On her 1998 debut solo album Way Back to Paradise, Broadway star Audra McDonald recorded four musical settings composed by Ricky Ian Gordon for poems by Langston Hughes and James Agee. That may have been the inspiration for this album, on which McDonald, Judy Blazer, Darius de Haas, Adam Guettel and Dawn Upshaw sing more poems musicalized by Gordon. (Three of the tracks from Way Back to Paradise, the Hughes poems "Dream Variations," "Song for a Dark Girl," and "Daybreak in Alabama," are repeated here.) Gordon is something of a hybrid composer, not exactly classical, certainly not pop, perhaps leaning toward the musical theater, at least at its artier end. Producer Tommy Krasker in his liner notes name-checks Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, and Stephen Sondheim for the sake of comparison, and those are fair antecedents, at least so far as they indicate Gordon's aspirations. He chooses a variety of types of poems here, and he treats them in different ways, as do the different performers. The ideal matching remains McDonald/Hughes, and there are more of those, "Poor Girl's Ruination/The Dream Keeper," "Love Song for Lucinda" (with de Haas joining in), and "Joy" (which also features de Haas, Theresa McCarthy, and Guettel). Hughes' liberal sentiments are well expressed by McDonald, and Gordon gives them relatively simple music that allows McDonald room for that expression. He also uses some interesting musical forms, such as the ragtime that comes into "Love Song for Lucinda." He is less effective in conveying the caustic humor of Dorothy Parker, at least in "The Red Dress," in which opera singer Upshaw completely ignores Parker's sarcasm. "Résumé/Wail/Frustration," three Parker poems about suicide and murder sung by Blazer, a musical comedy star, and Chris Pedro Trakas, work much better, in part because the singers are interested in the meaning of the words. Blazer also does well by Agee's "I'm Open All Night." Other songs sound sub-operatic and merely pedestrian, the poems mere excuses for the musical exercises. Thus, the album on the whole is uneven, however nobly intended and expertly performed.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann