Editor's note: Welcome to the fifth 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.
This month's column is dominated by recordings by individual vocalists. First is Tony Award-winner and all-around delight Kristin Chenoweth, who will soon have a run on Broadway and then embarks on a national tour, which brings her to Dallas in January. Next is Fort Worth native Jay Armstrong Johnson, who grew up performing with Kids Who Care and Casa Mañana, and then took off for the Big Apple and has several Broadway shows and national tours under his belt. His first album of pop and musical songs was recorded at Feinstein's/54 Below. He'll perform some of that in a special homecoming concert in Fort Worth this weekend (see below for more info).
We have a review of another album from a local performer: Diana Sheehan, who has created several lovely cabarets. This time she sings songs from composer Jerome Kern, and the album release is Thursday, Oct. 20 at the Sammons Center for the Arts. TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry reviews this recording because the album's musical director is James McQuillen, one-half of our Music Men team.
Speaking of those guys, they also have thoughts on the original cast recording of Disaster! A Musical and the acclaimed revival of The Robber Bridegroom.
Kristin Chenoweth: The Art of Elegance
Released Sept. 23, 2016
The endlessly charming Kristin Chenoweth’s most recent collection of songs, The Art of Elegance, features “standards” of various kinds from the last 80 years. While we often think of songs from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s as “standards,” here the definition is slightly broadened to include songs by Burt Bachrach and Hal David (“A House Is Not a Home”) and Steve Tyrell (“You’re My Saving Grace”). Tyrell, a well-regarded vocalist and producer in his own right (having worked on albums for Diana Ross, Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt), also produced this album. The string arrangements by Alan Broadbent are classic and evocative of early Sinatra or Tony Bennett. The only musical argument I have with the album is some slightly cheesy playing by Dave Koz on two tracks; a small argument, frankly, when the album is really lovely overall.
In many ways, this collection of songs functions as a follow-up to her 2001 album “Let Yourself Go.” Like that album, these songs are generally familiar and are beautifully performed. Not quite as theater-centered as that album though, The Art of Elegance features songs also drawn from film and popular music. “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “The Very Thought of You” are lovely and very well done; “The Very Thought of You” is especially, well, thoughtful. Her “Skylark” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” are terrific interpretations of two of the best songs ever written, beautifully arranged and played.
Her singing is impeccable, of course. Time only seems to have brought her glorious voice more intention, more colors, more choices.
For people expecting the Kristin Chenoweth we all fell in love with when she played Sally in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, her zaniness and wackiness are soft-pedaled here. Here is a more mature, lived-in singer-actress sharing beautifully sung and arranged standards.
This album is a great teaser for her upcoming concerts at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway (well, 46th Street). She’s also comine to Dallas on Jan. 25, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House. Who’s going?
— James McQuillen
Jay Armstrong Johnson — Live at Feinstein's/54 Below
Jay Armstrong Johnson
Released Sept. 16, 2016
The great thing about the art of cabaret is that it can encompass any musical genre, it can be presented in any number of performance styles, and is only limited by the imagination of the performer. Historically, it has been a celebration of the Great American Songbook sung by elegantly dressed cabaret artists performed in intimate settings. However, in recent years the New York cabaret scene has gone through some major changes. The closing of the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel and the relocation, as it were, of Feinstein's to the West Coast has perhaps signaled a shift not only in the style of music being presented but in how it is performed.
In June of 2012, as both of the venerated rooms were closing, 54 Below, a state of the art cabaret space, opened its doors in the basement of Studio 54, the once infamous nightclub turned theatrical venue now owned and operated by The Roundabout Theater Company. Feinstein's/54 Below has since become the East Coast home for Michael Feinstein and was rechristened Feinstein's/54 Below in early 2015. Through an association with Broadway Records, the venue is involved in an ongoing release of live recordings featuring popular actors from Broadway and Off Broadway.
Their most recent release, Jay Armstrong Johnson Live at Feinstein's/54 Below, features an impressive and versatile cabaret debut by the 28-year-old actor Jay Armstrong Johnson. Johnson, a Fort Worth native who performed as a youth with Kids Who Care and Casa Mañana, has made a name for himself appearing in a string of Broadway shows that include Hair, Catch Me If You Can, Hands on a Hard Body and On the Town. On this album, he is hardly alone in his “one man show.” An impressive band led by music director Rodney Bush offers a dynamite brass section and solid support for a collection of songs that encompass a wide range of musical styles.
Throughout the show, Johnson continually refers back to his childhood in Fort Worth. Memories of family road trips inspire a performance of the song “Banjo” by Rascal Flats. His experience playing Peter Pan in junior high becomes a segue into a performance of Ryan Scott Oliver's “Lost Boy.” He brings to the stage fellow Texan and current star of Broadway's Kinky Boots Todrick Hall ("He got me a job at Six Flags Over Texas") to sing a duet extolling their shared late-night obsession with Popeye's Chicken (“The Chicken Song”). This song might have come off incredibly cheesy had it not been performed so brilliantly. Another childhood friend and fellow Hair cast mate, Amanda Williams Ware, joins Johnson for a poignant interpretation of Alanis Morissette's “Thank U.” A story about playing Romeo in junior high leads to a performance of Jeff Buckley's “Everybody here Wants You.”
Throughout the show Johnson displays a refreshing versatility and ease with the material he has chosen. He moves effortlessly from country and western to R&B to contemporary musical theater. His charmingly bashful patter is refreshingly ego-free. His enthusiasm and love not only for the material but for the people performing with him is infectious. It makes for highly enjoyable listening.
And this brings me back to the first paragraph of this review. Cabaret can be anything. In this case, Jay Armstrong Johnson has picked an entire program of contemporary pop and musical theater songs. They work beautifully in this setting and help Johnson tell his story. He has a visceral connection with these songs and shares that connection with the audience and that is what cabaret is all about.
— Jay Gardner
» Kids Who Care presents "A Homecoming Concert with Jay Armstrong Johnson," at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center's Scott Theatre, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21. Click here for tickets.
Disaster! A Musical
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released Sept. 9, 2016
At a time when, apart from the juggernaut that is Hamilton, Broadway and off-Broadway seem to be less and less a part of the mainstream conversation in this country, there are people and organizations doing yeoman’s work to bring Broadway, oOff-Broadway and musical theater in general to as broad an audience as possible. One of those organizations is Broadway Records (more about them later) and one of those people is Seth Rudetsky. Whether on his show for SiriusXM, his YouTube videos or his live shows, his endless energy and excitement about Broadway is inspiring and contagious.
Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick wrote Disaster!, a musical that lovingly parodies the disaster films of the 1970s and features as its “score" what amounts to a ’70s hit parade. “Hot Stuff,” “I Am Woman,” “Still the One,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and 20 more songs are featured in the show. Disaster! played for three months on Broadway earlier this year (with people like Rachel York, Roger Bart, Faith Prince, Adam Pascal, Kerry Butler and Seth Rudetsky himself in the company) and is preserved on a terrific recording from Broadway Records.
Speaking of Broadway Records; a fairly new record company focused on musical theater and related recordings, they work very hard to be sure that cabaret, off-Broadway and smaller or boutique Broadway shows get recorded. Along with Sh-K-Boom, Ghostlight, Nonesuch and others, they’ve done and continue to do “the lord’s work” in getting tons of things recorded that wouldn’t have been 15 or 20 years ago. Their relationship with 54 Below has been especially fruitful—I count 24 recordings in the series. What other company today would record that much cabaret?
Disaster! is a wonderfully-produced recording, and is so much fun to listen to. The tracks are short (the longest is 3:45; most are 2:00 or less), the arrangements are terrific, and you get the sense that these Broadway fancies are having a blast. Some highlights include “Knock On Wood” (featuring Lacretta Nicole as Levora in her Broadway debut), Jennifer Simard singing “The Lord’s Prayer” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” York and Rudetsky doing “Mockingbird” (her “I Will Survive” is great fun, too), and Faith Prince and Kevin Chamberlain singing “Still the One.” Download it, grab a glass of something and dance around your house.
The Robber Bridegroom
2016 Cast Recording
Released Sept. 9, 2016
For those who consider themselves original cast album connoisseurs there is always a recording that escapes their detection. This could be the result of the show having had a short run on- or off-Broadway or the show might have been produced in a foreign country. In some cases the recording may have had a limited release on vinyl or CD. Sometimes we find that the recording is off our radar for a very, VERY good reason and other times we're left scratching our heads wondering why we didn't come across it sooner.
The Robber Bridegroom is a musical that I had only vaguely heard of and had never seen. While I'm sure there have been productions in the Dallas area, a staging hasn't taken place in recent memory. No one I have spoken with recalls having seen it or performed in it which deepens the mystery surrounding this piece.
The show is based on Eudora Welty's short story and has a book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and music by Robert Waldman. Its Broadway premiere took place in 1975 as part of a repertory season produced by John Houseman's The Acting Company. It had a short run, only 14 performances, and then was taken on a national tour for a year where it played in rep with Edward II, The Time of Your Life and The Three Sisters, returning to Broadway in 1976 for an additional 145 performances from which a very difficult-to-acquire cast album was released.
Other than that, it seems to have quickly faded into musical theater lore. There seem to be no production photos or videos to speak of which relegates this show to a footnote rather than a classic.
Cut to the acclaimed 2016 off-Broadway revival directed by Alex Timbers and produced by The Roundabout Theater Company. The accompanying cast album reveals a spirited, high-energy show that is equal parts satire, folktale, and fable. Brilliantly scored for a bluegrass band, we are transported to 19th century America along the banks of the Mississippi where crooked deals are dealt, virtue is guarded (barely), and superstition reigns supreme.
The story is a Robin Hood-esque saga. Jamie Lockhart is a gentleman by day and the Bandit of the Woods by night. As the story unfolds, mistaken identity, a stepmother's murderous intentions and nighttime seductions complicate Jamie's plan to steal a plantation owners fortune and marry Rosamund, his daughter. By stories end, Some will be punished, others will be rewarded, a wedding will take place and all will end happily...almost.
The bluegrass-infused score led by music director Justin Levine provides a springboard for some high-energy performances. In the songs “Steal with Style” and “Love Stolen” Stephen Pasqual is at his best singing with energy and joy. As his love interest, Ahna O'Reilly brings a zany sense of humor to her performance as Rosamund especially in the song “Nothin' Up” where we discover she may not be as sweet and innocent as she wants us to believe. In “The Pricklepear Bloom” the brilliant Leslie Kritzer gives a virtuosic performance as Rosamund's evil step-mother Salome (pronounce Suh-LOH-mee). "I'm gonna get rid of Miss Prissypants.....FOR GOOD!" Her performance conjures visions of Carol Burnett, so much so that one desperately wishes they could have seen her perform the role live.
The rest of the cast (Andrew Durand, Evan Harrington, Nadia Quinn, Lance Roberts, Devere Rogers, Jeremiah James, and Marissa McGowan) are equally outstanding doing triple and quadruple duty playing multiple roles. There is no doubt that any one of these actors could hold their own in a starring role. How fortunate we are that this cast was made up of so many powerhouse performers.
The cast album makes a very strong case for what is clearly a fantastic show. Its bluegrass and country music-infused score is first rate and totally up to date. The book is tight and well-written. Every role is a tour de force that can show off an actor to his or her best. The entire piece is full of life, energy and hysterical humor. Why we don't see it produced more often is a mystery to me. Hopefully, this superb cast recording will change that. This is a show that deserves to be seen more than once every 40 years.
Diana Sheehan Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook
Quiver & Bow Records
Released Oct. 20, 2016
If you’ve seen Diana Sheehan’s cabaret performances over the years at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival and elsewhere, you know she’s utterly entertaining, balancing humor and high drama with ease. Her shows always have a concept: Songs, both well-known and rare, tied together by one person such as a lyricist (Lorenz Hart) or performer (Gertrude Lawrence).
For the latest round, she sings tunes composed by Jerome Kern, used in stage and film musicals in the Tin Pan Alley era and beyond, with lyricists such as Dorothy Fields, P.G. Wodehouse and Otto Harbach. Many of these songs were performed on film, or recorded, by such great mid-20th century interpreters of the American songbook as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Kern is of course most revered as part of the team that helped define the American book musical with 1928’s Show Boat. Several of those songs are included in Diana Sheehan Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook.
With musical direction and arrangements by James McQuillen and featuring the backing trio of McQuillen on piano, Sarah Choi on cello and Lincoln Apeland on bass, the album has several smart song medleys, beginning with “I Won’t Dance” and “A Fine Romance.”
Those two blend together beautifully not only because of the rhyme of “dance” and “romance,” but they’re both delightfully infectious. You can hear the smile in Sheehan’s soprano on “I Won’t Dance,” which reminds of my favorite interpretation of that song, by late cabaret great Blossom Dearie. Sheehan’s voice is the opposite of Dearie’s famous whisper, but they both capture the same kind of joie de vivre.
That élan continues on songs like “How’d You Like to Spoon with Me” (paired with “They Didn’t Believe Me”), “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” and “I’ll Be Hard to Handle.”
In one of the better-known songs, “Bill” — which has lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and ended up in Show Boat despite being written for another musical — is a great example of how Sheehan mixes playful and passionate. She also luxuriates in the emotion of the two most recognizable tunes, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Don’t miss any chance to see her live, including at the album release party Oct. 20 in the Sammons Center for the Arts’ cabaret series.
— Mark Lowry
» Diana Sheehan's album release party, with a performance, is 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20 at the Sammons Center for the Arts in Dallas. Click here for tickets.
» The Music Men runs periodically on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» James McQuillen is an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. He produces Front Line Cabaret with Gardner, and is teaching this fall at Binghampton University in Binghampton, New York.
» 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. He can be seen in the chorus at the Dallas Opera this fall.
February 2016: The Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the Encores! Off-Center revival of William Finn's A New Brain, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Life from the Cafe Carlyle, and an album of Lea DeLaria singing David Bowie songs.
March 2016: New York City Center Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good; the 2015 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.
July 2016: Cast recordings of Bright Star, the revival of She Loves Me, Cheyenne Jackson's solo album Renaissance, and Benjamin Scheuer's Songs from the Lion.
August 2016: James and Jay discuss some of their favorite things, including the cast recording they each first fell in love with.
September 2016: James and Jay discuss the year of Hamilton