I work with someone who has a goal of learning something new, however small, every day. In that spirit, what I learned from "Getting To Know You," the opening track on John Lithgow's third album for kids, The Sunny Side of the Street (2006), is that his last name is pronounced as rhyming with "Miss Go" rather than "Hoosegow," which is how I'd always heard it in my head. So that, however small, was what I learned upon first listen.
What I knew already going in, and what the album shows repeatedly, is that Lithgow is a fabulous performer. His theatrical background is perfect for these songs, written for vaudeville or musicals in the '20s and '30s. On the best tracks, such as "Baby!" or "Ya Gotta Have Pep," Lithgow lets loose with theatrical abandon (I love the "whampa..." Lithgow unleashes in the middle of what has heretofore been a very mellow duet with Maude Maggart on "Baby!"). Lithgow has a sweet duet with Sherie Rene Scott on the closing track "Lullabye In Ragtime." The tunes are a nice selection of familiar and less-well-known, and the frisky orchestration is stellar, making the songs sound, while not modern, not 80 years old, either.
Downsides? Well, the duet with Madeleine Peyroux on "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (which I had hopes for) never really gels. It's interrupted by a bunch of kids, which is akin to asking Monet to paint some pretty cathedrals and then having some 7-year-olds from Rouen come in to make some improvements to the canvas. The kids chorus is fine, and in some cases gives Lithgow somebody (or many somebodies) to play off of, but my favorite tracks are those where the kids don't appear. And while some of the less-well-known songs are a joy to discover ("I Always Say Hello To A Flower"), others are much less interesting ("I'm A Manatee.")
I'm gonna peg this album as being of greatest interest for kids 3 to 7, though obviously most of these songs were originally written for adults and people of all ages. You can hear samples of the 37-minute album at the usual online suspects and see Lithgow's antics in the video for "Ya Gotta Have Pep".
The album will not change the mind of anyone who doesn't care how bright the lights are on Broadway -- if you are a rockist, you will not like this. Lithgow has recorded some fabulous renditions of these tunes, however, and while it's probably not going to be your favorite album, it's definitely worth trying at least once. Think of it as learning something new, musically at least.