I feel awful about this review. In it, I commit one of the cardinal sins of internet music writing—reviewing the record I want instead of the one I hear. If you want to discount what I write because of that, I actually wouldn’t blame you. But what I do, I do for a reason; this could have been one of the best albums of the year, and a real landmark in musical theater recordings. Instead, it is just a pretty good music CD.
“A Night in the Old Marketplace” was written 100 years ago by one of the three great titans of Yiddish literature, I.L. Peretz. In its original form, this play is a polyphonic labyrinth of faith, unbelief, anger, and ghoulish humor, hundreds of characters all coming together around a ghost story of epic proportions. Director Alexandra Arons decided to adapt this unadaptable play, which was a brave move; she signed up hip playwright Glen Berger to adapt Peretz’ play into light opera songs, which was also brave.
But her masterstroke was getting Frank London to compose an original score. London, who is a member of the great American band the Klezmatics, is one of the great intriguing talents of our time. Not only is he an amazing trumpet player (the wizard behind the solo on L.L. Cool J’s “Goin’ Back to Cali”), he is also a songwriter and composer of great creativity, as he has been showing in the project known as the Brotherhood of Brass.
The idea of a London-composed event based on Peretz’ mystical play is the kind of thing that nerds like me salivate over. And the music on this CD lives up to everything I had hoped. London’s score is thrillingly ambitious. It incorporates all kinds of Jewish music, from klezmer and other populist forms to classically “religious” segments. There are also passages that resemble typical musical theater ballads (“It Doesn’t Matter”), Sondheim-esque puzzle songs (“Call It Disappointing”), and some that seem to span all these forms (“Madness,” “The Ten Faces of G-d”).
And he has assembled quite a cast for this recording. Susan McKeown draws us in from the very beginning with her reading of the opener, “The Bottom of the Well”; Lorin Sklamberg, the Klezmatics’ lead singer, lends his angelic cantor’s voice to a handful of songs; LaTanya Hall makes a huge impression in her role as the Gargoyle in “Meet Me in the Old Marketplace.” A great cast of singers impersonate ghosts risen from the graveyard to narrate the stories of how they died. And the whole thing is nailed down by the pristine baritone voice of Manu Narayan, who plays a character known as the Badkhn.
So far, so good, right? Well, yes—sadly, that is exactly as far as it goes, and no farther. The same people do not always play the same roles, which is very confusing if you are trying to actually follow the story. (The closing song, an unimportant minute-long snippet, is performed by They Might Be Giants, who have seemingly appeared out of nowhere.) The liner notes provide brief synopses of what each song is about, but they do not even attempt to explain why anyone is doing what they are doing, or what it means. As someone who actually likes meaning and structure, this was very frustrating for me—I had to abandon all hope of actually understanding what I was hearing, and just kind of groove on the songs.
But these songs are also problematic, as Berger’s lyrics are remarkably uneven. Some songs, like the thrilling “I’ll Make Such Wonders” (in which the Gargoyle is now played by Matt Hensrud instead of LaTanya Hall), are full of high art: “I’ll plow the boulders / Into beds of blood-red poppies / Make the hillsides and valleys drunk / From the frankincense and brimstone / Pouring out from these lips.” But other songs seem less inspired, or even tepid. The Dead should get a better wedding song to sing than “Is There Room on Earth?”: “For everything has its place / And we owe it all to Love.” In songs like this one, London’s compositional tricks (here, a stop-start speedcore klezmer march) seem designed to cover up the fact that Berger has bitten off more than he can actually chew. (To be fair, I don’t know who could have done a better job on this impossible mission.)
So if you can just tune out all ideas about following along with the plot or even the lyrics of an entire 57-minute album, this might be right up your alley—the songs and the performances are often quite brilliant and exciting. But this could have been so much more.