Sound Advice Reviews
A voyage to Knoxville & a trip to Tin Pan Alley
A car accident on a Tennessee road sets the sad plot in motion for a musical version of "A Death in the Family"; another of the state's thoroughfares ("Beale Street") and New York City's Broadway and musical memory lanes are among the streets cuing songs for Chip Deffaa's travelogue. So we have something darkly dramatic and then something lighthearted.
Despair co-stars with hope, fatalism challenges faith, and confrontation begets catharsis in the earnest but often elegant songs of Knoxville. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, longtime collaborators, deliver songs with gravitas and grace, the strong emotions skillfully shouldered by a strong-voiced cast, some of whom also play instruments to add to the sounds of the orchestra. Director Frank Galati is also the bookwriter for this new musical based on James Agee's autobiographical novel "A Death in the Family" and "in part" by the non-musical stage adaptation by Tad Mosel. The structure of this incarnation boasts the new device of making Agee himself a presence (played by the reliably splendid Jason Danieley), observing/recalling/interacting with the barely fictionalized versions of himself as a child and adult.
Heard here is the company that debuted the work for this spring's mounting by Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida, although the billing is not "Original Cast" but rather "World Premiere Recording," a term used sometimes for studio cast or "concept" album projects of as-yet-unstaged works. Caleb Hoyer is music director/keyboardist, orchestrations are by Bruce Coughlin, and the vocal arrangements are by the composer. The musical landscape includes country, gospel and blues accents while existing in the world of musical theatre, exploring feelings in dreamy and declamatory modes.
As you might expect from a story covering a short span of time in which the title-announced tragedy comes early on, the mood is often somber. Characters are weighed down as they try to cope and process their reactions, with religious viewpoints being tested or challenged. While heaviness is dominant, there's variety via the contrasting perspectives of the very different characters. Two attractive anchoring pieces, "Outside Your Window" and "Walking in Darkness," with music and ideas reprised, are altered to suit the particular plot incidents and mindsets of characters portrayed with conviction and passion by Jason Danieley, Paul Alexander Nolan, and WIlliam Parry, among others.
Hanna Elless as the widowed and prayerful Mary is commanding and empathetic in her numbers "Ordinary Goodbye" and "In His Strength." Ellen Harvey is riveting in her dignified delivery of the philosophical anthem of steely acceptance, "Whatever It Is." Sarah Ailey leads the women in a forceful number called "Black Dress." Knoxville's brighter title song for the harmonious ensemble bookends the show, suggesting the analogous harmony that is the spirit of community. And the theatre community populating and performing this score make Knoxville a rewarding place to visit.
If there were a recording industry award category for Achievement in Irresistibly Infectious Enthusiasm in Entertainment, cheery Chip Deffaa would be a natural nominee. His singing and spoken asides disarmingly display an "old soul"'s ease with–and palpable affection for–old-school sensibilities in "selling" vintage material. As prolific record producer and director of stage pieces celebrating America's popular music of the 20th century's early decades, he has been a behind-the-scenes shepherd and, on some discs, a guest solo vocalist or duet partner. Now he flips the focus, taking the center spotlight and bringing on guests to chime in on several selections. Chip Deffaa's Tin Pan Alley: Songs I Sing to My Deer... is endearing, energized and inviting, with quite a bit of slam-bang for your buck with a grand total of 28 time-traveling tracks.
As usual for Deffaa collections, musical director Richard Danley, kindred spirit in invoking the spunk and spirit of vaudeville, provides piano piloting. Ten tracks gratifyingly add violinist Andy Stein for more color and zip. There's unrestrained glee bursting forth agreeably in two songs whose titles have words in common, and both were recorded by Eddie Cantor. "Yes! Yes! My Baby Said Yes, Yes!" adorably explodes with extra excitement and "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" is grin-inducing, too. The latter is a lively duet with a nice historical footnote as the number is shared with Brian Gari, who is the son of Cantor's youngest daughter. (And it's a neat full-circle moment since it's part of music lore that its songwriters, Walter Donalson and Gus Kahn, got their inspiration from the walking rhythm and two musical notes of a mechanical toy pig being played with by Cantor's oldest daughter.) Another treat is the keep-your-chin-up upbeat inveigling to "Keep Smiling at Trouble (Trouble's a Bubble)," with an able assist from Keith Anderson.
The merry man of the hour interrupts his affectionate rendition of "Mary's a Grand Old Name" to pass the baton (or, rather, the mic) to honey-timbred Molly Ryan to take over, inserting spoken remarks opining self-effacingly that the pretty song deserves a prettier voice. (While the undeniably dashing Deffaa's voice doesn't have the richness or range of some of his partners, his panache plus period-flavored authenticity–always refreshingly non-condescending–and sincerity are major compensations, especially with the lesser-known picks.)
This nostalgic atmosphere gets more sentimental with ditties that romanticize the simple life ("In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town," "Beale Street Blues," "I Want to Be in Dixie"). A few cannily curated latter-day compositions earn their presence among antiques by virtue of their lyrics' specific references to touchstones of the days of yore, like "Everything Old Is New Again" and "Homesick Blues" (from the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes written in 1949 but set in the year 1924).
The CD comes with a thick, photo-illustrated booklet full of information about the songs and the performers' connections to them, with explanatory notes about his early influences and family members (a few participate). Some remembrances and bits of history are included in chatty spoken comments before or during the singing, so listening to the recording feels like a folksy live soiree. There are anecdotes about inspiring figures Deffaa devotees will recognize as the usual suspects (Carol Channing, as well as well-represented songwriters in included material: Irving Berlin, Jimmy Durante, and George M. Cohan).
If you have a soft spot for the pep, poignancy and outright charm of the simpler fare of the past, Chip Deffaa's Tin Pan Alley will be right up your alley.