Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

A place named Emojiland,
plus vocals by 2 ladies named Linda
Reviews by Rob Lester

In musical comedy, the hills may be alive with the sound of music and there may be trouble with a capital T in River City, but if we venture to a place called Emojiland, you may find beings inside your phone alive with the sound of music and trouble that's specific to modern times. And two actress-singers, both named Linda—Ms. Lavin and Ms. Purl—with new collections with the word "Love" in the titles mostly look to earlier decades for repertoire.


Broadway Records
CD | mp3 | iTunes

Here's a musical whose time has come; it couldn't have been written in the golden age. It jumps on one of the ubiquitous tools many use in technology-generated messages, when opting to replace words or to clarify or amplify how we mean them. Of course I'm talking about those cute miniature smiley faces and cartoony pics called emoji. Rather cleverly, the creators of Emojiland imagined those little things fully alive, as distinctively one-note character types, interacting—singing, squabbling, romancing, despairing—and inhabiting their own claustrophobic universe. If you're willing to make the leap with a wink and your own smile, not demanding the usual believability and identifying with protagonists that makes for audience involvement, there's fun to be had. It's a neat conceit with the challenge of sustaining engagement over a full-length project, returning to the same basic one-idea well without diminishing returns. Embracing the glorification of the limits of one-dimensionality, the plucky proceedings are largely successful, thanks to the fully game and charming 2020 Off-Broadway cast and the playfulness of the glib score.

Co-creating book, music and lyrics are the husband-and-wife team of Keith Harrison and Laura Schein. The latter is also in the cast, smoothly and ever so sweetly portraying Smize, who on the "face" of things is designed to be eternally perky, but is actually "Sad on the Inside." (Even hugely simplified beings can have a backstory or subtext lurking below the surface.) But most of what goes on here depends on sticking to forcing and reinforcing a sole assigned characteristic, even more than such personality-defined/named predecessors in animated fare like Snow White's seven dwarves or the Care Bears.

The songs work amusingly, if brashly, making much use of techno terminology set to music in a variety of appropriately contemporary styles and sounds. There are elements of bubble gum pop, dance and house music, strutting hip hop, and, especially for numbers featuring Lucas Steele, terrifically commanding as the grandly morbid and melodramatic Skull, flamboyant rock opera. His high voice soars as he wails and flounces, seeking pity and attention. Broadway veteran Ann Harada makes a welcome and spirited "special appearance" as the decidedly non-glamorous role, singing about how life can present us with a "Pile of Poo," entering indeed as nothing more or less than that very item. (In the booklet accompanying the physical CD, color photos from the production show us her chuckle-worthy costume and headpiece, as well as those of the others. Also included are a plot synopsis and all the lyrics and the generously included dialogue heard.)

Comically drenched in diva despot mode, the preening and pouting Princess of the realm is embodied by a feisty Lesli Margherita. Self-explanatory and self-satisfied, the song about this entitled ruler, titled "Princess Is a Bitch," probably tells you all you need to know. Determined to be in control, and empathy-challenged, her worries about changes result from the threat of a looming programming update for the device all inhabit and a "New Crown in Town" represented by a royal pain (Josh Lamon as the snarky Prince). Protection from threats and incoming outsiders is the goal for the ruler and so she opts for—wait for it—building a firewall. The term is apt, certainly, but it doesn't take a big virtual elbow-poke to see the convenient analogy to Trump's pet project of building a border wall.

There are other references and themes that suggest parallels to real-life human problems, although the big threat to Emojiland ironically is the computer version of what the world is facing and which closed down the run of this show: a dangerous virus. Although its creators could not have anticipated this life-imitates-art twist, hearing that portion of the tale now is unintentionally chilling.

Attitude is laid on thick and with much flair. Beeps and robot-like pronouncements remind us that we are in a digital alternate environment. A respite from the savvy but silly doings comes unexpectedly—with the most human touch of sincerity in the romantic, caring exchanges between two females, played warmly by Felicia Bosworth and Natalie Weiss hired as, respectively, police officer and construction worker. Ms. Bosworth's heartfelt "A Thousand More Words" brings the piece suddenly and strikingly into a whole other plane without quite seeming jarringly out of place. It's quite a coup.

This unusual endeavor is replete with fine ensemble work and standout solo turns. Bustling with imagination and madcap moments, it's a sign of the times we live in. If we can allow ourselves to think that all that combustion and conflict might be concentrated in our devices, it's no wonder we have to recharge them so much. Likewise, I got a charge out of Emojiland.


Club44 Records
CD | mp3 | iTunes

It was back at the end of 2011 that Linda Lavin released her first solo CD (Possibilities). Now comes her second, and it's overall more engaging and fun. One notes that Love Notes is in some ways a cousin-ly companion piece in what's offered: Again, masterful Billy Stritch is at the keyboard, and composers represented include Richard Rodgers, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Donald Fagen, and Cy Coleman (the old Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh "I Walk a Little Faster" is deftly trotted out). Much of what's here is in decidedly playful, lighthearted mode. Although an accomplished actress in serious roles and comedy, the musical menu and treatments don't lend themselves to or seek high drama and lotsa LOL. That being said, the primarily laidback ambiance doesn't mean droopy or dull, as there is spunk, and Rodgers & Hart's sarcastic "I Wish I Were in Love Again" is invested with sufficient zest and zingers.

A couple of tender and thoughtful moments add variety, but the predominant atmosphere is epitomized by the breezy "Not a Care in the World" (Vernon Duke/ John Latouche). Cute or coy contentment with a beaming big grin is the main and merry M.O. The philosophy is also stated with confidence in a blithe, bossy bossa nova flavor insisting there'll be "No More Blues" (original title for the Jobim melody being "Chega de Saudade").

With several of the tracks structured as medleys, the proceedings are pleasingly packed, briskly delivering more material than a dozen tracks would normally offer. Twice sampled each are Duke Ellington and the Gershwins. Also among the Golden Age gems are four upbeat samples from Cole Porter, including an excursion through "You Do Something to Me" which is not even listed, but is inserted within the opener of Porter's perky "I've Got My Eyes on You." There's also a one-line cameo of Peggy Lee's early hit, "Why Don't You Do Right?," interpolated into the end of "Black Cow" by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (aka Steely Dan).

Happily, Billy Stritch gets to do some singing here and there, with a big solo spotlight on a deliciously energized "Rap Tap on Wood" (Porter again). He alternates arranging duties with the participating top violinist Aaron Weinstein and shares producer credit with Wayne Haun, whose co-composition (with Joel Lindsey), the romantic "Stars Would Fall"—a real find, which he also sang on his own album—gets Lavin loveliness and lush instrumentation. Too, the pensive, mature phrasing by the singer makes this an all-around especially satisfying selection. "You Must Believe in Spring," however, feels kind of rushed without sufficient care taken with its poetic and fragile qualities.

Although Linda Lavin's vocal notes on Love Notes aren't of the belted or sustained kind, there's still plenty of love to go around, notably without tears and the pain of love in vain or lost. Her approach is more natural and conversational, the sound full of character, with some mischief and plenty of joie de vivre.

Reaching Records

If theatre shutdowns were not our current reality, actress-singer Linda Purl's schedule this month would have brought her to California in a stage piece about the life of iconic vocalist Rosemary Clooney, co-starring Jason Graae. Instead, she's promoting her new recording remotely and donating initial proceeds to MusiCares' Covid-19 Relief Fund and The Actors Fund. Taking a Chance on Love finds her at her musical best and most jazzily adventurous. This is her fifth solo recording.

Inhabiting many moods and perspectives, her acting instincts and "song smarts" developed over many years of stage, film, TV, and cabaret experience all seem to be drawn upon. I don't know how much she may have absorbed about the characters in The King and I from her Japan childhood acting experience in trousers playing young Louis in Japanese, but the score's adult love ballad "I Have Dreamed" seems to be part of her.

Her intensity, inventive individualized phrasing, and shifting emphases make it seem in the moment and unique, stressing the middle word in the title to give the declaration a different definitiveness. The song shimmers. Refreshing command of material is prevalent on the rewarding recording; surprises keep coming. Perhaps the best example is "Come Fly with Me," known as a jaunty Frank Sinatra hit, here slowed down to make it a rapturous invitation to a paradise-like experience, bookended by parts of another evocative composition, "And We Will Fly." The mixture becomes almost ethereal.

The standard that gives the 12-track Taking a Chance on Love its title becomes extra special from the get-go simply by the gratifying decision to include the rarely sung introductory verse. Everything seems invested with purpose and import, with Billy Joel's "Lullabye" ("Goodnight, My Angel") delicately detailed, painted with precision. Singer and musicians know the power of taking moments to let something sink in quietly or build. Dynamics are well used so that moods and sounds can develop without clutter.

Much of the endeavor is quite mesmerizing, the opening lyric to "Wave"—the suggestion being "So close your eyes"—worthy advice to take in every bit of the immersive-worthy landscape. Tedd Firth is at the apex of his artfulness in sympathetic shapings and sensitive playing that becomes the subtext, support, and foreshadowing of anticipated effects. The piano seems to be dancing with the lyric as acted by Linda Purl. They are joined by veteran bassist David Finck and tasteful drummer Ray Marchica, with reed player Nelson Rangell guesting. While these are superbly skillful musicians, their work is never gratuitously self-serving, but always in service to the songs.

Warm and wise, Taking a Chance on Love may take some chances on love songs by sometimes taking them apart and putting them back together in new ways, but the chances pay off—handsomely.

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