All posts by Michael Portantiere

Anastasia

Anastasia-movieFilm Soundtrack, 1997 (Atlantic) 2 Stars (2 / 5) Just as Disney Animation was slowly starting to see a decline in its musical renaissance in the mid-’90s, Fox Animation decided to try its hand with the Princess formula. The attempt resulted in Anastasia, an animated musical about the search for the Russian Grand Duchess, who was rumored for a time to still be alive after the Russian Revolution. At the center of it all is Anya, an orphan with amnesia. She’s roped into a ploy by con artists Dmitri and Vlad to pose as the lost Anastasia — only for the two to realize that Anya could actually be the Grand Duchess. A modest success in 1997, the movie is a fun diversion; but it takes ridiculously wild liberties with historical accuracy, going so far as to suggest that the Bolshevik Revolution was due to a magic spell cast by Grigori Rasputin, who comes back from the dead to seek revenge. What has gained the film a loyal following is the score by Broadway’s Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). Considering how beloved it has become — enough to lead to a Broadway incarnation 20 years later — it’s disappointing that this is not the team’s best work. Most of the songs are fine and enjoyable in themselves, but they lack any Russian flourish, and the score seems more designed to fit the Disney aesthetic than to create its own identity. However, two songs stand out: “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December.” Both are sung definitively by Liz Callaway, and they receive an extra push from Doug Besterman’s orchestrations. These two tracks make the album worthwhile, even if the rest of the score is not of the same quality. — Matt Koplik

Anastasia-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Broadway Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Twenty years after its premiere in movie theaters, Anastasia arrived on Broadway with Ahrens and Flaherty expanding upon their original score and Terrence McNally coming in to add a more serious mind and historical context to the piece. However, in trying to honor the animated film as well as give the musical a more realistic perspective, the resulting score is uneven. “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon A December” remain high points, with Christy Altomare a more than worthy successor to Callaway, though the smaller Broadway orchestrations — once again by Doug Besterman — do them a slight disservice. And while Ahrens and Flaherty have been able to add a few welcome numbers to flesh out the characters (“My Petersburg” and “In a Crowd of Thousands”), the additions to the score feel disconnected from the ’90s originals in tone and style. Also, Ramin Karimloo, while serving as a more realistic villain than the film’s Rasputin, is sadly wasted as Gleb, a Russian officer in the new regime. His rich tenor is underused in the score’s two blandest songs, “Still” and “The Neva Flows.” That said, the album is a much more fulfilling listening experience than the film soundtrack, and Altomare is a charming Anya. Also, Caroline O’Connor and Mary Beth Peil respectively bring jolts of energy and gravitas to their roles of the Countess Lily and the Dowager Empress. — M.K.

Waitress

Waitress conceptSara Bareilles:  What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, 2015 (Epic)  4 Stars (4 / 5) The idea of Sara Bareilles writing a musical wasn’t so far-out, even before it happened. The 21st century has seen several musical theater scores written by popular singer/songwriters (Kinky Boots, The Last Ship, 9 to 5), and with her insightful lyrics and inventive, pop/soul colored music, Bareilles seemed a natural fit for the modern musical stage. But, gifted as many of these writers are, few have been able to successfully translate their talent to Broadway, so it’s refreshing that Bareilles has done as well as she has in this respect.  What’s Inside is not a cast recording, but more of a concept album that previews Bareilles’ score for Waitress — a musical based on the 2007 film of the same title, about a diner waitress and pie maker extraordinaire named Jenna who’s trying to escape an unhappy marriage, only to discover that she’s pregnant. Though the plot is a bit of a downer, the film used dry humor and charming performances to create more of a grounded, intimate comedy. Bareilles’ songs match the tone of the film and dig deep into the characters, from the deceptively peppy “Opening Up” to the ethereal, dreamlike “Soft Place to Land” to the heartbreaking “She Used to Be Mine.” All of the tracks on this album are sung by Bareilles (with guest vocals by Jason Mraz), and it’s charming to hear her shift from Jenna to other characters throughout. What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress is both a fun showcase for her as a singer/songwriter and a great introduction to her first musical. — Matt Koplik

Waitress BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2016 (DMI Soundtracks) 3 Stars (3 / 5) This recording preserves the score for Waitress as presented on Broadway, with a fair amount of dialogue included on the album, vocal arrangements beefed up, and seven new songs added (“Door Number Three” has been revised to become “What Baking Can Do”). It all feels a little overstuffed. Part of what made Waitress work so well on screen were the grounded performances and the simple, almost quaint way in which the film presented itself as a story of everyday people dealing with everyday situations. By comparison, the Broadway production and this recording are much broader and flashier, and the material suffers because of it; many songs are overwhelmed by the arrangements or lose their emotional potency due to performances that lean more towards caricature than humanity. Also, some of the additional songs — for example “It Only Takes a Taste” and “I Love You Like a Table” — are not as strong as those Bareilles first presented on the concept album. On a positive note, the cast is made up of stellar singers. They bring to the score a Broadway shine that makes the album easily listenable, even if it’s not the best style for the piece. The best thing about the recording is Jessie Mueller in the central role of Jenna. Her voice is essentially as sweet and smooth as Bareilles’, yet versatile enough to delve deep into dark emotional territory and bring aching power to “She Used to Be Mine.” In addition, Mueller is a smart actress who offers the most realistic performance to be heard here. Every time she’s front and center, she wipes away the glossiness that coats the rest of the album, and she brings back the score’s heartbeat. — M.K.

Dear Evan Hansen

DEHOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Atlantic ) 4 Stars (4 / 5) A musical that unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, Dear Evan Hansen is the most high profile theater work to date from the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Set in a nondescript modern suburb, the show centers around a high school introvert with intense anxiety issues who finds himself involved in a misunderstanding which, partly due to the double-edged sword of social media and its galvanizing impact, snowballs into a giant lie that does both good and harm. Though the character of Evan is a little too broadly painted in his neuroses, and the show’s commentary on the effect of social media in modern culture doesn’t go quite as deep as it should, Pasek and Paul’s score is memorable and compelling, managing to wax poetic without being too on-the-nose in its imagery. Ben Platt, in the title role, does the majority of the vocal heavy lifting here, delivering a fully rounded and thrilling performance. It helps that he’s given the best songs in the score: the show’s biggest hit, “Waving Through a Window,” as well as the crushing “Words Fail” and the lovely if slightly heavy-handed “For Forever.” Platt is well supported by Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s endearing, struggling, single mother; and Laura Dreyfuss, refreshingly understated as Zoe, the object of Evan’s affections, who may be harmed most by Evan’s lie. The cast album includes minimal dialogue, opting instead to present each song as a stand-alone item. While this doesn’t harm the flow of the recording, and has helped a few of the songs to break out as popular hits, two songs suffer from such treatment: “Good For You,” a cathartic release of Evan’s mom’s pent-up frustration, here plateaus in its anger, with no release; and the offbeat humor of “Sincerely Me” comes across as somewhat tasteless out of context. That said, the rest of the album works very well. Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations (with additional work by Christopher Jahnke) are appropriately pop-oriented, and Justin Paul’s vocal arrangements never go overboard with vocal pyrotechnics. The restraint in their work separates DEH from many other contemporary scores, allowing the emotional weight of the piece to really resonate with the listener. And there are plenty of emotions here to resonate. — Matt Koplik

Pretty Filthy

Pretty-Filthy-editOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Here’s a musical comedy about the porn industry, created by the New York-based theater company The Civilians, with music and lyrics by William Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Fortress of Solitude, Love’s Labours Lost) and a book by Bess Wohl.  One of the best things about the show is its title, which strikes just the right tone of light humor and sweet naughtiness that’s skillfully maintained almost throughout the proceedings, despite the fact that so much of the content is, indeed, pretty filthy. Song titles include “Waiting for Wood,” “Fuck The World,” and “Squirting 101,” and here’s a sample lyric from the opening number: “Most girls give blowjobs to guys they barely know at college parties.” Although the controversial “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label is not affixed to this recording, it applies in spades — but honestly,  why would anyone who decides to purchase the cast album of a show about “adult entertainment” expect anything else? Some of the melodies Friedman created for this unusual project are very tuneful, but a salient feature of the show — some would say its main problem — is that many of the quotes of the porn actors, directors, and producers seem to have been set to music practically verbatim, with only a little modification and a few rhymes and repetitions thrown in to make them more lyric-like. As a result, significant stretches of the score sound prosaic, and often there’s a sense of too many words having been crammed into each measure of music. Still, there’s a lot of illicit, edgy fun to be had here, thanks in no small part to the perfectly gauged performances of a talented cast: John Behlmann as “Fredo/Jimmy Wood,” Lulu Fall as “Dana,” Alyse Alan Louis as “Becky/Taylor,”  Luba Mason as “Georgina Congress,” Maria-Christina Oliveras as “Carrie/Holly Donovan,” Steve Rosen as “Sam Speigel/Jeff/Oscar Gerhard,” Marrick Smith as “Bobby/Dick,” and Jared Zirilli as “Nick Harding.” — Michael Portantiere

Cagney

cagneyOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2016 (Broadway Records) 2 Stars (2 / 5) First seen at the York Theatre Company’s home at St. Peter’s Church and then in a commercial run at the Westside Theatre, this show was a crowd pleaser largely for Joshua Bergasse’s exciting, tap-heavy choreography, which obviously cannot be experienced via the cast album. But the recording is still worth hearing for the enjoyable score by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern, and for Creighton’s dynamic performance in the title role: James Cagney (1899-1986), who started as a song and dance man in vaudeville and went on to huge fame for his tough-guy roles in such movies as The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, and White Heat. Another major character  in the show is studio mogul Jack L. Warner (Bruce Sabath), who in the opening number, “Black and White,” boasts of taking “a shrimp with pride from the Lower East Side” and turning him into “the greatest tough-guy the silver screen ever saw.” Indeed, the contentious relationship between Cagney and Warner provides much of the show’s dramatic energy, and one of its best sequences deals with the mid-career triumph Cagney achieved when he played legendary songwriter/performer George M. Cohan in the Warner Bros. biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. Highlights of the Creighton/McGovern score include the charming “Falling in Love,” in which Cagney and his future wife (played by Ellen Zolezzi) find it difficult to say the “L” word, and Cagney’s introspective second-act solos, “How Will I Be Remembered?” and “Tough Guy.” Also included are two Cohan songs that were featured in Yankee Doodle Dandy: “Grand Old Flag,” for the Act I finale, and the title song, for the epilogue. The recording would have benefited from a larger orchestra (only five players here), but it’s entertaining for the stronger moments of the score and the performances of Creighton and the rest of the cast, which also includes Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, and Josh Walden in multiple roles.  — Michael Portantiere

The Story of My Life

storyOriginal Broadway Cast, 2009 (PS Classics) 3 Stars (3 / 5) The Story of My Life is an intimate, unusual, two-character musical with songs by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill. The strengths of the cast album lie in two talented performers, a score that’s lovely, evocative, and emotional, and the show’s highly original premise about friendship and the art of creative writing. Yet that very premise also shackles the piece, for the audience isn’t sufficiently exposed to other aspects of the lives of the characters, creating distracting questions that are never fully answered. Thomas Weaver (Will Chase), a successful author, returns to his hometown to write the eulogy for his one-time best friend, Alvin Kelby (Malcolm Gets). Alvin appears in Thomas’s mind, taking him back to when a thoughtful first grade teacher brought them together (“Mrs. Remington”). The score soars in its early numbers, charting how the pair bond over a shared love of books (Alvin’s dad owns a bookstore) and the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Bartram displays a solid grasp of childhood perspective, and Chase and Gets — even as only heard on this recording — magically transform themselves into schoolboys, exchanging gifts and creating traditions. (Check out the way Chase’s voice cracks in “1876.”) When the boys hit adolescence, it hits back; Thomas rightly worries that Alvin’s “odd” behavior, including an obsession with his dead mother’s bathrobe, might not go over well in high school (“Normal”). Bartram and Hill subtly reveal the differences that will later fracture this friendship, but the show doesn’t work as well once the men reach adulthood. Thomas attends college, writes bestsellers, and gets engaged, while Alvin apparently has no existence beyond the bookstore. Thomas increasingly edits his friend out of his life, culminating in the shocking “Independence Day” — and then he develops writer’s block. He has rejected Alvin, so now his muse has abandoned him. Here’s where the questions start — not the one concerning Alvin’s death, which Bartram and Hill rightly keep a mystery, as it leads to Thomas’s catharsis. But what about Thomas’s fiancée, Ann? Unlike the brief but fully realized portraits of Mrs. Remington and Alvin’s parents, she’s a cipher. And are we supposed to accept that everything Thomas has written has derived from his experiences with Alvin? In the hands of less talented performers, this slight framework might crumble, but Chase keeps Thomas attractive even when he’s being a jerk, and Gets’s Alvin skillfully morphs from neurotic kid to crushed soul to the ghost whose nagging gets his friend back on track. — Laura Frankos

Giant

giantOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2013 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Texas is big. Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel, Giant, is big, spanning decades and two generations of rancher families. The 1956 movie version is big, with spurting oils wells and thundering cattle herds (plus a stunning young Liz Taylor and a sultry James Dean). How to translate something so gigantic to the stage? By going big with the score. Giant may not be Michael John LaChiusa’s most important musical, but it’s his most melodic, alternately sweeping and introspective. This recording is jam-packed with 26 songs from the three-hour show: Mexican folk songs, country hoedowns, ballads of hope and regret, swing, and early rock. (LaChiusa subtly mirrors changing musical tastes as the story moves from 1925 to 1952.) Linking the various parts of the whole is the anthem “Heartbreak Country,” for at its heart, Giant is the tale of that land — the Reata Ranch — and how it changed through the years, affecting everyone connected with it. At the center is the owner, Bick Benedict (the wonderful Brian D’Arcy James), who, like his older sister Luz (Michele Pawk), loves Reata and is always aware of his obligation to “take care of the land.” Yet, instead of marrying the daughter of a neighboring ranch owner, he weds an educated Virginian, Leslie (Kate Baldwin). LaChiusa chronicles their relationship in nine telling numbers. “Your Texas” is about Leslie’s dreams during their courtship, including a kind of frontier utopia. The lilting “Did Spring Come To Texas?” reveals Bick’s joy at their wedding. Things don’t always run smoothly, not with Luz’s interference and sexy mechanic Jett (PJ Griffith) hanging around; but there is genuine love here, and Bick and Lesie try repeatedly to work out their differences (“Heartbreak Country,” “Topsy Turvy”). A major issue is the treatment of the Mexicans who work the ranch, once Mexican property (“Aurelia Dolores”). The racism appalls Leslie, and her views are shared by the couple’s bookish son, Jordy (Bobby Steggart), who loves Juana (Natalie Cortez). Things reach a crisis in the climactic “The Desert,” a musical sequence (with dialogue by librettist Sybille Pearson) that’s a mini-play in itself.  Others — there are nearly a dozen significant characters — play their roles in this changing Texas. Griffith works hard to distance himself from Dean’s iconic portrayal; his rock growl helps. Pawk’s Luz is perhaps overly villainous in “No Time For Surprises,” but fares better in her duets with Bick. John Dossett and Katie Thompson each get strong solos as Bick’s uncle and the girl Bick jilted for Leslie. The younger generation — Steggert,  Cortez, Miguel Cervantes, and Mackenzie Mauzy — have their own chances to shine as well, notably in the bouncy “Jump” and the tender “There Is A Child.” This is a rich, vibrant score, loaded with emotion and power. — Laura Frankos

Dogfight

dogfightOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2013 (Ghostlight) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Many musical scores can stand perfectly well as cast recordings, separate from their staged productions. Others lose something when deprived of the character and plot development revealed in the shows’ libretti. For all its virtues, Dogfight — songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan — falls within the latter group. Based on the 1991 film, it’s the story of some Marines tearing up San Francisco in late 1963, the night before they ship out to Vietnam. They plan a “dogfight,”  a contest in which each jarhead contributes fifty bucks to a kitty that will be won by the guy who brings the ugliest date to the party.  A nasty game, indeed — and the boys, including lead Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena), appear as insensitive, hot-blooded louts. Fresh out of boot camp and convinced that they’re invincible, their pickup lines in the song “Hey, Good-Lookin'” are lies and braggadocio. Eddie finds a waitress, Rose (the sweet-voiced Lindsay Mendez), and pressures her to “Come to a Party” while privately exulting over his chances of winning the dogfight. Rose, for her part, is thrilled to be going out with a boy; in “Nothing Short of Wonderful,” she dithers over what to wear in staccato phrases, sounding like a mashup of Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife from Into The Woods. (The opening vamp of the title song also echoes that Sondheim show.) Clearly, this evening will not go well for Rose. But, sometime between the invitation and the party, Eddie has a change of heart that isn’t part of the score, although it’s described in the recording notes. The libretto shows us how Eddie grows to like Rose as they walk to the party, but none of that is in the score; on the album, he jumps from acting like a complete cad to trying unsuccessfully to take Rose home before the judging, in order to save her the embarrassment. Similarly, the recording doesn’t include Eddie’s later apology or indicate how the relationship progresses. Still, there’s much to appreciate here. Pasek and Paul know how to craft effective theater songs with nuance and layers. A few of the lyrics are a little too facile in telegraphing emotions or a sense of time and place, but most are very well written. The music ranges from early-sixties pop to Rose’s folk songs and powerful, revealing character numbers. “Come to a Party” works on multiple levels as variously sung by the callous Marines, the naive Rose, or Marcy, a knowing prostitute (played with sledgehammer bluntness by Annaleigh Ashford). The boys’ cockiness is evident as they take the town in “Some Kinda Time” and plan their big homecoming in “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade.” Reality shatters their hopes, and Eddie’s devastating “Come Back” portrays what the war has done to him. But Rose is the real star here, and her journey comes through best in the score. She’s alternately shy and manic at first, then furious at the “Dogfight,” and soul-searching in “Pretty Funny.” The show’s emotional crux is found in her song “Before It’s Over,” when she realizes she has somehow benefited from the dreadful experience. As noted above, Eddie’s character growth isn’t charted as well in the songs, but this is still a solid score that tells a compelling story. — Laura Frankos

The Scottsboro Boys

scottsboro-originalOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2010 (JAY) 5 Stars (5 / 5) In several of their shows, John Kander and Fred Ebb have used various types of entertainment as the contextual setting for exploring historical and social issues. In Cabaret, sleazy nightclub routines parallel the excesses of Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism; Chicago‘s vaudeville acts reveal the corrupt justice system of the Roaring Twenties. In The Scottsboro Boys, the tragic story of nine young African Americans who were unjustly accused of raping two white women in 1931 is told in the form of a minstrel show. The result is a searing, brilliant work with depth, power, and guts. Kander says they chose the format for the opportunities it provided: an ensemble, led by an Interlocutor (John Cullum), telling stories, jokes and songs. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (the versatile Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon) assist by playing multiple characters (“White men’s our speciality”). Needless to say, the minstrel show itself is a stark reminder of racism, reinforcing social injustice with every number. In the rousing opener, the lead among the accused men, Haywood Patterson (the impressive Brandon Victor Dixon), asks “This time, can we tell it like it really happened?” The Interlocutor benignly replies, “Of course.” Haywood’s resolve to tell the truth provides the score with a constant refrain, from his first defense (the Bert Williams style “Nothin'”) to the comic fable “Make Friends With the Truth” to “Zat So?” His defiant cry “You Can’t Do Me” sets up the boys’ refusal of the Interlocutor’s call for a cakewalk and a “happy ending,” subverting the minstrel show. The fates of the real-life Scottsboro Boys were anything but happy, but the final scene places their case in the broader context to the civil rights movement, giving a glimpse of a better future. The score also contains one of Kander & Ebb’s finest songs, the poignant “Go Back Home,” with a beautiful, wistful melody that reoccurs throughout the underscoring. (A bonus track has Kander performing the number.) Throughout the recording, Cullum shines as the unctuous Interlocutor, his genially racist attitude clear in “It’s Gonna Take Time” (cut from the subsequent Broadway production) and “Southern Days.” The Interlocutor misses Mammy’s ribs and mint juleps, but conveniently forgets the lynchings and cross-burnings. Domingo and McClendon’s talents are also evident throughout, especially when they assume the guises of the Attorney General and lawyer Samuel Liebowitz in savagely satirical numbers revealing Southern anti-Semitism and patronizing New York showmanship. (“Just ask my chauffeur, Rufus!”) Here was no easy subject, but this musical may be Kander and Ebb’s most important work; three years after the show opened, the Scottsboro boys were granted a posthumous pardon. — Laura Frankos

scottsboro-londonLondon Cast, 2014 (JAY) 4 Stars (4 / 5) This cast album bears a close similarity to the 2010 version. Three of the principals crossed the Atlantic to appear in the London production of The Scottsboro Boys: Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones, and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo. Dixon may even be better here, displaying heightened exuberance in “Commencing in Chattanooga” and enormous inner strength in “You Can’t Do Me.” The ensemble numbers sound more polished, and there are some lyric changes, notably in “Make Friends With the Truth.” There’s also a bit of additional dialogue, with more details about the fate of these young men. The Interlocutor’s solo, “It’s Gonna Take Time,” was cut from the Broadway production and is absent here, but the exit music is included. Like the earlier recording, there’ a bonus track of “Go Back Home,” here performed by Dixon. A key difference between the two albums is the Interlocutor, played nastily here by Julian Glover. Where John Cullum was  generally sly, Glover is more commanding, sending chills as he insists, “Shake those tambourines!” When he describes himself as “the master of these folks” in the opener, the listener can’t help thinking he means more than just master of ceremonies. Does a collector need both recordings? Probably not. But those considering staging the show may want the London one, which is closer to the licensed version. — L.F.

Shrek

shrekOriginal Broadway Cast, 2010 (Verve) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Not to be outdone by Disney, the Dreamworks company decided to come to Broadway with a musical adaptation of its Oscar winning animated film Shrek, about an everyman ogre trying to maintain his peace of mind while wading through numerous fairy tales — some of which aren’t quite so magical. While the original Broadway production proved to be wildly over-produced and too loyal to the film in terms of its design and book, the cast recording reveals that, at its core, Shrek has considerable charm and a solid score aided by Danny Troob’s healthily full orchestrations. It’s not a surprise that composer Jeanine Tesori brought a mixture of earnestness and funky independence to the piece, but it is a surprise that first-time lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire crafted such well-structured and genuinely witty lyrics. The score boasts a fair number of highlights, such as “I Know It’s Today” and “When Words Fail,” though some songs try too hard for off-kilter humor  — for example, “Story of My Life” and “What’s Up, Duloc?” In the title role, Brian d’Arcy James had to balance his own musical theater instincts with the burden of recreating a highly beloved film character; for the most part, he succeeded, especially in the touching “Who I’d Be.” Sadly, the talented Daniel Breaker was not given as much artistic freedom in the role of Shrek’s best friend Donkey, and instead offers an Eddie Murphy impression through much of this cast album. More successful principal players include Sutton Foster as not-your-average-princess Fiona, going toe to toe with James in the childishly gleeful “I Think I Got You Beat,” and Christopher Sieber as the hyper-sinister, height-challenged villain Lord Farquad. In their score, Tesori and Abaire gave Shrek a mischievous soul that was sadly lost among the giant scenery of the original production. Luckily, it’s captured here. — Matt Koplik