All posts by Michael Portantiere

Pretty Woman

Pretty WomanOriginal Broadway Cast, 2018 (Atlantic) 0 stars; not recommended. Movies that were popular in the latter part of the 20th century have become the go-to source material for Broadway musicals these days. If a film is beloved, a show based on it has a built in audience, and if the movie was made more than 20 years ago, the show can cash in on the “nostalgia factor.”  Or so the thinking goes. This cynical mentality is nowhere more prominently seen than in Pretty Woman: The Musical. Based on the wildly successful 1990 romantic comedy, the show tries to please its audience by sticking so closely to the original screenplay that whole scenes are recreated line for line. (Garry Marshall, the film’s director, worked on the libretto with J.F. Lawton before his death in 2016.) It also trades on nostalgia by bringing in ’80s-’90s pop-rock team Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance to write the score,  and if none of the songs are offensively unlistenable, they’re all ultimately unnecessary. Each one starts by stating the basic intention of the character singing it, usually at a grooving tempo, with the following verses essentially rewording that same sentiment in a higher key and at a faster tempo. While this allows power belters like Samantha Barks and Orfeh to wail appropriately, it does little for the story. One need only read generic song titles such as “I Can’t Go Back,” “Something About Her” and “Never Give Up On a Dream” to understand the lack of insight Adams and Vallance have brought to the score. Set in a sanitized version of LA, the show follows Vivian (Barks, in the role that made Julia Roberts a movie star), a down-on-her-luck hooker who’s hired by reserved billionaire Edward (Andy Karl) as his escort for the week. After some playful banter and small blowups, the two fall in love, and all turns out well in the end. As Vivian, Barks decides not to channel Roberts’ bubbly charm in the film and go for a more nuanced performance, but her attempts are undermined at every turn by the banality of the lyrics and the repetitiveness of the music. Though Karl’s faux rock and roll growl suits the score’s style, he is ultimately wasted in the role of the withdrawn Edward. As Vivian’s spunky fellow prostitute Kit, Orfeh goes for broke and pulls out every vocal trick she has on songs like “Rodeo Drive” and “Never Give Up on a Dream.” But, like her costars, she’s failed by the lifeless pop tunes. Only Allison Blackwell, in a featured spot, gets any music with energy in it, during the sequence when Edward takes Vivian to the opera — but this is because she gets to sing a bit of La Traviata, which orchestrator/arranger Will Van Dyke seamlessly incorporates into the Adams-Vallance song “You and I.”  It’s a memorable moment in a recording you’ll otherwise forget about as soon as you finish listening to it. — Matt Koplik

Hadestown

Hadestown - ConceptStudio Cast, 2010 (Wilderland Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Though indie singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell always meant for Hadestown to be a stage musical, its first incarnation was in the form of this concept album, recorded for posterity and to give the piece greater audience outreach. The response was overwhelmingly strong, and Hadestown grew a dedicated fan base over the years until a production opened at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, followed by the show’s Broadway premiere in 2019. Considering the immediately intense response from fans, it’s surprising now to hear how simplistic the concept album is; compared to other concept albums that became stage musicals (Evita, for example),  this one is a much more relaxed affair. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, who travels to the Underworld (“Hadestown”) to bring back his love Eurydice, the piece as heard on this recording is a fairly straightforward retelling of the myth and is mostly a platform for Mitchell’s talents as a songwriter. Her music can groove festively (“Way Down in Hadestown,” “When the Chips Are Down”) or float dreamlike (“Wedding Song,” “Wait For Me”), always with an edgy undercurrent that foreshadows the danger lying ahead. Mitchell’s lyrics are poetically expressive, though they become sharper and more story-driven on the later cast albums. Here, Mitchell herself sings the role of Eurydice while Justin Vernon performs Orpheus. An odd choice is made in the mixing of Vernon’s vocals so that it sounds like multiple Vernons are singing together each time Orpheus is present. (According to the myth, Orpheus possessed a mystically beautiful singing voice, and the mixing may have been meant to reflect that, but the effect is off-putting.) Those who were unfamiliar with Hadestown until it came to Broadway and who desire to hear its origins will find this album mostly engaging, but both subsequent recordings of the score are superior and, of course, more indicative of what the piece eventually became. — Matt Koplik

Hadestown - NYTWOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (Warner Classics) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Recorded live at the New York Theatre Workshop, this album has high-energy performances and a number of welcome changes to the piece since its original incarnation. The biggest change is that the Hadestown heard here is no longer so straightforward a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but builds upon it by expanding characters that didn’t have much presence on the original recording and giving them more active roles. These include the messenger god Hermes (Chris Sullivan), who now narrates the proceedings. A trio of actresses called The Fates are more fully present as a Greek Chorus, and the myth of Hades (a quietly domineering Patrick Page) and his wife, Persephone (Amber Grey), is explored with greater depth here, showing us how their marriage, once passionate but now cold, has detrimentally effected the characters on earth. These changes make Hadestown a more fulfilling and well rounded piece, but they also create a new problem: Mitchell has written the supporting characters with a hard edge and a playful attitude, whereas her songs for Orpheus and Eurydice have a more earnest romanticism. On a surface level, this makes sense, as the young pair are meant to provide the heart of the piece. But in giving the supporting characters such rich, lively material, Mitchell has made them more interesting than the two leads. It doesn’t help that several of Orpheus and Eurydice’s songs included in the NYTW production are inexplicably not on the album. (“Wedding Song” is a major loss). Considering all of this, Damon Daunno and Nabiyah Be do admirable work as the doomed lovers. In fact, Daunno, is perhaps the best Orpheus heard on any of the official Hadestown recordings; he gives the character a confident, passionate swagger, and his voice sails smoothly through Mitchell’s score, seamlessly gliding in and out of a pure falsetto. Generally speaking, what’s presented on this recording is so well done that it almost makes up for the material that isn’t included. Fan favorites from the concept album, such as Orpheus’ “Wait for Me” or Hades’ scarily relevant “Why We Build the Wall,” are still here, but Mitchell’s additions are also worth noting: Persephone is given the jaunty “Livin it Up On Top,” gracefully vamped by Grey, and Hermes begins the show with a new opening number, “Road to Hell.” From the moment a trombone wails a jazzy, New Orleans-fueled intro to that song (orchestraters Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose continue from the concept album), you know that the energy of Hadestown has shifted from relaxed mysticism to hot theatricality. It’s a welcome change. — M.K.

Hadestown - OBCOriginal Broadway Cast, 2019 (Sing It Again Records) 5 Stars (5 / 5) After the workshop production at NYTW, Hadestown was staged in Canada and at the Royal National Theatre in London, where it continued to develop until it finally came to Broadway nearly a decade after the release of the concept album. On stage, the result is often breathtaking, with Mitchell’s score embracing its theatrical potential and director Rachel Chavkin and her team of designers working visual wonders. Some have complained that, in turning Hadestown into a full evening of theater, Mitchell overstuffed the piece with unnecessary material. There’s some truth there, in that, when the show is experienced live on stage, some numbers feel less important than others and/or seem to reiterate points made previously. But when listening to the recording, all of those complaints melt away, and we’re left with Mitchell’s fantastic work sung by a phenomenal company. Grey and Page are back as Persephone and Hades, with André de Shields offering a wiser and kinder Hermes than his predecessors. Eva Noblezada is a passionately sung Eurydice; her performance, and the addition of “Any Way the Wind Blows” (an already established song of Mitchell’s), give the character some much needed grit. Reeve Carney’s interpretation of Orpheus aims more towards a wandering man-child than the swaggering heartthrob offered by Daunno. This is fine, although it robs the character’s romantic pairing with Eurydice of heat. Also, while Carney has a strong voice and does well by the material, his singing is not quite as smooth and effortless as Daunno’s. Still, these are small quibbles about what’s overall a terrific album. One of its major highlights is “Wait for Me,” Orpheus’ cry to Eurydice as he travels to the Underworld to save her.  While the song was moving and pretty on the concept album, Mitchell, Chorney and Sickafoose here have shaped it into something spectacularly theatrical. And, speaking of waiting: Fans of Hadestown had to wait almost 10 years for the piece to become a completely satisfying stage musical, but their patience has been well rewarded. — M.K.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical

TinaOriginal London Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight) 3 Stars (3 / 5) When experienced live in the theater, a “bio-musical” — like any other show — may be judged on several levels, including the production values and the quality of the storytelling, over and above the performances. But a cast album is all about the music. In that regard, this recording of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, shorn of the show’s execrable book and direction, succeeds  thanks to the searing, passionate singing of Adrienne Warren in the title role. Also a pleasure to hear are the arrangements (by Nicholas Skilbeck) and orchestrations (by Ethan Popp), which deftly approximate the original charts of the songs that brought Turner worldwide fame during her decades-long career as a rock music goddess.  Warren was an Olivier Award nominee for this role on the London stage, and her portrayal was considered so vital to the show’s success that she was signed to repeat it on Broadway. Pick any tracks from the album at random — for example, “River Deep – Mountain High,” “Proud Mary,” “Private Dancer,” or “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” — and you may find yourself marveling at how skillfully Warren tributes the icon’s one-of-a-kind voice and delivery while still making the performance sound organic, something deeper than sheer mimicry. The other singers heard here are fine, including Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Ike Turner. Still, the recording is All About Warren, and she will not disappoint those who feel they want an audio memento of this show even though, of course, Turner’s actual recordings of these songs are still and no doubt always will be very much available — Michael Portantiere

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations

Ain't Too ProudOriginal Broadway Cast, 2019 (Universal Music) 5 Stars (5 / 5) There’s always a sense of déjà vu when a jukebox musical opens on Broadway,  as most people walk in humming the tunes. If Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations doubles that feeling, it might be due to another “ain’t” from distant memory: Ain’t Misbehavin’, the first jukebox revue to take home the Tony Award for Best Musical. Ain’t Too Proud offers audiences just what that 1978 show did, with great songs delivered in great performances. Praised for its spirited direction (Des McAnuff), clever book (Dominique Morisseau), and high-voltage choreography by Sergio Trujillo, who took home a Tony for his work, Ain’t Too Proud also delivers the goods in its cast recording. The energy of what’s being performed eight times a week at the Imperial Theatre is all here in an album made up of more than two dozen Temptations songs, featuring the one-of-a-kind Detroit rock & roll rhythms and harmonies for which the group became famous. Highlights include such favorites as “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” As the show’s storytelling reveals, there were more than a few “Temps” over the course of the group’s long career besides its original foursome. But Derrick Baskin, James Harkness, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, and Ephraim Sykes stand front and center, leading a tremendously talented cast. The recording also offers a good deal of interstitial narrative, directly from the show’s book, that aids in the appreciation of the story.  (Of course, if you so choose, you can eliminate those tracks and custom design the album for your own listening pleasure). Mention should also be made of the fine orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, who at age 75 had his legendary, 50-year Broadway career capped with a special 2019 Tony Award for his contribution to the American musical. — Ron Fassler

The Band’s Visit

TBVOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Ghostlight) 5 Stars (5 / 5) Stranded in an Israeli desert town by mistake, an Egyptian band stays overnight with the locals before heading on to their engagement. Composer-lyricist David Yazbek has created a luminous score that highlights not the differences between these strangers, but their commonality, mankind’s shared needs for love and connection. The music incorporates klezmer influences and American jazz, but especially Arabic folk and classical idioms and instruments: the oud, riq, and darbouka. Katrina Lenk’s nuanced voice brings life to the role of cafe owner Dina; she and her friends offer the Egyptians a heaping dish of sarcasm and watermelon in “Welcome to Nowhere.” (Their sleepy village has more “blah, blah, blah” than that Gershwin song.) “It Is What It Is” hints at Dina’s history, but the haunting “Omar Sharif” reveals more, describing how young Dina and her mother adored Sharif movies and the exotic singing of Oum Kaltoum. This admission resonates with Tewfiq, the Egyptian band’s buttoned-up conductor (Tony Shaloub). His single solo is an a cappella number in Arabic, “Itgara’a,” hinting at inner sorrows. Yazbek deftly slides the concluding phrase of “Itgara’a” into Dina’s response, “Something Different.” The other Egyptians also forge bonds with the Israelis, often through music. “The Beat of Your Heart” is an exuberant memory song, evoking how former musician Avrum (Andrew Polk) met his late wife; Camal (George Abud) and Simon (Alok Tewari) joyfully add their violin and clarinet. The awkward Papi (Etai Benson) relates his trouble with girls in the hilarious “Papi Hears the Ocean,” so Haled (Ari’el Stachel) advises him in the style of his idol, Chet Baker (“Haled’s Song About Love””). Camal accompanies Itzik (John Cariani) as he soothes his child in “Itzik’s Lullaby.” The transcendent “Answer Me” concludes the vocals, sung by the “Telephone Guy” (Adam Kantor), who’s forever waiting by the village’s single pay phone in the hope that his girlfriend will call. For a few glorious seconds, the entire company joins in, reflecting the basic human need for connection. Like the Telephone Guy, our ears are “thirsty” for more of that. – Laura Frankos

Tootsie

TootsieOriginal Broadway Cast, 2019 (Decca Broadway) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Librettist Robert Horn and composer/lyricist David Yazbek made some wise moves in translating the popular 1982 comedy film Tootsie into a stage musical — for example, shifting the milieu from a soap opera to a present-day Broadway musical in trouble. The focus remains on Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), a jerk of an actor whose desperation leads him to impersonate a woman (“Dorothy Michaels”) to land a role. Michael’s frustrations and hopes are echoed by his better-behaved show biz colleagues, as Yazbek’s brash and brassy score reveals the vicissitudes of the actor’s life. The ensemble expresses joy in “I Like What She’s Doing” when their show starts to improve in rehearsals, and opening night nerves in “The Most Important Night.” Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), the actress cast opposite Dorothy in the musical, Juliet’s Nurse, relates the toll that acting takes on personal relationships in the poignant “There Was John.” Sandy (Sarah Stiles), Michael’s neurotic ex-girlfriend, unloads her audition anxieties (“What kind of masochist keeps coming back for more?”) in the rapid-fire mambo number “What’s Gonna Happen.” The song is not quite a match for “Model Behavior” in Yazbek’s Women On The Verge Of a Nervous Breakdown, but it’s easily the funniest number in the score. During all of this, Michael’s roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) acts as a fresh, raunchy facet of Michael’s conscience. Fontana’s dual roles come alive through his vocal skills, and he nails Michael’s progression. At first, he’s an annoying narcissist making terrible choices, cleverly conveyed in “Opening Number” and “Whaddya Do.” Next, he’s an “Unstoppable” stage success as Dorothy, starting with the diegetic anthem “I Won’t Let You Down.” This serves as Dorothy’s killer audition — Fontana builds and builds triumphantly — and also hints at how “she” will help the show within the show. While the songs reflect Michael’s growth, they’re less successful at showing how Dorothy affects those around her. This isn’t Yazbek’s strongest score, but it serves the comedy of the plot very well. — Laura Frankos

Desperate Measures

Desperate MeasuresOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2018 (Masterworks Broadway) 3 Stars (3 / 5) People have adapted Shakespeare’s plays into musicals before, usually taking on the Bard’s hits. Librettist/lyricist Peter Kellogg and composer David Friedman chose one of the “problem plays,” Measure for Measure — a complicated stew of morality, corruption, and justice, with not much comedy in it. Kellogg and Friedman dropped their characters in Old West Arizona,  and ramped up the sex (keeping the famous “bed trick”) and fun. The result, Desperate Measures, is a raucous, bawdy, old-fashioned musical comedy. The album can’t supply the sight gags, but the performers have great comedic chops, and they land every punch line in Kellogg’s lyrics. Friedman has called his score “Jewish country,” but it’s charmingly varied despite the dominant Western twang. “It Doesn’t Hurt To Try” is a hoedown with banjo and fiddle; “Someday They Will Thank Me” is a comic patter number for the villain, the sleazy governor (Nick Wyman, with a outrageous German accent); and the first act finale, “In the Dark,” is a complex choral piece set to a rhumba rhythm. The scene-setting opener, “The Ballad of Johnny Blood,” is an over-the-top homage to the themes of classic Western TV shows and films like Rawhide and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Broadway influences are present, too, including small nods to Oklahoma! and a big one to Annie Get Your Gun with the best comic challenge duet since “Anything You Can Do”:  In “Just For You,” Johnny (Conor Ryan) and saloon girl Bella (the uproarious Lauren Molina) argue over how far each would go in the name of love. (“I slept with another guy, just for you.” “Shot a man and watched him die, just for you.”) Molina also shines in her saloon striptease, “It’s Getting Hot In Here,” and in the duet “The Way That You Feel,” as novice nun Susanna (Emma Degerstedt, with a lovely soprano) instructs her how to be less risqué for the bed trick. Overall, this is a spirited score with heart. — Laura Frankos

Beetlejuice

BeetlejuiceOriginal Broadway Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) How far will a musical go to give you a good time? In the case of Beetlejuice, all the way to the Netherworld and back. Based on Tim Burton’s cult ’80s classic movie of the same title, the show centers around its title character, a fast-talking and wisecracking demon who helps a recently deceased couple try and scare away the family that’s recently moved into their home (though he has his own agenda for doing so). While Burton’s film famously delivered its morbidity with a wry sense of humor that earned it a PG rating, the musical adaptation takes a much zanier, PG-13/R approach. Eddie Perfect’s score has some classic Broadway flourishes sprinkled throughout, but it mostly leans to ’80s-style pop and musical theater faux-rock, which Kris Kukul elevates with his rollicking arrangements and orchestrations. Perfect’s lyrics are also reasonably well crafted, walking the line between wit and crassness. As Beetlejuice, the endlessly energetic Alex Brightman heavily indulges  in vocal fry (as a respectful nod to Michael Keaton’s performance in the film) and devours songs like “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing” and “Say My Name” to enjoyable effect. Kerry Butler and Rob McClure are also terrific as the recently deceased couple, Barbara and Adam. They embrace their characters’ intentional blandness in “Ready, Set, Not Yet” without being bland themselves, giving Brightman even more comedic fodder to play with in all of their tracks together. Leslie Kritzer is delightfully wacky as Delia; her “No Reason” duet with Sophia Ann Caruso’s Lydia has some of Perfect’s best lyrics, and is a major highlight of the recording. As the death-obsessed Lydia, Caruso displays a thrillingly unique voice that’s put to good use in her solos “Dead Mom” and “Home.” Enjoyable as the album is, there’s one gripe: Because the score is so eager to entertain, most of the extremely lively songs are packed back to back against each other, and are given no room to breathe. This makes for a rather overwhelming listening experience, with some numbers offering diminishing returns (“Creepy Old Guy” and “That Beautiful Sound” for example). The album may also repel listeners who wanted a more direct replica of the movie, or who prefer their musical comedy without references to cocaine and “ghost zombie Jesus.” But those who are willing to accept Beetlejuice on its own terms are in for a highly entertaining listen. — Matt Koplik

Mean Girls

Mean GirlsOriginal Broadway Cast, 2018 (Atlantic)  3 Stars (3 / 5) Mean Girls has been a major staple in pop culture ever since the film was released in 2004. With instantly quotable dialogue and numerous iconic moments, the movie is so beloved that it was only a matter of time before the property made its way to the stage as a splashy musical. The plot is similar to Heathers, if a little more family friendly in its delivery: Having spent most of her young life in Africa with her zoologist parents, Cady Heron is thrust into a suburban U.S. high school, where she’s quickly lured in by the appeal of the school’s popular clique, The Plastics , and its glamorous and calculating leader, Regina George (Taylor Louderman). With legendary comedy writer Tina Fey adapting her original screenplay, her husband Jeff Richmond composing the music, and Tony nominee Nell Benjamin providing the lyrics, expectations for the musical were high, but the final product proves to be a mixed bag. Rather than stick to one genre of music, Richmond chose to incorporate golden-age Broadway, rock, bubble gum pop, salsa, and more to reflect the different social cliques of high school. This  isn’t a bad idea, and the mixing of different musical styles has certainly been done successfully in many previous shows. But even though John Clancy’s versatile orchestrations accommodate the various genres, they often clash with each other, and many of the songs lack the sort of structure that would allow them to build to a satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s lyrics are clever and well crafted but rarely have the bite of Fey’s dialogue (though little of that is presented on the recording). Still, for the most part, the album is an enjoyable listening experience thanks to Richmond’s talents for creating catchy ear worms, as well as the performances of exceptionally talented cast, who do a commendable job of making their mark on characters so strongly associated with the film portrayals. Most successful are Louderman as queen bee Regina and Grey Hansen as the comfortably flamboyant Damien; she revels in Regina’s viciousness, often singing in a low whisper before crescendoing to a commanding high belt, as in the vengeful “World Burn,” while he gives the album Broadway sparkle with his natural comedic timing and brassy vocals. However, it’s Kate Rockwell as Karen, the ditzy member of the Plastics, who has the best song in the score, “Sexy” — a paean to achieving female empowerment by dressing up in skimpy Halloween costumes. Here, Richmond brings musical theater know-how to the bubble gum music, and Benjamin’s lyrics are genuinely funny (“This is modern feminism talkin’ / I expect to run the world in shoes I cannot walk in”). In this song, Mean Girls the musical briefly reaches the same satirical heights as its source material. — Matt Koplik

The Prom

The PromOriginal Broadway Cast, 2019 (Broadway Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5)  The Prom might be described as an old-fashioned musical comedy with a modern sound and up-to-the minute subject matter and plot, about a bunch of vain, self-absorbed, New York theater types who become Social Justice Warriors when they read about an Indiana high school prom having been canceled to prevent a lesbian student from attending with her girlfriend.  The show’s book (by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin) and score (lyrics by Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar) offer much hilarity, plus several moments of heartfelt sentiment,  as the NYC peeps head to Indiana to try to make everything right. The culture- and ideology-clash results are hilariously funny through most of the action, yet the show carries a powerful and moving message about inclusiveness. As was the case with their scores for The Wedding Singer and Elf, Sklar and Beguelin provide a clutch of songs notable for pleasing melodies, clever lyrics, and irresistibly catchy “hooks” — such as the phrases “One thing’s universal, life’s no dress rehearsal” in “Tonight Belongs to You” and “Build a prom for everyone, show them all it can be done” in “It’s Time to Dance.” As for the ballads, give a listen to “Unruly Heart” and “Dance With You” if you wish to enjoy songwriting of very high quality.  The cast is top-notch, with brilliant musical comedians Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Angie Schworer, Christopher Sieber, and Josh Lamon as the Broadway peeps, and Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla bringing real emotional weight and depth to the relationship of the two girls at the center of the controversy. — Michael Portantiere