SOUND OFF: Jubilant John, Effortless & Excellent Elaine
This week we are taking a listen to two wonderful releases from Broadway and West End luminaries John Barrowman and Elaine Paige. Though both have appeared on Broadway, Barrowman in PUTTING IT TOGETHER and Paige in SUNSET BLVD as well as an acclaimed appearance in SWEENEY TODD at City Opera, they are best known for their fantastic work on the West End stage, Barrowman having created roles in MATADOR and THE FIX and Paige having a legendary career creating such impressive roles as Evita, Piaf, Grizabella in CATS, Florence in CHESS, as well as THE DROWSEY CHAPERONE and other appearances in addition to a multi-decade recording and concert career. This could not be a more prescient time to discuss either of these two powerful performers: Paige, with her excellent weekly radio show on BBC Radio, and Barrowman with an upcoming multi-episode arc on ABC's DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES beginning this Sunday...
Bravura Belting Bitch
Elaine Paige - CELEBRATING 40 YEARS ON STAGE
If Forrest Gump described life like a box of chocolates, I'd say that musical theatre is much like a deck of cards: sometimes saddled with a dud deuce to play, other times getting a questionable Joker and sometimes, once in a great while, luck is a lady and we get a Queen of Hearts. That queen, and the very definition of enchantment personified, is Elaine Paige and whether a red queen or a black she is always white-hot, especially here in this concert celebrating her forty legendary years on stage. If only all divas took a page out of Paige's book, the musical theatre stage would be a much brighter, more brilliant and far more beautiful place. For all the young performers looking to make it big on Broadway or the West End, they need look no further than, in addition to Liza Minnelli's absolutely exquisite recent LIZA'S AT THE PALACE DVD, this exciting entry: both proving beyond a doubt that no matter what your age, if you've got it you've got it, and, heaven knows, Elaine Paige has got "it". In spades. And diamonds. And hearts. She is a Queen of Hearts and as well as an occasional Joker and singing songs by the unquestionable modern Kings of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim (amongst many others). Budding performers need look no further than this entry to see that true talent knows no bounds, and certainly knows no age, particularly when it comes to this diamond-encrusted (figuratively and literally) diva. Over the course of nearly two hours, Paige commands the stage and holds our hearts and our senses in her hands and balancing on the tip of her tongue, and proves that she did not find much of the best material of our age, it found her: because of her talent and sheer emotionality above all else. And she lights the stage afire from her blistering, occasionally bombastic opening, onward and takes no prisoners. So pull up a chair, grab a cocktail and give yourself over to the ultimate card dealer with a stacked deck, knowing full well all the while that a Royal Flush is merely a roll of the dice, and a play of the disc, away.
The concert begins with an attractive, glossy visual overview of Paige's legendary career as the accomplished orchestra plays a short overture of the gems to soon be further polished and procured in their presentational display by Paige. She intermittently illuminates and expounds on her career starting at the very beginning, often interjecting amusing and jovial memories of her time spent in each of the dozen shows she highlights over the course of the concert. As if propelled by a divine force, - or a diva force - shot out of a canon, Paige leaps forth onstage, full of the fire, vigor and ferocity unlike that of many performers even half her age. She begins with a rocking and rollicking "Life Goes On", immediately establishing her inimitable brassiness and ingratiating forcefulness in giving a number everything she has got to give it and relating each word to every one of us. Next, she takes the tone down a few notches with a thoughtful, considerate performance of her first highly lauded role and its most famous song, "Easy To Be Hard" from HAIR, leading into a jazzy, jubilant "Broadway Baby" from FOLLIES. Taking a page from Elaine Stritch's playbook, she intersperses some spoken anecdotal perspective in between verses, even throwing in an intentionally furious "Summertime" from PORGY & BESS to highlight her frustration with a sordid situation. Her premature ejaculation joke had me laughing long after the number reached its big, bawdy, Broadway-at-its-best conclusion. By this point in the proceedings it is clear Paige has the audience in the palm of her hands and is dealing out the deck indomitably - and doling out the charm, as well as the pathos. "I Don't Know How To Love Him" from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, a song she has sung countless times and recorded nearly as many, is put across better than even she has managed to do up until now, which is a compliment in itself. The tailor-made Stiles & Drewe tune "Small Packages" quite rightly proves its namesake - both in Paige‘s diminutive physicality (in her words, "four foot eleven-ish") and her powerful performance of the funny song - that is: that good things come in them. As a lyric goes, "bet your ass this bitch can belt!" Indeed, she does. "Hello, Young Lovers" from THE KING & I recreates her fuzzy, warm, sentimental portrayal of Anna in that show to great effect. "Shoot The Breeze", written by the unlikely duo of Dustin Hoffmann and Bette Midler (the latter telling Paige she would be "honored, thrilled" were she to record it) is a fun frolic through the jazzy terrain Paige does far too little of these days. The classic Beatles anthem "Yesterday", her original audition piece for EVITA, is invigorated and investing, made even better by her winning riffs and vocalizing, and the follow-up, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" from EVITA, her first major role, is as sublimely spine-tingling and superb as we have come to expect from Paige over the course of her career, as well as over the course of the first act of this sensational concert. A show about the ultimate comeback, Paige returns to the stage over the sonorous strains of the Lloyd Webber score for SUNSET BLVD and dazzles us with that score's best moment: "As If We've Never Said Goodbye" has never been sung better onstage, (except, perhaps, by Streisand) and Paige polishes this murky gem into a shiny, sparkling diamond, making this a high card of highs up until this point in the proceedings.
Looking sexy and sultry in a sleek black gown, managing effortless elegance even with the addition of a checkerboard (what else?) apron, Paige begins the second half of the concert with a recreation of her exquisite portrayal of the murderous pie-maker of Fleet Street from SWEENEY TODD with a short verbal introduction over the tense, terse strings from the title song ballad into the superbly sung "By The Sea". Switching from Mrs. Lovett to Reno Sweeney, Paige then performs a sparkling, ribald "I Get A Kick Out of You" from ANYTHING GOES by Cole Porter. These two numbers alone make this concert worthwhile if only for the preservation of two of Paige's most memorable and cherished performances for posterity. The classic LES MISERABLES anthem "I Dreamed A Dream", recently made ever-so-popular by the ultimate Paige fan, Susan Boyle, proves that this song really needs a performer of Paige's caliber to pull it off perfectly, as she does here, as lesser performers come off impossibly overwrought when attempting to do it. "Someone Else's Story", the only completely new song written for the misguided, non-Paige Broadway version of CHESS by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice is performed for the first time by the woman who the role was written for with expected excellence. As a CHESS fan from the time my age was in the single-digits, I must admit this was the song I was most looking forward to seeing in this concert, if only because it provides the perfect end-cap, for Paige fans and CHESS fans alike, to the twisting trail the show has traversed over time. The orchestra is particularly excellent in the "Golden Bangkok" instrumental, made most famous by the huge hit single "One Night In Bangkok" from CHESS nearly thirty years ago, leading into the title song, perfectly setting the scene for Paige's performance of the songs from this score, a pinnacle of her astonishing career. "I Know Him So Well", one of Paige's biggest chart hits, also from the CHESS score, is performed exceedingly well - it is certainly better than her recent deigning of doing a duet of it with Boyle - and she is so alluring, arresting and awesome I nearly forgot the song is usually done as a duet. A performer like Paige is capable of filling in the gaps. The noticeable relish with which she performs the CHESS material reveals her affection for it and makes a good case that no one will ever perform the score with more intimate understanding and characterization than Paige. It is the perfect match of music, material and magical performer.
The final section of the concert is almost too generous and seemingly too arduous given what has come before it - or should be, would be too much for anyone lacking the poise, dedication and power of this performer. Paige is virtually indefatigable all the while, singing Piaf, Grizabella and Norma Desmond as if she were born to do it. And she was. After all, isn't that part of the point of this concert, to create a retrospective of an unequalled talent and pull out all the stops to highlight the highs? Whatever the reason, if Paige hasn't won you over by this point in the concert, she sure will with these knock-out numbers. The PIAF songs, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" and "If You Love Me", are performed with assurance and aplomb, as good if not better than her recordings of the material from nearly twenty years ago. Evoking the jazzy, bluesy side of her voice and personality only hinted at earlier, she knocks "Cry Me A River" out of the park. Yet, she still has a few plays of the cards left in her. "Memory" is her song, and she was the first to sing it, and if she hasn't proven it a million times before this moment: she owns it. "With One Look" is the perfect capper to a perfect performance and it is at this point that we want to keep playing our hand, unquestionably a Royal Flush, and never cash in our chips. She gives us one more song - a bonus round, if you will - with the emotional, quite heartbreaking "Grow Young". With that, along with a smile and curtsy, the evening reaches its close, but thanks to the magic of DVD we can play 52 Card Pick-up and start at the very beginning and enjoy the excellent entertainment experience over and over again at will. I know I will.
The DVD also contains a kind, informative, and quite revealing interview with Paige and, combined with the concert's running time of an hour and forty-five minutes, displays that the disc has over two hours of enticing entertainment to offer. That is, without question, a deal no one should pass up. It is rare to find a performer as all-around astounding as Paige and rarer still to see a performance capture done as well as this one is, from camera work to sound to staging. The dynamic dynamo of Paige the master musical theatre card dealer is revealed in four distinct ways in this amazing 40 Years On Stage concert: the power of her instrument hits us in the gut, much like a club; the song shines like a glittering diamond under her expert guidance and procurement; she stabs us deep in the soul with a sharp, pointed spade as we are caught in the throes of her performance; and the sheer sentimentality and powerful pathos invested in each and every moment she shares with us and sings to us touches our collective hearts to the core. This is a hand you will want to keep long after the chips have been cashed in. A diva of divas, a Queen of Queens, the best of the best. Deal.
John Barrowman - WHEN I GET MY NAME IN LIGHTS
John Barrowman is a huge star in England, but time and time again he proves that his heart lies somewhere around Broadway, as the title song lyrics taken from LEGS DIAMOND state, though he has only appeared there sporadically over the years, most memorably in the Sondheim review PUTTING IT TOGETHER with Carol Burnett, Bronson Pinchot, George Hearn and Ruthie Henshall. In my opinion, his best work tends to be the least well-known - West End's MATADOR, THE FIX, SUNSET BLVD - but he has found legions of fans in his recent tenure on the hit British sci-fi nighttime dramedy DR. WHO and its spin-off TORCHWOOD, though he has far fewer fans and visibility on these shores despite lead roles in long-forgotten US night-time soaps in the 90s like CENTRAL PARK WEST and TITANS. Perhaps his six-episode run on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES will change that and he will reprise his Zsa Zsa in the Broadway transfer of the West End revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES that he performed in this summer to much acclaim. While his past solo albums have been hit-or-miss, though with always a few fantastic moments provided courtesy of his lustrous lungs-of-steel, WHEN I GET MY NAME IN LIGHTS is his first entirely satisfying entry to date, though it is less audacious in its aspirations than previous efforts. Sumptuously and sleekly produced, this album sparkles from start to finish and Barrowman has rarely, if ever sounded better. He also has never sounded like he has had this much fun before and to share that with him is reason enough to seek this release out, though the song choices are occasionally bland.
The album begins with an infectious curiosity, the aforementioned opening number "When I Get My Name In Lights" from Peter Allen's musical fiasco LEGS DIAMOND which eventually found its way into the autobiographical hit musical THE BOY FROM OZ based on Allen's life-story. Next, abluesy, electric guitar complimented "One Night Only" from DREAMGIRLS is a slow-burner that builds to an emotional, effective, disco-fied climax. Believe it or not, it is quite understated where it very well could have been cheeky and cringe-inducing, so if only for that Barrowman could be applauded. The Jerry Herman chestnut "I Won't Send Roses" from the troublEd Mack & MABEL makes a very strong case for Barrowman taking on the role of Mack Sennett sometime soon in a high-profile revival of this, Herman's very best score. I'd love to hear him tackle "Time Heals Everything" and "Tap Your Troubles Away", as well, particularly since Mack does not sing those fantastic songs in the show. "Memory" from CATS is given an unusual, cinematic production that builds to a shattering, if ultimately expected, climax. The orchestrations and instrumentation on this album are hair-raising at times (usually good, once bad: in the last track), and manage to add to the songs' powers as opposed to distracting from them as so many re-interpretations tend to do, particularly on solo performers' albums of this ilk. "The Kid Inside" from IS THERE LIFE AFTER HIGHSCHOOL? is one of the most oft-performed cabaret songs of the last few decades and while I've never been a big fan of the song, Barrowman does well by it, but not without a tinge of treacle - or, depending on your temperament, a Heavy Dose. Having such a soothing, smooth and attractive instrument (and visage) works against Barrowman at times, particularly here and on the next track, JERSEY BOYS' "My Eyes Adored You". He lacks edge and bite, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but he appears to believe he is capable of a bit more than he actually is, at least at investing a performance with any grit or anything truly gut-wrenchingly dramatic, at least on this disc. The first half of the album ends with another Allen tune, one of his best and most well-known easy listening ballads, "Don't Cry Out Loud", but it will not erase memories of Melissa Manchester or Diana DeGarmo, sad to say, though it is a good effort, as is the album overall.
The enjoyable enterprise continues with a relatively new Oscar-nominated duet by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz from Disney's ENCHANTED, "So Close", ably abetted by the very good and very nuanced performance of Jodie Prenger. "Unusual Way" from NINE is given a sensitive, understated rendering and it is always a pleasure to hear a golden-voiced tenor like Barrowman or Brian d'Arcy James take on this exemplary example of perfect musical theatre songwriting by Maury Yeston. Barrowman's riffs and melisima are a welcome addition to this sonorous selection, as well.
"You'll Never Walk Alone" is performed well but I cannot help but feel it fails to add much to the overall tone, style, substance or impact of the album. This song, along with the two JERSEY BOYS entries, seem slightly out-of-place on this album, but perhaps I am being too critical and this is meant to be mildly enjoyable and entertaining and nothing more. If that's the goal, it succeeds. In any event, much better is his take on "The Winner Takes It All" from MAMMA MIA, undoubtedly that show's strongest song and best asset, though, to be entirely honest, he is no match for Tommy Korberg, the first male musical theatre performer (and the original Anatoly/The Russian in CHESS, also by the ABBA team) to record the song to the best of my knowledge. "Oh What A Night" ends the album on an upbeat, frivolous, cheesy note and, whether intentional or not, casts the whole affair with that hue as a result. Without question, the first half of the album is much stronger than the second half, with "Unusual Way" the only true highlight after "So Close". Buy the album if only for "I Won't Send Roses" and "Unusual Way" as they are quite wonderful.
Innocuous and easy to enjoy, Barrowman's album is recommendable but not earth-shattering - though, after all, that does not seem to be the primary intention. Believe it or not, this album may actually create some new fans for it actually does, indeed, show some sides of Barrowman we have not heard or seen before and he has grown considerably since his first album, Jay's THE MUSIC OF Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I can't help but wish for more. Much more. Barrowman is capable of being among the very best if his unforgettable performances in MATADOR and THE FIX were any indication, and while this album is good, I wish I could say it was great. Also, in the future, I hope he takes more risks with the material he chooses, as he is one of the only marquee-name performers who can sing modern musical theatre material as effectively as the originals in many of the unique new scores today. Were I to make some suggestions for tracks I‘d like to see Barrowman tackle on his next album, the list would include: "I'm Alive" from NEXT TO NORMAL, "Gold Turns To Sand" from KRISTINA (by the Abba guys), "Til I Hear You Sing" and "The Beauty Underneath" from LOVE NEVER DIES and, perhaps, "Live In Living Color" from the forthcoming CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. It is a job well done, in general, but I hope to see him taking a lot more chances next time out because this album is far too safe and expected from a performer as enticing and electrifying as Barrowman. Next time, John, rock the boat and give me something to rave about, please.