Saturday, May 31, 2008


WONDER IN THE WORLD - Kelli O'Hara, Ghostlight Records

Kelli O'Hara, the acclaimed star of the hit revival of SOUTH PACIFIC, has a conveniently-timed new album out, her first, and it's a treasure. Arranged and orchestrated by Harry Connick, Jr. (her co-star in PAJAMA GAME), it is a surprisingly non-theatrical release: relaxed, intimate, thought-provoking and, at times, quite vulnerable. O'Hara is not a belter in the grand show biz tradition. Her honey-toned soprano is sweet but complexly shaded, making the listener feel like they're in a small room, sharing very personal thoughts. The material has only a few Broadway numbers: "Fable" from LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, in a carefully re-thought swingy arrangement, and a bell-like "I Have Dreamed" from THE KING & I. James Taylor and Bill Joel are represented here, along with standards like "Make Someone Happy" and "All the Way." Other numbers are surprisingly personal and charming, including the title tune, a duet with Mr. Connick. A funky rendition of "Spooky" shows a comedic side, and even the Perry Como classic, "And I Love You So," gets a successful makeover. Throughout the album, there is truthfulness and personal commitment, and the execution is exquisite. If there is a successor to the Barbara Cook throne, it will be Ms. O'Hara, both for the quality of her instrument and her ability to live simply in a song and breathe it into life.

JULIANNE HOUGH - Julianne Hough, Universal Music

The 19-year old, two-time professional winner of DANCING WITH THE STARS is a country singer--who knew? Singing with assurance and confidence, she is a fiery youngster clearly having great fun--and talented enough to pull it off. Her dance work, of course, is supremely confident on TV, and her work here shows equal ebullience and imagination. Performing in the tradition of Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, Hough displays a lively, twangy lilt. Her energy and vitality sell the songs, which show both a quirky sense of humor and a sweetly-intended sense of empathy. If she is not quite as seasoned as one might wish, one does have to remember that she IS only 19--the colors and shadings may well come later on with life experience. In the meantime, songs like "My Hallelujah Song," "That Song in My Head," and "Hello" are entertaining and ingratiating. This is a promising debut album for a gifted young singer (with room to grow). But then again, those Hough kids are pretty amazing entertainers already--a talented family!


Tom McCarthy's THE STATION AGENT, was a charming, off-beat story of folks on the fringe. His latest, THE VISITOR, goes even further to explore those kept out of the mainstream, either by their personal demons or literally by the INS. Richard Jenkins, that sterling character actor best known perhaps as the ghost-dad on SIX FEET UNDER, plays a withdrawn Connecticut college professor merely visiting life until one day, through a series of unplanned circumstances, he arrives at his rarely used New York City apartment to find illegal aliens squatting there. The journey that begins--his opening up to life and to the plight of those forced to wander without a safe haven--is funny, stirring, and powerful. Haaz Sleiman is absolutely irresistible as the young Syrian percussionist Tarek, and Danai Gurira is terrific as his terrified mate. But when an unfortunate twist of fate befalls Tarek, the arrival of his mother brings the film to a whole other level, partly due to the amazing performance of the beautiful Hiam Abbass. This is an intimate journey into a world of the immigrant, filled with intense joy and sorrow that can only perhaps be understood by those trapped between two worlds. A must-see.

CURTAINS - Al Hirschfeld Theatre

If you've been waiting to see this swan-song musical of the estimable team of Kander and Ebb, don't wait any longer--it's closing June 29th after a run of more than a year. The good news is that David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba and most of the original cast have stayed the whole time, their teamwork is infectious, and the show is a total charmer. In an age when so-called period pieces are either arch or heavily satirized, here's a show that celebrates show biz and all it's various odd legends and styles, yet does so by inviting you in versus placing you (and the artists) above the fray. Finely-crafted, the book by the late Peter Stone and revised by Rupert Holmes is witty and clever but never heavy-handed, and David Hyde Pierce as the detective determined to find out who killed the leading lady in the Boston tryout of a Broadway-bound Western Musical (!) is the consummate ringmaster--warm, ingratiating and very very funny. It may be a crime to use the word, "amiable," but this is like spending a evening with very old, very good friends, and having an evening you'll have warm feelings about for years to come. Don't miss it!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A busy month since last I updated. Apologies. A resulting potpourri of opinions . . .


This Kind of Love – Carly Simon (Hear Music)

Those who feared that Carly Simon’s creativity was in an overly long fallow period can rejoice. Her newest album, “This Kind of Love,” is adventurous, sexy, sensuous and fun, with the kind of playfulness we used to depend on from the sultry Ms. Simon.

(According to some interviews released in conjunction with the album, it was Columbia, her previous label, who kept steering her to more conservative choices.) Here, we have rhythmic surprises, lyrical confessions, emotionally honest confessions and a touch of the sexy playfulness we always expected from the lady of “No Secrets”. With some songs (and accompaniment) from her kids Ben and Sally (both fully grown) and production work from the inestimable Jimmy Webb, Simon sings with mature confidence through a range of material, including the lovely “Hold Out Your Heart,” the intense “People Say a Lot When They Want the Job” (reminiscent of a Queen Latifah rap), and the title song. Carly is back as an artist, not just as an icon doing covers, and the result is as welcome as ever.

A Long and Winding Road – Maureen McGovern (PS Classics)

One of the classiest and most sophisticated voices in the business, Maureen McGovern became a cabaret staple receiving praise for her brilliant work with the songbooks of Gershwin, Bergman, Arlen, and other staple American composers. It was a reputation hard-won, required in some circles to overcome the misperception as the “Disaster Queen,” having introduced such pop movie themes as “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure and “We May Never Love Like This Again” from The Towering Inferno. More than two decades on the club and recording circuit plus many Broadway musical credits (including Nine and Little Women) changed her from pop diva to, well, a rather classy dame. Throughout it all, the sheer purity and bell-like clarity of her instrument made folks sit up and take note. But now in an unexpected move, she has gone back to what were (unbeknownst at least to me) her roots of folk and protest. A Long and Winding Road allows her to let her hair down and to make (for her) some “unpretty” sounds in order to tap some raw emotions and thoughts. (Okay, a slight rasp occasionally on the incredibly wonderful vocal instrument is hardly “unpretty,” but you get the idea.) Songs by James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, The Beatles and numerous others provide an unexpected canvas that McGovern approaches with the same freshness and clarity that she’s approached the Gershwins. The effect is arresting, and the album’s appeal grows and grows with repeated listening. Among the many jewels: a terrific cover of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die,” a moving version of Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” and a Bobby McFerrin-tinged “Feelin’ Groovy.” Jimmy Webb raises his head again here, with the lovely lady recording a track she was destined to cover: “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” one of the lushest and loveliest ballads of the last 30 years. Those who have never jumped on the McGovern bandwagon should start here---it may be in this material that we meet the “real” Maureen McGovern.


Okay, I don’t get out enough, I know—but here are two on cable that may have escaped you in their short theatrical runs that should be caught now!


Kal Penn is more than just the Harold and Kumar movies and his new role on TV’s House. Working with the great director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), he gives a wonderfully believable performance as a young man crossing two cultures and two worlds in The Namesake, based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri. The movie tracks a Bengali family now living in New York City in the final quarter of the 20th Century and its challenges in staying true to one culture while assimilating into another. The film is both entertaining and power, masterfully shot, and imparts a valuable lesson: when navigating terrains of past and future, old world and new, the best tact to navigating the path is being true not to any one culture slavishly but to one’s true self. The close-up shots of the Taj Mahal alone make this film worth viewing, but there’s much more to it than that. Also, watch for a stunning performance by the incredibly beautiful Indian actress/singer, Tabu, as the family matriarch.


Adrienne Shelly’s untimely murder will forever haunt this lovely little film, her legacy that shows what might have been. Shelly wrote, directed and co-stars in this lovely tail of a trapped young woman who finds herself pregnant by her awful husband. Keri Russell plays the waitress, whose bullying husband (Jeremy Sisto) is thrilled by a pregnancy that the young woman herself doesn’t want. Her journey takes her through an odd friendship (with Andy Griffith, who’s wonderful), an affair with her obstetrician (played with humorous uncertainty by Nathan Fillion), and a quirky obsession with the baking of designer pies (“I Hate My Husband” pie, “Unwanted Baby” pie, “Dirty Cherry” pie, etc.). Along the way, her co-workers (played winningly by the late Shelly and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines) dispense dubious wisdom and friendship. It’s a small film, but a charming one, and one can only imagine what would have come next, were Shelly’s life not tragically cut short. Still, we can’t stop time, so curl up some rainy evening and treasure this little gem.


In the next few weeks, one way or the other, we will have a Democratic candidate to challenge John McCain. Can supporters of Clinton or Obama come together? Of course—both candidates have viable policies and either can lead this country to much-needed change. But the real apology owed the American people is from Howard Dean and the bosses of the Democratic Party. I like the candidates, but have never been so ashamed to be a Democrat. One of the most exciting and positive possibilities for change in years has been turned into an embarrassment by politico greed. The manipulation of this campaign by party honchos has been as bald and embarrassing as the manipulation of our country by the current administration. After years of being “the Party of the People,” Dean and his cronies have made it painfully clear that they have no more respect or care for the American people than their Republican counterparts. Fear, lies, and gross distortion have been the order of the day. Back room deals and intimidation tactics have been rampant. In short, a self-centered politician is a self-centered politician, regardless of affiliation. Yes, the candidate will get my vote—but it will be a long, LONG time before the party can approach me (or most of the Democrats I know) for financial support or endorsement. I call on all fellow disgruntled, trodden-upon Democrats to join in rebellion against a party that clearly has taken on a life of its own and feels it neither needs nor respects us. Good luck to Hillary and Barack—but SHAME ON YOU, DEMOCRATIC PARTY.