All posts by Michael Portantiere

Broadway Bounty Hunter

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2020 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Here’s a highly enjoyable cast album of a fun show with a fanciful, meta-theatrical concept, built around the dynamic stage and film singer-actress Annie Golden, who started out as the leader of the punk band The Shirts before going on to play Jeannie in the film version of Hair, then to numerous other film, TV, and stage roles (Desperately Seeking Susan, Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss, 12 Monkeys, Orange is the New Black) as well as some fine work on Broadway (most notably in The Full Monty). In Broadway Bounty Hunter, Golden played a highly fictionalized version of herself caught up in a crazy plot involving — well, bounty hunting.  The show was (obviously) crafted specifically for her by the super-talented composer-lyricist Joe Iconis, working in collaboration with co-book writers Lance Rubin and Jason Sweettooth Williams. It would have been interesting to see if Broadway Bounty Hunter would have worked with someone else in the title role in subsequent productions, but it was not a box-office success in its limited Off-Broadway run, and there was no transfer to an open-ended engagement on Broadway or anywhere else. So it’s nice to have Iconis’s well-crafted, clever, tuneful, post-modern theatrical rock and pop songs preserved on this well produced cast album. Golden’s strong, exciting, wide-ranging voice and her abundance of charisma come through big-time in a clutch of songs, from the roof-raising “Woman of a Certain Age” (wisely used as both the show’s opener and closer) to the soulful “Spin Those Records” and the intense, hard-rocking 11 o’clock number “Veins.” Other major voices and personalities heard on the album include Badia Farha, Alan H. Green, Christina Sajous, Emily Borromeo, and the always welcome Brad Oscar. A kick-ass band is led by conductor/musical director Geoffrey Ko, and Joel Waggoner’s vocal arrangements are excellent. Given the lack of commercial success of both Broadway Bounty Hunter and Iconis’s Be More Chill, at least in their NYC runs, it’s devoutly to be wished that he’ll soon have the major hit he so well deserves.  — Michael Portantiere

Be More Chill

Original Cast, Two River Theater, 2015 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) The story behind this recording and what it led to is as interesting as the plot of Be More Chill itself. Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, the musical is an up-to-the minute cautionary tale about a loner teenager named Jeremy Heere who attempts to become “chill” by ingesting something called a “squip” (super quantum unit Intel processor), which winds up controlling his thoughts and actions. The show premiered at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey for a one-month limited run in 2015.  That production received mixed reviews, but this cast recording gained great popularity via the internet through streaming and downloads — so much so that the album entered Billboard Cast Album chart’s Top 10 in July 2017, sparking the Off-Broadway production of 2018 and the subsequent Broadway transfer (see below). Even if it’s hard to explain exactly how the score “went viral,” it’s easy to understand why it did; Iconis has a firm grounding in the classic musical theater canon, and a great talent for being able to wed traditional structures and other methods of craft with a truly up-to the minute sound and sensibility. Listen to the opener, “More Than Survive,” a spot-on, character-establishing, “I want” song for Jeremy that begins as follows: “C-c-c-come on, c-c-c- come on! Go, go! I’m waiting for my porn to download.” (The album has an “explicit lyrics” label.) Or sample “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire),” a super-clever takeoff on “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie. Also quite amusing is Iconis’s depiction of the present-day high school theater subculture, as in “I Love Play Rehearsal” and other songs. The pretty much ideal cast heard here is headed by Will Connolly as a charmingly nerdy Jeremy, with Eric William Morris as The Squip; George Salazar as Jeremy’s staunch friend, Michael; Stephanie Hsu as Christine, the girl Jeremy’s obsessed with; and Gerard Canonico in a ball-of-fire performance as Rich, the ill-fated guy who turns Jeremy on to The Squip. Salazar does a tour-de-force job with arguably the best song in the score, the one that became the biggest viral phenomenon of all: “Michael in the Bathroom,” as affecting an anthem of teen angst as has ever been written by anyone. — Michael Portantiere

Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Buoyed by the extraordinary online popularity of its score, as described above, Be More Chill was produced Off-Broadway at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center in the summer of 2018, with plans for a move to Broadway already largely in place at that time. This production featured several cast members from the Two River production, including Hsu, Salazar, and Canonico reprising the roles they originated. New cast members included Will Roland as Jeremy, Jason Tam as the Squip, Britton Smith as Jake, Tiffany Mann as Jenna, and Jason “Sweettooth” Williams as Mr. Heere, but not all of these changes are improvements; in particular, Roland’s performance doesn’t have quite the likeability of Connolly’s, and Smith is vocally miscast in the role of the privileged, entitled Jake, as compared to the perfectly cast Jake Boyd on the Two River recording. On the plus side, Tam makes the role of The Squip very much his own through his strong, distinctive voice and his fun Keanu Reeves imitation. As heard here, the score is well performed overall, with some relatively minor changes and additions in material. (This album is longer, 24 tracks as compared to 21 on the original.) Both the off-Broadway and Broadway engagements of Be More Chill were marred by painfully loud sound amplification, which may have been partly responsible for the brevity of the 2019 Broadway run (only 177 performances) of a show that many had expected to be a big hit, so the fact that listeners to the cast album are in full control of the volume is a huge plus for the experience. Music and lyrics this good certainly don’t need to be blasted at an audience, and suffer greatly rather than benefit from such treatment, a lesson that Iconis and his colleagues will hopefully learn for future productions of his shows. — M.P.

Sing Street

Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Sony Masterworks Broadway) 4 Stars (4 / 5) First, a few words of explanation: The show that yielded this cast album opened Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in December 2019.  It was announced for a Broadway transfer even before the NYTW run ended — but then the COVID-19 crisis that began in the spring of 2020 scuttled those plans, indefinitely closing all theaters in New York City (and pretty much throughout the world). So even though this album literally has “Broadway” written all over it, we have no way of knowing at this writing if Sing Street will ever make it to The Street. At any rate, the show has a wonderfully infectious score, here preserved as one of the most compulsively listenable cast recordings in recent memory; and since all of the performers heard on the album were officially cast in the Broadway transfer of the show, the “Original Broadway Cast” designation is arguably not inaccurate. Based on a 2016 coming-of-age film set in Dublin in 1982, the musical features a generous handful of terrific songs that were originally written by Gary Clark and John Carney for that sweet indie flick, plus some new material. The opening track, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” gives us a happy hint that we’re going to be hearing lots of catchy up-tunes crafted in ’80s-rock style, with irresistible hooks. That certainly turns out to be true, as with such other cuts as “Drive It Like You Stole It,” “Brown Shoes,”  “A Beautiful Sea,” and “Girls,” but there are also some lovely ballads (“Dream for You,” “Go Now”). Brenock O’Connor, in the central role of schoolboy/aspiring rock star Conor Lawlor, does a fine, authentic-sounding job with much of the solo singing on the album, and there are also worthy contributions from Zara Devlin as Raphina, a young model on whom Conor develops a major crush; Martin Moran as the authoritarian Brother Baxter; and Gus Halper as Conor’s troubled brother, Brendan (he does a beautiful job with “Go Now”). One of the best songs in the score, “Up,” is heard in two different versions — ballad and up-tempo, both highly enjoyable. At the end of the show, Conor leaves his family and his band to go with Raphina off to London, where they will seek their fortunes. Here’s hoping that the future will be bright for them and for this charming, affecting, lovable little musical.  — M.P.

Anything Can Happen in the Theater: The Musical World of Maury Yeston

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2019 (PS Classics) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Maury Yeston is one of the finest and most versatile musical theater composer-lyricists of his era, so it’s good to have this cast album of a very enjoyable and well-crafted revue of his work that was presented Off-Broadway by the York Theatre Company in 2019, directed by Gerard Alessandrini of Forbidden Broadway fame. The program includes songs from Yeston’s most famous shows, with one major exception (see below), along with a healthy sampling of  less-well-known material. From Nine, we have the bravura number “Guido’s Song” and the lyrical “Only With You,” both rendered with lovely tenor tone by Benjamin Eakeley, as well as the gorgeous “Unusual Way” and the wittily seductive “A Call From the Vatican,” two fine showcases for the talents of Mamie Parris. Also to be found here is “Cinema Italiano,” written by Yeston expressly for the film version of Nine, performed with verve by Parris, Justin Keyes, and Jovan E’Sean. Two selections from Grand Hotel, for which Yeston contributed much but not all of the score (to augment songs previously written by Wright and Forrest for an earlier incarnation of the show), are the passionate  “Love Can’t Happen” (Eakeley) and the delightful “I Want to Go to Hollywood” (Parris).  Yeston’s Phantom, an alternative to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the same source material, is represented by “Home,” sung by the full company. “New Words,” from a Biblical musical titled In the Beginning, is a touching song, movingly performed here by Eakeley, about a parent teaching language to a young child, the writing marred only by a surprising error in the lyrics. (Mars is a planet, Mr Y., not a star!) The recording also embraces several stand-alone songs, i.e., not from the scores of musicals. Three of the best of these are “Danglin’,” a soulful torcher eased on down by Alex Getlin; “Salt n Pepper,” a sexy/funny item given a spicy turn by E’Sean; and the title tune of the revue, delivered by all as the opening number. Not sampled here is the score of one of Yeston’s biggest hits, Titanic; although an exquisitely harmonized arrangement of that title song was featured as an encore in the York production, it’s not on the album, for some reason. Conversely, one thing the recording boasts that the show itself did not are Doug Besterman’s excellent, specially crafted orchestrations for eight musicians variously playing a total of about 20 instruments. Greg Jarrett is the top-notch musical director — Michael Portantiere

Mary Poppins

Film Soundtrack, 1964 (Buena Vista/Walt Disney Records) 5 Stars (5 / 5) Disney’s Mary Poppins has been beloved from the moment audiences first saw the film in 1964, permeating our culture and becoming a hallmark for family friendly entertainment. Even if you’re a neophyte to the story of the mysterious and magical nanny who teaches a British family the importance of love, fun, and compassion, you’ll understand why the film has attained classic status with just one listen to this soundtrack. The score, by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, remains timeless, with many of the songs long ago having achieved the status of internationally recognized standards: “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “ Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious,” et al. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another original movie musical that has produced as many great songs — and even the lesser-known ones, such as “Sister Suffragette” and “The Perfect Nanny,” are clever and charming enough to avoid being the sort of “skippable” tracks that even some of the best Broadway cast albums contain. As the action of the film is set in London in the early 1900s, Irwin Kostal’s arrangements pay fitting homage to Edwardian music halls, and his incidental music (included on deluxe editions of the soundtrack) craftily rearranges the Sherman Brothers’ compositions to feel like new pieces. As for the cast, they remain unbeatable. Julie Andrews made one of the most smashing screen debuts in history as Mary Poppins, a role that showcases her immense range, from comedic vaudevillian (“Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious”) to intimate chanteuse (“Feed the Birds”). By her side is Dick Van Dyke, effervescent as Bert, a jack-of-all-trades and loyal friend to Mary and her charges, Jane and Michael Banks. Though Van Dyke’s Cockney accent is legendarily awful, it really doesn’t matter at this point, as its humorous inauthenticity has taken on its own charming, nostalgic quality. In short, this soundtrack is a perfect companion to the landmark film. — Matt Koplik

Original London Cast, 2005 (Walt Disney Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Although Disney’s Mary Poppins is a beloved classic, author P.L. Travers, who wrote the book series on which the film was based, famously hated it.  For this reason, Travers initially refused any further adaptations of her stories about the magical nanny while she was alive — that is, until producer Cameron Mackintosh persuaded her to grant him the rights to create a stage musical. Travers acquiesced on the condition that the entire creative team for the project would be British and would exclude everyone involved in the Disney movie. Mackintosh kept his word, to a certain extent:  Although he collaborated with Disney Theatrical Productions so that the show could contain the most famous songs from the film, Mackintosh did bring on an entirely British team, including West End regulars George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to create new songs, expanding the score and giving the work a drier tone. While the final result isn’t as ebullient as the film, it’s still charming. The work of Stiles and Drewe is enjoyable in its own right — and, partly thanks to William David Brohn’s intelligent orchestrations, the score feels like a unified work, even if it does have two sets of writers. As heard on the cast album, the supporting players are a bit of a mixed bag: A bold and unleashed Rosemary Ashe stands out as the show’s villain, Miss Andrew (a character added for the musical), in “Brimstone and Treacle,” while Linzi Hatley’s Mrs. Banks is miscast, her modern-style vocalization at odds with the character’s new song, “Being Mrs. Banks” (a replacement for the film’s more entertaining “Sister Suffragette”). Gavin Lee is a wonderful Bert, and Charlotte Spencer and Harry Stott give intelligent performances as Jane and Michael, rewritten here as far brattier versions than the characters in the movie. But the biggest perk of the album is Oliver Award winner Laura Michelle Kelly’s performance as Mary Poppins. Charming, elegant, and ethereal, Kelly swims through the score with her captivating voice, elevating new songs such as “Practically Perfect” while bringing new life to “A Spoonful of Sugar” and other classics. If this recording isn’t the monumental achievement of the soundtrack, with Kelly leading the charge, it stands on its own. — M.K.

Australian Cast, 2011 (Walt Disney Records) 2 Stars (2 / 5) This live recording of a performance of the Australian production of Mary Poppins preserves all the revisions to the show that were made after the London cast recording was released. (No cast album of the Broadway production was issued.) While there are some tweaks in arrangements and lyrics, the most notable change is the replacement of “Temper, Temper,” a nightmarish fever dream in which Jane and Michael are reprimanded by the toys they abuse in their nursery, with the less sinister “Playing the Game.” Neither song is particularly noteworthy, but “Temper, Temper” has a bit more bite to it and would probably have been given Travers’ seal of approval over “Playing the Game.” Other than that, this album isn’t much different from the London recording in terms of material. William David Brohn’s orchestrations perhaps sound a little richer here, and the cast brings a good deal of energy to their performances. The album is billed as “live,” but the performance and the engineering are clean enough that it sounds as if it were recorded in a studio, aside from some applause at the end of certain numbers. Some casting perks here are Matt Lee as an entertaining Bert and Marina Prior as an improvement over Linzi Hatley in the role of Mrs. Banks. The rest of the cast members are either equal or inferior to their London counterparts, with Judi Connelli lacking the necessary vocal heft for “Brimstone and Treacle.” Sadly, although Verity Hunt-Ballard as Mary Poppins has a pleasant voice, she can’t match Laura Michelle Kelly’s luxurious soprano, and her characterization is no better than presentable and professional. This album may please first-time listeners, but there is a greater deal of fun to be had from the previous two recordings. — M.K.

Frozen

Film Soundtrack, 2013 (Walt Disney Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5) One of the most popular titles in Disney’s history, Frozen revolves around two royal sisters: Elsa, who has the power to conjure snow and ice but is unable to control it, and Anna, who possesses no magical powers but is adventurous and desirous to be in love. By the end, they realize that the love they have for each other is strong enough to help Elsa control her powers, and is just as meaningful as any romantic relationship. A massive and enduring success, Frozen has received constant exposure in pop culture and media, leading many to become exhausted by the film, but first time listeners to this soundtrack will likely understand why it has continued to capture audiences. The songs, written by the married team of Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (with incidental and choral scoring by Christophe Beck), are an intelligent blend of traditional musical theater and modern day pop, making the score feel both classic and current. (Doug Besterman provides lush and creative orchestrations.) The lyrics are often playful and cute while still offering strong character insight. “In Summer,” in particular, has a wittily morbid edge to it as sung by Olaf, a clueless snowman (Josh Gad) who wants nothing more than to experience warm weather, not realizing how it will effect his snow-based body. Frozen also benefits from having the strongest vocal cast for a Disney film since Beauty and the Beast, employing almost exclusively Broadway talent. In addition to Gad, we have Idina Menzel as Elsa, Kristin Bell as Anna, and Santino Fontana bringing credible Prince-ly charm to Hans. Bell gets quite a few songs to showcase her pure, classic-Disney-Princess soprano (she and Fontana work particularly well together on “Love is an Open Door”), but it’s Menzel who does the vocal heavy lifting, as in the soundtrack’s phenomenal breakout hit, “Let It Go.” Though it has been overplayed to the point of its becoming a pop culture punchline, at its core the song is well-structured and catchy, belted out by Menzel with great relish. In the movie and on this soundtrack album, only Jonathan Groff is musically  wasted as Kristoff, a romantic foil for Anna, his singing limited to the thankfully short “Reindeers are Better Than People.” Otherwise, Frozen is a delight. — Matt Koplik

Original Broadway Cast, 2018 (Walt Disney Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) In the continuing line of movies translated to the stage, Disney has had an erratic track record, ranging from great success (The Lion King) to major disappointments (The Little Mermaid, Tarzan). The Broadway adaptation of Frozen, which this recording represents, lies somewhere in the middle. On the plus side, the show tries to dig deeper into its source material than most other Disney stage musicals, but the results are often middling. Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have been brought back to expand their score from the film, and Dave Metzger’s orchestrations pretty much follow Doug Besterman’s blueprints. But while new songs like “Dangerous to Dream,” “Hans of the Southern Isles,” and “True Love” are commendable in their intentions to give the characters complexity, they really can’t be described as anything more than serviceably listenable. Of all the additions, the song that comes closest to standing out is “Monster,” a second-act number for Elsa — but, musically, even that feels more like a lesser “Let it Go” than a fully developed new piece. While the principal players may not be able to separate themselves completely from the original movie cast, they are all strong singers and inject plenty of personality into their performances. As the two sisters, Caissie Levy (Elsa) and Patti Murin (Anna) work particularly hard not to present cartoonish interpretations while skillfully navigating the demands of the score. The recording is also well worth a listen for Stephen Oremus’s stunning vocal arrangements, which give the pre-existing songs from the film a shot of Broadway adrenaline and provide the show’s ensemble with rich choral material (“Vuelie” and “Queen Anointed” are particularly haunting). If this recording isn’t good enough to replace Frozen’s original soundtrack, it’s worthy to stand alongside it — or a few steps behind, at least. — M.K.

Aladdin

Film Soundtrack, 1992 (Walt Disney Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Following the immense success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Disney Animation firmly solidified what is now known as “The Disney Renaissance” with the critical and financial success of Aladdin in 1992. The film features a score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, previously best known for their work on Little Shop of Horrors. Aladdin was a passion project for Ashman, who envisioned the story of a teenage hoodlum who happens upon a magic lamp and genie as a madcap romp set in the Middle East. However, Ashman succumbed to complications from AIDS before he could finish work on the project, and some of the songs he co-wrote were ultimately not used. In fact, only three songs with lyrics by Ashman remain in the film — “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali” — with Tim Rice providing lyrics for two additions , “One Jump Ahead” and “A Whole New World.” If Rice’s lyrics don’t have the same level of wit and character as Ashman’s, they’re still fun and don’t feel like a jarring departure.  This is a fun recording, and it boasts what remains the best vocal leads of any Aladdin recording. Brad Kane is a charismatic Aladdin, blending well with Lea Salonga’s Princess Jasmine on the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World,” and Robin Williams is definitive as the genie of the lamp. Note: The deluxe edition of this soundtrack album includes bonus tracks of Howard Ashman singing demos for two songs cut from the film, the moving “Proud of Your Boy” and the fun “High Adventure.” — Matt Koplik

Original Broadway Cast, 2014 (Walt Disney Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) The success of Aladdin as an animated film led to a stage adaptation two decades later. The good news is that the results here are far more successful than many other Disney transfers, though with some caveats. Choosing to underline Ashman’s original concept of presenting the story as a zany romp, the Broadway Aladdin is shinier, zippier, and sillier than the film. But while the show benefits from the inclusion of three songs with lyrics by Ashman that did not make it into the movie (“Proud of Your Boy,” “High Adventure,” and “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Hassim”), Chad Beguelin’s libretto isn’t quite clever enough to hold it all together. Although this is less of a problem on the cast recording than it was on a stage, enough of Beguelin’s meta-commentary jokes are peppered throughout (“Everyone here has a minor in dance!”) to make you roll your eyes. On the bright side, the score is given loving treatment in Danny Troob’s vibrant orchestrations and Michael Kosarin’s tight vocal arrangements. The one major misstep is turning the Genie’s “Friend Like Me” into a nearly 10-minute-long production number. While it’s performed energetically by James Monroe Iglehart, the song now feels overstuffed and tiresome. Iglehart is given a much better opportunity with “Prince Ali,” which has also been expanded from the film version, but to more satisfying effect. New additions to the score, such as “These Palace Walls” and “A Million Miles Away,” are pleasant enough, with Menken once again proving his gift for ear worms, but Beguelin’s lyrics are not on the same level as his predecessors’. Adam Jacobs gives an earnest performance as Aladdin, which works in ballads like “Proud of Your Boy” and “A Whole New World” but less well in peppier songs like “One Jump Ahead.” Courtney Reed’s Jasmine is mostly serviceable, though her voice is not as comfortable a fit for “A Whole New World” as Lea Salonga’s. And in a fun bit of déjà vu, Jonathan Freeman vamps it up as the evil villain Jafar, the part he voiced in the 1992 film. If this recording doesn’t have the overall charm of the original soundtrack, it’s still enjoyable, and it introduces audiences to some wonderful Ashman/Menken songs that had previously gone unheard. — M.K.

Film Soundtrack, 2019 (Walt Disney Records) 1 Stars (1 / 5) This is the soundtrack recording of Disney’s recent live action remake of Aladdin, a trend the company has continued ever since the massive financial success it had with its remake of Beauty and the Beast. The Aladdin soundtrack is not nearly the disaster that Beast was: the arrangements are mostly the same as the originals (though some pop and hip hop influenced percussion has been added), and the cast is of a higher vocal caliber (if still auto-tuned).  Yet, the recording is mostly free of personality. Everything is clear and pleasant enough, but it’s missing energy and character. Nowhere is this more evident than in Will Smith’s performance as the Genie. Whereas both Robin Williams and James Monroe Iglehart gave everything they had to their performances in the role, Smith goes for a more laid back, casual approach to the magical sidekick. This is a mistake, and though he doesn’t completely bungle his two big songs “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” they barely register. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are both fine as, respectively, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, but they certainly don’t wipe away memories of the originals. Scott has been given a new number written by Menken with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “Speechless,” but the lyrics are so nondescript and the melody so jarringly different from the rest of the score that it doesn’t do anything to distinguish Scott’s Jasmine from Salonga’s or Reed’s. So, while this isn’t the worst soundtrack of a Disney remake, it’s the blandest of all three Aladdin recordings and is really more for completists than for anyone who want to be exposed to the score for the first time. — M.K.

Inner City

Original Broadway Cast, 1971 (RCA/Masterworks Broadway) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Perhaps the source material was too obscure for audiences to really understand this show, which only ran on Broadway for 97 performances (and 24 previews). What poet Eve Merriam originally wrote was Inner City Mother Goose, a new take on nursery rhymes from an urban, sometimes violent perspective. So the familiar “Fee Fi Fo Fum” was followed by the less-expected “I smell the blood of violence to come,” while “Now I lay me down to sleep” was followed by “and I pray the double lock will keep.” Helen Miller set the poems to theatrical rock music. Most of them last a minute or less, but they’re memorable minutes. In “Hushabye Baby,” an unwed teenager sings about the child she’ll soon have, and it sounds like something that Brecht and Weill might have written had they been around in the early 1970s. Other highlights include “On This Rock,” a statement of urban pride; the jaunty “City Life”; and the pulsating “Law and Order,” which the TV series of the same title should have used as its theme song. “Deep in the Night” and “It’s My Belief” are solid anthems that helped win Linda Hopkins a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress. Then there’s “The Hooker,” in which a prostitute sings, “If they want to hear a story, then I give out with a story…I need ten dollars for grandma, who is coughing and spitting up blood. But whaddaya say we cut the crap?” The same socko melody is used for both “The Pusher” and “The Pickpocket,” but that last one didn’t make the album. That’s all right, we should be very grateful that this short-running show yielded a cast recording at all. — Peter Filichia

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.