Women of Song
Brooke Pierce reviews new solo recordings by Lauren Kennedy, Heidi Grant Murphy, Ute Lemper, Amanda Green, and Melissa Errico.
Lauren Kennedy: Songs of Jason Robert Brown
As Lauren Kennedy's new CD, Songs of Jason Robert Brown, kicks off with "And I Will Follow," the eponymous composer's propulsive tribute to the trust that love inspires (and one of the four new songs on this album), it becomes clear that what we have here is an ideal match of singer and songwriter. Kennedy (Les Miserables, Sunset Boulevard) possesses a voice that's alternately earthy and bright; it has an unmistakable "pop" quality that is perfectly suited to the folk and pop/rock inspired theater music that Brown wrote for his revue Songs for a New World and for the two-character relationship musical The Last Five Years, both of which have yielded the majority of the disc's 11 selections. Tellingly, only one song from Parade -- Brown's most traditional show -- is included.
Kennedy well plays Brown's varied characters and their varied emotions, which run from romantic despair to spiritual joy and hit all stops in between. Yet she and Brown seem more interested in highlighting the range and quality of his music through her voice than in playing up the dramatic heft of these story-songs. Though she sounds fine throughout, Kennedy comes across more as promising than distinguished -- which is fitting enough, considering that this is the young singer's first solo album. She sounds lovely on "Christmas Lullaby" but, even with Roger Butterley's gentle guitars-and-mandolin arrangement, her voice simply isn't right for the "country" version of the song that Brown envisions here. And Kennedy hits all the right notes in "Letting You Go" without ever quite communicating the depth of this wrenching piece. She does delve deeply into other songs, particularly the quiet ode to self-doubt "If I Told You Now." And she is vocally impressive in the breathless, intense "Dreaming, Wide Awake" as well as in the disc's inspiring finale, "Flying Home."
Brown appears to have had a great deal of fun re-orchestrating and arranging his material for this album. He adds a rhythmic accompaniment to "I Can Do Better Than That," gives the thrilling "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" an electric guitar solo, sneaks some extra funk into "Flying Home," and gives "Pretty Music" a Dixieland spin (with a rewritten lyric to boot). "When You Come Home to Me," played for laughs in The Last Five Years, is here given a dreamy big band arrangement by Larry Hochman. The more faithfully rendered duet "I'd Give It All For You" has the album's only guest vocal, provided by Brown himself.
Courtesy of PS Classics, the CD comes with a booklet containing notes by Kennedy, Brown, and Trevor Nunn (who directed Kennedy in South Pacific), along with lyrics and photos. Ultimately, the disc is a fine debut for Kennedy, an excellent showcase for Brown's songwriting talents, and a powerful vision of how a younger generation of artists may revitalize musical theater.
Heidi Grant Murphy: Times Like This
As she sings the opening medley of "Warm All Over" and "Somebody Somewhere" from Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, it might not even occur to a listener that Heidi Grant Murphy is better known for playing operatic roles than musical theater ingenues; her fine diction and her warmth as an actress make her sound well suited to Broadway material. She continues to prove her musical theater chops in Bock & Harnick's "(Vanilla) Ice Cream" and Sondheim's tongue-tripping "On the Steps of the Palace," then goes on to a charming turn in Don Tucker's "The French Song."
For a "diva," Murphy has created quite an understated album in Times Like This, her crossover solo debut. Though her golden voice is impressive throughout (and at its most gorgeous in "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Waitin' For My Dearie"), she generally avoids vocal pyrotechnics, preferring to give delicate readings of what are -- for the most part -- delicate songs. What she lacks in experience (her most significant musical theater credit is Johanna in the New York Philharmonic concert of Sweeney Todd), Murphy makes up for in good taste; she offers pleasing renditions of such standards as "If I Were a Bell" and "If I Loved You" but also includes lesser-known items like "I Have to Tell You" (Fanny), "Clusters of Crocus/Come to My Garden" (The Secret Garden), and Maury Yeston's "New Words." The pretty title song, "Times Like This," is from Flaherty & Ahrens' Lucky Stiff.
With its simple accompaniment (combinations of piano, flute, viola, and harp, with a bass and a string orchestra thrown in here and there), the album has the air of an intimate recital. Its focal point is Murphy's beautiful voice singing beautiful melodies -- a wonderful combination.
Ute Lemper, But One Day
To many Americans, Ute Lemper may be known only -- if at all -- for playing Velma Kelly in Broadway's Chicago about five years ago, but in Europe she's rather a sensation. But One Day is the latest solo album from the German-born chanteuse and here Lemper has tried her hand at songwriting, offering up four original pieces in addition to songs by Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel, Astor Piazzolla, and Werner Richard Heymann.
The disc has a languid mood and Lemper's sultry singing is often enjoyable, but there are times when -- disconcertingly -- her throaty, accented voice evokes Carol Channing. Perhaps Lemper has been recording Weill for too long; her interpretations of songs like "September Song" and "Speak Low" are self-indulgent, offering few musical or lyrical insights. But there are moments when, midway through a number -- Piazolla's "Buenos Aires," for instance -- her voice soars and one gets a sense of what it is about Lemper that thrills so many people.
It turns out that Lemper's own songs are the best tracks on the album. Her singing sounds fresh and crisp here, the music is intriguing and contemporary (in string arrangements by Peter Scherer), and the lyrics tell stories with fascinating imagery. Not bad for a first-time songwriter.
Lempter has some especially nice moments in Brel's "Amsterdam" and Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht's "Ballad of Marie Sanders, the Jew's Whore." But, ultimately, she seems to be one of those singers whom everyone reacts to differently; her fans will probably love this disc, but others may find it a mixed bag.
Amanda Green: Put a Little Love in Your Mouth
The title of Amanda Green's new CD says it all: here is a songwriter with a penchant for the comic. But though she's the daughter of the late, great Broadway lyricist and bookwriter Adolph Green and though she employs several respected Broadway performers -- including Mary Testa, Jessica Molaskey, Mario Cantone, and Jonathan Dukochitz -- on this disc, it's obvious that Green is a primarily cabaret-oriented creature.
Starting with Green singing a song called "Voices in My Head," this is a live recording of a revue that showcases lyrics which Green has written for a variety of projects. Around Track 4, the trace of a narrative appears; it involves a woman who decides to have a baby with her gay best friend (the ever-flamboyant Brooks Ashmanskas). But it's a slight vehicle for numbers like "The V Song," in which the woman and her gynecologist spout synonyms and nicknames for "vagina" (who knew there were so many?), and the titular "Put a Little Love in Your Mouth" -- which is not a dirty song, believe it or not! Following this little story segment, Green and friends continue with a variety of funny, smart songs about relationships and personal crises.
Your enjoyment of Green's work may depend largely on what tickles your funny bone. She's a solid lyricist and is often quiet clever (other song titles include "Marcie From Canarsie" and "If You Leave Me ... Can I Come Too?"). Yet songs with characters like a gynecologist named Dr. Hymen and a host of standard-issue New York neurotics may not be everyone's cup of tea. Perhaps the disc's best moments are in the ballads; my personal favorites are Green and Molaskey duetting in the country song "A Ladies Man" (music by Bucchino), Mary Testa's "Bury Me Standing" (music by Steven McClintock), and Green's heartwarming tribute to her father, "Daddy's Shoulders" (music by Ned Ginsberg).
Melissa Errico: Blue Like That
Unlike the women above, Errico is best known as a Broadway performer, having starred in My Fair Lady, High Society, and most recently, the short-lived Amour. Yet the song list of her first solo recording include only one tune from the musical theater catalogue: Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good To Me."
The rest of the disc's 12 tracks are an eclectic lot. There is a smattering of pop and folk tunes, with Randy Newman ("When He Loved Me"), Billy Joel ("And So It Goes"), Joni Mitchell ("Night Ride Home"), and Shawn Colvin ("Diamond in the Rough") represented. But most of the selections are by relatively unknown songwriters, one of the most prominent being the singer's brother, Mike Errico. Happily, this bit of nepotism proves successful; it turns out that bro is a pretty good tunesmith.