Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Real-Life Marriage-Type Love and Career


It's June, traditionally a wedding-heavy month, so let's consider three very different married couples for whom a career in creative endeavors was also central to the relationship. First, there's the cast album of a musical about writer James Joyce, who quite belatedly married the mother of his children. Then, there's the very belated appearance of a never-before-released album from 1959 by performers and sometime co-stars Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy (then married). Lastly, there's David Alpher and Jennie Litt, a New York married couple who've been performing and writing their own songs for years, with a somewhat belated CD debut of their original material.

HIMSELF AND NORA
2012 NEW YORK CAST

JAY Records

It seems an appropriate time to review, re-visit, and reconsider the musical about James Joyce, Himself and Nora. This week marks the 110th anniversary of Bloomsday, that mid-June day that's the setting of Joyce's massive novel "Ulysses," chosen because it was the day of his first outing with the love of his life, and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle. The musical shows us that the relationship of these two strong-willed people wasn't always easy, and I didn't have the easiest time falling in love with their love story. I had mixed feelings and wasn't fully drawn in when I first saw the show in 2012 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and on my initial listening of this recent release (of the album recorded in that year with that cast directed by Michael Bush). In both cases, I was put off by the rancor and rowdy, ribald, and raunchy elements. I admired much of it rather than liking it. It's finally won me over with repeat listening. (If at first you don't succeed, try, try again: press "repeat play." Patience is rewarded.) Uneasy relationships with not-very-easygoing people don't make for "easy listening." The score has its own kind of sugar-free pull, the muscular melodies messaging the Irish flavoring certainly grab the ear, quickest to endear me to the material, with the hearty bar room brio of "Let's Have a Drink" and the reprised numbers "Man of Erin" and "River Liffey." Joyce's own mixed feelings about his native land and its traditions inform the play, the indomitable force of home one to be reckoned with. There's a deeply ingrained inevitability about that which is reflected in the structures of the songs. Likewise, or should I say love-wise, the relationship of the couple, while tempestuous, never seems truly tenuous, but with its own tested but not broken bond.

Careful listening to these accented characters in this swirl of songs is required, as the packaging doesn't give a lyric booklet. We get several color photos of the production, but only the briefest of liner notes from Jonathan Brielle, the composer-lyricist-bookwriter-orchestrator. Therein, he "chronologically" gives thanks to some who've "helped develop" this, and simply lists their names. He begins with Sheila Walsh, with whom one can say the project began, but she no longer has a credit. The saga of Walsh and himself begins with her solo playwriting about Joyce's life. Back in the late 1990s, he joined her and they were credited as co-lyricists and co-bookwriters with his original melodies when it was a piece with less music called Himself, with Len Cariou starring, in a Florida production. The evolving Himself and Nora was produced at the Old Globe in California (still Brielle/Walsh), four special presentations at the James Joyce Center in Dublin, Ireland (2008) and in New Jersey (2013).

Matt Bogart has been playing Joyce in all these 21st-century productions. He delivers a dynamic portrayal, singing powerfully, variously capturing the conflicted but unapologetic character's joys, testiness, abandon, iconoclastic nature, and single-minded dedication to his work. To his credit, he manages to infuse his embodiment of a moody, selfish man with some true vulnerability, especially as time and troubles mount. In the touching "All Ways in Love," facing a crossroads, he pleads and expresses his needs, knowing she is both muse and needed partner, claiming in the ultimate rhymed sum-up, that "without your voice there is no Joyce." More than holding her own to match him in her own lightning rod style is the ticking time bomb, ready to explode Jessica Burrows. No shrinking violets bloom or blush here. The frank mutual sexual interest and discussion kindles and is celebrated most prominently in the number with the self-explanatory title "Compatriots in Lust." They also fuss and feud, and resentments fester as frustrations mount. (Masterwork "Ulysses" is withheld from publication, banned for its own sexual content, creating a loss of expected money stream.) Much later, she explodes in rage effectively, when a fed-up Nora proclaims she'd be all kinds of "lucky" were she "Without a Man."

But it isn't all moans and hormones; humor and amusing barbs are evident in their active interaction and that of the other characters, all played by three actors: David Arthur and Brian Sills as all other men and J.B. Wing as other females. Sills and Wing bring a playful lightness to surveying the unique plight and perks of being "The Children of Mr. Joyce." And his supporters Harriet Weaver and Ezra Pound (Wing this time with Arthur) have some delicious moments in plotting ways to make Joyce's plots see the light of day.

Despite earthy ripostes, non-sentimental pet names and pet peeves, a dignity emerges in the underlying devotion to each other and to writing. Songs describing a determination to "Stand Fast" and live for love ("What Better Thing to Do") are steel-belted, the latter flush with true feeling, that stick in a listener's mind. Dialogue bits, while rarely lengthy, are numerous and very present—often at a track's beginning, as well as woven through songs which sometimes become as much like dramatic scenes with sung sections in a few longer tracks. Some are tersely under (or not much over) three minutes in length, which is to the good as almost everything is packed and potent. And, in the final analysis, all feel like vital chapters in a very intense but ultimately rewarding saga, with some leavening via levity. The couple's wedding, after living together for many years, has its own teasing humor, with the word "finally" inserted in the wedding vow among the tidbits.

The ambitious score's reprised melodies help give form and flow. David Weiss's Irish flutes and reeds are key in investing the appropriate texture. That's done without overkill in the five-piece band led by pianist James Sampliner.

Himself and Nora carves for itself a special place in that musical theatre corner where we find special sympathy for characters based on real-life male creative artists, despite their self-absorption that leaves less room for the women who love them: Georges Seurat (Sunday in the Park with George), Mack Sennett in Mack and Mabel, and P.T. Barnum, for example). Bravo to producer John Yap of JAY Records for again creating a vibrant self-contained and specific world on disc.

SHIRLEY JONES & JACK CASSIDY
MARRIAGE TYPE LOVE

Sony Masterworks

Separately or together, the voices of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy—on cast albums or their other recordings—have always greatly pleased my ears. The late Mr. Cassidy had a distinctive sound and Miss Jones, still performing with recent recording work following an earlier religious album, is ever sunny. In addition to their co-starring in Broadway's recorded Maggie Flynn and a studio cast recording of Brigadoon, they made and released two albums of love songs—duets and solos—during the early years of their 1956-1974 marriage. And one was recorded in 1959 and never saw the light of day ... 'til now. In a word, yippee!

Both in splendid voice, they bring their bountiful talents and chemistry to well-chosen material about love and marriage, including, naturally, "Love and Marriage," from the TV musical adaptation of Our Town (Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn). It gets a goofy spin, complete with his rolled Rs, the indulgence of the spoken quip, and the clip-clop sound of the "horse and carriage" which rhymes with its title as two pairs that "go together." And the two ultra-creamy voices go together like milk and honey. Sure, they play up some coyness, with the occasional spoken aside on a couple of numbers, a wink here and a chuckle there. It's a whole lot of tender loving caring and wholesome. It's 1959, after all.

On "Love Is Here to Stay" they serenade each other with surety, so let's try hard to banish our "advantage" (?) of knowing what they didn't know at the end of the 1950s, a few years after they married between matinee and evening performances of a tour of Oklahoma!, which Shirley had starred in on film, preventing her from opening with another Rodgers & Hammerstein show she was previewing in out of town, Me and Juliet. A number from that underappreciated score gives this album its title and is the first track. It's the snazziest of the arrangements, with more kick and "juice" than most of these dozen dandy tracks with Marty Gold's orchestra. Here and there, the orchestrations are a bit "busy" and distracting. Gold himself was a busy record man and the instrumental settings here, for the album intended for RCA Victor records after the two duo albums for Columbia with other conductors, is typical. It's smooth and rich, like quality custard, but not groundbreaking or laced with original ideas or things that really "deepen" the material or add subtext or wistfulness. Most renditions are low-key and relaxed, keeping the romantic fires at a lower flame, no razzle dazzle power-voiced singing or showboating. The prettiness of the serenading doesn't get vapid or sleepy because their voices are so youthfully rich and they sound invested. Even when humming or harmonizing subtly, they're very present. The orchestrations don't go overboard with the swirling strings and lush slush. There are horns and reeds and percussion to add punch and vigor. Tempi rarely get lazily languid.

Each has one solo. She luxuriating lingers over thoughts about how "It's So Nice to Have a Man Around the House," that has some harmless self-aware humor, not dating terribly well. He takes a more sincere idealism slant with his "I Married an Angel," which was literally the case in its original context as the title song of a Rodgers & Hart musical. Delicately phrased, it's Cassidy at his suave (but not slick) best.

Musical theatre fans will appreciate the presence of a few show tunes that aren't the usual suspects of super-standards: besides the title song, there's "My Darling, My Darling" (Frank Loesser, Where's Charley?) which really floats on a cotton candy cloud of relished romance, and Schwartz and Dietz's chipper "Love Is the Reason" from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Most tracks are on the short side, with more than half clocking in at under three minutes. Still, there's time to drink in the melodies in instrumental breaks, like a generous and bright, bouncy one in that last-named number.

Romance ain't dead—it was simply sleeping. It's a special little celebrational event to have this long-lost treasure dug up.

ALPHER & LITT
TWO APPLES

The CD cover neatly bills it as "Songs about everything from lingerie to infinity by Brooklyn's own husband-and-wife cabaret duo." Jennie Litt sings her own lyrics to husband David Alpher's melodies and piano accompaniment here. Of the matter of the subject matter mentioned in the cover description, I think that "The Cosmic Perspective," the pondering regarding the universe being "infinite or finite?/ No one knows" infinitely more attractive than the "Thong Song." The thong thing may be more your thing, though, and this album is a classic demonstration of the fact that humor is a matter of personal taste. Despite the lyric's blithely bland insistence that "against it, believe me/ No man can be strong/ You can never go wrong in a thong," you can go wrong in a song if the idea is forced and the payoff, as it were, is just a repeat of that last line. Arguably, one man's smarm is another man's charm. But, wait! Let's look closer: There's craft within the trying trifle. The title item rhymes cutely with "sarong," "mah-jongg," and "King Kong." And check out the internal rhymes—

... her thigh-high silk hosier-y;
Next thing she knew, For and decent exposure, she ...

While the writing in these songs doesn't consistently, alas, consist of this kind of playfulness nestling into the story-songs, it's a delight and a half when it does. And, happily, in the more serious efforts—like the aforementioned cosmic one and a mother-to-be's beaming ode to a much anticipated child, "Hello in There"—there is restraint from the urge to be clever and dense with verbiage. Instead, a little alliteration helps a line move: "A world of wonders waits for you/: A willow tree ..."

The 11 songs have copyright dates ranging from 2005 to 2011, although it's not indicated which were written in which year. While more vocal variety would have been welcome, genial Jennie has a lilt in her voice that suits the material. I'm glad when she doesn't overplay her hand and draw too much attention to lines that are in danger of being played as too "precious" or coy. As in a good marriage, the melodies composed by husband David Alpher—whose resumé includes composing in a wide range of musical genres—settle in cozily as good matches.

The sound quality and balance are sometimes less clear than one would want, and the fine piano accompaniment can feel too prominent in the mix. Despite being a married couple (they met in 1999 at an artists' colony), none of the numbers here focus on marital relationships (or musical ones) or feelings about such things. For those looking for quirky or tender tunes about something other than romance—the main topic of so many songs—here's your field day. There are comfort-food dishes like "I Want to Be a TV Chef" ("with a darling gay assistant named Jeff" and a swell surprise pay-off at the end), childhood bike-riding adventure, and Christmas from the viewpoint of a dog quarantined for peeing on the indoor holiday tree. And, yes, there's the lengthy title tale of a tree's pieces of fruit; they have names and emotions ("Blanche missed Rosie as the years went by") and—spoiler alert—one apple becomes spoiled, turning to "mush" and the plot goes on and it's a long way to go to comment on fate and nature. How do you like them apples? Not to everybody's taste, but far more forceful, without being force-fed, are the points made about enjoying life in "Going Nowhere Fast."

Other musicians present are Ed Ornowski (percussion) and Tom Glusac on sax, as well New York City-based bassist Ritt Henn, a frequent cabaret collaborator in the city. (He's also one of several adding their spoken voices to the musicalized vignettes, and there are some background singers.)

A mix of the light-hearted and perhaps heavy-handed, the Big Apple's cabaret couple's Two Apples has some bite. When lines—and delivery of them—score, they score solidly: like the nicely specific triumphant feelings in "Hot": "You nail that high B-flat" or the Scrabble player's ultimate kick: "You play a seven-letter word on a triple-word score."


- Rob Lester


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