ON THE RECORD: Billy Joel and Jessica Molaskey

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Billy Joel and Jessica Molaskey
Reviewed this week: Movin' Out and "Jessica Molaskey: Pentimento"

Reviewed this week: Movin' Out and "Jessica Molaskey: Pentimento"

MOVIN' OUT [Sony Classical SK 87877]
And here is the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Movin' Out, the new theatre piece from Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel. Yes, this is — indeed — the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but it's an Original Broadway Cast Recording like none other.

We are long accustomed to the traditional, old-fashioned type of original cast recording, in which the cast members gather in a recording studio and sing their roles. There are revival cast albums galore, as well (often labeled as "Original Revival Cast Albums"). Of late, we're getting more and more cast albums sung by non-Broadway casts (like Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia!). We're also now getting cast recordings of music from non-musicals. These range from compilations of existing recordings of old songs (such as for The Graduate and Side Man) to incidental music composed and recorded specifically for use in plays (like The Green Bird and Twelfth Night).

Contact released a most unusual cast album; an hour's worth of existing songs, none written for or performed by any of the cast members. (The most popular of the pre-existing recordings was too expensive for inclusion on the album, so one of the Contact actors went into a studio to record it.)

But now we have an even more unusual Original Broadway Cast Recording. The billing page in the liner notes for Movin' Out lists 28 performers, including seven with star billing. The stars are all pictured in the booklet, most of them multiply so. But of all these original cast members, only one is heard on the Original Broadway Cast Recording. Yes, there is a reasonable reason for this. Movin' Out is labeled "A New Musical," but it is more in the nature of ballet. Two-dozen dancers spend two hours dancing to the music of Billy Joel. (John Selya, Elizabeth Parkinson and Keith Roberts do so spectacularly well, by the way.) But none of them sing, or talk for that matter. Unlike Contact, the score of Movin' Out is performed live; the band itself is very much part of the entertainment. Michael Cavanaugh plays the piano and sings the score more or less in the manner of Billy Joel. Cavanaugh is very good, and as essential to Movin' Out as any of the dancers.

Which leaves us with the question: Why not Billy Joel? Billy Joel in the theatre is not the issue; I expect that Cavanaugh is better suited for the role than Joel himself would be, today in 2002. Movin' Out is almost two hours of nonstop singing — plus some mean pianistics — and the job calls for six performances a week (with an alternate filling in at matinees on two-show days).

Cavanaugh is deservedly amassing his own fan base, and this CD is essential for them. And don't get me wrong; the score sounds good on the CD, even better than in the theatre because you can understand the lyrics (which are extremely provocative in places). But one wonders how the Movin' Out cast album compares to "The Essential Billy Joel" [C2K 86005], which the producers of the Movin' Out recording thoughtfully plug in the liner notes. Joel, presumably, gives the definitive performances of these songs. While the band at the Rodgers (and on the Movin' Out CD) is extremely good, the arrangements have necessarily been altered and tweaked to adapt to Twyla's use. I suppose that diehard fans of the composer already have "The Essential Billy Joel," anyway.

Let us note in passing that Cavanaugh is not the only singer on hand; three of the band members are credited as vocalists on the CD. This was recorded during the Chicago tryout; on Broadway, backup vocals are credited only to Kevin Osborne. (Osborne, elsewhere, does a fine job on the trombone, as does John Scarpulla on the sax.) The credits list a full dozen music and musical sound and musical producing credits, but I can't for the life of me decipher who conducted the CD. The Broadway Playbill credits Tommy Byrnes, who I suppose did the same in Chicago.

In other circumstances it might be easy enough to say: of course you should get Billy Joel's own recordings of these songs. But Cavanaugh is very good; what we hear on the Movin' Out CD is quite a performance. So I leave it to you.

PENTIMENTO [ps classics ps-205]
A pentimento is an underlying image in a painting, usually when the top layer becomes transparent with age to reveal a different layer underneath. This sort of treatment can be applied to songs of the first third of the twentieth century, now that you mention it; but why get esoteric?

"Pentimento" — the title of Jessica Molaskey's smashingly delightful solo CD — is the only thing inaccessible about the venture. Molaskey has a point, if you read her liner notes; but why don't you just listen to the disc first, five or six times. "This was a time when people tried to focus on the possibilities of what tomorrow might bring," she tells us, and she's absolutely right. "By the beautiful sea, oh how happy we'll be," Harry Carroll and Harold Atteridge told teeming hordes who could only dream of happiness by the sea back in 1914. All will be well "when the red, red robin goes bob-bob bobbin' along / There'll be no more sobbing when he starts throbbing his old sweet song." This from Harry M. Woods to folks who, in 1926, had a Depression and a World War ahead of them.

This is an interesting viewpoint, and a valid one; but that, in itself, doesn't make for entertaining listening. Jessica Molaskey does. (Make for entertaining listening.) "Pentimento" is a balm for the troubles of the everyday world. Molaskey's voice is a cool, cool drink on a lazy hot day. Friendly and welcoming, with a hidden throb hinting of inner mystery.

Most of these songs predate the Depression, but the pop songwriter's message was usually aimed at the masses. "I can't give you anything but love, baby, diamond bracelets Woolworth's doesn't sell," Dorothy Fields wrote — before the crash. "Not much money, oh but honey, ain't we got fun?" Richard Whiting, Gus Kahn and Ray Egan asked in 1921. "Even if we owe the grocer, tax collector's getting closer, there's nothing surer, the rich get which and the poor get poorer."

But "Pentimento" is not just a collection of nostalgic old songs. Molaskey has selected good songs, with music that is as refreshing and catchy today as it must have been when it was first whistled on the street. Who'd have thought that "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" would remain irresistible, 91 years after Nat Ayer and A. Seymour Brown wrote it?

Molaskey is a relatively hidden talent whom you might have missed in her numerous theatrical appearances. These include the Johnny Mercer revue Dream and an assortment of interesting if similarly short-lived ventures: Songs for a New World, Parade, 3hree, Dream True, Wise Guys. Just now she's up at Lincoln Center, almost invisible in A Man of No Importance. Almost, that is; while she doesn't have much of a role, the willowy Molaskey steps out of the ensemble with two solo spots in the second act and just about magnetizes the place with that voice. So it is not altogether surprising that "Pentimento" is so good. The disc is a family affair, which is a smart choice when your husband and your father-in law are superb musicians. John Pizzarelli — who appeared with Molaskey in Dream, and then married her —and his father, Bucky, play the guitars and ukes. They are joined by a handful of exceptional players, including Ken Peplowski on the clarinet and Johnny Frigo on the violin. The results are immensely enjoyable.

All in all, this is a "Pentimento" you'll want to listen to again and again.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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