Studio recordings of a cabaret revue directed by Peter Napolitano (last year’s MAC winner for Best Director, and nominated again this year) bring to disc the lyrics of Tom Toce. Covering a wide span of years, the pieces are collaborations with several composers and include two on which he quite ably wrote his own melodies. On this MAC-nominated album, it’s especially fortuitous that they are interpreted—and truly embraced—by a talented trio of cabaret performers whose own solo shows have been quite rewarding. They are two ladies who are prior cabaret award winners with presence and increasing polish, Carole J. Bufford and Jennifer Sheehan, who are joined by Jack Donahue, who has the most recording studio experience and again shows his special sophisticated emotionalism. As a bonus, dreamy-voiced jazz star Jane Monheit (no stranger to awards, such as the Nightlife Award) is a guest singing the amorous “The Night I Fell in Love with Paris,” a recent item with Toce’s own tune. (The run of the live show had a rotating cast of guests shining up this gem.)
Capturing our ears immediately with the aptly titled “Listen” (melody by Zina Goldrich), the repertoire is well paced and positioned and the numbers wisely assigned to bring out strong qualities in each of the three main singers, without allowing any to be typecast as “just” a certain type. Each gets chances to be dramatic, doting, and determined in solos, and they blend especially well. Carole’s feistiness is well used in two sassy songs about being glad to end a relationship, reveling in the good riddance aspect. While her live solo shows have featured plenty of powerhouse belting and bravura bluesy stuff, and she’s been the go-to gal for such in past group shows, that’s not suited to this lighter, poppier fare and she adjusts well and still shines without burning the torch. A mischievous quality informs some of her work here which suits Toce’s playful side. In the comical “Shalom, Santa” she has grand fun with the holiday-fueled frustration of a kid whose “daddy is a lapsed Catholic” and whose “mama is a cultural Jew.” For this special character piece, theatre writer Douglas J. Cohen (No Way to Treat a Lady, Children’s Letters to God) shares a MAC nomination with the lyricist in this year’s MAC Special Material song category.
Jennifer, who’s made a mark the last several years with romantic standards, reveals a refreshing more contemporary and plucky persona with this material. Her “Say You’ll Remember” (music: Peter Millrose) gets an appropriately bittersweet touch. Jack gets some of the meatiest material in three solos, connecting convincingly and compellingly with the mature looks at loneliness. In the Caribbean-flavored urging for men to learn to “Emote,” the tongue-in-cheek chastising is a delight, but clearly he internalized the message long ago. The CD is a fine balance overall and pianist Matthew Martin Ward and bassist Boots Maleson nimbly adjust to (and bring out) all the styles with seeming comfort and ease.
The Toce touch with words employs varied techniques and vocabularies while remaining casually conversational and modern. But there’s a nod to past generations of wordsmiths with his caring use of rhyme schemes, surprise twists, passing references to earlier standards, and satisfying verbiage: the pleading “‘Say You’ll Remember’ so I can forget”; “Maybe staying above the fray would fly if life were a float”. While not all songs are richly sprinkled with these, they are worth waiting for and relishing. That’s easy to do with the inclusion of a lyric booklet, but with the fine production and enunciation and hitting-the-punchline skill sets of the singers, you won’t miss words. Hopelessly in Love offers hope that sparkling revues and songcraft are not endangered species.
Review by Rob Lester