Posted in Television

The Journey, Not the Destination

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Sparring With a Witness: Crown Counsel Janet King (Marta Dusseldorp) and Instructing Solicitor Lina Badir (Andrea Demetriades)

I love mysteries, specifically the hardboiled and procedural varieties with private eyes, cops and especially lawyers. They so consistently produce great character-driven stories. Where would Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” be without Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo and Miss Wonderly Miss LeBlanc Bridget O’Shaughnessy? Not to mention that most inscrutable of P.I.’s, Sam Spade?

While the genre has been a television staple for decades, variations on the theme keep it refreshing. English television has definitely outpaced its American cousin in this regard: “Happy Valley” and “The Fall” feature female leads, and while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the iconic “Prime Suspect.” Although the co-leads of “Broadchurch” consist of a mixed doubles detective partnership, romance is definitely not in the air (and please, may it never come to that). Two more shows on which I recently binged easily match these for quality—the Australian series, “Janet King,” available on Acorn TV, and its predecessor, “Crownies,” all 22 episodes of which are up on YouTube.

Though they feature the same characters, these two series couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone. “Crownies,” centering on five junior solicitors in the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), has more than a passing resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” in its depiction of eager (in all senses of the word) young professionals mentored by the presumably older and wiser. It’s very much a dramedy—the genuinely funny moments far outnumber the cringeworthy, but both are outweighed by the seriousness of the cases the DPP handles. On full view are the Attorney General who drugged and raped the women who worked for him, the sisters who beat to death the man who’d seemingly been abusing them, the convenience store murderer whose crime is caught on surveillance video in gruesome detail, the 11 year-old boy who may or may not have murdered his younger brother—the list goes on.

What makes “Crownies” somewhat unusual is that the gray areas of these cases, especially the kiddie and domestic violence killings, are explored in such depth. It’s the DPP’s responsibility to determine whether to prosecute, and the show doesn’t stint on discussions (and frequent arguments) regarding the legal merits of these cases. It’s refreshing to see such thought put into a television series. And I have to admit I’m more than a little envious of my brothers and sisters at the bar who can cross-examine a witness with “I put it to you that…” instead of the far more passive-aggressive “Isn’t it true that…?” we’re forced to use.

Although the acting is uniformly excellent, not all the juniors are equally enjoyable. Three are flat-out terrific no matter their flaws: Erin (Ella Scott Lynch), whose fondness for wine leads her to make some really bad choices in the male department; Lina (Andrea Demetriades), of Palestinian background, who stubbornly sees no future in her relationship with Andy, a police detective; and Richard (Hamish Michael), the classic genius who’s classically inept away from his books. Rounding out the quintet are Tatum (Indiana Evans), an irritating princess type whose father evidently became rich by stepping over if not causing a few dead bodies, and Ben (Todd Lasance), the spoiled rich kid with the barrister father (When Erin, exasperated, asks him at one point, “Don’t you ever get tired of you?,” you’ll find yourself yelling back at your TV, “I sure do!”). All five are instructing solicitors who prepare cases for trial by their superiors and appear on behalf of the state on petty matters. And each is an excellent lawyer, regardless of personality.

In contrast, “Janet King” is very much a procedural, featuring a dark story of mercy killing (maybe), child abuse, kiddie porn and corruption in high places. It discards the ensemble show concept in favor of a leading character, and for good reason. Superbly played by Marta Dusseldorp, Janet King is a senior crown counsel who seems at first glance to be a staple of the genre: the unflappable stoic hero(ine). Naturally, appearances couldn’t be more deceiving. She cares about the junior solicitors in the DPP; she’s an excellent mentor, giving praise and challenging them to do their best (We see a subtle change in the later series—the professor/student dynamic that prevailed in “Crownies” has been replaced by a greater sense of collegiality). There’s an underlying kindness as she advises the bumbling Richard to pace himself when he’s about to work all night to prepare a case (not hers) for trial, and she doesn’t hesitate to read Erin the riot act for letting a very promising future slip away because of her affair with the wine bottle. Although she tells Richard she doesn’t let the horror of her cases get to her (“It sounds weird but it just doesn’t touch me at all”), we later see her break down, sobbing, over the deaths of two young boys drugged and suffocated by their mother.

Fortunately, Janet’s professional life is well-balanced by a rich personal life. While we know in “Crownies” that she’s trying to get pregnant, it’s not revealed until a number of episodes later via an amusing bit of misdirection that her partner, Ash, is a woman; later on we find out that Janet is carrying twins. Pregnant lady humor may seem clichéd, but given what these characters do for a living, it’s a  welcome break (The scene in which Erin attempts to distract her when she goes into labor is classic. “Wait–you’re telling me lawyer jokes?”).  Another of my favorite sequences in “Crownies” involves Ben, Mr. Suave himself, getting so rattled in court by a senior counsel’s alcoholic meltdown, that he can’t even spell his own name correctly for the court stenographer when he’s forced to take over. A later scene, in which he and Richard compare their respective idiocies over a shared sandwich, is a great bit of comic timing. Bravo, gents.

Acorn TV will be adding Season 2 of “Janet King” starting August 29. (It’s currently available on YouTube, but the quality is not the best). No fools they, Acorn will only be adding one new episode a week, so no binging, at least not yet. No sense giving it all away during the one-month free trial period, right?

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Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Sound of Broadway

Two recent events have once again proven there are few performances more iconic than those given in Broadway musicals. The death of John McMartin, an actor who graced the original Broadway productions of “Sweet Charity” and the landmark”Follies,” reminded me that the original cast albums of these shows are among my favorite listening experiences. And the sheer joy and exuberance that Zachary Levy brings to the recording of the recent “She Loves Me” revival are the perfect antidote to a down-in-the-dumps day.

Whether on 10-inch shellac 78 rpm disks, vinyl, cassette tape or CD, the original cast album has always served a dual purpose: as advertising for the show and its score and as souvenir for those lucky enough to have seen it on Broadway or on tour. But before we go any further, let’s get one of my pet peeves out of the way. A cast album of a theatrical production is not a “soundtrack,” no matter what retailers, web sites and streaming services may tell you. A soundtrack is what you hear when you see a movie; in CD form it’s the music and/or vocal score of a film. And the differences between a cast album and a soundtrack in terms of performers’ energy and the quality of sound involved can be amazing.

I’ve written before about the cast albums of “Parade,” “LoveMusik,” and “A Little Night Music,” but these are by no means my only favorites. One of my most listened-to recordings is of a show I’ve never seen on stage: “Sweet Charity,” which absolutely crackles with its Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score; in its original form, it far outstrips the score of the film version starring Shirley MacLaine (surprise, surprise). Had the movie kept Sweet Charity“Baby, Dream Your Dream” and the Broadway version of the title song as sung by John McMartin, not to mention the guitars and mariachi of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” it might not have been the flop that it was. The sizzle of “Big Spender” (dum dum da-dum dum-dum) and the contrapuntal chorus in “The Rhythm of Life” are just icing on the cake. I can’t leave “Sweet Charity,” though, without singling out Gwen Verdon as one of the best in the original cast album universe. I only saw her on stage once, in the original production of “Chicago,” but the albums of her shows are among the most energetic and fun to hear.

Another Cy Coleman score, “Little Me,” is another great listen. Among its assets is an absolute knock-out performance by Swen Swenson of “I’ve Got Your Number” with the sexiest come-on baritone imaginable. For this show Mr. Coleman’s lyricist was Carolyn Leigh; one of the choruses of “Real Live Girl,” sung by World War I doughboys, never fails to make me smile in its fashion accuracy:

Girls were like fellas was once my belief
What a reversal and what a relief
I’ll take the flowering hat and the towering heel
And the squeal
Of a real live girl.

Follies PapermillThe late Mr. McMartin was Ben Stone in the legendary original production of “Follies.” It’s one of the biggest cheats in the history of Broadway musicals that Capitol Records, which produced the cast album, couldn’t or wouldn’t release it on two disks. Suffice it to say there’s a ton of missing Sondheim; verses, choruses, reprises and entire numbers vanished. Nevertheless, despite its truncated state this album is still a keeper. Every original cast recording is a direct expression of the composer’s and lyricist’s intentions—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (This is perfectly apparent in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary of the recording of the “Company” cast album). Given the fall and rise of “Follies” since its 1971 premiere, not to mention the various revisions to the show during these years, it’s always fun to return to the blueprint.

However, I’m equally fascinated by the songs written for “Follies” that never made it to opening night. Although they’ve popped up on various recordings of lost show tunes and in reviews based on Sondheim scores, you can hear all of them sung in character on the recording of the Paper Mill Playhouse production that set the bar for all “Follies” revivals. Donna McKechnie and Tony Roberts may not totally measure up vocally as Sally and Buddy, but Dee Hoty and Lawrence Guittard certainly do as Phyllis and Ben. This two-disk version of “Follies” contains every song ever written for the show, among which are some of Sondheim’s finest work. You’ll wonder why these songs were cut, especially “Bring on the Girls,” which, with its emphatically descending bass line, is a perfect accompaniment to show girls making their entrance (In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim admits that he should never have replaced it with “Beautiful Girls”). However, the cut song that remains in memory the longest is the original version of the double duet in the “Follies” section of the show, in this instance sung by the younger versions of Ben and Phyllis: “Who Could Be Blue/Little White House.” Its haunting melody and the wistful innocence of its expression are lovely; the contrast with “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through” is particularly poignant. By the way, this recording includes all three versions of Phyllis’ “Follies” number: “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” “Uptown, Downtown,” and “Ah, But Underneath.” For my money, the first of these remains the best; who else but Sondheim would write the line “That’s the sorrowful précis”?

Other cast albums bring standout moments: Kelli O’Hara’s successive astonishment, wonderment and delight as she sings “I’m in love!” at the climax of “A Wonderful Guy” in the revival of “South Pacific;” Beth Malone’s desperation, singing “Telephone Wire” in “Fun Home,” as her character so longsKismet for a different past; Ms. O’Hara again, this time with Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael McKean, in the revival of “Pajama Game,” doing a bang-up job on “I’m Not at All in Love” (As a devoted fan of 50’s pop, I love this score).  There’s an entire series of recordings from the revivals produced by the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in the 1960’s; I frequently play the disk of “Kismet” to hear soprano Lee Venora as Marsinah sing a tremendous”Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (and Alfred Drake’s “Olive Tree” ain’t too shabby either).

Which brings me to the recent revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” Its excellent recording comes with a substantial bonus: the performance of Zachary Levi as Georg. I saw the show in June (thanks again, Jane!), and while the four principals were well matched, it was Jane Krakowski as Ilona who was just a bit more memorable. On disk, however, it’s Mr. Levi who takes the honors; it’s impossible to hear him sing the show’s title song without grinning from ear to ear. Here’s hoping he comes back to Broadway to do another musical soon.

And your favorites are?