All posts by Michael Portantiere

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

School of Rock

School of RockOriginal Broadway Cast, 2015 (Warner Bros.) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Andrew Lloyd Webber found his greatest commercial success in the era of the British pop-opera blockbusters, so it’s easy to forget  that he first made his mark in the musical theater world by using pop/rock music to groundbreaking effect in his scores for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Which leads us to School of Rock, the first new Webber score to come to Broadway in a decade. Based on the 2003 film of the same title, starring Jack Black, the show tells of Dewey (Alex Brightman), a directionless man-child and rock and roll devotee who forms his own rock band with the children of a prestigious prep school where he has recently been working as a substitute teacher under false pretenses. While the score isn’t of the same quality as Evita or Superstar, partly due to Glenn Slater’s no more than serviceable lyrics, it’s certainly the most inventive and fun Webber’s been in years. As Dewey, Brightman has the same likeable charm Black offered on screen, as well as an exciting rock voice that’s up to the difficult demands of the role (a hallmark of Webber’s writing). As the school’s stern headmistress, Sierra Boggess is less successful, proving effective in classical moments such as her short snippet of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria, but unable to negotiate her polished soprano around the contemporary elements of her breakout ballad, “Where Did the Rock Go.” The score is not a complete triumph for Webber; on the one hand,  when Dewey and his students finally come together to create their band’s sound in the numbers “You’re in the Band” and “Stick it to the Man,” you can practically hear Webber’s giddiness, but in “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” and “Children of Rock,” the composer goes overboard from the start, and the songs never have a chance to build. Note: School of Rock was recorded before the show began Broadway performances, and certain aspects of the cast album do not reflect the score as it is now. Most notably, “Give Up Your Dreams,” an unfunny anthem (though well performed by Mamie Parris), was cut in previews but is included here, along with a few bonus tracks at the end.  — Matt Koplik

Kid Victory

Kid VictoryOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (Broadway Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Kid Victory premiered at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA in 2015, and played a limited run Off Broadway at the Vineyard in 2017.  One would be hard-pressed to find more beautiful, haunting melodies than those created by John Kander for this show, and just as hard pressed to find a darker, more disturbing plot (book and lyrics by Greg Pierce):  Seventeen-year-old Luke (the wonderful Brandon Flynn) has just returned to his family after a year in the captivity of a man who had abducted him. This is a score of stark contrasts, beginning with the “Opening/Lord, Carry Me Home,” in which the prayers sung at the boy’s parents’ church shift into hostile voices in Luke’s imagination. Meanwhile, his mother (Kander veteran Karen Ziemba) burbles how their friends will be ecstatic to see Luke again. The contrasts continue in “The Marble,” as a well-meaning amateur therapist (Ann Arvia) tries to treat Luke but conjures up memories of his kidnapper, Michael (Jeffry Denman). Luke’s existence has been bifurcated into before his ordeal and after, as his mom poignantly notes in “There Was a Boy,” so Kander and Pierce made some bold choices reflecting that. Several songs are punctuated with dialogue, while others are startlingly short. Characters appear for single numbers — among them the sheriff, Luke’s ex-girlfriend, and Andrew, a gay teen whose show biz-styled “What’s the Point?” indicates he’s unlike others in this small town. The quirky shopkeeper Emily (Dee Roscioli) has her own troubled past, yet her “People Like Us” resonates with Luke. Throughout the score, Luke does not sing a note, a device meant to convey his trauma; there is no escape from his memories of Michael, alternately charming and chilling. Denman’s performance is masterful and terrifying, from the way Michael angrily snaps while retelling a Viking saga (“Vinland”) to his insidious plotting in the seemingly innocent “Regatta 500” to the tragic “You, If Anyone” — a heartbreaking melody paired with Michael’s idealistic hopes for Luke’s future, beautiful until one realizes the context. A pat ending would have Luke singing in recovery, but this score is too honest for that. Instead, Luke’s dad (Daniel Jenkins), a character on the periphery until now, reaches out to his son in “Where We Are,” another brief, yet illuminating number. Luke isn’t whole yet, but his Dad is trying to connect with him. And that’s a start. — Laura Frankos

War Paint

WPOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Ghostlight) 2 Stars (2 / 5) Based on the real-life rivalry between cosmetics titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, with a score by Grey Gardens team Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, War Paint had the potential to be a great musical. Or, at least, with Broadway titans Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole inhabiting the lead roles, it could have been a highly entertaining one. So it’s unfortunate that the final product played so tepidly on stage. While LuPone (Rubinstein) and Ebersole (Arden) were each in top form, the show never had its leading ladies share a scene together until the very end; instead, they would sing about each other rather than to each other from opposite sides of the stage. This robbed the show of any tension or drama, and it became a “she said/she said” play-by-play of the two women’s lives. On this recording, War Paint fares slightly better, with the stars giving commanding vocal performances, but the album also reinforces that the score is not on par with Grey Gardens. Though Frankel’s jazzy compositions are inventive and tuneful in period-appropriate orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin, several of the songs lack structure and/or don’t build to a satisfying musical conclusion. Korie’s lyrics, meanwhile, are lacking in subtlety or any deep insight regarding the principal characters, making such songs as “If I’d Been a Man” and “My Secret Weapon” much less effective than they might have been. Still, there are two strong 11 o’clock numbers in “Forever Beautiful” (Rubinstein) and “Pink” (Arden), each a reflection on the women’s legacies, which are now being taken away from them in the concluding years of their lives. When the two do get to sing together, as they do in “Face to Face” and “Beauty in the World,” LuPone and Ebersole’s voices blend in a surprisingly effective cohesion that briefly brings the score to a more musically dramatic plain. Douglas Sills and John Dossett also appear as the two men behind the women, but their talents are wasted on the two worst songs in the score, “Step on Out” and “Dinosaurs.” In War Paint, it’s clear that LuPone and Ebersole are meant to be the ones who rule — and they do. But with stronger material, they could’ve really shone. — Matt Koplik

In Transit

In TransitOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Hollywood Records) 2 Stars (2 / 5) One wants to applaud In Transit, Broadway’s first a cappella musical, about the semi-connected lives of a small group of New Yorkers played out within and around the subway system. The cast is enthusiastic; the vocal harmonies, arranged by Pitch Perfect’s Deke Sharon, are amazing; Steven “HeaveN” Cantor and Chesney Snow, alternating as beatbox performer Boxman, are percussive wizards; and there are happy endings for the characters. “But, ya know, whatever,” as someone in the show says at one point. The score never really gels, although the writers — Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth — try to convince us that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that matters most. Journeying “Deep Beneath the City” are Jane (Margo Seibert), slaving in a office while her Broadway dreams fade; her agent, Trent (Justin Guarini), who’s preparing to marry Steven (Telly Leung), although he hasn’t even told his fundamentalist Momma (Moya Angela) that he’s gay; Trent’s friend, Ali (Erin Mackey), newly dumped by her boyfriend; and Ali’s brother, Nate (James Snyder), unemployed and attracted to Jane. (Boxman doesn’t commute. He has found his calling as a subway guru. )Jane’s story arc, while clichéd, comes off best.  “Do What I Do” will resonate with anyone stuck in a survival job, and Seibert nails “Getting There,” taking Boxman’s advice to heart. The gay love story is genuine, if bland. Family conflict is set up in the country-flavored “Four Days Home,” and Guarini conveys Trent’s pain when he realizes Momma is deliberately “Choosing Not to Know.” Mackey gets the ultimate 21s-century list song, “Saturday Night Obsession,” cyber-stalking her ex to hilarious comments from the back-ups. In addition to her moments as Momma, Angela unleashes her belt as grumpy subway both clerk Althea and as Jane’s boss. Her sardonic “A Little Friendly Advice” is one of the score’s strongest numbers. But, as a dramatic whole, In Transit would have benefited from more depth of story than a metaphor told in a few vignettes. — Laura Frankos