PS Classics was established in 2000, specializing in theatre-style singers and songwriters. Through a combination of quality, dedication and luck — the latter having to do with the drastically reduced output of the corporate bigboys — the small independent label has found its way to several major cast albums in its rapidly growing catalogue, notably including Grey Gardens and recent revivals of Nine, 110 in the Shade, Assassins, Frogs and Company. Fifty-seven CDs, of many different stripes, in eight years. Now, as something of a holiday present to listeners, they have simultaneously released solo albums by not one nor two but three top-notch singing actresses.
Victoria Clark: Fifteen Seconds of Grace [PS-755]
Victoria Clark's debut solo album is the most obvious of the three; that is, the most obvious purchase right off the bat. Clark's Tony-winning performance in Light in the Piazza only affirmed what many theatregoers knew; that this unassuming, unlikely-to-find-a-starring-role character actor was among the best dramatic singers in the business. And, thus, relatively underemployed on Broadway. Piazza and her stint as Sally in the Encores Follies put Clark in the spotlight where she belongs; we can only hope that the musically fascinating but problematic Juno turns out half so well when she undertakes it at Encores! in March 2008.
Clark and music director Ted Sperling have assembled a collection of art songs, mostly, from composers including Jane Kelly Williams, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Clark herself. We get a piece of Arlen ("Right as the Rain," from Bloomer Girl) and a songhit each from Mr. Berlin and Mr. Herman. There is also an important piece of Guettel, "Life Is But a Dream" from Saturn Returns. This song was not included when that score was recorded, under the title Myths and Hymns, and is thus a notable addition to the CD shelf. My favorite tracks on the album are the saucily Southern "Someone to Cook For," by Jessica Molaskey & John Pizzarelli, and a whirlwind take on Johnny Mercer's Astaire-song "Something's Gotta Give."
Orchestrations come from Sperling, Blumenkrantz, David Loud, Alex Rybeck, and Jeff Klitz (who is responsible for the Mercer). But the excitement here is the impeccable Ms. Clark. "Fifteen Seconds of Grace," 46 minutes of joy.
Lauren Kennedy: Here and Now [PS-752]
If Ms. Clark's album is introspective, Lauren Kennedy's "Here and Now" is bright and lively. "Here I Am" (from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) sets the tone, and the pace never lets up. Kennedy is lesser known than Clark; her big Broadway break was as one of the stars of The Rhythm Club, which didn't make it to Broadway. That she is capable has long been apparent, at least to those who saw one of her numerous performances as standby to Emily Skinner in Side Show. Kennedy's starring roles include Trevor Nunn's West End production of South Pacific and the Illinois world premiere of Jason Robert Brown's Off-Broadway hit, The Last Five Years.
All that is rather beside the point, once you start listening to "Here and Now." Kennedy's performance is pure delight. What's more, she has assembled a collection of songs by the so-called younger generation of theatre writers. Some songs have been heard in lesser-known musicals, others are non-production numbers; all reflect especially well on their authors. Show tunes include Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin's "Pretending That I'm Somebody Else," one of Kennedy's songs (and a good one) from The Rhythm Club; Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham's "Just Not Now," from I Love You Because; Brown's "Mr. Hopalong Heartbreak," from Urban Cowboy of all things; Jeff Blumenkrantz and Libby Saines' "I'm Free," from Precious Little Jewel; and Adam Guettel's "Through the Mountain" from Floyd Collins. Numbers that are apparently not from theatre scores — and which are each highlights of the disc — include Andrew Lippa's "Spread a Little Joy"; Georgia Stitt's "My Lifelong Love"; Marcy Heisler & Zina Goldrich's "Apathetic Man"; and Dan Lipton's "You'll Want Me to Shine." And last but not least is "Easy," from an upcoming musical by Frank Wildhorn & Jack Murphy.
A quarter of the orchestrations come from Mr. Brown, with others from Ms. Stitt, Larry Hochman, Don Sebeskey, Michael Starobin, Kim Scharnberg, Lynne Shankel, and Fred Lassen (who also conducts half the tracks). Lauren Kennedy is "Here and Now," and hopefully soon on Broadway with a chance in the spotlight.
Andréa Burns: A Deeper Shade of Red [PS-756]
Most surprising of the three, perhaps, is "A Deeper Shade of Red" from Andréa Burns. Ms. Burns is no stranger to people who have been paying attention to musical theatre of late. She was first prominently spotted in the 2000 Second Stage production of Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night, which gave the impression of a group of talented youngsters with one young-but-thorough professional — Burns — within their midst. She was also featured in Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World, and spent time uptown earning paychecks as a replacement in Beauty and the Beast and The Full Monty. She is currently standing by for Rosie Perez in The Ritz while standing by — in a different sense — for the imminent Broadway transfer of In the Heights.
Rather than finding a stylistic tone for her first solo album, Burns has decided to range from one end of the spectrum to the other — and she is superb on all counts. Indicative of this is her choice of two show tunes songs from the mid-50s, "What More Do I Need?" (which she sang in the aforementioned Sondheim show) and Adler & Ross' "A Little Brains, A Little Talent" (from Damn Yankees). Anyone who can land those two songs — with an emphasis, as they say, on the latter — is okay in my book.
Burns sings theatre songs, yes, with an especially lovely rendition of John Bucchino's "Love Quiz"; but she also delves into pop offerings from Joni Mitchell, Melissa Manchester and Carole King. There is also a knockout comedy number, "BTW, Write Back," from In the Heights composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. The final two selections clinch it for me. Whoever thought you'd want to hear "Up on the Roof," over and over again? The way Burns sings it, you do. She follows it up with Bernstein & Sondheim's "I Have a Love," just the singer and John Pizzarelli in a very special rendition. The music department is first rate, with musical director Steve Marzullo providing numerous arrangements and orchestrations (as well as one song, "Some Days," to a text by James Baldwin). Jason Robert Brown did the "Little Brains" arrangement and orchestration; other fine charts come from Larry Hochman, Bill Sherman and Alex Lacamoire. But it's Andréa Burns' party, and she makes the most of it.
Three equally enjoyable CDs from PS Classics. They are running a three-fer special on their website just now, which in my book makes a wise purchase indeed.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)