Sound Advice Reviews
First on the radar in the 1980s, and back again
Familiar from their first appearances in the spotlight back in the 1980s, but each seen in a new light, are three subjects we consider this time. The 40-year-old musical Baby, rethought, recently returned to the New York stage, with a new cast recording resulting. A television action series that debuted in the '80s, "MacGyver," inspires a winking musical comedy. And from the cool jazz vocal group New York Voices that debuted on disc in 1989, founding member Darmon Meader steps out for his second solo offering.
First delivered to theatre audiences on Broadway in the last month of 1983, the musical Baby was "re-born" in other New York presentations in recent years and a newly released cast recording presents us with its earnest 2021 cast. If I may borrow an old advertising slogan to comment on how some of its changed characters reflect a more diverse set of parents-to-be, we might say, "You've come a long way, Baby!
In the latest revamp of the show (which has been otherwise tweaked in various mountings and workshops over the decades) by Out of the Box Theatrics, the script incorporated the real-life situations of the pair playing the youngest couple. Specifically, that means Johnny Link as a deaf man and the legally blind Liz Flemming (also the founder of the presenting company). This cast is also racially diverse, including the casting of the oldest couple: a white woman, Julia Murney, and a Black man, Robert H. Fowler. The remaining twosome is rethought to be a lesbian couple, with one of the women seeking artificial insemination. They are played here by Gabrielle McClinton and Christina Sajous.
For our purposes of considering the cast recording presenting the songs, only the last situation is at all evident as we're hearing one more lead female character than was present on the first cast recording, but the majority of any changes/additions to lyrics don't reflect these differences. Lyrics altered include having latter-day female celebrities name-dropped into "I Want It All," such as tennis star Serena Williams serving as replacement for Katharine Hepburn.
The score by composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. gets a sometimes brash / sometimes burnished handling with the 1983 Jonathan Tunick orchestrations adapted for an eight-piece band. As interpreted here, Baby succeeds in highlighting the contrasts and commonalities in attitudes among the protagonists. While the performances include some needed light moments and some that feel "pushed" to come off as cute or profound, three numbers stand out as seeming boldly authentic. In a refreshingly understated and nuanced reading, Robert H. Fowler's solo of "Easier to Love" captures the informed view that comes from having already raised children. The highlight of the recording is the highly dramatic, detailed, daring pounce on "Patterns" sung with real-feel fragility by Julia Murney. (Cut from the original 1983 production but included on its cast album, it is just too dynamic to be ignored instead of restored, as its future allowed.) The strongest statement in the score is the realization of the appreciation of how each generation takes on childbirth and child-rearing with the moving "Our Story Goes On," led by Liz Flemming, joined by the full company and reprised in the finale.
Ensemble cast members, including director Ethan Paulini, are heard most prominently in the four numbered "Transition" segments, each lasting about 30 seconds. These pieces serve as punctuations in the proceedings, noting the passage of time and commenting in a kind of Greek Chorus manner. The various emotions spurred by pregnancy–planned or unplanned–are abundantly on display in the portrayals. Worry, wonder, inadequacy and awe all are underlined, and so are the ways relationships are seen through a newly focused lens when partners become parents, and priorities and perspectives shift.
The digital booklet includes comments from director Paulini and a retrospective, modifications-endorsing essay signed by the original creative team of bookwriter Sybille Ann Pearson, Shire, and Maltby (he was also the director in 1983). Forty years may have passed, but Baby's illustrated essential universal experiences remain basically timeless.
MACGYVER: THE MUSICAL
Some action heroes aren't out of action for very long. A resourcefully science-smart secret agent kind of guy named MacGyver risked life and limb and far-fetched plotlines in a network television series named for the character. It lasted for seven seasons (from 1985 to 1992) and then he returned in two TV movies, and was kept alive via syndication, a game, comic books, and–with a new cast–was brought back to the small screen from 2016 to 2021. Lee David Zlotoff, who started the whole enterprise, is not finished presenting the public with his hero, so now there is, of course, MacGyver: The Musical a tongue-in-cheek incarnation for which he is executive producer and one of the script's four authors. The others are Kate Chavez, Lindsey Hope Pearlman, and Robin Ward Holloway, who also sings on the world premiere recording, is pianist of its small band and co-arranger/orchestrator, sharing that credit with the composer/lyricist Peter Lurye. This new release releases a wave of intentionally over-the-top top-drawer daffy doings, set in 1989, as MacGyver is sent to Germany to prevent disaster–intrepid and incognito and in trouble of his own soon enough.
The madcap MacGyver: The Musical makes for a grandly goofy guilty pleasure with its cheekiness and cheesiness often striking the right LOL tone. The singers seem to dive into the material with assertiveness, some bringing sketch comedy sensibilities and the right amount of exaggeration and zing. Energy is high. Brash and broad, there is loopy glee in some songs and a jackhammer approach to others. The group numbers, "What's the Plan, Mac?" and "MacGyver!" (which is reprised) invoke the hero's name or nickname forcefully over and over; the latter, with its driving electric guitar jabs, really does feel like the inevitable extension of a typically forceful TV or movie theme that suggests toughness, tensions and triumphs. The lyric lauding the hero glibly gilds the lily and rhymes with you-know-who's name: "Who's our striver, conniver, solution-contriver/ Striver, skydiver, just-in-time arriver?"
You'll note that the title character (RJ Christian here) does little singing and there's an unusual but logical reason: A special aspect of the live performances is that the role of MacGyver is cast from volunteer audience candidates who audition just before the start of the show and are shepherded through the performance and read the lines from cue cards. A couple of lines in lyrics break the fourth wall to reference this ("a person without rehearsin'").
Some performers take on more than one character for this collection that does not represent the actual cast of one specific production, and in the cases of two protagonists, Ingrid and Boris, passages created for them to sing are shared. The credits and plot synopsis included in the CD's booklet which also has all the lyrics, helps in minimizing any resulting confusion. The key role of Ingrid is divided among three people, one of whom is Tristin Mays, who had a lead role in the "MacGyver" series of the recent past.
For me, for sure, the standout performers are Alysha Umphress, Jay Aubrey Jones and Brandon Grimes, cartoonish and canny, adopting thick German accents and putting the accent on satire. With them, the attitudes, pastiche and satire are expertly on target; however, a casual listen to a couple of tracks by others might seem like overindulgent, overheated laments from a generic sung-through grandiose musical.
The convoluted plot involves the dictator of East Germany, a punk rock band, estranged family members, arrests and imprisonments, escape plans, a bratwurst factory, and distracting soldiers by getting them drunk ("Drink, Drink, Drink," sings Brandon Victor Dixon in an especially agreeable performance, leading this catchy toast). And then there's the fall of the Berlin Wall as the off-the-wall tale whirls to its dizzying conclusion.
Those who followed and remember the TV character's traits and trademarks will get some of the specific references that others will miss, but one need not be a "MacGyver" maven (I'm not) to catch the spirit and catch on to the spoofy spin.
Quite the skilled multi-tasker on his new release, Darmon Meader not only sings on all of its dozen songs, he arranged them all, wrote two of them, plays instruments on a few (sax, clarinet, flute), and produced the whole shebang. He also blends his voice with other singers on two tracks, but that's a matter of habit for this elastic-voiced veteran who's been a member of the singing group New York Voices (recording since 1989) and, more recently, the ensemble billed as the Royal Bopsters.
On the new Losing My Mind, Meader is joined by his three colleagues from the longer-termed ensemble and a choir for "Lovely Day" (Bill Withers / Skip Scarborough). That choir includes Rosana Eckert (a sometime New York Voices sub), partner for the swirl of scat-singing for the otherwise lyric-less adventure accompanying the Meader-made melody for "Last Call."
As expected, Darmon Meader nimbly navigates tempi and treatments both punchy and luxuriously laid-back. For the latter, there isn't too much lingering in the languid, but just enough to be dreamy rather than droopy. With that thought in mind, "Losing My Mind" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies score, usually heard with evident symptoms of anguish and rueful obsession, would seem an unlikely candidate to have its drama drained, haltingness halted, and prescribed musical Prozac. But–surprise!–it works as a creative change of pace, coming off as ruminative and subtly stressed, especially in the last part with a few early lines repeated, most minus the "think about you" phrase.
The eclectic repertoire surveys pop, an import from Brazil ("Lembra de Mim"), folk (Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind"), and some classic standards given jazz-generated new vitality. Crisply done, Burton Lane and Frank Loesser's "I Hear Music" includes its introductory verse and the first few words of its chorus and their notes ("I hear music, mighty fine music") slyly assert themselves way into Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's "The Song Is You" which also begins with the words "I hear music." We hear music of Sigmund Romberg for another Hammerstein-worded entry, "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" that sounds younger than its true vintage age, five years shy of a century."
With his prettily polished tone, the mellow and mellifluous Meader sound can be extra-appreciated when something we recall as being fleet with a beat becomes relaxed and sweet, un-corseted from its bright foot-tapping tempo of yore. This is applied to Paul McCartney's Beatles-era "All My Loving," making it arguably more loving and valentine-y tender.
Musical adventurousness laced with liberties by the singer is only half the show headed by a gracious guy who never makes it all about himself. The long tracks (most clocking in at close to, or more than, five minutes) have generous instrumental sections between vocal choruses–maybe too protracted for those mostly interested in story and vocals. The varying participants stretch out in moody and/or masterful ways that embellish and expand beyond the basic "bones" of the melodies. Notable for such work is the only player to appear on all selections, pianist Andy Ezrin. Some arrangements include more than 10 instruments, while five cuts are handled by just piano, bass and drums, including the two originals that show the compositional talent of the creative Meader mind.
Loosening constructions and constrictions regarding how the cover songs were originally conceived makes Losing My Mind rewarding for the listener with an open mind.