Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Well Sung:
Broadway Stars & Others Sing for The Wellsongs Project &
Zachary James Sings Broadway Songs & Others
Reviews by Rob Lester


Broadway Records
CD | mp3 | iTunes

The answer is: It's all about perspective. The question is: As you hear material songwriters created after visits with special-needs kids—whose afflictions are spelled out in the liner notes—will those portraits bring on numbing sadness or admiration? The thoughtfully written and pretty poppy songs in The Wellsongs Project may be both heartbreaking and heartwarming, as performers with musical theatre credits deliver them with empathy, radiating humanity. While the printed background information specifies each child's challenges (such as blindness, being wheelchair-bound, effects of a brain injury, and a few instances of autism), the lyrics prudently don't name the conditions, get clinical, or lament losses and limits. And while these sung biographies are life-affirming as they emphasize the innocence, joy, and loving spirits displayed by youngsters, some can still be haunting.

There are three basic approaches to the songwriting assignments to give glimpses of the individuals. First, there are the pieces expressing a child's eye view and experience, so that the actors here portray the little ones. These are successfully handled without cartoonishly coy, self-conscious kiddie voices. The performers capture the requisite glee and enthusiasm in praising pleasures of pets, pastimes, and pop stars. Another style is to fondly address a lyric directly to one of the boys or girls. The third option is commentary that's more an adult's private thoughts (or comments to someone other than the child). All are effective, and this variety keeps the items in the collection from becoming too similar.

The aforementioned style of numbers aping "kidspeak" are bright and bouncy, such as "My Very Own Dog," sung with disarming delight by Margo Siebert, and Ethan Slater bubbling over with zeal to assert that there's "Nothing Like Being on a Train." Both of these cheery charmers were written by the team of composer Jeff Saver and Amanda Yesnowitz.

Composer/lyricist Brett Boles contributes four potent numbers. Of these, "Sunshine" and "Gordon" are illustrations of the theme of accepting, embracing, and celebrating people as they are—with a definite emphasis on the positives. With the bouncy "Sunshine," Marissa McGowan nails the needed effervescence as well as awe, stating, "God sang a song when he made you this way." Boles lets us meet autistic but open-eyed "Gordon" who "sees things in a different way," and Kate Baldwin imbues the thoughtful characterization with dignity and warmth. Both of the other two selections by this tunesmith get two separate renditions; the passionate "Para Ti" ("For You") is essayed by Michael Mendez as well as Juan, the passionate young man who inspired it. And "I Love You," the writer's thesis of what one non-verbal, non-interactive boy might say if he could, gets its catharsis by teenager Halle Hunt as well as in a live performance bonus track by Michael Pizzi, the occupational therapist who spearheads The Wellsongs Project and the non-profit Touching Humanity. (Proceeds from sales of the recording provide performing arts programs for special-needs youngsters.)

Dr. Pizzi co-wrote the words for the dramatic story-song "Something Beautiful" with its composer, Ben Boecker. Christine Andreas, who raised a boy with developmental difficulties, has the connection and artistry to crystallize feelings and specific moments in this moving memoir. Her mastery of nuance and handling of the devastating hold-your-breath turning point in the lyric is something to behold. (Holding back tears, however, may not be easy here.) Another poignant demonstration of parental love arrives with Lisa Howard asserting the balm of "The Mother's Touch," by Ben Bonnema.

Providing adept musical architecture, Brian Cavanagh-Strong's firm but sensitive piano work and arrangements for the small band are simpatico, serving Wellsongs well. Thought-provoking and richly emotional, with respites allowing more carefree capers, this collection is full of affection and insight.


mp3 | iTunes

For those seeking a back-to-basics M.O. in presenting classic songs—mostly from big Broadway musicals—a concert by singer Zachary James, with Charity Wicks on piano as sole musician, is right up your Shubert Alley. The iconic material's familiar original imprints are very respectfully treated, generally hewing to original flavors, tempi, and accompaniment figures. These two gimmick-free, solid performers aren't out to do outlandish reinventions and aren't up for updating or upending tradition. The unspoken mantra seems to be a proud, plainspoken "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And while the On Broadway recording (the audio from a recent performance streamed Live from Chris' Jazz Café, Philadelphia) may not be sizzling with surprise, it by no means comes off as uninvolved or tentative. There's emotional investment to a large degree, even tender loving care, shading within broad strokes, and the suggestion of being both happy and humble to follow in the footsteps of forefathers.

Autobiographical patter is included, so we attend the tale of Zachary James, young man set on being a professional performer, soon moving to New York City with a showbiz career in his mind, a suitcase in his hand, a song in his heart, and not much money in his pocket. This cues the co-starring of frustration with determination for a pensively sung "A New Town Is a Blue Town" (from The Pajama Game). It rewardingly shows fresh phrasing and in-the-moment realizations. The plot thickens. Dreams do come true as the likable, down-to-earth fellow tells us. Shrugging off days with a day job and crack-of-dawn mass auditions, he bulldozes his way to secure a position in the Broadway chorus of Coram Boy, knowing they were looking for a bass; that story ends on a high note for this guy whose stock in trade is being able to hit those very low notes. (He doesn't mention his extensive opera career in this musical theatre-focused show.) It all leads up to him serving as butler Lurch in The Addams Family musical, from early readings through Broadway and the tour, too. And it's a treat to hear him solo in all his lighthearted heaviness on "Move Toward the Darkness" from that Andrew Lippa score.

Among the choices are some things not originally written for the stage: "Over the Rainbow"; the oldie about toiling in the coal mines called "Sixteen Tons"; and the 1963 pop favorite about longing for success in the Big Apple that gives the On Broadway act its title. As heard on my computer, the sound quality of this download-only release leaves something to be desired for full-bodied tone. But the balance between the proficient keyboarding and singing is fine, and the vocal dynamics are nicely nuanced. Showboating is taboo. Even including the time taken by spoken set-up, some tracks are quite brief, exhibiting a preference to go through numbers without further ado beyond a once-through-and-done deal. There are no notable instrumental breaks, repeats of the final chorus(es), or embellished endings.

The classics from the Great White Way heavily favor the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon. We get Oklahoma!'s "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," two samples of Carousel ("You'll Never Walk Alone" and a short version of "If I Loved You"), and three selections from South Pacific, acknowledging his being cast in the recent revival. (We get just one small slice of "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" to illustrate his bass solo moment in the spotlight.)

Unpretentious and understated, On Broadway is a recital that can be robust and rapturous.

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