Sound Advice Reviews
Taking their cues from the movies ...
On tap: Some musical recycling for entertainment cinema-born. Hairspray started its life as a non-musical film and now with the musical version's Live!ly TV revamp, it's time to say, in song, "Welcome [Back] to the '60s." And it's welcome back to the '70s, as that decade's pop hits provide a score for the show spoofing Disaster! movies. The 1992 motion picture The Bodyguard is now a touring stage piece with a cast recording that includes songs from the film and more (including two numbers actually written for earlier movies).
First it was a non-musical movie, then musicalized for the stage, then a film adaptation of that version. And now ... well, is a TV network presenting a live performance (with stage waits in real time to allow for commercials and commentary) and released as a DVD a stage piece, a TV show, or a film? The packaging of NBC's Hairspray Live! calls it a "soundtrack"a term most of us don't believe is right for a live-in-front-of-an-audience staged production. (There was an audience on hand at the studio.)
Anyway, what began as a movie inspiring a musical is pretty swell in its new incarnation. For fans of peppy pop circa early 1960s distilled through pastiche songs for the stage (and later movie) by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, apparently "You Can't Stop the Beat"because the December 2016 TV version of Hairspray made the score sound fresh and Lively. It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to compare the dates of the CD's release and the TV broadcast which was heavily hoopla-drenched as being a Live! performance to figure out that what has been released for disc and download purchases are not the same exact vocal renditions. But, just as a can of hairspray keeps your locks perfectly in place, these polished croons by a likeable cast are locked into place as the lovingly produced/tweaked/balanced latest versions.
Its bouncy, chipper evocation of the era's AM radio hits remain fun, with the staccato back-up syllables as accents, lyrics name-dropping Doris Day, Chubby Checker, Mouseketeers, and the just-deceased Fidel Castro plus mentions of everyday teen concerns like calculus homework, hickeys, the prom, music du jour, and the coveted purchase of a 45 rpm (they were vinyl records and had one song on each side, kids). I find this spiffy spin on the familiar score to be mostly irresistible with some truly delicious performances.
Also coming through loud and clear without the dialogue scenes are the meaty messages beyond the feel-good chipperness: the importance of taking a stand for racial equality and a "plus-size" female being accepted by herself and others. (Tackling stubbornly ingrained sexist attitudes and stereotypes would have to wait a few more yearsor wait for another musical.) The moral comes through as energetically as the teamwork boost of morale the cast seems to share. Seeing them watch each other and cheer each other on was a sweet part of the telecast that shows behind-the-scenes waiting and watching and back-slapping; I remember that as I listen here to this audio souvenir of the TV "event," which is also available separately as a DVD. There is suitable emphasis on the hopes and the vindication of the central girl, Tracy, originally shunned for having more pounds on her frame than the Barbie doll-type "ideals." Likewise, Harvey Fierstein in drag, recreating his original Broadway performance as the girl's hefty mother, remains a funny, fond, froggy-voiced force to reckoned with.
But it's newcomer Maddie Baillio, chosen at the audition she almost didn't attend (her first ever!) from hundreds of girls, the talented singer-actress who won Michael Feinstein's annual contest for high school students singing standards (and got to perform in his shows), who is a winner here, too. She is, quite simply, a marvel whose energy and loveability factor factor into each number she infuses with joy and wonderment. With a real musical theatre sound and clean, bright tones, she also brings splendidly specific shadings to her phrasing, such as a near squeal of delight on the name of the city in the opener, "Good Morning Baltimore" and believable innocence and lovestruck teen ambience to "I Can Hear the Bells" ("One little touch/ Now my life's complete.") She more than rises to the memorable occasion of her casting, seems like both a cheerleader for the songs and their attitudes, and holds her own with the seasoned pros. Brava!
Jennifer Hudson ignites the recording as she hits a home run with both of the messages, self-affirming the right to proudly be "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" (and encouraging the same attitude in others) and the goosebump-worthy bravura stance of racial and life perspective, "I Know Where I've Been." She puts her stamp on it and makes it quite moving as it judiciously builds and builds. She shares the lead in the finale, "Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)" (the new song added to the 2002 film) with current-day pop princess Arianna Grande, who fits in pretty well as Penny, an overprotected teen, mother-smothered by veteran Andrea Martin.
Kristin Chenoweth is a hoot in the role of the oh-so-self-satisfied and prejudiced producer of the TV teen dance show. Hopscotching from one voice quality to another, her timing is razor-sharp in the included snooty dialogue and singing her recollections of a lifetime highlight being named pageant winner "Miss Baltimore Crabs." Sean Hayes, her co-star in the Promises, Promises revival (speaking of the '60s), appears briefly, singing in with others in an exultant version of "Welcome to the '60s." In a throwback to prior decades and a more vaudeville feel, Fierstein and spot-on Martin Short as Tracy's parents bring panache and warm humor to their duet "(You're) Timeless to Me."
But there is much fine work, with kudos to the younger set due to Ephraim Sykes heating things up with a sizzling "Run and Tell That," working his charms on the endearing Dove Cameron as Amber. The clean-cut teen idol types employed on the TV broadcast within this TV broadcast could have used another shot or two of adrenalin and more precision in bringing out some of the words and winks in their material. That is to say, despite pep, Derek Hough could use more knowhow so that his lyrics and their tones didn't blue together so much in his early numbers. He's more successful in selling "(It's) Hairspray." As the object of Tracy's affection, Garrett Clayton seems kind of a weak link, a generic dreamboy who is revealed as a good guy (and a good catch). He sings pleasantly, but misses some inherent irony which could be played with a gentle winking; a mix of cockiness and dopiness might have worked.
A quick scan of the song list and who-sings-what info will show you that all but three of the nineteen tracks include the words "& Ensemble"meaning there is plenty of chorus singing and supporting whoever's taking the lead solos. Credited in the booklet, besides the main characters, are an ensemble of twenty people, the flashy trio of women ("The Dynamites"), and a dozen more folks providing "additional vocals." When many voices join in, the lyrics may fly by in a fast and furious way and not be caught by your ear, but all the sung words are included in the booklet, which also has large posed color photos of the stars in costume and brief appreciative comments by the songwriters.
The feel-good Hairspray still achieves its duo-menu mission: providing musical comfort food as well as food for thought.
If, indeed, context is everything, then I'm glad I saw Disaster! on Broadway during its two-month run in early 2016 (it also had a month of previews), because, otherwise, I imagine I might be somewhat perplexed and nonplussed by its cast album. I wonder how I'd receive these renditions of pop-rock hits of the 1970s. When I heard it was going to be recorded, I wondered if an audio-only souvenir could stand on its own without chunks of dialogue to establish and set up the characters, convoluted situations, and satirical ambience for the uninitiated. Would the broad performances, sarcastic asides, and heavy winking at the material seem freakish? To reference the shipboard plot, would it sink from its own weight and leave listeners at sea or, at its best, be explosively funny? This mixed bagatelle is a little bit of each, and its go-for-it loopiness and affectionate embrace of some musical cheese and fluff with strong hooks result in a grand, goofy, guilty pleasure. Script-meistersthe irrepressible Seth Rudetsky (also in the cast as a professor) and his old pal Jack Plotnick (also director)fashioned a truly madcap, over-the-top romp. And so, it's anything for a laugh.
Much of the fun, such as it is/was, relies on the conceit of shoehorning or shoveling the numbers into the plot and characters' mouths, with playfully lame song cues. As a listening experience, it works best when those cues are included here, making the bursting-into-familiar-song cheekily unavoidable. Jennifer Simard, a solid scene-stealer as the holier-than-thou nun warning others that gambling is a sin, but giving into her addiction to it, stutters over the word "goodbye" in trying to say adieu to the slot machine and then reiterating the problem with first/title line of "Never Can Say Goodbye." Get it? Interwoven with some dialogue, the randy old disco hit about "Hot Stuff" being desired is a rejection of cold hors d'oeuvres, while the one-by-one tossing overboard of the parts of a dismembered loved one leads to "You're once [splash!], twice [splash!], 'Three Times a Lady.'"
If indeed there exist curmudgeonly purists when it comes to lightweight commercial hit fodder in bubble gum and danceable, sing-along stuff, they may object to some of the treatments that mock the rock and have sent up the sentiment. One of the more thoughtful, better-constructed songs, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen's "Don't Cry Out Loud," is heard only in part, using the chorus without the narrative, and interrupted repeatedly by weeping and wailing. (I heard Sager interviewed by Rudetsky on his radio show, and the info that he used the number was a surprise to her, which seemed surprising to me.) And it is effectively amusing, I admit, for a number we think of as a gutsy, anguished cry of lonely pain to be blared precociously by the skillful 13-year-old actor (Baylee Littrell), and I suppose I don't have to wonder if and when will "When Will I Be Loved" recover its rightful place as a classic. (It's seen success each decade since it was recorded by The Everly Brothers, written by Phil Everly, who died three years ago, about midway in this show's second pre-Broadway run, and will survive the songwriter and this brief episode of cheekiness.)
I think more dialogue preserved would have helped, but maybe the fact that not all the musical material heard on stage is preserved on the recording indicates a need to trim. A lot of ham without side dishes could make for an overstuffed banquet experience, so it's a good thing that some of the numbers are played in a more straightforward manner (at least in part). That approach becomes needed respite, and casual listeners who don't know or remember the exact situations will miss some of the plot-specific glib agenda, for better or for worse. With tongues often planted so firmly in cheek that one wonders about damage to the performers' frenulums, those looking for subtle theatricality and depth of characterization might do better listening to an album like Christmas Time with The Three Stooges. (It exists!)
While the arrangements and accompaniment bring some lively freshness to the musical proceedings, the original treatments are often sufficiently invoked to foster instant memory tugs, the powers that be knowing that it's not "just" the music and lyrics that are remembered; it's the records of radio days, the instrumental figures, tempo, and trademark stylings all being part of the hit formula package. Repurposing is one thing, but major re-inventing, re-shaping, modernizing or "Broadway-izing" would miss the point of the wholesale kidnaping of an era which meshed with the blockbuster disaster films being skewered.
Steve Marzullo conducts and is on one of the keyboards of a 20-piece band, with drummer Ray Marchica (who's played with singers such Marilyn Maye and Barbra Streisand) notably giving everything a tight, energized kick without sense-numbing thump-thump-thumping that would've been a joy-killer. Michael McElroy classes up the soundscape with his vocal arrangements.
That pesky devil's advocate, who pops up at times like this, asks the inevitable question: If you truly love the oldies and want some feel-good nostalgia for the songs of the 1970s, why not just buy a hits collection of the real-deal original artists? Maybe the jibes will dilute your pleasure and make you long for the originals. If once-ubiquitous old schlock-rock & roll ditties make you roll your eyes and want to crawl under a rock, would you get enough vicarious pleasure hearing their excesses exorcised over and over? Consider this: On the good news side of the ledger, there are some impossible-to-ignore terrific Broadway voices sounding swell here, professionals adding juice to the jollies, so the wackiness is not the only attraction. Although the feisty and fizzy Faith Prince is a star woefully underused in the singing department, others, like Adam Pascal and Kerry Butler, are featured prominently and get many chances to soar, as in "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight." They even sound attractive drenched in the uber-syrupy "Feelings" where they croon with the impish Rudetsky. (The dopiest part of that lyric, the seeming lazy/meaningless note-filler in the chorus before the title word: "Wo, wo, wo, feelings ...," is even capitalized upon, for the script he co-wrote has his character lamenting the loss of his late spouse, named Dr. Wo-Ching Lee.)
Rachel York, playing a shipboard performer, is an impressive knockout doing an all-stops-out dynamic "I Will Survive." And eleventh-billed Lacretta Nicole, in her Broadway debut, is an exciting-voiced wow I hope to hear much more from in the future. The ensemble numbers "Sky High" and "Daybreak" have very literal meanings as they're used in the production, but they also provide the most joyfully exuberant singing that doesn't depend on humor or making mincemeat of material. But there's plenty of mincemeat to go around for this jokey jukebox-style satire of genres that gives it sources a kiss and a kick in the pants at the same time.
I wouldn't be sure that rabid fans of the late Whitney Houston would make the producers daring to do a stage adaptation of the movie she starred in and the soundtrack of which she dominated, The Bodyguard, need a bodyguard. The lady with the dazzling voice is a tough vocal act and charismatic presence to follow, but many undaunted folks have stepped into such frays before. Originally released/copyrighted overseas in 2015, which is where but not when (that was 2012) the stage version began, the U.S. touring production launched in New Jersey for a run between Thanksgiving week and New Year's Day, after touring the UK and Ireland, with London productions before and after. While the current cast is headed by recording star Deborah Cox (who graced the stage previously in Aida and the Jekyll & Hyde revival), note that the available recording stars Alexandra Burke (the original lead actress was Heather Headley). She, a winner of the fifth season of Britain's TV singing competition show "The X-Factor," dominates the album with the lioness' share of vocals for her character, Rachel.
While Burke has a somewhat different sound, disappointingly less dynamic and less steel-belted or volcanic, some may prefer a less assertive take-no-prisoners approach that boasts some subtlety. While an interview with Miss Burke (which serves frustratingly as the only thing resembling liner notes in the four-panel foldover insert) emphasizes her doing her own "take" on the songs, the shadow of Whitney Houston looms large. The basic blueprints and tempi are rarely shooed away from the radar screen. Like her iconic predecessor, this performer embellishes notes with melisma. Although some film numbers have been dropped, to make the comparisons even more inescapable, some Houston hits not from the 1992 movie have been added to the score, such as the infectious "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," which is heard twice. It finds the leading lady leading the ensemble as a finale, where she's at her loosest and liveliest. The earlier occasion is in a sequence with "So Emotional" (another non-Bodyguard film item) and something called "Million Dollar Bill." (Is that a reference to the character named Bill? Who knows? There's no plot synopsis and almost no dialogue; the only clue to the plot is a spoiler title for an instrumental track, "Nicki's Death," referencing the name of the only other character with significant singing, a sister portrayed by the very appealing Melissa James.)
As I hear it, the Burke singing approach seems to start at low flame, internalized, with the beginnings of songs being energy-deficient, lyrics almost muttered or muddled. As the hook or chorus presents itself, she kind of blossoms, picks up a burst of strength, and then begins to build effectively. Sometimes those early lyrics are difficult to catch in the way the recording is balanced, with the heavy string-laden accompaniment (violinists comprise eight members of the twenty-member orchestra). In her best moments, on her own terms, she is a creditable singer with a sleek, satin sound that surfs and glides over the melodies and clings nicely to moods and lyrics. While the cacophonic first vocal piece, "Queen of the Night" by Burke and "Girls" (members of the actual credited ensemble, one assumes), gets this off to a rocky (or rock-like) start, the more rewarding R&B material follows.
While for many, these songs may be now memorably anchored to The Bodyguard, the mega-hit for Houston, "I Will Always Love You," had an earlier movie life as a number added to the film adaptation of the stage musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, although it was an interpolation there, having been an independent Dolly Parton single record and album track several years earlier. It was penned by Parton, who headed that film cast. And "The Greatest Love of All," by Michael Masser and Linda Creed, first appeared in the film whose title it extends: The Greatest, a 1977 bio-pic about the famed boxer who died this past year, Muhammad Ali. Sadly, these two never reach the emotional, vocal, or dramatic climaxes that are their potential. They feel cautiously stuck in mid-gear.
Melissa James truly shines in each of her quite different opportunities. The fresh-voiced performer brings an ease and conviction to her two solos: "Saving All My Love for You" and "All at Once," to which she adds some welcome dramatic heft and shaded timing. James, Burke, and Chiesa Musonda (playing Rachel's son, Fletcher) bring a delightfully disarming innocence to the old Sunday School children's staple "Jesus Loves Me," later reprised by the ensemble. And Burke and James are potent on the nicely turned-out "Run to Me," first in duet and then Burke's reprise.
Granted, the main character is a pop singer in her element. Still, I can't report that this cast album sounds at all theatrical. Indeed, as sung, orchestrated, it plays like a pop album oryesmovie soundtrack, especially with the sound of the six added moody instrumental tracks, all composed by orchestrator/album producer Chris Egan. The touring show may have its eye on Broadway, but the wrongly printed "Broadway Cast Recording" on the tape label sealing the CD across the top won't seal the deal.