Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

The Gospel According to Heather and
romance according to Scheckter and Kittredge
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's start with a recent Off-Broadway cast recording of a show that takes on religion, relationships, and right wing propaganda. Then it's love's ups and downs taking center stage for two singers with Jane Scheckter's I'll Take Romance and Ann Kittredge's Romantic Notions.

JAY Records
CD | Digital

In musicals, Ohio has been the state characters moved from (to live in that Wonderful Town of New York City) or where Manhattanites spend some time (The Last Five Years, Bye Bye Birdie), or it's home base, like in Bandstand, Sherry!, Oil City Symphony, the recent How to Dance in Ohio, and Heathers. Now comes another musical, with a title character sharing the name of those in the last-mentioned piece, and also focused on teen-aged protagonists: The Gospel According to Heather. An original cast recording of last year's Off-Broadway run presented by Amas Musical Theatre brings us the high-energy songs, strife and surprises as we meet the eclectic characters populating this Ohio community. It's the work of composer/lyricist/bookwriter Paul Gordon, who musicalized Jane Eyre, Jane Austen novels, and wrote the epistolary Daddy Longlegs; this original story results in an eclectic and contemporary-sounding score with some edge.

Appearing on the majority of the recording's tracks, Brittany Nicole Williams plays high school senior Heather, with strong-voiced bursts of frustration, confusion or awe as she deals with typical teen troubles and then increasingly apparent spiritual aspects of herself and others. Maya Lagerstam has the role of a classmate befriending her; a few of the most intense passages cause the singing to become shrill, while some tracks are so short that they don't make much impact. (Of the 19 numbers, 11 are shorter than two minutes in length.) Jangly nerves are the M.O. for a few items, such as "Don't Tell Mom" for the title character and her younger brother, portrayed by Zach Rand. Lauren Elder has an odd but amusing solo as their mom, focused on what her daughter is wearing ("She Has on Sneakers") instead of the content of the news when Heather is on TV. Badia Farha brings some intensity as a concerned teacher.

Carson Stewart adds an appealing presence and zip as Heather's possible boyfriend. Cutely, they sing of their concern about how others might perceive their interaction and their feelings in "Don't Go Spreading Rumors," kind of a cousin to Oklahoma!'s "People Will Say We're in Love." Going beyond the usual teen concerns and barbs at modern society and relative truths as the plot thickens, the storyline and songs veer into a series of twists and turns. All is not what it seems to be, with people having attributes, motivations, backstories, and reactions not predictable from the first impressions presented. Jeremy Kushnier stands out as two different characters, including a lurking self-aggrandizing right-wing broadcaster, and his two solos are intriguing, making one wish they were expanded in their satire of influence. Katey Sagal cuts loose, leading the gospel-styled number, "Raise a Hand" (which is reprised as the finale). The material is definitely best appreciated when approached with an open mind, patience, and the context of the plot which is detailed in the CD's handy liner notes. The Gospel According to Heather wonders: Could there be angels and healers among us–even in small-town Ohio?

Accompanied by a small band, the performers generally have a lot of oomph in this recording of a quirky tale with apparent ambitions to be provocative, perceptive, and ultimately positive.

Doxie Records
CD | Digital

In the future, when seeking some tasty musical "comfort food," it's likely that I'll take I'll Take Romance as one of my choices. Singer Jane Scheckter cozying up to classic and classy material has always made me smile. The listener and the songs are always in good hands with the savvy Scheckter. She respects and trusts the material, and can give any number a light and breezy jazz spin; she seems at ease and connected, with a naturally conversational approach to lyrics, employing excellent but unforced diction. Happily, she often includes the introductory verses that set things up so nicely.

Jane Scheckter's albums always find her nestled in the company of first-class musicians and this, her fifth release, is no exception. Frequent colleagues from past endeavors are here: the top pianist/arranger Tedd Firth, drummer Peter Grant, and bassist Jay Leonhart, who's been on all the prior projects. Warren Vaché guests on cornet on four of the 17 tracks and switches to flugelhorn for a breezy "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key."

The love-centric selections of I'll Take Romance are basically ordered so that they can be seen as a progression from the state of being inexperienced but intrigued (a playful "Love, I Hear" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and others) to seeking, finding, and losing love, then recovery from that and starting over (a radiant "Here I Am in Love Again"), and mature perspectives, with an eye toward the future (concluding with a fine "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?").

The arrangements give the vocalist and band space to "breathe": to relax into a melody, stretch out, pause, interact, swing lightly, and find little decorative comments. Pianist and vocalist become the equivalent of scene partners, reacting to each other, sharing the focus. While never somnambulant, some leisurely paced tempi allow the team to bring out a myriad of details. Subtle Scheckter shadings enrich the development. The approach to "My Foolish Heart" brings out the lyric's caution and mixed feelings about the attraction. She can make the most of one or two words, sometimes making a non-obvious choice for emphasis, in "If Love Were All," where she highlights the last two words in the credo "I believe in doing what I can, in crying when I must, in laughing when I choose" to indicate asserting control. The delicate "Then Was Then" by Cy Coleman and Peggy Lee is terrifically touching, as is "Looking Back," which takes Mickey Leonard's instrumental "Song for Bill Evans" and has words added by Roger Schore and input from the singer ("The world revolves/ And time dissolves/ And seasons change, as we know/ But love goes on").

Nicolas King guests for a creamy, dreamy vocal duet on "Isn't It a Pity?" and their voices complement each other and blend as exquisitely as the melody of George Gershwin graces the lyric of his brother Ira.

Jane Scheckter will make an all-too-rare Manhattan appearance downtown at Pangea on the last night of July. Now that's what I call a midsummer night's dream!

King Kozmo Music
CD | Digital

With her second release, singer-actress Ann Kittredge's notion to let her song interpretations collected in Romantic Notions lean toward digging deep into emotions pays off with captivatingly convincing renditions. The opener, Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You," may ring true in a relaxed, fond way as romantic prelude, but isn't representative of the richer pleasures to follow. The title number (from the musical Romance, Romance) is just one of the fully realized selections that showcase both her attractive voice and caring way with phrasing lyrics. There's a lot of tenderness here.

The performer sounds like she's on the verge of tears in the first part of "Didn't We" as she sighs into the resignation and realization that a relationship facing challenges "almost" worked out. Turning to the tale of a very long-term couple, heartbreak increases on the country ballad "Where've You Been." It's a mature story song, as is the first recording of the Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens collaboration, "Garden," a stand-alone piece, not something from one of their musicals. It's about a widow whose well-meaning friends think she should be distracted by going on cruises and going on dates, and suits her well. (One of Ann Kittredge's past cabaret shows consisted of the songs of this pair and she was in the New York companies of Dessa Rose, with their score, and the Ahrens/Alan Menken A Christmas Carol.)

Familiar fare becomes more pensive and warm, rather than warmed-over covers aping the famous versions. Slowed down, Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move" is a revelation, resisting the rock and rollicking groove and beat, luxuriating in the glow of sensuousness instead. Bookended with bits of "Brahms' Lullaby" on piano, "Together Wherever We Go" from Gypsy is triumphantly transformed into a gentle vow addressed to a beloved child. This affectingly sweet croon is an irresistible highlight that could melt the heart of a curmudgeon.

In addition to piano/bass/percussion, instrumentation on various songs includes cello, flute, sax, guitar and fiddle. For most of the 12 tracks, much appreciation and credit for the creative and sensitive treatments must go to pianist/arranger Christopher Denny, with cabaret colleague Barry Kleinbort, the veteran director, collaborating on six of those charts. (The singer is credited with them for the engaging take on Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man.")

The heartfelt Romantic Notions is a recommended set filled with smart choices, smartly executed.