Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Lisa Howard: Songs of Innocence and Experience (CD Review)

There are wonderful moments in theatre when you suddenly realize that you are in the presence of someone special. The first time I heard Lisa Howard sing was one of those moments. It was an evening of William Finn songs at Merkin Hall in 2004. Betty Buckley performed, as did Stephen DeRosa, Jerry Dixon, Raul Esparza, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Janet Metz. Howard was a student of Finn's, if I remember correctly, and she spent a lot of time in the background. And then came time for her solo. The second she started singing, I sat up a little straighter and listened a little harder. Her voice was strong and clear and beautiful, and she knew what to do with it. Although the other performers were better known and had more experience, she was among peers. (In his brief essay in the CD booklet, Finn refers to that evening as well, saying, "When Lisa finished singing. . . , the great Betty Buckley, who was sitting next to her, rose and bowed deeply.")

I've since seen Howard's wonderful performance in Spelling Bee (and also saw her be terribly underutilized in 9 to 5 and South Pacific). And now she has released a solo CD called Songs of Innocence and Experience (Ghostlight Records), which is a collection of songs by William Finn. Although I don't think the CD is a home run, there is much to like about it. Howard's voice remains beautiful, and her interpretations are well worth many listens. Particular highlights include "When the Earth Stopped Turning" from Elegies and "Bad Boy," "Listen to the Beat," and "I Don't Know Why I Love You" (a duet with Derrick Baskin) from The Royal Family of Broadway.

But, and this is a fairly large but, Finn's songs don't offer enough variety for a solo CD. Mind you, I love Finn's work. March of the Falsettos changed my life. Spelling Bee is amazing. I hope that The Royal Family makes it to New York. But (1) his songs are mostly character-driven and can be awkward when taken out of context, (2) some of his music has a sameness to it, and (3) his awkward and odd rhymes, while charming and funny in his shows, can become annoying on the multiple listens that a good CD deserves.

However, the CD's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The 14-person band is a treat, and the orchestrations by Carmel Dean, Eugene Gwozdz, and Michael Starobin, among others, are excellent. And while there is a sameness to some of the songs, there is great texture and variety to Howard's singing.

When I like a CD, I listen to it over and over without interruption. This CD won't get that treatment. However, I am sure that I will pull it out again and again over the years and always be pleased.

(Reviewer CD)

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