello!'s "When Did I Fall in Love?" which she did in the multi-performer My Favorite Broadway concert seen on PBS and released on disc. Then there are his roles in The Full Monty ("Walk with Me," here Jason is potently on his own with what was shared in the Broadway show), Curtains ("I Miss the Music"), and the concert version of South Pacific as Lieutenant Cable. From The Visit, he opts for a piece not assigned to the character he played in the production: "You, You, You." And his appealing vocal sound is a pleasure to hear caressing this item from a somewhat underappreciated score.

The sound quality is impressive on this recording from their closing night at Feinstein's/54 Below in Manhattan, one of many done there. Although the instrumentation consists of only three musicians (pianist Joseph Thalken, bassist Pete Donovan, and drummer Rich Rosensweig), the accompaniment does not feel undernourished for these performers you may be most often used to hearing with a full Broadway pit orchestra.

The vociferous and understandable audience reaction of cheers, whoops, and lengthy applause only becomes distracting toward the end as emotion peaks. It's hard not to feel pulled in, but no excuses or apologies are needed to justify the cheers for the valiant, open leading lady leading her fight then, because she sounds splendid and fully invested in the material. And then some. The same can be said for the talented, stalwart but sensitive Mr. Danieley. I suspect that we won't be quick to forget the impact of this belatedly issued concert.


Karen Lotman Productions

Whether it's Cole Porter's plea "Don't Fence Me In" becoming a full story or the delightful discovery of a quirky, quite unknown George Gershwin/ Buddy DeSylva item called "My Little Ducky," cabaret singers KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler, combining forces, sparkle and seem to spark something extra special in each other. With him also presiding at the keyboard and providing the smart arrangements, they've teamed on and off in concert and on recordings, and this latest release, Thanks for the Memory, marks a quarter-century of doing so.

These new tracks offer a bounty of songs from musical theatre which allow them to showcase their chemistry in serious and lighthearted moods. It's not their style to be casual or offhand, so they commandingly make bold choices, whether it's brash vaudeville schtick (like "Catch Our Act at the Met" from Two on the Aisle) or the bravery required for real vulnerability ("If Love Were All"). The longtime mutual admiration of these friends rings true, avoiding the temptation to overplay sentimentality in "Love Is Here to Stay," making the case that it can work referencing a kind of solid love that isn't romantic, like the also-newly issued version by Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley of this 83-year-old classic.

While the pair can lavish rich tones, thoughtfulness, and focus on an old standard with such straightforward respect that we are reminded of its worth, they also can take the kind of creative chances that put them in a whole new light. While they are noted for doing this with the technique of weaving in another song so that one seems to comment on the other ("I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"/"There's Always One You Can't Forget"), a stand-alone number can achieve that, too. Most impressive in that challenge is a stunningly effective languidly paced treatment of "Everything's Coming Up Roses." This Gypsy classic, thought of as a pep rally or fiercely determined goals, builds its steam in slo-mo. Letting it glide pensively instead of bounce or steamroll reveals a quiet power of pensiveness and a kind of confidence that may be fragile, adding a whole new subtext.

The lush Sullivan soprano is employed in an elegant and graceful manner when the lady so chooses, but she doesn't lean on that sound when a more robust or cynical attitude is called for. Nadler's penchant for over-the-top showmanship takes a vacation on these tracks, but he's got gusto galore nevertheless. Perhaps a holding back on extended mid-song instrumental spotlight moments is in service to the emphasis on equal weight for both parties. In any case, the man is so accomplished and his accompaniment is so apropos and full that I don't miss having other players. And when he's at his most subtle and restrained, the intimacy of their connection and the literate lyrics is all the more engaging.

In Manhattan, the indefatigable KT presides over the 30th annual Cabaret Convention October 28-31 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which includes herself and Nadler among a bevy of singers, followed by early November nights at the Hotel Pierre, Birdland, and the Laurie Beechman Theatre (where Mr. N. goes solo on October 30).


Chip Deffaa Productions / Garret Mountain Records

If, like me, you have a major soft spot for early 20th century songs that might be a valentine to vaudeville with solidly tuneful melodies and lyrics that balance sentiment with craft, here's a recording to cheer. With 29 (!) selections, all written by the era's master, Irving Berlin, the reaction can be summed up with the title of one: "We Have Much to Be Thankful For." Producer Chip Deffaa, as he's done several times in the past, dips deeply into the prolific tunesmith's oeuvre, with lots of stuff rarely heard or recorded (except by Deffaa, in some cases, on earlier collections and cast albums). He calls upon many of the performers who've stepped up to the mic for him—or in his stage productions—all of whom are performers who manage to sing without guile, condescension, or winking (thankfully) that would give them away as 21st century folks.

Participants range from newbies just cutting their theatrical teeth in regional theatre, to Broadway/Off-Broadway-experienced people (Stephen Bogardus teaming up with Jed Peterson, who's worked Off-Broadway and in the Moscow Art Theatre, for the comical "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army"). While some, of course, sound more polished than others, enthusiasm and spunk never lag. One can forgive the occasional moment of less than ideal intonation or some tentativeness, especially considering the value of the very rarest material. The Irving Berlin Duets Album, Volume 1 is a terrific time-travel trip, and the match-ups of performers are felicitous and fun, especially when producer/archivist/playwright, et al Chip Deffaa himself gets into the act on three happy occasions. He radiates infectious charm.

Richard Danley, the producer's usual and unfussy pianist, provides the accompaniment, anchoring the proceedings firmly in period-evoking zing. He strongly drives the melodies and rhythms in an unfussy, efficient manner that is direct and driving but sympathetic to the varied performers in the hefty set list. Granted, your modern mindsets and "sophisticated" sensibilities may find some past-its-shelf-life coyness and corn in some tunes that don't escape the era they were written in to qualify as timeless, like the Berlin ballads and anthems most favored in recent decades. (But we do get the famous and indestructible standard of eternal devotion, "Always.") Much here is an unapologetic snuggling-up to days and ways of yore positioning shy, blushing courting and cuteness front and center for "sweethearts" addressing each other as "honey" or "dear" imagining happiness. But you won't O.D. on fluff and frills; antidotes are plentiful, such as the snarky list song wherein faults are rattled off ("I Hate You") and several appealingly jaunty numbers.

Two pieces break the "duets only" rule, both including Olivia Chun, recently of School of Rock. In one, she's part of a group of kids enthusiastically singing about a new baby, the titular character in "Somebody's Coming to Our House." In the other, "Wasn't It Yesterday?," she sets up a tender musical conversation for a long-married couple warmly played by the endearing pros Jon Peterson and Joan Jaffe (who once were cast as George M. Cohan and his mother in one of Deffaa's plays). It would have been a nice addition to find one or two of the duets that would work well for two females, as the 25 pairings are all two guys or mixed gender. But that missed opportunity is outweighed by the many delightful duos.

There's so much to bring smiles here. I especially like the spunk of the education-resistant boys in "The Schoolhouse Blues" with Jackson Demott Hill and Alex Dreier, who played brothers in Broadway's Finding Neverland. And the ode to the structure of scripting a play is engaging with Analise Scarpaci and Jack Corbin (who shines even more with Mr. Deffaa in the peppy celebration announcing that "The Circus Is Coming to Town"). On other tracks we hear to good advantage two cabaret singers gathering fans in New York with solo shows—Seth Sikes and Mark William—and amiable Michael Townsend Wright, who played Irving Berlin in past Deffaa projects, with cast recordings.

But don't ask me to pick a short list of favorites because there's so much that's sweet and swell here. Let's schedule another meeting of the Irving Berlin Appreciation Society "Some Sunny Day"—and "Always."

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