Melora Hardin's new album ALL THE WAY TO MARS traverses the galaxy in a madcap manner most immediately reminiscent of a ‘60s cocktail hour album and for that frivolous and fun factor alone it deserves high praise - but there is far more here than what at first meets the eye. Speaking of looks, deceiving or otherwise: what a sight Miss Hardin makes! Though the era of cork tipped cigarettes and hi-falutin' highballs may have come and gone, we can still experience a part of it merely by enjoying and partaking in the equal parts sonorous, succulent sensuality and brassy broad-siness presented by Miss Hardin as we join her on a hard-to-top rocket ride from Broadway to jazz clubs to the Hollywood Bowl and beyond. At 17 tracks and over an hour in playing time, we are given plenty of rousing rat pack-ery and fun frivolity but also a few moments of genuine sentimentality and haunting pathos. While every single track may not showcase Hardin at her peak, it is the wide variety of material she has chosen, along with the legendary Richard Jay-Alexander and Ben Toth, that makes this album truly unique and a joy to revisit again and again. All gushing aside, Hardin performs with utmost actor-ly presence - she is always on - and that, along with showbiz panache and honest expression of emotion, creates the image of a performer capable of far more than her striking appearance may at first lead you to believe merely by glancing at the album cover or iTunes image. Through the songs on this album, Hardin creates, plays and presents the character of a woman you would feel as comfortable buying a drink and hoping to spend the evening with as crying on her shoulder over a broken heart. Indeed, from Earth to Mars is merely the first step on this fun-loving and fantastic journey through the stars, and a few of those gold-star tracks shine even brighter than the rest.
In the first three tracks of the recording, Hardin expertly establishes the tone and style of the fourteen tracks to come. Equal parts party, performance and pathos, Miss Hardin displays a distinct dexterity with comedic material too rarely represented on recordings of singer/actors and cabaret artists of her ilk. "Raise The Roof", by far the most impressive song from Andrew Lippa's second-rate WILD PARTY, is a raucous and riotous spark to set the rocket of this recording off into the stratosphere. The fact that she immediately pulls back and presents the album's most quiet and ruminative song, "You", is illustrative of her immense gift at conveying conviviality as well as contemplation, a drop of lemon juice for each grain of saccharine without ever making you feel like she is shifting gears. That feature is an awesome feat in itself. This second track, "You", is the album's strongest track, a truly haunting song about a very personal moment in someone's life best left to be discovered - and explored - in the most private manner possible and I urge you to do so as I shall not spoil it here. The next track, "All Messed Up", presents the sultry, sexy siren Hardin, quick with a joke and even quicker with a jab, always with a twinkle and wink in her eye. But is the wink luring us in even closer or abetting our acceptance and agreement over her sultry pleas for pleasure? Very few performers can vocally recreate a come-hither stare, but on this track and a few others Miss Hardin, well, proves to be the, ahem, fulfillment of her namesake for at least the male listeners in her audience. As "A Boy And His Cat" proves, Miss Hardin is not above such ribaldry and, if merely to join in on the fun, I will partake in that non-PC party - after all, what could be more boring than PC blandness? Also, "He's So Married" and "Ride Your Rocket" both offer some of the most memorable and idiosyncratic comedy material I have heard and I hope to hear more of the same - or, perhaps, an entire comedy specialty number album - from her in the future. Similarly, "Girl Talk" is another barn-burning, slyly humorous showpiece showcasing her comedy chops and old-school showmanship sweetly and successfully. This type of material is undeniably her forte and her fortitude in performing it is among the best Broadway or Hollywood has to offer as far as I am concerned. It is with this material that she truly blasts off into uncharted comedic territory.
Hardin is more Earth-bound in her more relationship-related material, and with a lesser performer these tracks could very well come off more drab and dirge-like than they do. "Teenager" finds Hardin playing just that, with winning results. "Fading Away" is touching and telling, a three minute distillation of the denouement and destruction of a decidedly disastrous romance. "Everything Must Change" is alluring and elegantly orchestrated, bringing to mind the masterpiece cabaret albums of similar material by Andrea Marcovicci and Ann Hampton Callaway. This track, "Everything Must Change", provides the perfect bookend to the aforementioned early standout track "You" and the two together create a wonderful arc for the character Hardin creates over the course of the album, from laughs to leers to love. Her riff on the line "Hummingbirds do fly" is particularly delicate - and delightful. Hardin may not possess the vocal instrument of Karen Carpenter or Barbra Streisand, but she more than makes up for it with her precise performances of the material here, whether salacious or sentimental or, well, somewhat sad. "Makin' Love" is rapturous and reflective, spinning almost out of control by the conclusion. Hardin has a firm grasp on all of this material and it is a credit to her producers that no delicate detail or jokey jab goes too far or pushes too hard. It's spot-on and each individual track creates its own unique universe of sound, emotion and dramatic content.
Hardin's inclusion of "I Dreamed A Dream" and "Roxie" seem to be a bit of an afterthought, or their inclusion a mere excuse for a permanent record of her performances as Fantine and Roxie in, respectively, LES MISERABLES and CHICAGO. These tracks could have easily been left off the album with no foreseeable detrimental effect to the overall experience, but I'm sure her fans will be glad they were included. That being said, they are nothing earth-shattering and because of this the three last tracks are a bit of a come-down after the rocket ride provided by the previous fourteen. Perhaps "Come Home With Me For Christmas" would be better used on an all-holiday album, which I would be first in line to purchase (Are you listening, Mr. Jay-Alexander?). She would kill "Santa Baby" and "I'll Be Home For Christmas", that I know for sure. It's an adequate capper to a whopper of an album, and this album is so special I suppose any ending to it whatsoever would be a bit of a let-down and comedown.
The album's top-billed producer is most well-known for his sterling work with the irreproachable Streisand and Bernadette Peters and "I Never Meant To Hurt You" sounds like a cut-out from Streisand's breathtaking 2009 LOVE IS THE ANSWER. A high compliment, if ever I can offer one. Each elegantly enunciated emotion is expertly enacted in her vocal and acting choices, and sweetly swathed in sumptuous, sultry strings. She also tackles Streisand territory, on a Sondheim song no less, with "Everybody Says Don't" and while it will not erase memories of the previously recorded versions, it makes a good case for the future casting Miss Hardin as Fay Apple in Sondheim/Arthur Laurents' ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. I'd love to hear her essay the title song from that show, as well as "Come Play Wiz Me" and "See What It Gets You". The most controversial song choice on the album may well be "Close To You" which starts of grandly, but loses a bit of steam and goes on a bit too long. Unwarranted length aside, the production on this track is particularly succulent and the time and care taken with not only this track, but the arc of the character Hardin portrays over the course of the album, shows a truly sanctimonious marriage of actress/singer, producer and material. This was undoubtedly a space trek oh-so-carefully crafted by Hardin and Jay-Alexander each step - and leap - of the way and the album stands as another jewel in the crown of Jay-Alexander's pristine recording legacy.
On ALL THE WAY TO MARS Miss Hardin takes us to The Edges of the universe all the while reminding us that the heart is, indeed, home - wherever home may be for each of us. And Hardin has proved with this album that she is equally at home on the screen, the stage and the recording studio. The low points of this recording would be the highlights of a lesser solo/cabaret album, particularly in the hands of a performer lacking Hardin‘s vast versatility or Jay-Alexander‘s precise skill and arrangements by Ben Toth. Hardin and Jay-Alexander take chances with the majority of this material and it is only when they are on all-to-familiar territory that the enterprise begins to stutter, but it never stops cold or lags for a significant amount of time. All in all, this album is, truly, out of this world. So, to turn a phrase using the joviality and jabby joy imparted to us by this delicious delicacy of a performer and album: Blast off, or blow off!
SCORE: 8 (out of 10).
Label: LML Music
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