Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

A big Berlin bonanza,
and a Little Shop ...
Reviews by Rob Lester

Even avid collectors could lose track of how many treasure troves of Irving Berlin's output have been put out by producer Chip Deffaa, or the number of cast recordings of Little Shop of Horrors (including many in foreign languages). But, like the man-eating plant in the latter, some of us need more ... more ... more to satisfy our appetite. So here are the tempting treats.

Garret Mountain Records
CD and digital

If the great composer/lyricist Irving Berlin were still around, I suspect he'd send a thank-you note (or even a tribute song) to Chip Deffaa for constantly keeping the sweeping flow of his songs as well as his history in the ethos for new generations of listeners and performers. In addition to stage pieces he's created to present the oeuvre (sometimes biographically, with Berlin as a character reminiscing), he has put out 10 previous recordings overflowing with the tunesmith's output. The determinedly dedicated Deffaa, producer and Berlin expert, generally puts emphasis on the more neglected earliest decades.The determinedly dedicated Deffaa, producer and Berlin expert, has brought forth volume after volume, with an emphasis on the more neglected earliest decades. That being said, room was made this time around for some standards among the expected batch of what we might call the "obscuriosities," such as the never-before-recorded "You've Built a Fire Down in My Heart" from 1911 that makes an endearing duet for Ellis Gage and Analise Scarpaci.

As you might expect from its title, Irving Berlin: Love Songs and Such is loaded with sentimental portraits of idealized romantic attachments, but there are also ebullient expressions of ardor as a mood elevator bursting forth, as well as some comic relief. As usual, the proceedings are handled by a mix of ready/willing/able vivacious veterans and quite young performers. Charm is in abundance. Quainter elements of period flavor are captured and embraced, with no whiff of condescension, in out-of-mothballs lyrics that might address someone worshipfully as "Dearest" and reference Cupid or "a couple spooning." Brian Letendre tenderly, and then floridly, parades his passion and paranoia with "Someone Else May Be There While I'm Gone," where an overseas soldier professes no such worries about his special someone's faithfulness in "I'm Gonna Pin My Medal on the Girl I Left Behind," sweetly intoned by Ryan Muska.

Karen Mason personalizes and revitalizes "Always," investing it with fierce commitment that rings true. Throwing caution to the wind, Sarah Rice strikes musical poses that make "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune" quite the tongue-in-cheek showpiece.

Many regulars from what amounts to the Deffaa repertory company from his many past recordings and live shows are present. They include Jon Peterson, who's been the playwright's high-energy George M. Cohan, here bringing similar brio, as he steps confidently into the Fred Astaire signature tune "Steppin' Out with My Baby" (audible tap dance steps included). Joan Jaffe, whom I remember enjoying in her role as Cohan's mom years ago, before re-encountering her in New York City cabaret circles, elicits chuckles in a duet as she gamely takes on a character piece with an Italian accent and an accent on broad ethnic shtick of a bygone era, never before recorded as a vocal, "My Sweet Italian Man." Joining her as the signore in question, with a willing wink, is Michael Townsend Wright, who's had the role of Irving Berlin in the Deffaa bio-plays on stage and cast recordings of them. Giuseppe Bausillio, who's been in several Broadway shows since joining Mr. Wright as half the cast in one of those productions, does an admirable job making that classic sung simile "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" appealingly less formal and grand, while still suggesting shining the pedestal with dewy-eyed due appreciation.

I surrender smilingly when the peppy pull of vaudeville is irresistible in the rendition of one relic that is now exactly 100 years old: the super-sunny "Some Sunny Day." It's still a winner, either in spite of or because of its decidedly dated turns of phrase "Oh, how I pine" and "My heart goes pitter-patter," and the singers' palpable plus-sized pleasure in returning to that home-sweet-cabin destination. Partnered felicitously on this track are a jubilant Jack Corbin and appropriately chipper Chip Deffaa himself.

Steeped in the styles evoked, accompanist/music director Richard Danley is the usual house pianist, on target with unfussy, crisp playing that lets the song itself be the star. For Love Songs and Such, however, he is not the only instrumentalist on hand. On several tracks he is joined to fine effect by violinist Andy Stein who adds grace and/or stylized pathos; and Mr. Danley sits out a few selections when singers brought in their own longtime accompanists. In the case of the grace provided by Steve Ross, singer and pianist are one and he does "double duty" in another way by offering Love Songs and Such's only medley. The heartfelt/heartbroken combo consists of "Maybe It's Because I Love You Too Much" and "What'll I Do?" presented without milking the mushiness that could doom either piece. Anita Gillette (who has the distinction of having actually been in the cast of Irving Berlin's last Broadway show, Mr. President) and her singing pianist Paul Greenwood have a special brand of spunk digging into the cheeky "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil" as their individual solos are followed by the spiffy counterpoint section.

With 28 tracks (including the borrowed Betty Buckley "Blue Skies" that has been on two of her solo albums), this is quite the bounty. It comes with a booklet with photos of the participants and notes about them and facts and anecdotes about the songs. It's reported that more early Berlin songs were recorded, so more collections will be coming. I'm more than ready and eager to be transported to that early era regularly. So, Mr. Deffaa and company, let's do the time warp again!

Ghostlight Records
CD and digital

Forty years ago a quirky little musical called Little Shop of Horrors started out in a little theatre, and it keeps coming back–film, Broadway production, presentations all over the world, an animated TV spin-off, and a movie remake now in the works. It's still great fun in its latest incarnation, running again Off-Broadway and happily resulting in yet another cast recording. (It was available digitally back in 2019 when it returned, but not as a physical CD until performances resumed after the lengthy pandemic-caused closures.) The physical CD of this early Alan Menken/ Howard Ashman score comes with a booklet containing all the lyrics, a few photos, and a page devoted to its history.

At heart, it is still very much the heartfelt satirical piece that so many have come to love. This most recent in a long line of Little Shops doesn't feel shopworn or radically surgically altered. However, with cast performances shading characters in their own ways, and with the new arrangements and orchestrations by Will Van Dyke for the tiny band in which he plays piano and synthesizer, it's freshly refreshed and lively. A good deal of dialogue, with underscoring, is included. The various recorded versions have their differences–songs missing or added or truncated (the numbers written for the film have not been incorporated here; interesting demos of cut songs can be found on the Broadway cast recording as bonus tracks). All in all, this is a satisfying and entertaining treatment, sometimes rambunctious, sometimes surprisingly even serene, without feeling definitive or motivated to be "topping" the past.

While energetic and humorous, the characters aren't as broadly goofy or sly as when we've encountered them in the past. We can't brand (or dismiss) them as "cartoony." As the show's leading man, Jonathan Groff is an appealing figure, although, suddenly, Seymour seems far less nerdy or awkward in his early singing appearance. He's smoother-voiced and determined in his desire to get away from "Skid Row." Tammy Blanchard as his beloved Audrey projects vulnerability without emphasis on ditziness, and her dream of an ideal married life, living "Somewhere That's Green," is touching. The accent and the way she pronounces some words can come off as a bit studied instead of natural, but she's effective. Christian Borle as the demented dentist (and other bits) is mischievously maniacal, serving up a delicious slice of ham. Much of the credit for handling the musical threads knitting everything together goes to the trio emulating the sounds of early 1960s pop music girl group harmonies–Ari Groover, Salome Smith, and Joy Woods–full of slinky sass and sparkle. All five of the above are especially adept at the fast-paced numbers that have tongue-twisting sections.

As the shop boss, Tom Alan Robbins is not so brashly bossy and in spots he sounds a little younger and calmer than might be optimal. However, he builds "Mushnik and Son" to a rewardingly splashy ending. Kingsley Leggs is suitably intimidating as the necessary evil presence, voicing the bloodthirsty plant that keeps growing and growing. I find that this newest ride through Little Shop of Horrors is growing and growing on me, too. So, excuse me while I go feed my habit and listen yet again.