By Marilyn Lester
I’m happy to announce a new path for Theater Pizzazz: a column that regularly takes an informed look at CD releases with reviews of what’s new in the field. Born of the pandemic, with live performance and the reviewing of same at a halt, it makes sense to feature the creative output of the vocalists and musicals we’d cover in “real life.” Theater Pizzazz has regularly covered news of the releases of CDs, so now it’s time to turn a critical eye toward their contents as their own genre. While we’ll focus on new releases, the first several that will appear in this column are dedicated to recent, worthy CDs that have been released in the past year or so.
An Evening with Jennifer Roberts
The classically trained Jennifer Roberts has her roots in musical theater, a style she dynamically applies to the eclectic mix of numbers on her debut CD, An Evening with Jennifer Roberts. The title comes from her cabaret show of the same name––one of three she’s mounted––which she’d been taking to club rooms for the past three years. The album is a bright collection of standards, offered in a beautifully clear and sweet soprano. Roberts is one of those vocalists who doesn’t hold back, imbuing each number with the strength of her personality. When she sings “Mean to Me” (Fred E. Ahlert/Roy Turk), the immediate gut reaction to her pain is to wag a finger and admonish the perpetrator with a “how could you!”
An Evening with Jennifer Roberts has been receiving much air play and positive attention since its release, and was the recipient of a 2019 MAC nomination. The 13 tracks include tunes not readily found elsewhere, such as jazz pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg’s ode to the road, “Sweet Kentucky Ham.” It’s a ballad not many know (although musicians do) and Roberts nicely conveys the mood of loneliness far from home. There are quite a few ballads on the CD, a genre she can clearly sink her teeth into with prime storytelling ability. The story arc she created on “You There in the Back Row,” from Cy Coleman’s back stage musical 13 Days to Broadway (which never did get past development), with lyrics by Barbara Frye, was emotive and affecting in expressing a performer’s raison d’etre.
Although Duke Ellington is far from obscure, Robert’s choice of Ellington’s lesser known work of 1944, “I Didn’t Know About You” (lyric by Bob Russell) is an enlightened one; Ellington isn’t always easy. He composed for his band, with sophisticated harmonic structure, with many of the tunes having lyrics added much after the fact. “I Didn’t Know About You” was based on 1942’s “Sentimental Lady.” Roberts was in a pleasing swing mode, with her musicians, Tedd Firth on piano and Steve Doyle on bass demonstrating their jazz chops. It’s to Robert’s credit that she fills the CD to capacity with her own vocals plus two instruments. Firth, who’s nothing less than a genius of the piano, applied intelligent choices with inspired creative ideas to provide the singer with superb harmonic support. His work on the keys ably captured the mood of each number parallel to Robert’s vocalizations.
Roberts also has a knack for the comedic. She had fun with Sheldon Harnick’s “The Ballad of the Shape of Things,” written by the master in 1956 for Charlotte Rae in The Littlest Revue, guaranteeing broad smiles and chuckles. (Note: the bassist on this track is Tom Hubbard.) Bookending the CD is the opening medley of “Travel/The Glamorous Life/ The Little Gray House” and the closer, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” both standouts in their own way. The first is an inventive “playlet” that spotlights Robert’s abilities in vocal tone, diction and phrasing. It’s a real showtune with a cast of actors including Tom Wopat, Lance Roberts, Jason Ellis, Peter Carey, Jonathan West, Tedd Firth, Steve Doyle, Tom Hubbard and a hilarious turn by Sidney Myer. “People Get Ready” ended a splendid collection of music. Sung as an amalgam of spiritual and ballad, Robert’s interpretation demonstrates why this much-covered song has taken a special place in the history of the American songbook.
Between Yesterday and Tomorrow: The Songs of Alan & Marilyn Bergman
For her fourth CD, Marieann Meringolo has released Between Yesterday and Tomorrow: The Songs of Alan & Marilyn Bergman, a live recording (at the Iridium) of her cabaret show of the same name. Meringolo is a staple of the cabaret circuit, a MAC award winner and nominee for the 2019 MAC award for Major Female Artist, as well as a Bistro Award-Winner for Outstanding Vocalist. She’s in peak voice for this outing, finely attuned to the Bergmans through “the vessel of me,” as she states. Many singers have interpreted the songs of the Bergmans but Between Yesterday and Tomorrow is entirely uniquely Meringolo’s.
The CD is medley-oriented. Although medleys aren’t a favorite thing of this reviewer, they’re done well, with intelligence and arrangements that connect the material gracefully. The Bergmans are lyricists who’ve worked with a stunning array of composers, notably Michel Legrand. “The Windmills of Your Mind,” coupled with “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow,” is a driving, dramatic interpretation that strongly channels the creative force of the writing team. “The Way We Were” (Marvin Hamlisch, take three) with Billy Goldenberg’s “Fifty Percent” offers a gender-bending of the lyric of the latter––a forcefully authentic statement.
Meringolo has often been compared to Barbra Streisand; chalk that up to subtly evident Brooklyn roots as well as a slight nasal quality and vocal timbre. But unlike Streisand, Meringolo is straight ahead; there are no mannerisms. If comparisons are to be made, think of fellow Italian Jerry Vale, the Bronx native popular in the 1950s and 60s. Like Vale, Meringolo shares a direct, clean interpretive style, fueled with plenty of passion. Passion is what infuses the singer’s interpretations of the material. The stand alone “Love Makes the Changes” (Michel Legrand) is a fine example of one of the lesser-known tunes of the Bergman canon. The highlight of the CD, however, is the Legrand composed number “I Was Born in Love with You” for a film version of Wuthering Heights, Meringolo’s intense delivery of the haunting tune conveys the alpha and omega of love, a superb achievement. Meringolo is backed with a superb trio of musicians: pianist-arranger, Doyle Newmyer, bassist Boots Maleson and drummer Sipho Kunene. Director for the cabaret show was Will Nunziata.