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Meet music polyglot Michael Mott


WHERE THE SKY ENDS
THE SONGS OF MICHAEL MOTT

VARIOUS ARTISTS Broadway Records

While there's quite a range of musical styles on display in Where the Sky Ends, there's a certain earnestness and feverish intensity that characterizes much of the work, even the lighter fare. This album sampling the output of young composer/lyricist Michael Mott has a lot of pop influences, and the selections from two of his musicals suggest he doesn't long for the long-lined, sweeter, sweeping melodies of old-school classic musical comedy or its perkiness or razzle dazzle. So, it's not surprising to read in his self-penned introductory liner notes that he "grew up on the songs of Mariah Carey, Billy Joel and pop radio which all had a major influence on me." He cites the cast album of the melodramatic Jekyll & Hyde as a first and lasting influence and thanks its composer, Frank Wildhorn, for listening and giving feedback.

The new apple doesn't fall very far from the beloved tree, as Mott's long-gestating/evolving Faustus is redolent of passion, broad musicals strokes, and weighty declarations that would be at home in a Wildhorn tour de force. And the stars of one his epics are reunited: Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes, who played the title roles in his and Don Black's Bonnie and Clyde, are striking in the bold anthem of positive thinking (damn the odds) from Faustus, "Dare to Dream." For the score's lamenting cry about missing "Her Embrace", the dynamic Josh Young brings considerable brio and a kind of sensitive "hero" persona to the piece. Sounding immediately invested (as if we were picking up his story midway), he nicely calibrates the cry of pain and explores the loss, rather than just wail and wallow in self-pity and anguish.

One can empathize with a writer in his first collection wanting to show the breadth of styles in a wide comfort zone, whether they come from the heart or playful pastiche concoctions. But it makes for a kind of joltingly bumpy side-by-side ride. A retro Vegas vibe channeling a Sinatra stylist shows up just once and then disappears, never to be heard again, on the second track. On this swaggering swinger, "The Left Side of the Moon," Zachary Levi has a cool cat's field day, complete with jive chatter at the end. But sometimes we get two flavors in one: a decidedly energized pop feel keeps "Just Like Me" blazing and bopping. But only the most casual listener would miss the fierceness and indictments within the addictive fluff of the beat. In this piece, Justin Guarini sings as a man looking back on both his parents' directives ("Do as I say/ Don't do as I do") and how less noble actions can imprint more powerfully than spoken mottoes and advice. While coated with cotton candy sweet beat, there's pure acid in the killer line "Where's the hero called Dad/ I thought that I knew?" and "Now I wish I'd been warned/ I'd grow up to be you." (This is the only piece here with a shared writing credit; Zoe Samuel is co-lyricist.)

Other selections have one primary color and may not sustain interest. Beginning and ending with cooing "Oooo," Sierra Boggess slinks through the description of "The Devil" ("I won't reveal/ What he must conceal/ 'neath the mask he is hiding behind"). Is it because I'm all too aware of her recent portrayals of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel that a shadow of that seduction and power play seem to shadow this and make me uncertain if it's a put-on or just off-putting? Another simplistic and throbbing flashy flashback led by a funky Bryan Terrell Clark may tug at some folks' guilty-pleasure nostalgia for extended dance club mixes of once-popular sound-alike hits from the Studio 54 stylings of yore. Sixteen cries of the title directive "Don't Stop Dancin'" or "won't stop dancin'!" are more than enough for me. Unlikeably likewise, Orfeh's "Hold Me Tight" becomes a stranglehold on my withering patience with the "Hold me tight/ Stay the night/ Wait till morning" mantra heard six times, through there's more meat on the song's bones in the blessedly different and more interesting in-between lines, such as "Suddenly with the dawn/ Light and the truth collide." In some songs, it's not clear if some words which almost rhyme were meant to be accepted as inner rhymes or just happen to be close in sound.

Of the several he's written or co-written, there's only one other represented musical theatre score, Mob Wife, and it gets just one number. Showing an admirable character arc within a song, "Let You Go" explores and justifies a wife's decision to end a marriage. Its clear-eyed awareness of "the chilling realization/ I have a marriage built on lies" has decimation turn to decisiveness, then rage, hinting not a mite at the show's subtitle, A Mafia Comedy. Jacqueline Petroccia effectively builds the character's realizations and rage and declaration of independence ("I won't cry without you/ I will try life alone/ Say goodbye/ Life is fine without you/ It's time to make it on my own"). As noted above, we're presented with evidence of a still-growing writer as songs can contain a mix of artful phrases and then more tired ones. In this one, we have the more interesting line "The thrill of love goes numb/ A broken heart surrenders," but an early line such as this loses some impact in a lyric that also says "the husband's heart turns to stone" and "end this heartache" and "the man I love who broke my heart" and uses "betrayed me" referring to the husband in third person and then addressing him directly in second person form (although there's some compensation with the second instance getting in two rhymes on the next line: "...you betrayed me/ You slayed me and played me..."

Fans of more contemporary music with a youthful slant to lyrics' subject matter may be the most pleased target audience for Mr. Mott's mixed bag, heavy on venting and vamping, catharsis and power ballads. For me, the highlights are two less showy selections that score with disarming sincerity. Jeremy Jordan's yearning and sensitivity come through in "Try," which also stands out for its economy of lyrics and many one-syllable words. Crooning without losing an iota of his now-established charisma, the fast-rising musical theatre star gently places his heart on his sleeve in his admission of being unable to provide the balm for someone he cares for "When I see you bleed/ What I'd give to heal you/ In your time of need ..."). And maybe most rewarding of all, though marred just a bit by an overly breathy close-mic delivery in the beginning, the writer himself takes center stage on the album-ending "Sky," as vocalist (and, just on this number, as pianist, too). A beaten-down-but-not-beaten person's proud claim for survival, self-willing success and asserting, "I'm most alive when I imagine!/ Time may fly, but dreams can never die!/ I feel them lead me on my way/ So I still have the sky!" (The exclamation points are his, courtesy of the booklet containing all the lyrics, and it's a punctuation mark that seems, much of the time, to be implied.)

Some of the exclamation-pointed ambience comes from the orchestrations of veteran Kim Scharnberg (Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde, Wonderland, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Civil War) who also plays trumpet in the 15-piece orchestra and co-produced the CD with Mott. The orchestrations can be exciting and dazzling, but, for me, at times have a tendency to be heavy-handed and full of flourishes and a kind of underlining emphasis that prevent some could-be subtle moments and tenderness from shining through.

I see glimmers here that tell me that the best is yet to come as this writer finds his own ways and means to grow.


- Rob Lester


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