Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

A musical featuring a storybook;
releases with American songbook favorites (and more)
Reviews by Rob Lester

The story of a storybook whose characters come to life is what we get between slices of characters' realities in the musical Between the Lines as its cast album bows. It's the Great American Songbook being paged through (and what we'll dub its appendix for worthy post-Golden Age entries) by two female vocalists. Both arrive well accompanied with their 13-track second albums; for Aubrey Johnson it's a gap of about two and a half years, while for Akiko Aoki it's been about two and a half decades. Each chooses a Lerner & Loewe classic as her set's only number originally written for Broadway, mixed in with movie songs and jazz gems.

Ghostlight Records

If escapism by immersing yourself in the songs and stories of musicals is your drug of choice, consider the recording of a fanciful show all about a lonely central character's own escape route into literature. Between episodes of disheartening reality, Between the Lines' teen protagonist, Delilah, has (or imagines) interactions with a beloved storybook's characters, presented through sweet and sly songs and bits of reality-checking dialogue. These are balanced by numbers showing her in a more troubling existence (school and home) as several actors play roles in both worlds.

Singing with winsomeness, wonder, or a dose of teen angst as appropriate, Arielle Jacobs is an often delightful and determined Delilah. (Along with director Jeff Calhoun, she was a holdover from the 2017 premiere in Kansas City, Missouri, to head what's represented on this just-released digital cast recording, a new company for an Off-Broadway production that ran last summer.) Disney fans may know the able, personable star for her frequent-flyer miles on the magic carpet as the Jasmine replacement in Aladdin or High School Musical's tour and the songwriters Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson for the songs in the short film Olaf's Frozen Adventure with the Frozen characters. There is a definite theatricalized pop/power ballad patina and youthful energy to the proceedings. Seven accompanying musicians are named in the credits, which also mention electronic music design. The book, adapted from the young adult novel of the same name, is by Timothy Allen McDonald, who has done script work for other children's fare.

Some of the performances are notably earnest; many renditions have the challenge of maintaining one's interest in on-the-nose songs that rely on being anchored by very frequent repetition of their title phrases and a dearth of plot movement in some. Perhaps sort of ironically, then, numbers that let characters revel in unexpected changes and variety in their routines are the most successful and least doggedly hammering. For example, the storybook characters long for new experiences in Delilah's world, when freed from dutifully re-enacting their plots as each new reader pores through their pages, allowing some fun fish-out-of-water fascination. With charisma and flair, Jake David Smith cutely captures this sensibility as Prince Oliver in his duets with Arielle Jacobs as they compare notes in the title song and in "In My Perfect World." When she discovers the feeling of falling in love, she seems so buoyed as to be walking on air, exulting about "Talkin' to Oliver." This is a major highlight for charm, as is Will Burton's gleeful "Out of Character."

Power-voiced Broadway veterans Julia Murney and Vicki Lewis are on board, too. The former has the heavy role of Delilah's droopy, newly divorced mom, further burdened with an unpleasantly explosive mother/daughter sung argument ("I'm Not Through"), but finds a graceful redemption in the regrets sensitively expressed in the solo "Leaps and Bounds." Vicki Lewis's special people are five different ladies she portrays, including the school librarian sharing her own fantasies about a dashing figure from literature, with her all-stops-out "Mr. Darcy and Me."

Along the way, other school characters appear, including a counselor, bullies, and a girl with a same-sex crush she only acknowledges to herself (as part of the group number "Inner Thoughts"). Those who haven't seen or read up on the show (or original novel) may be confused about context and certain characters for this digital release with no accompanying notes. On the other hand, there is helpful exposition in the early songs and some plot developments are pretty clear. Also coming through with clarity are the self-empowerment messages encouraging being the hero of one's own life story and valuing individuality. You don't have to read and listen between the lines in Between the Lines to notice the insistence on patience and persistence.

The cast of Between the Lines reunites tonight (Thursday, January 19) to present this score in Manhattan at the nightclub 54 Below.

Sunnyside Records
CD, Digital

A fine and fortuitous musical partnership indeed is that of singer Aubrey Johnson and pianist Randy Ingram. Their interplay on Play Favorites enhances standards about romantic partners. These include: "My Ideal" with its yearning for the perfect match; three choices that look back on dissolved relationships ("Didn't We," "Born to Be Blue" and "I'll Remember April"); and two "If..." hypotheticals about break-ups ("If I Should Lose You" and "If Ever I Would Leave You" from the soon-to-be-revived Camelot).

But these Great American Songbook favorites are only about half of what's in play. Also on the set list is one from the very recent past, "My Future" (2020, by siblings Billie Eilish and Finn O'Connell), about not wanting to be partnered, and we also get Canadian-born Joni Mitchell's "Conversation" about being attracted to someone already partnered, and four attractive selections sung in Portuguese. Pianist Ingram also offers his own brief melody called "Prelude" for the vocalist to essay wordlessly, employing just open vowels. Her high and elastic voice is well showcased throughout the 13 tracks. In English, Portuguese, or with just sound, Aubrey Johnson's sound is glorious and her approach is often adventurous. "Conversation" suits her well, as she magnificently maneuvers the tricky trademarks of Joni Mitchell's composing (and singing), with big melodic leaps and melisma opportunities.

The keyboarding is supportively pensive on the laments, growing in dynamics and dazzle on mid-song solos. A frisky, percolating "If Ever I Would Leave You" is reinvigorated, doffing its original formal clothing and cheerily chugging along, absent any real feel that those season-specific strategies might come to pass.

From the sounds of things here, it seems that this talented twosome could handle almost anything they choose, and I'm eager to hear more.

CD, Digital

Easygoing and elegant, flavored with jazz, singer Akiko Aoki's pretty potpourri, Pure Imagination, is a nice mix of established, classy material. With most of the tracks clocking in at more than four minutes, and two going beyond five minutes, considerable time is given over to instrumental breaks and that's a plus with such fine players on hand. Tim Ray is the pianist and arranged five of the songs, with guitarist John Baboian credited for the chart on the shortest item, "I Love Being Here with You," and the singer herself as the arranger for the remaining seven. Guest musicians include veteran sax man Ken Peplowski.

Akiko Aoki's voice has an attractive timbre as she glides through the melodies, giving them more dutiful attention than the lyrics, although the basic moods come through. Born and raised in Japan, then settling in the Boston area in adulthood, her Japanese accent is still in evidence.

The most emotional and thoughtful inhabiting of a lyric comes with the sad ballad "Yesterday I Heard the Rain." Otherwise, Pure Imagination imagines a largely serene outlook. Titled for that seductively cozy invitation written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the movie musical Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, that score that gets an additional subtle nod when a bit of the melody of "The Candy Man" is interpolated within "Sugar." (A few different lyrics have been set to "Sugar," originally an instrumental by Stanley Turrentine, but only the composer is credited on the track list; the words sung here are those by Rahsaan Roland Kirk.) The recording's sole representative of songs written for Broadway is a rewardingly vibrant "Almost Like Being in Love" from Brigadoon.

Adult daughter Mari Aoki appears on three cuts and her assured presence is a major asset. Their artful harmony singing is a joy to behold. Their duets are on "Moondance" and "Smile" and the younger woman gets most of the spotlight on "Just the Two of Us."

While more pleasant than powerful, Pure Imagination can be graceful musical company.