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Strong Songwriters & Singers with Soaring Stories
SOUND ADVICEThe song titles may be short (only one is more than three words long, and five numbers have one-word titles), but don’t expect any shortness of ideas, emotion, thoughts, details or power in the 13 songs on this dynamic new album. In his lyrics and music, with a contemporary musical theatre flair, Michael Patrick Walker gives his characters lots to say and feel as emotion churns, anger burns, crossroads are crossed, philosophies are trumpeted, and catharses and epiphanies are rampant. He doesn’t sing on the collection, but on acoustic and electric piano, and as arranger/orchestrator, he gives his own music quite the pulse and propulsion. Never rambling, the music can be taut with tension ... or tender—as in the case of the musical sorbet of Kelli O’Hara on a calm “Moonflower.” Things often build (and build) to explosive release(s) or—occasionally, after some storm—more quiet resolve.
by Rob Lester
Friday, February 3, 2012
There’s excitement here in the writing as well as in the work by the musicians and a group of talented musical theatre veterans up for the challenge. Most work very well, a couple are a bit exhausting or overplay their hand, but by and large this is splendid work from a still very young writer and a wealth of singing talent. Eight other musicians participate, with strings bringing depth, and the head of the Yellow Sound Label, Michael Croiter (who co-produces with Walker), giving plenty of kick and drive as percussionist.
Although the songs written for characters in musicals may be presented, as the title says, Out of Context, the commitment of the acting and the specificity of the lyrics makes them remarkably self-contained and satisfying. This is true whether it’s a seething bullied kid rejecting pacifist dad’s advice (sung with fervor and a dash of humor by Noah Galvin from The Burnt Part Boys) or telling a story (Jim Stanek folksy and charming with a saga of a guy who tied many a job and many a town before finding his bliss in Pittsburgh in “Finding Me”). Craftsman Walker (and his chosen singer-actors) are, in fact, so skilled at almost immediately giving us the guts and crystallizing a mindset that some tracks can feel like they crest early and then go on for more. Perhaps Walker doesn’t realize how well and quickly he’s let us know these characters and thinks we need one more ride or set of evidence. His characters tend to be articulate and/or exploding with rapid-fire thoughts they need to express. Fortunately, the lyrics later in songs don’t just repeat and re-state. And, perhaps in context, some need all the material.
No information is given in the packaging about the musicals the songs come from—nothing beyond the credits. However, the talented and versatile Mr. Walker, who’s also been accompanist for Chita Rivera, may have come to the attention of many as writer for part of the score of the hit Altar Boyz. From that musical, we have the sweet (and less complex) “I Believe,” sung in attractively honeyed pop tones by Cheyenne Jackson, who was in the show in its early incarnation before its Off-Broadway run. And Andy Karl, also of that likeable musical, is on board, with “Never Added Up,” an unleashing of anger and pain as a man, now single after years of coupledom where efforts to make it work ...didn’t.
Also on the topic of divorce, but exulting in its sense of liberation and new opportunities (“no more chauffeur, no more go-fer”) is “All About Me” (orchestrated by Lynne Shankel), from a web series called “The Battery’s Down” and Anne L. Nathan takes it to town, bursting with confidence and carpe diem determination as she lists all the things she can and will now be able to do. In the midst of the long list, the character includes climbing the Matterhorn, then stops for a self-knowing reality check to add, “Well, probably not.” It’s a small but key moment that makes it special. This hint of being able to show a woman really looking at and knowing herself, but with more layers and drama, laced with self-chastisement (a sarcastic note to self: “good job!” when she fails) comes with Lisa Howard superb as “Irene.” (This selection and Rachel York’s raucous “Pour Poor Me” come from the musical The Distant Bells.)
Walker’s craftsmanship in lyrics is nicely shown wherein a guy tries to make a case for himself as the man who can give “More,” as compared to the one his love is about to walk down the aisle with (“I guess I should have told you before you put on your dress and before I seated your parents in the front row.”) The metaphors here are crisp and feel right, especially as Andy Mientus whirls them pleadingly in a socko performance: “I’m an ocean, he’s a lake ... He’s a burger, I’m a steak ... I’m champagne, he’s Diet Sprite ... He’s a desert, I’m the Nile.” It’s in the mold of the many comparisons of the good and the less so in Cole Porter’s list songs “You’re the Top” and “the good turtle soup or merely the mock,” etc. in “At Long Last Love,” but with more bite and urgency rather than cheery playfulness.
There's neat rhyming (“Geek can mean unique”) to characterize Being Theo’s “Weird Little Man” and being attracted to him with incremental eye-opening awareness—but lingering doubt—by Kate Wetherhead, delivered with panache. Perhaps the most vulnerable heartbreak moment comes in another consideration, focused on how a son feels when he knows he’s a “Different Kind of Man” than his father wanted him to be. Two gorgeous-voiced performers who sing with heart and aching beauty—Telly Leung (now in Godspell) and Michael Arden, an expert at projecting a natural-vulnerability and yearning—share duties here, capturing the laments laced with hurt and an underlying sense of self-worth. It’s a trunk song, written for a project called Kinky Boots taken over by another writer, but well worth the keeping. This often dazzling album is a keeper, too.