As Lauren Kennedy’s new CD, Songs of Jason Robert Brown, kicks off with "And I Will Follow," the eponymous composer’s propulsive tribute to the trust that love inspires (and one of the four new songs on this album), it becomes clear that what we have here is an ideal match of singer and songwriter. Kennedy (Les Miserables, Sunset Boulevard) possesses a voice that’s alternately earthy and bright; it has an unmistakable "pop" quality that is perfectly suited to the folk and pop/rock inspired theater music that Brown wrote for his revue Songs for a New World and for the two-character relationship musical The Last Five Years, both of which have yielded the majority of the disc’s 11 selections. Tellingly, only one song from Parade — Brown’s most traditional show — is included.
Kennedy well plays Brown’s varied characters and their varied emotions, which run from romantic despair to spiritual joy and hit all stops in between. Yet she and Brown seem more interested in highlighting the range and quality of his music through her voice than in playing up the dramatic heft of these story-songs. Though she sounds fine throughout, Kennedy comes across more as promising than distinguished — which is fitting enough, considering that this is the young singer’s first solo album. She sounds lovely on "Christmas Lullaby" but, even with Roger Butterley’s gentle guitars-and-mandolin arrangement, her voice simply isn’t right for the "country" version of the song that Brown envisions here. And Kennedy hits all the right notes in "Letting You Go" without ever quite communicating the depth of this wrenching piece. She does delve deeply into other songs, particularly the quiet ode to self-doubt "If I Told You Now." And she is vocally impressive in the breathless, intense "Dreaming, Wide Awake" as well as in the disc’s inspiring finale, "Flying Home."
Brown appears to have had a great deal of fun re-orchestrating and arranging his material for this album. He adds a rhythmic accompaniment to "I Can Do Better Than That," gives the thrilling "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" an electric guitar solo, sneaks some extra funk into "Flying Home," and gives "Pretty Music" a Dixieland spin (with a rewritten lyric to boot). "When You Come Home to Me," played for laughs in The Last Five Years, is here given a dreamy big band arrangement by Larry Hochman. The more faithfully rendered duet "I’d Give It All For You" has the album’s only guest vocal, provided by Brown himself.
Courtesy of PS Classics, the CD comes with a booklet containing notes by Kennedy, Brown, and Trevor Nunn (who directed Kennedy in South Pacific), along with lyrics and photos. Ultimately, the disc is a fine debut for Kennedy, an excellent showcase for Brown’s songwriting talents, and a powerful vision of how a younger generation of artists may revitalize musical theater.