Lauren Turner: Play On – Broadway Records

Rating: 2 out of 5.

For near-on over a decade, Texan vocalist Lauren Turner has been a crowd favourite across the Cabaret haunts of New York City. Featuring five of Turner’s memorable song choices from her childhood and cabaret career, Play On is a demonstration of which tunes led her down the path to the woman she is today. With a portion of proceeds going to charities benefiting doctors fighting the pandemic, Play On aims to showcase Turner as a performer and looking towards the next decade.

Immediately, there lies a particular issue with Play On, and while a couple of numbers change enough to offer Turner’s unique spin, I Have Nothing feels like an audition number – an exceeding well-performed one, but this isn’t Turner’s The Bodyguard. Iconic, it’s difficult to detach from Whitney Houston’s original as well as the context of the song in the musical, and Turner doesn’t bring enough to remove these from the equation. Though she has exceptional control, the emotion doesn’t come across. Not a good start for the album, but thankfully things take a turn.

Tracks two and three, Michael Jackson’s I’ll Be There and a belter of a classic from Sheryl Crow with If It Makes You Happy offer insight into Turner’s style. There’s a sense of self in the direction taken with these numbers, with decent harmonising with the instrumentals. Turner matches Crow’s ability to hold notes and reaches clear highs without allowing a break or having to build to the final tones – quite skilfully allowing for seamless routines. It’s a start, but there’s the suspicion there’s something more for Turner to offer – and then…

What at first seemed an out of place number, stepping away from the rock and power ballads, a gorgeous rendition of Fire and Rain, the emotional James Taylor classic, effortlessly communicates a sense of who Turner is. There’s an immediate difference, not only vocally, but in the direction and composition of the track – allowing for Michael Isaacs’s piano work to strikeout. Harmonising with the pianist, without detracting, Turner puts such intensity into a softer, yet still empowering cover of the song. It builds, echoing Taylor’s original sentiment with the number, without ruining the memory of his intention. The build-up at the end tops it all off with small scratches, vinyl-record etches we all have fond memories of resulting in a stand-out number for a compact album.

Closing the album, Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter is a let-down following Fire and Rain. It can’t match the emotional output of the previous track, even if it outweighs it in vocal capability. It’s an evident demonstration of Turner’s ability with ballads and adapting her range to the song, benefiting from Daniel Muniz on guitar and backing from Tara Martinez. Similarly to the album opener, the inclusion isn’t as clear to the listener, this feels like it was chosen and structured not from choice, but as a way to wrap-up the album. This doesn’t feel like a finale, it doesn’t belt with the weight it should do to leave a lasting impression.

Unquestionably personal in moments, Play On feels like a starting point, a direction of personal choice for Turner as she reflects on the songs which morphed her into the powerhouse beltress that she is today. A short album, containing a heft of voice and talent, Play On is a pleasant listen for a sombre evening, best accompanied with a glass of your tipple and a quiet room – just expect to find yourself waiting around for an encore which won’t arrive.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Lauren Turner: Play On is available from Broadway Records now

Soft Power – Album Review

Lyrics by David Henry Hwang

Music & Additional Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What is this America?”, a phrase on the lips of the globe. Two years ago, lyricist & writer David Henry Hwang teamed with composer Jeanine Tesori to create Soft Power, a reversal of the perceived status-quo and keeping an eye on democracy in America, from a Chinese perspective and (slight) first-hand account of Hwang’s experiences upon arriving into the States. This mastered cast recording of the production contains all fourteen tracks (overture & instrumentals included), and though capturing moments of Soft Power’s heavier pangs of emotion and satire – it struggles to reflect the quality of the show.

An infusion of American ballads, to a composition considerably of Chinese influence, there’s a sublime marriage in intervals for the album, as Tesori’s overarching score shifts naturally between short interludes, expositional numbers and even a take on a traditional ‘protest’ song in track twelve with The New Silk Road. Vocally, Conrad Ricamora carries the album, with the ensemble bolstering small-scale numbers with witty, semantical lyrics, and holding them higher than the traditional listener might pick-up. Soft Power’s album, like the production, has flaring sparks of undeniable wit, attempting to stand-out against a sea of bland which sadly makes up a bulk of the album.

For the album to strike out on its own, without the necessary visual clues, it doesn’t manage to grasp attention or melody in its own right until track seven and the introduction of Election Night. Here, the narrative takes a turn, and the pieces which have been mulling around come together with clear direction. One of the album’s stand-out numbers, it draws much of its potential from the ensemble, turning Election Night into a slow, steady build with a stark twist, much like the election night of 2016. This and the preceding number I’m With Her, sung by our dear near-president Hillary Clinton are stand-outs, but suspicions lurk that the latter suffers without visual accompaniment.

Clinton is a major role within the show, portrayed in a starkly different manner, or rather a severely satirical incarnation. Alyse Alan Louis has a tremendous voice, which delivers character as well as vocal precision, capturing the humour within I’m With Her, which traditionally is staged in a McDonald’s. Her harmony with Ricamora can be best heard in Happy Enough, a sombre, reflective number highlighting the ludicrous expectations placed on women presidential candidates. The latter half of Soft Power’s recording leans into the issues of race, and the deconstruction of America’s idealistic views, offering richer substance than the first half.

Communicating merit, the album captures Hwang’s themes of racism, cultural appropriation, and expectations, but as a collective, fails to convey a flowing narrative, breaking off or trailing away following a filler song or instrumental segment. As a collective, earlier numbers serve to build a relationship with the audience, particularly Dutiful and Fuxing Park which present a wealth of nostalgia and emotion but provide little in the way of staying power as solitary numbers.

Soft Power enables America to dance to the tune China whistles, a reversal of a state-wide ideology and grinding against the traditional theatrical numbers found within musical royalties Rodger & Hammerstein and The King & I. There’s a ripple of comradery, beneath the unpleasant truth of our reliance on democracy, abjectly dismissing its incredible short-falls, and perhaps this is a key issue with the lyrics – Soft Power’s narrative already benefits from multiple viewings, or an in-depth watch and so the album suffers, unable to forge an authentic representation of the production.

Soft Power Original Cast Album is available from Ghostlight Records now

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: