It’s always nice to see Broadway takes on Christmas albums, and I particularly welcome a Norman Lewis one, so I was happy to listen to ‘The Norman Lewis Christmas Album.’ At the very least, we will know it will be well-sung, with Lewis’ powerhouse vocals. And Lewis gives us a packed repertoire, with eighteen tracks. And some great tracks here: a swinging and funky ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,’ to ‘Mary Did You Know,’ to a soulful ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’ I mean, there’s plenty of soul here for everyone’s stockings. But I wish it had more Broadway inflections. He does include show tunes like ‘Where Is Love,’ from Oliver, and ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables. I don’t know why, though, but they sound like fillers and feel kind of out of place here. Still, good playlist shuffling would give a lot of satisfaction from this album, and his fans, me included, would be delighted to spin this.
‘Broadway My Way.’ Heather Headley is the album I have been waiting for, and I knew it would be good as soon as the music started playing. I have always loved Headley’s voice (she does the best duet of ‘the Prayer’ with Andrea Bocceli, in my opinion) and her Broadway credits have been impressive. And, I just like her way with a song. She was the best thing in the London production of ‘The Bodyguard.’ and her versions of Whitney’s songs give the originals a run for their money. Check out, for example, her soul-crushing version of Brian McKnight’s ‘One Last try,’ for example.
And I love her renditions of these Broadway songs, giving them a soulful depth that in a lot of way completely transform the songs. My favorite? Quite possibly her ‘Look To The Rainbow,’ which is a total reimagining (style-wise) of the song from Finian’s Rainbow. The song never sounded more modern and more personal. A close second is her version of ‘My Home’ from Matilda, a score I normally would pass by. The rest of the album succeeds, like her jazzy take on ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonlight,’ where she peppers that song with jazz flourishes that makes the song less sounding like a Disney product. While her version of ‘For Good’ is still great, I did not really appreciate the rock riffs there, and must she recycle ‘Home,’ which was from her last album? All in all, all these songs are already on my daily listen playlist, and I wish next time she would go deeper with songs from Broadway’s Golden age, instead of the more pop=flavored modern songs. ( I mean ‘True Colors’ from Priscilla is not really a show tune) Still, I think this is my favorite theater-adjacent album of the year, and will cherish it.
Katie Birtill’s album stuck out for me because of her song choices. I like that it was showtune-heavy: ‘Baby Dream Your Dream, ; from Sweet Charity for example of ‘Who Will Buy,’ from Oliver are two songs I really enjoy. But when I first listened to the album, I was dismayed. I really disagreed with some of her musical choices – a swinging ‘But Not For Me,’ for example, felt betrayed the song’s lyrics. And a sweet and tender ‘Everyday A Little Death’? Tone deaf! But I told myself to give the album another chance. Sometimes I am too attached to this songs, and maybe these songs don’t need to be in a curio cabinet – perhaps they should be played with and experimented. And yes, I found the album more palatable in subsequent listening. I still don’t love some of it, but I didn’t cringe at some of the other tracks. I kind of get what she did with a jazzy ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and she actually has a great ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow.’ (No wonder she made it the title of her album) I don’t know zilch about her – she is based in London and has some credits there – so perhaps I need a little bit of context. I don’t know if I ever have a need to listen to the album again ever (though maybe I will put the title track on a playlist) I really do wish her well, though.
I know there are big Wicked fans who worship Rachel Tucker (she played Elphaba on Broadway and West End) but I know the kind of big belter voice that is needed to be Elphaba so I could already imagine what kind of voice Tucker has even though I had never heard her sing before.
Sure enough, she has that Idina inspired big throttle, and it’s appealing, for sure. Her album, ‘On The Road,’ is a good listen. It shifts from Broadway karaoke to some inspired tracks. We don’t really need from her a version of Bette Midler’s arrangement of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’ but sure, why not. And her duet with Lee Mead of ‘You Matter To Me,’ is okay, competent for sure, but eh? I actually liked her version of that other Waitress song much better : the tender ‘She Used To be Mine.’ And the song from Wicked she covers. ‘No Good Deed’ works in this context. Tucker’s album has a slight country feel, and that for sure gives it a bit of character – there’s a great down-to-earth feel to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle On a Hill’ here. All in all, this album will please her fans. For me, it seems just a bit green.
Jose Llana is wowing crowds nowadays in the touring company of the Bartlett Sher production of ‘The King And I,’ so it might be a perfect time to write about his album ‘Altitude,’ one of my favorites from last year. I think I first saw Llana playing Lun Tha in the 1995 production of ‘The King And I’ (with Lou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy) and he was impressive then. Of course he is now playing the King, and in teh album he includes songs from both roles – a touching medlette of ‘We Kiss In the Shadow/I Have Dreamed,’ and then a peerless ‘A Puzzlement,’ which should cement him as the best actor playing King nowadays. But he has also originated great roles in recent years, and you see that here in ‘Chip’s Lament’ from ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’ and ‘Child Of The Philippines’ from ‘here Lies Love.’ The latter is a fun duet he sings with Ruth Ann Miles, who plays Imelda Marcos in that musical. He also shows considerable pop music chops in Ed Sherran’s ‘Thing out Loud,’ and don’t tell Ed, but I think I might prefer Llana’s version of that song here. It’s all about the show songs, though, that makes Llana soar here whether it be songs from Adam Guettel (‘Hero and Leander’) or Sondheim (‘Marry Me A Little’) But I think my favorite track is his ‘Lonely Town,’ which has just the right amount of melancholy to make the song work.
The great Michael Feinstein describes Cheyenne Jackson as someone who “can sing anything!” Jackson is a modern man’s renaissance man, someone who can effortlessly move from stage to television to movies. And musically, he can move from one genre to another without missing a beat. His new album ‘Renaissance’ proves that. Thematically this is a collection of songs from the 60s, culled from songs he sings from his cabaret show ‘Songs From The Mad Men Era.’
So he goes from Broadway (‘Feeling Good’ from ‘The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd) to bluesy R & B (‘A Change Is Gonna Come’) to pop rock ‘(Elton John’s ‘Your Song) with ease and confidence. I love the variety of arrangements here, from the Latin flair of ‘Besame Mucho,’ to Ska-ish ‘Americano,’ sung with the English lyrics of The Brian Setzer Orchestra. And I get positively giddy when he duets ‘Something Stupud’ with his 30 Rock co-star Jane Krakowski. They certainly put a lot of their characters in singing that song, and it’s mirth is infectious. He gets serious and artsy with Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You,’ and in a song he composed with Feinstein himself, ‘Red Wine Is Good For You.’ It’s a song about his late grandmother who used to say that phrase to him.
I guess if I were to nitpick, I could say that I wish the repertoire were little more adventurous, as most of these songs are too familiarly associated with the era, but I guess I would be repurposing his theme. The good thing about the album is that not only do you see Jackson’s great musicality, but also his great personality in the way he sings his songs. In both ways, a win-win!
As Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote, “It’s New Year’s eve, And Hopes Are High. Dance One Year In, Kiss One goodbye…” I think I am much too exhausted to dance the year out, so I will do what I have been doing for the past couple of years: to ring out the year softly. And I will do that by playing Susan Egan’s appropriately titled new album “Softly.”
“Softly” is her collaboration with Classical pianist Stephen Cook and Cuban flutist Danillo Lozano. As the title suggest, these are mostly duets or trios with piano and flute. And they are all sung with Egan’s clear-voiced instrument. I love it all, as the arrangements range from spare to jazzy. The soprano aria from Phabntom, “Think Of Me” is given a slow stirring arrangement here, and I think it’s the nest track. It’s a total reinterpretation, and it works just as well, if not better. And very few female singers sing “With You” from Pippin and her touching version is filled with longing. And there are other lesser heard gems here like “Lay Your Head” from Violet, and “Nocturnes” from “Love Story.” The arrangement of the medlette of “Embraceable You/Till there Was You” didn’t quite flow as seamless as it could be, but that’s fine, there’s enough very good here. I mean, how about a wistful “A Quiet Thing” that’s nothing short of perfection.
So yes, everyone else can go to their loud and bombastic parties. I will stay here with my glass of wine, listening to this soft music, and shuffle softly to welcome 2016.