Editor's note: Welcome to the second of our new monthly column dedicated to reviews and discussions of theatrical recordings: original cast recordings, solo records by theater and cabaret greats and anything else we think fits. The Music Men is written by James McQuillen, a locally well known music director and arranger, and Jay Gardner, an actor, vocalist and potter. Together, they run the Front Line Cabaret series, one of several local organizations reviving the art of cabaret in North Texas.
This month we have their thoughts on the New York City Center Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good; the current Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof; the Public Theater's 2015 premiere of John Michael LaChiusa's First Daughter Suite; and the latest from British cabaret great Barb Jungr.
Lady, Be Good
New York City Center Encores! Recording
Released September 2015
Fiddler on the Roof
2016 Broadway Cast Recording
Released March 2016
This month, I’m writing about two recordings of classic shows. One feels like a museum piece—hanging on the wall or sealed in a jar. The other is not your father’s Fiddler, but why should it be 52 years later? Does the original production matter? And how does that translate to these two recordings?
Last year, the Encores series at City Center presented George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good. Originally produced on Broadway in 1924 starring siblings Fred and Adele Astaire, the show was the first collaboration for George and Ira Gershwin. This recording features Danny Gardner and Patti Murin in the roles originally written for the Astaires, which they perform with great charm. Colin Donnell, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Douglas Sills fill out the other featured roles, but they fail to come off nearly as strongly as Gardner and Murin. The material their characters are given is more to blame than the actors themselves; their songs just aren’t as strong as those written for the Astaires.
In general, this recording never really gets off the ground, except for two elements. The first bright light is Tommy Tune, who makes a star turn as The Professor. Even on a recording, Tune’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” and to a slightly lesser extent “Little Jazz Bird,” is dynamic, buoyant and captivating. The second bright light is the Encores orchestra (led by the brilliant Rob Fisher) performing a mix of original, restored and reconstructed orchestrations. Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony’s dueling piano playing (based on that of 1920’s dueling piano stars Ohman and Arden who played in the orchestra of the 1924 production) is absolutely stellar. If you’re a Gershwin fan, it is worth buying the recording just to hear Rob Fisher’s glorious orchestra. Tommy Tune’s songs are simply the showbiz cherry on top.
The current revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Bartlett Sher, is preserved on a terrific recording that was released this month. This production came under fire from critics, audiences and industry insiders for the changes Sher and choreographer Hofesh Schechter made in what many view as Jerome Robbins’ sacrosanct staging and choreography. On this recording, the new dance music by Oran Eldor and new orchestrations by music director Ted Sperling are brilliantly realized. The orchestra of 23, gigantic by contemporary Broadway standards, breathes such life into Sperling’s work. Sperling’s orchestras are always highlights of productions he conducts (Light In the Piazza, South Pacific, The King and I, etc.), and this is no exception. Danny Burstein (Tevye), Alix Korey (Yente) and Adam Kantor (Motel) give stand-out performances. Burstein has a way of approaching a lyric that makes you see a song and Tevye in a new light. His “If I Were a Rich Man” is truly a portrait of a man grappling with the realities of life and faith. The “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray” section of the song is especially splendid. The three oldest daughters (played by Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell and Melanie Moore) are all very good (with a great new orchestration for “Matchmaker”), and Jessica Hecht is glorious as Golde—finding so much nuance in what is so often played as a one-note role. This recording does what the best recordings do: it makes me want to buy a ticket to the show.
— James McQuillen
Shelter from the Storm: Songs of Hope for Troubled Times
Released February 2016
English cabaret artist Barb Jungr has long been hailed as one of the most important interpreters of the Contemporary Songbook. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am acquainted with Ms. Jungr, having studied with her at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in the summer of 2014.) Her sometimes radical reinterpretations of the work of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Joni Mitchell bring new and profound insight to songs we thought we already knew, making us forget the original recordings.
For her latest album, Shelter from the Storm: Songs of Hope for Troubled Times, Jungr has joined forces with the internationally renowned, Grammy-winning jazz pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood. The result is a wonderfully unexpected group of interpretations realized as only Jungr can when collaborating with someone of Hobgood's caliber.
As expected, this album never disappoints. Jungr brings new insight to two Songbook classics; Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Bali Ha'i" (South Pacific) and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "Something's Coming" (West Side Story). Modern Songbook gems such as Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy," Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," David Bowie's "Life on Mars" and Hal David and Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now is Love" are all given new and uplifting treatments. What would a Barb Jungr album be without Bob Dylan? Here she has included the title track and Dylan's "All Along the Watch Tower," both interpreted as only the brilliant Barb Jungr can.
Three tracks on this album come from Jungr and Hobgood. "Stars Lazy But Shining," "Venus Rising" and "Hymn to Nina" are deeply rooted in both jazz and the Songbook, both American and Contemporary. They reveal two artists at the height of their powers as writers and interpreters. Lets hope this collaboration bears more fruit.
The theme of this album is hope, but as with many of Jungr's projects, that hope is an emotion to be contemplated and wrestled with. In this case, there is an infectious smile in Jungr's voice and a sense of joy in her performance that invites the listener to sing along and possibly even get up and dance. Even in a song such as Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy," Jungr gives us a reason to rejoice as she frees herself from her past life, feeling no regret or bitterness toward those she leaves behind.
We in the United States are lucky that Jungr crosses the pond on a regular basis for award-winning performances at New York's Metropolitan Room, Joe's Pub and Feinstein's/54 Below. I wonder when we will get to see her in Dallas?
— Jay Gardner
First Daughter Suite
Original Cast Recording from the Public Theater
Released February, 2016
When one thinks of the work of Michael John LaChiusa, the term “popular” seldom springs to mind. His two large-scale Broadway musicals, The Wild Party and Marie Christine, while not successes in the Razzle-Dazzle Commercial Broadway sense, pushed the genre forward, integrating music, character and storytelling in a way that might not appeal to your average musical theater fan, but makes connoisseurs jump for joy. LaChiusa doesn’t include “hit tunes” in his scores. You’ll be hard-pressed to find easily-extractable audition cuts and cabaret gems. A prolific writer, his willingness to sacrifice commercial appeal for the sake of innovation has resulted in a challenging body of work.
His latest show, First Daughter Suite, had its premiere at New York City's Public Theater in the fall of 2015 and serves as a companion piece, of sorts, to his 1993 musical First Lady Suite. An examination of mother-daughter relationships, or in this case, First Lady-First Daughter relationships, each story might be a run-of-the-mill family drama were it not set against key moments in U.S. history. Tricia Nixon's televised wedding in the White House Rose Garden juxtaposed with the Watergate Scandal. Amy Carter, in an extended dream sequence, travels to Iran with her mother Rosalyn, Susan Ford and her mother Betty Ford to free the hostages. Nancy Reagan and Patti Davis lounge pool-side in California where their strained relationship is put to the test by the Iran-Contra affair. ("He didn't know anything, Patti. That's all you have to say.") Barbara Bush discusses the prospects for her son's second Presidential bid with the spirit of her daughter Robin who died of leukemia at the age of three. (I didn't raise my son to be unpopular!")
The inherent theatricality of Mr. LaChiusa's work often produces cast albums which offer only the vaguest glimpse of what takes place on stage. While this recording falls into that category, its strengths lie in the strong character relationships and the storytelling, which sparkle despite the missing visuals. A cast of A-List musical theater artists give top notch performances: Barbara Walsh, Alison Fraser, Rachel Bay Jones and Mary Testa are all at the top of their game as Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter, Laura Bush and Barbara Bush. Caissie Levy, Betsy Morgan, Theresa McCarthy, Isabel Santiago and Carly Tamer are all excellent as the various First Daughters. Music director Or Matias leads the cast and instrumental ensemble through a seemingly effortless reading of a very difficult score. One can only imagine how exciting this piece must be to see and hear live.
» The Music Men runs on the last Wednesday of the month. The first installment is here
» James McQuillen is an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. He produces Front Line Cabaret with Gardner, and is music director of the upcoming 24 Hour Theater Festival at Ohlook Performing Arts in Grapevine, April 15-17, featuring the area premiere of Heathers: The Musical 101, High School Edition (more info on that here)
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater and cabaret. He is currently taking time out of his schedule to start a business selling his handmade pottery, which can be seen here.