King Of The Air. The Charles Kingsford Smith Musical

Music and lyrics by Gavin Lockley, book and lyrics by Ann Blainey. Cast principals, Daniel Belle, Renae Martin, David Hooley, Meredith O’Reilly, Philip Dodd, Yvonne Kenny AM, Simon Tedeschi, piano. The Metropolitan Orchestra, Sarah-Grace Williams conductor
Musical Theatre
Fish Fine Music
Reviewed by , May 1st, 2014

 It is not unusual for a musical to be recorded long before its appearance on a full stage. It’s a great way to test the waters of popular opinion, or to see if there’s anyone out there who is willing to sink money into the production costs. Chess is a case in point, existing as an album as early as 1984, only making it to the West End in 1986, after it had already had a top ten hit from the album.

So this CD, attractively packaged and including fine artwork and fascinating photography, emerges to fulfil the same kind of purpose. There have been preview concert performances around Sydney, one of which I attended myself, with cast singing mostly to a pre-recorded soundtrack. The CD serves its purpose in that it gives a very good representation of the music and even of the dramatic narrative as it unfolds.

Conductor Sarah-Grace Williams

Conductor Sarah-Grace Williams

An added bonus is the first track, which serves almost as an overture for the CD, though one wouldn’t think this would be used in the production as it’s 13 minutes long! However, it serves its purpose well in this medium. The performances are as assured as one would expect from Tedeschi and Williams’s TMO. Tedeschi is deservedly known as a fine pianist and one of Australia’s gifts to the musical world (when will Australia fully realise that musicians like Tedeschi are rare and precious gifts to us here as well?). Sarah-Grace Williams is building a reputation as a fine conductor with a fine orchestra – and this recording will go well to adding to this. The colours and ensemble playing are very satisfying indeed. I’m particularly impressed with the string ensemble work and the tuning of the winds.

The line-up of talented singers is another plus. There are some very good performers here: Daniel Belle, Renae Martin, David Hooley, Meredith O’Reilly, Philip Dodd and Yvonne Kenny AM are a team any composer would like to have in the wings on opening night. They don’t disappoint. The chorus is delightfully rambunctious and contributes to the atmosphere of the scenes in which it is involved. Indeed, the musical talent has no weak link at all.

Yet, when we come to a musical, and we don’t have a theatrical context for what we hear, the primary judgements must be reserved for the music and lyrics.  And it is the music that stands our by far in this recording. Lockley has a profound gift for melody, and a terrific rhythmic sensibility, as well as the ability to shift styles effortlessly. Musically, the “New York Ticker Tape Parade” stands out for me. It shifts styles and pokes fun at a number of national anthems and songs. It is a bright and sunny depiction of what will be a fine production number.

“I Want to Fly”, in contrast, is a perfect Broadway-style opening number, with soaring melodies and exciting rhythmic accompaniment, and “I Don’t Want a Hero” is spine-tingling in its melodic invention. Both are superbly performed here by Belle and Martin.

While this would be enough to admit Lockley into the association of music theatre composers, he is also the orchestrator of much of this CD, an unusual setup indeed. Bernstein, for example, didn’t orchestrate West Side Story – that was Sid Ramin. It would have been informative to see the division of labour in the orchestration of this work, but Lockley is a man of great aural imagination and scope. This score is well worth a listen: “Down the Sweep of Ages” is a beautiful way to end a musical.

It is with regret that I found a significant portion, though not the majority, of the lyrics to not be up to the standard of the music. There were too many “easy” solutions to rhymes and the advancement of the plot. While there were some character revelations, there was no character development through the lyrical content of the songs. This might seem a lot to ask for, but consider these lyrics from “I Want to Fly”:

             Till that day comes I’ll search forever,

            Flying to the edge of never.

            Mother dear, don’t you fear.

            I have to fly

Leaving aside the fact that the first line doesn’t actually mean anything, the lyrics lack the sort of punch you find in “Popular” from Wicked:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis
Think of it as personality dialysis
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a
Sister and adviser
There’s nobody wiser.

Just to pick one at random. It made me wish for a far more reflective approach to the lyrical content that could have matched the music.

Yet this is a strong CD, about a strong Australian story of an Australian who seemed strong but had his weaknesses like everyone else. I recommend a good, thorough listen to this effort. There’s a great deal of talent on show here and it is given its best chance by fine recording and post production. Though perhaps slightly flawed, it stands up well  – a bit like Smithy himself.

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