REVIEW: New solo discs from Cheyenne Jackson and Jose Llana
This summer, two of Broadway's leading men released new recital discs capturing studio versions of recent concert set lists: Jose Llana's Altitude, based on his Lincoln Center American Songbook concert of last year, and Cheyenne Jackson's Renaissance, adapted from the "Music of the Mad Men Era" pops concert he's performed with a number of different orchestras.
Llana's album is largely a career retrospective, featuring songs from On the Town, Saturn Returns (aka Myths and Hymns), The King and I, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Here Lies Love, with a few additional songs from both Broadway and the world of pop. The songs from On the Town ("Lonely Town") and Saturn Returns ("Icarus," "Hero and Leander," and the title number) are particularly welcome, as neither production resulted in original cast albums and the material highlights what Llana does best: sensitive singing right at the border of art song and pop.
The King and I numbers suffer the most from the cabaret-sized band (piano, bass, drums, guitar, and woodwinds), with his medley of "We Kiss in a Shadow / I Have Dreamed" sounding particularly square coming after two Saturn Returns numbers. (This transition was smoother on stage, which benefitted from applause and patter to break up the numbers.) The inclusion of "A Puzzlement," which he sang during his two terms as a replacement King in the recent Lincoln Center revival, is a nice idea but it similarly falls flat.
The Here Lies Love numbers are better served by the band, and it's a particular treat to hear Llana sing "Child of the Philippines" (which belonged to his character's rival, played by Conrad Ricamora, in the show) with guest star (and co-star from both Here Lies Love and The King and I) Ruthie Ann Miles. Pop songs from the catalogs of Ed Sheeran ("Thinking Out Loud") and Billy Joel ("Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)") fit comfortably in with the show tunes, and "She Is More" from AnnMarie Milazzo's stage version of Pretty Dead Girl will send you Googling for more information about this work-in-progress.
With Cheyenne Jackson's matinee idol looks and confident baritone, it was only a matter of time before he dove deep into the pre-rock and roll music of the 1950s. With Renaissance, he proves all our suspicions true, definitively demonstrating that should the Rat Pack reform tomorrow, he should be first in line. Beginning with a boldly stated "Feeling Good," you would never know these beefy orchestrations were actually reduced (quite skillfully, by John Baxindine) from the symphonic charts Jackson used on tour. Of course, reduced is a relative term, and the 22 pieces here sound fantastic.
The front half of the album stays firmly in the swing lane, mixing vintage hits with the more recent "Americano" (from the Brian Setzer Orchestra's 2000 swing revival album Vavoom!). Jackson is joined by a close harmony trio on the smokey "Angel Eyes" and the playful "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," and his costar from 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski, makes a fine (and appropriately subdued) partner on "Somethin' Stupid."
Halfway through the album, where "Side B" would start had this been a genuine product of the era it celebrates, the tone takes a turn away from the era with Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You." Jackson sings the number well, accompanied by Ted Firth on piano, but it jars as an interloper from another period. Unfortunately, it marks a turn as the rest of the album focuses on 1970s pop and soul (with one jump back to the 50s and one new tune penned by Jackson and Michael Feinstein). While it's hard to complain about any particular track or performance, because they are all lovely in the aggregate, the shift in tone is palpable and uneasy. It feels curmudgeonly to be disappointed that we didn't get a full disc of "Mad Men Era" tunes (and then another disc of 70's music), but the failure to cohere after such a strong start diminishes the collective result.
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Renaissance - 2016 Cheyenne Jackson Altitude - 2016 Jose Llana The King and I Saturn Returns On the Town The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Pretty Dead Girl Here Lies Love Conrad Ricamora Ruthie Ann Miles AnnMarie Milazzo Joni Mitchell Brian Setzer Michael Feinstein Cheyenne Jackson Billy Joel Jose Llana Jane Krakowski Feeling Good (12) Lonely Town (30) I Have Dreamed (61) We Kiss in a Shadow (51) A Puzzlement (25) Saturn Returns (2) Icarus (2) Hero And Leander (5) Toggle Additional (23)