On the Road
Enjoying solo albums by Karen Mason, Alison Fraser, and Tom Wopat during a road trip to Hackettstown, Filichia finds that some songs are worth hearing over and over again.
I'm so happy! The previous CD-player in my car didn't have a repeat function that would play one song over and over again. (Well, if it did, I sure couldn't figure out how to work it). But after the whole unit died, I replaced it with one that does have this terrific function. For when I love a song, I just can't get enough of it, and -- at least at home -- I program it to play over and over and over again. (Which is one reason why my girlfriend and I don't live together. "If we did," she says, "I'd be like one of those murderesses in Chicago and I'd say, 'You play that song one...more...time...'")
But here I was in the car on my way to Hackettstown, New Jersey, where they not only make M&Ms but also makes delicious theater at a place called Centenary Stage. This meant an hour and a half drive each way from New York. So I grabbed a bunch of CDs, most of which I hadn't heard, and wondered if any of them would have a song I'd just have to play over and over and over again.
Like Karen Mason's new album, When the Sun Comes Out, which turned out to be extraordinarily enjoyable. She starts with a medley of "Downtown" and "I Know a Place," two '60s pop hits, before she segués into a song by Gershwin ("How Long Has This Been Going On?") and then one by Paul Rolnick, her hubby of three-plus years. (Karen of the Thousand Days!) It has the fetching title "We Never Ran Out of Love -- We Just Ran out of Time." I liked that Mason did the entire verse of "When I Rome," whereas that famous Streisand recording of 37 years ago only used part of it.
But the track that made me push the repeat button was track #12, a version of "I Wanna Be Around (to Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart)" that will now and forever be the definitive one for me. It has the darkest of underbellies, and the orchestration is so riveting and different that I was glad the light on Eleventh Avenue had turned red so I could find who gets credit (Dick Gallagher is listed for the arrangement and Tom Kochan for the orchestration. Bravo to both!) You can sure tell that Mason isn't kidding here -- that she's out for revenge on a Lady MacBeth level. (Karen later told me that it's her response to years of being repressed as a "Good Catholic girl.") She'll be doing this song and many others from the album on October 18 at 8pm and 10:30pm at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, 165 West 65th Street, 10th floor, NYC. And if we were allowed to make cell phone calls while behind the wheel in New York, I would have called 212-721-6500 to make my reservation right there during my drive to Hackettstown.
By the way, word around town has been that Mason was a little unhappy doing Mamma Mia!, which she recently left. I think it's true, for when I asked her about it, she worked very hard to say nice things -- started and stopped sentences, changed direction during some of them, and never said much of anything. But how bad could the experience have been, given that she's recorded "I Have a Dream" from the show? It's a lovely rendition and makes a nice conclusion to the album, though I soon found myself backtracking to track #12. I wanna be around this rendition for as long as possible.
Funny, the next album I put in (when I finally emerged from the traffic-choked Lincoln Tunnel) also had "I Wanna Be Around" on it: Alison Fraser's A New York Romance. Here, the song occurs smack-dab in the middle of what Fraser calls her "Revenge Medley," which also includes "Some of These Days," "Goody, Goody," and "Who's Sorry Now?" Great idea, and she does the whole shebang extraordinarily well. But it's the "Blonde Song" from the little-known musical Gunmetal Blues that got me to press the repeat button. This was a film noir musical, and who would you rather have doing a sultry song about what it is to be a blonde than someone like Alison Fraser?
I've just reviewed that last sentence and noticed that I phrased something in a way that I don't want to: "Someone like Alison Fraser." Actually, there's no one quite like Alison Fraser, as I discovered one heavenly April night in 1979 when I saw her in In Trousers at Playwrights Horizons. We always hear how we don't have distinctive personalities in the theater anymore, but Fraser sure debunks that myth. No one looks like her. No one sounds like her. No one has that savvy warmth (yes, savvy warmth). We've just heard that the Nederlanders are reviving Mame on Broadway; I'd suggest that they sign Fraser fast.
By the time I made it to Route 80, I was on to Tom Wopat's new album, The Still of the Night. I wonder if his fans from that Dukes of Hazzard TV series might think that the still of the night refers to the moonshine-making machine that he'd dare put to use only after the sun went down. It's nothing of the kind, and the selection that made me press the repeat button was "Makin' Whoopee," which has one of the best lyrics to come out of '20s theater music. Gus Kahn's take on a blissful marriage gone wrong ("He says he's busy; but she says, 'Is he? He's makin' whoopee!") is curt, clear, and concise. Wopat's take on it, with a voice that sounds as if it's been marinated in a most mild bourbon, is terrific. I took the album out after that song, though, because it was a nice easy listen and I knew it would be better for the long ride home in the still of the night. (By the way, Wopat's "Makin' Whoopee" is immensely superior to James Naughton's version on his new album; I got through that whole disc without pressing the repeat button once.)
By the time I got to Paterson, N.J., I'd mosied on to the newly released soundtrack to Flower Drum Song. The overture is different from the one on the cast album but it does have much of the same power, which is why this was the track I wound up repeating. I don't see the new Broadway production of Flower Drum Song until later this week, but I did spend a little time at the Virginia Theatre last week at a little get-together in the lobby with 11 performers who appeared in the original version of the show back in the '50s on Broadway, in the '60s on tour, and even in the movie that this newly minted by Decca Broadway soundtrack celebrates. The management asked these vets to attend and give their opinions on what they felt; all but one believed the musical has been immeasurably improved.
Pat Suzuki looked as trim as she did when the show opened, which astonished me, because she was quite heavy when I saw her play the Juanita Hall role (need I say more?) in Las Vegas in 1981. Most of the other performers had long ago retired and few had any recollection of Gene Kelly, who allegedly directed, but had fond and distinct memories of choreographer Carol Haney. They loved her so much that they said they didn't even mind when her husband, the causasian Larry Blyden, came in to play the Chinese playboy after the equally caucasian Larry Storch was canned. All were glad to see, though, that a fully Asian-American cast was on stage at the Virginia. Every one of the older folks seemed to have been in The King and I and The Teahouse of the August Moon and little else during their careers -- though one had been in, as he put it, "a musical you never heard of." I smiled indulgently and said, "Try me." He confidently said, "13 Daughters," to which I quickly replied, "Can you still sing 'Puka-Puka Pants?'" which happens to be one of the worst show songs ever -- one that nobody, not even its author, would want repeated on a CD player. (Which is not to say that the Hawaiian cast album has ever been put on compact disc). The poor guy looked as if he'd just been shot through the head.
By now, I was almost in Hackettstown, but I had brought the Hello, Dolly! cast album with me -- partly because I saw Carol Channing last week at the Drama Book Shop, where she was promoting her new memoir, Just Lucky I Guess. (I call it a memoir as opposed to an autobiography because it doesn't have an index. That's my line of demarcation.) I haven't read it yet, but it should be a hoot, because Channing told the oh-so-appreciative crowd that her editor didn't change a word but left everything -- everything -- just the way she wrote it. The lady, who admitted to being 81, was extraordinarily alive and vivid. In her honor, I wanted to hear the lyrics that Jerry Herman wrote nearly 40 years ago, not knowing that he was providing Channing with lines that we were all thinking of last week: "It's so nice to have you back where you belong. You're looking swell...You're still glowin', you're still crowin', you're still goin' strong." The repeat button stayed on this one all the rest of the way.