On the CD, we don't have the luxury of watching Benanti's performance, and these songs — plus one written by Benanti herself — bog things down. Combined, and including the explanatory introductions, they take up 21 of the disc's 70 minutes. Perhaps this is part of the problem. Fortunately, the disc ends with three superb tracks of Benanti precisely as I experienced her at 54 Below, including an exceedingly touching rendition of Harry Chapin's "Mr. Tanner" followed by two show tunes Benanti has performed on Broadway: A wonderful "Unusual Way" from Maury Yesten's Nine and the ever-dazzling "Model Behavior" from David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And lest you wonder, the latter works perfectly well out of context and with a mere four-piece band.
My hunch is that this recording of In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention might have thoroughly pleased me, had I not already seen it live. Benanti has never failed to impress and delight me in performance or on recordings, but this CD somehow leaves me lukewarm. Which is to say, it's tough to be a critic.
The Last Five Years [Ghostlight]
Jason Robert Brown didn't burst on the scene with the intimate, semi-autobiographical, two-character musical The Last Five Years; he had made a promising debut with the 1995 Off-Broadway revue Songs for a New World. Parade, in 1998, marked Brown as an astonishing new voice in the musical theatre award, earning the 28-year-old his very own Tony Award. (Brown's subsequent Broadway appearances — Urban Cowboy in 2003 and 13 in 2008 — have not been quite so auspicious, although he will return in February with The Bridges of Madison County. In the meantime, we can look forward to Honeymoon in Vegas, which opens a tryout Oct. 6 at the Papermill Playhouse.)
The Last Five Years, which examines the composer's first failed marriage, is not "early" Brown — it was written after Parade — but it feels youthful and is vastly enjoyable. It was not easy going, though. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater (which had produced Parade), the musical premiered in 2001 at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago with a cast consisting of Norbert Leo Butz and Lauren Kennedy. Following this production, things were tied up in a legal dispute: Brown's ex-wife, perhaps not unsurprisingly, didn't want her marriage so publicly dissected. (Brown's career had been instigated by Daisy Prince, who directed Songs for a New World, and father Hal, who directed Parade; the wife, Theresa O'Neill, was an actress who worked as an assistant at Hal's office.)
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