Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

S of R:
School of Rock and
Sandra on Roberts


Also see Rob's reviews of this year's Holiday Music

No big drama this time as the two recordings reviewed let us take things on the lighter side. So, here's the score for the mostly happy-go-lucky musical that's newly arrived on Broadway, and some decades-old pop songs that tend toward the bright side, with a fresh coat of vocal paint.

SCHOOL OF ROCK - THE MUSICAL
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

Warner Brothers Records

Granted, there's no substitute for thoroughly original and grown-up musical theatre that might have something to teach us. Still, while School of Rock - The Musical (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater) and its tale of a substitute teacher learning some life lessons may not tax the brain or stir the soul, it does the trick as a diverting romp, even as we're wise to the wise-guy personality and the buttons it so clearly pushes. Button #1: Everyone has a world-at-your-feet rock star fantasy ripe for indulging in. Check. (Opening song: "When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock"). Button #2: Vicarious joy can be experienced by audiences via characters who sing brashly about thumbing their noses at authority. (Repeat after me, students, and sing: "Stick It to the Man.") Button #3: If the regimented, uptight people loosening up and getting down and rocking out with newly adopted attitude are pre-teen kids, it's also cute and harmlessly sweet. (Check out most moments with the kids.) Add sympathy and a dose of dimension for the poor little kids used to adults who don't pay them much caring attention. (Cue kids' heartfelt plea "If Only You Would Listen"—and, to be sure to tilt things to make the sub and kids the heroes, make the rest of the school staff and parents more cartoonish/buffoonish, but allow some strong singing spots for the principal, played by a woman with frequent flyer miles in the composer's Phantom and its sequel).

Now, let the fun begin. And begin it will, if you don't mind the obvious manipulation described above in exchange for the payoff of some mind-on-vacation guilty pleasures cheering on one "big kid" adult and precocious kids on a musical field day. The enthusiasm of the characters (and the actors playing them) comes through loud and clear (emphasis on the "loud"). "You're in the Band" is a joyful victory and bonding moment for the kids and Dewey, the guy passing himself off as the trained educator the school thought had been hired. Seemingly indefatigable, Alex Brightman is a wild but on-target, bubbly bundle of anti-establishment party animal in the Dewey role (played by Jack Black in the same-named film). His performance is more than just ranting and raving; there's an appealing joie de vivre and some good comic timing. Try accepting him as a fun-loving, but ultimately caring, class clown, rather than just the crass clown who took the job just to make some needed bucks—and he comes off as the hero this show needs him to be as its anchor.

The child performers take the ball and run with it—and seem to be having a ball. Most of them appear to be striking a happy medium between well-drilled stage discipline and natural kid enthusiasm, and they actually play their instruments in the show. Knowing that Dewey is not the ideal role model as far as honesty and work ethic makes "Dewey's Confession" more touching, showing another side to the character. Yes, there's room for sentiment here, too.

Some material for those besides the leading man hews closer to musical theatre tradition; the lofty institution of learning's "Alma Mater" and "Here at Horace Green" have the stiff-backed, staunch and starchy feel not unlike the dispassionate reserve of the upper crust-y that could be a poor relative of the upper class musical theatre classmate "Ascot Gavotte" in My Fair Lady. With the CD's "Give Up Your Dreams" (cut in previews, but an interesting character piece as a stand-alone performance), we hear strong-voiced Mamie Parris in a performance of an angry song that builds adeptly to a fever pitch. With so many "you can do anything/ I have faith in you"-type songs around, about following one's bliss, here's the other side of the coin and a worthy addition to hear.

The fussing parents sending their offspring to the expensive private school are aghast when Dewey's identity theft trick is revealed, and the principal tries to maintain order amid chaos. But, of course, in short order we see there is more to this lady than her buttoned-up strictness. In this role, Sierra Boggess gets to show different sides of her voice in her showcase pieces. She does well by the formulaic how-did-this-happen number "Where Did the Rock Go?" and has a a big soprano showpiece moment near the end.

Whether tongue in cheek or music-loving heart on sleeve, a certain feistiness infuses much of the proceedings. Glenn Slater's lyrics offer some of those possibilities, and Lord Lloyd Webber exercises his breezier compositional style, quite sublimating his florid tendencies.

In addition to the original score and a little help from Mozart, the score includes the film's title song and "In the End of Time" which are both heard in different versions, what with bonus tracks added. I can't comment on the packaging, as the advance copy we were sent for review did not include that material. But I can say that I have a lukewarming-up fondness for the album for what it is.

SANDRA PILLER
SANDRA PILLER SINGS THE HIT PARADE MUSIC OF RUTH ROBERTS

Shady Hill Records
Also available directly from CD Baby.

Even though one of its songs, "Tempo of Love," mentions "rocking and rolling," Sandra Piller's latest recording isn't quite matriculating in the School of Rock, but more the School of Bounce and Sway. She's taken up the task of carrying on the legacy of the songwriter who was the mother of her late husband on this new project which she expanded in a live show this fall at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room and West Hollywood's Gardenia. When Sandra Piller Sings the Hit Parade Music of Ruth Roberts, she's evoking a pep-filled pop music era in its most unabashedly, unapologetically oh-so perky outlook that glows and sparkles like a shiny rainbow painted with fluorescent paint with globs of glitter added lest you not note the brightness. Simple rhymes and uncomplicated emotions reign, melodies are rollickingly accessible, if not earwormingly so, and life is a happy Hallmark Valentine card in those same bright, bright hues.

Ruth Roberts Piller (1926-2011) and her collaborators were busy folks knocking out tunes for many years, including work in the legendary Brill Building. Frequent co-writers on pop numbers, such as those on this six-song EP, included husband Gene Piller and Bill Katz. Her most widely heard creation must be one of the sports-related ones—baseball fans and anyone walking by a TV or radio for decades when the New York Mets played heard the very catchy "Meet the Mets" theme. The lively pop nugget that opens the disc, the relentlessly repetitive and frisky (but ultimately adorable) "What Time Does the Sun Go Down," feels it might be choreographed for an over-eager organ grinder and his hyperactive maniacal monkey with cymbals. -(She wrote both words and music to this one and to "Lonesome and Blue," which is nowhere as droopy as it sounds.)

And, if a quick listen to some of these light-hearted, good-hearted ditties remind you a bit of the simplified, silly songs for kiddies, it's probably because the children's market was one that Ruth Roberts spent much time in and may well be her most notable niche. Indeed, a child's introduction to musical theatre preserved on an LP record album, Curtain Going Up, with sung explanations of theatre terms, is a delight, with Julie Harris and Richard Kiley doing the honors (the latter also recording such fare as a musical history of Tall Tom Jefferson). But, unlike those and her cautionary children's musical Pinocchio, Don't Smoke that Cigarette, the pop songs here have no lessons in mind, unless you count the adult instruction lasting less than a minute and a half teaching us all the damaging results of being a "Fair Weather Sweetheart." That one, which had been recorded by chipper Teresa Brewer, has an old-time country/western feel, which matches the genre that Sandy Piller has recently been working in as a songwriter with her own partners.

The singer's voice throughout is light and smooth, unaffected, and inflected with the carefree attitudes of most of the material here. With the sweet "Sweetheart" and the cozy "If I Had You on a Desert Island," she has a duet partner, with the more understated but genial vocal contributions of pianist Charlie Harrison.

The fare of radio/then TV's "Hit Parade" of cheery chart-toppers are on display here. The point seems to be to suggest that style without aping the sounds per se. And it would seem wrongheaded to try to modernize them; it's tough to give a cushion some sharp edge. These frothy frolics would sink if more weightiness were added. Just come visit, if you are so inclined, to a musical antique store where the items are not too creaky or dusty because those bright colors I mentioned are still determinedly shining through the decades.


- Rob Lester


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