The idea of Mary Testa bringing us a CD of inspirational songs might sound just a little off-kilter. Testa, of course, is the singer/comedienne with what you might call a voracious zest. She has been entertaining audiences hereabout since 1979, when she played a voracious high school teacher in William Finn's In Trousers. She played the voracious near-sighted accidental murderess in Ahrens and Flaherty's 1988 Lucky Stiff; the voracious battle-ax wife in the 1996 Nathan Lane revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; the voracious bag lady in Finn's 1998 A New Brain; the dipsomaniacal vocal coach in George C. Wolfe's 1998 revival of On the Town; and more. Testa's larger-than-life performances have always managed to land just south of the border of too much; she always manages to serve the material, while never exactly disappearing into the crowd. Her most astonishing creation thus far was Anna Edson Taylor in Michael John La Chiusa's Queen of the Mist, wherein Testa took us over Niagara Falls in a barrel but was believable, sympathetic and touching all the way over the rapids.
But an album of inspirational songs? She has joined Michael Starobin — one of Broadway's most active orchestrators since Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George in 1984 — for "Have Faith," which I suppose you can call an inspirational album. It starts with an off-kilter rendition of the DeSylva-Brown-Henderson chestnut "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," although Testa's vocal and Starobin's arrangement suggest that there might be just as many pits as not. The same can be said for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "If I Loved You," which somehow winds up in the middle of it all but does not quite sound the way Rodgers intended.
No matter. Testa and Starobin take us on a tour of their musical world, which might not be your musical world or mine but which keeps us listening. Not many show tunes; just the two mentioned above plus Finn's "Change" and three by La Chiusa. What we get though, are a parade of songs that are interesting in themselves and/or in performance, such as "Sister Clarissa" (Michael Smith), "Thank U" (Alanis Morissette/Glen Ballard) and two by Jill Sobule and Robin Eaton, "Heroes" and "Soldiers of Christ." Most stunning are the two tracks on which Starobin plays piano. (Elsewhere, he is on tuba.) These are "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen) and "Sometimes It Snows in April" (Prince/Wendy Melvoin/Lisa Coleman). Starobin's accompaniment on these is as off-kilter as Testa's singing, and the effect is quite something. *
Scott Alan : Greatest Hits, Volume One [Billy-Boo Records]
Scott Alan, one of those talented composers whose emotion-brimming songs regularly turn up in cabarets and concert, has somewhat slyly entitled his sixth CD "Scott Alan: Greatest Hits, Volume One." The album is something of an anthology collection. Eight of the 19 tracks are remastered, five are newly mixed and the rest are new recordings, in one case of a new song.
Alan's small army of fans will necessarily want Greatest Hits. For those who are not yet familiar with Alan's work, this is a fine way to make his acquaintance. The composer/lyricist specializes in character-driven personal songs; he takes what might seem to be small moments and mines them for feeling, which often comes bubbling out. A man meets his former lover in forgiveness, in "It's Good to See You Again" (Marcus Paul James). A girl searches for her hazily remembered childhood, in "Never Neverland" (Stephanie J. Block). A budding performer offers a volcanic resume in the "I'm the Greatest Star"/"I Really Need This Job" genre, "I'm a Star" (Eden Espinosa). A chastened man watches his ex-wife get married while hoping she'll be coming home to him "Again." (Hadley Fraser).
Four of the songs especially reach out to me. In "Blessing" (RJ Helton), the singer powerfully reaches with pride and compassion to his unaccepting parent for understanding of his lifestyle. "Over the Mountains" (Stuart Matthew Price) is a rousingly patriotic song, of all things, about a soldier going off to war. "Kiss the Air" (Oliver Tompsett) is a tender song of breakup and divorce. Equally stunning is "Goodnight" (Liz Callaway), a gentle lullaby of approaching death. Songs like these make Alan a songwriter you will want to discover.
Broadway's Carols for a Cure: Volume 16, 2014 [Rock-it Science]
"Carols for a Cure" is back with this year's edition of the series which features Broadway casts performing carols (and assorted holiday-related songs) for a cure. The two discs of Volume 16 include selections from the companies of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, The Last Ship (featuring Sting), Motown, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Kinky Boots, On the Town, Cabaret, Wicked, Matilda the Musical, The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia!, Cinderella, If/Then, Once, Les Misèrables, Pippin, Aladdin, Jersey Boys and The Lion King. As always, proceeds support Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. The singers contribute their talents, yes, but one tends to overlook the musicians, stage managers and staff members who have supported this series since the inception. Broadway is a community, and "Carols for a Cure" is an enduring expression of that community.
(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.)