All posts by Michael Portantiere

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

Amélie

AmelieOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Rhino Warner Classics) 1 Stars (1 / 5) The 2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet film Amélie caused a major resurgence in American audiences’ interest in French cinema and at least briefly made a star of its leading lady, Audrey Tatou. Set in Paris, the film tells of an introvert who decides to do random acts of good deeds for her fellow Parisians while maintaining her distance so as not to actually get involved with the messiness of real life. The film is recalled by many as purely airy and whimsical, remembered largely for its fantastical imagery and Tatou’s impish charm. The stage musical follows the movie very closely in plot and structure, and has a very talented cast at its disposal. Unfortunately, writers Daniel Messé, Nathan Tyson, and Craig Lucas don’t seem to have realized that Amélie also deals with disappointment, grief, and loneliness, none of which comes across in the show or on this album. It doesn’t help that the score by Messé and Tyson aims more for a contemporary musical theater sound than for a classically French one. (There is no accordion to be heard in Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations). Two of the least effective songs in the score are “Goodbye Amélie” and  “A Better Haircut,” which are meant to be comedic relief but instead come across as glaringly wrongheaded. Some of the other songs begin with fascinating, ethereal introductions that give hope for what’s to come, but then the songs themselves seem to evaporate, never delivering on the promise of the intros and the incidental music. In the title role, Phillipa Soo is surprisingly dry and often restrained by the score’s inability to properly showcase her mellifluous voice. She is, however, given strong support by a diverse cast that gives everything they can to add some spunk to the show. Sometimes they succeed, as in songs like “World’s Best Dad” or “Times Are Hard For Dreamers,” but these are small victories in an inoffensive yet undistinguished adaptation. — Matt Koplik

A Minister’s Wife

MinisterOriginal Off-Broadway Cast (PS Classics, 2011) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Bernard Shaw’s plays do not easily adapt into musicals; My Fair Lady took Lerner and Loewe two tries, and only worked when they opened up the action beyond Shaw’s scenes. The opposite approach is taken in A Minister’s Wife, based on Shaw’s Candida (1897). Composer Joshua Schmidt, lyricist Jan Levy Tranen, and librettist Austin Pendleton, following a concept of director Michael Halberstam, concentrated rather than expanded the narrative. They jettisoned a key character (Candida’s crude father) and focused on the domestic triangle of fiery minister James Morell (Marc Kudisch); his lovely wife, Candida (Kate Fry); and Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert), a young poet whom Morell has rescued from the streets. Liz Baltes as Morell’s secretary, Prossy, and Drew Gehling as his earnest curate, Lexy, complete the outstanding cast. Kudisch’s opening number, “Sermon,” conveys the basic tenets of Christian Socialism, but an unsettling dissonance in the music hints that while Morell claims “we must learn to live for each other,” perhaps he needs to listen to his own words. Steggert is terrific as Marchbanks: his poet is frail, self-pitying, whiny, and yet confident in his passion, especially in “Shallops and Scrubbing Brushes” and the “Second Preaching Match.” Fry gets the benefit of the most melodious parts of Schmidt’s score, yet she wallops both men in the blunt “Spoiled From the Cradle.” Kudisch’s minister progresses from poised to angry to fearful as his inner flaws are revealed. The whole piece is wrapped up in the gorgeous “Into the Night,” as the cast ponders the future. Tranen’s lyrics are Shavian to the core, with many lifted directly from the play; Schimidt’s orchestrations for a chamber orchestra do a good job of advancing the subtext, with Laura Bontrager’s cello and Pasquale Laurino’s violin especially exquisite.  Like Schmidt’s Adding Machine, this is an unusual, challenging show. One could wish for more distinct songs, rather than so many extended scenes set to music. But A Minister’s Wife is  a small gem in itself. — Laura Frankos

The View UpStairs

ViewOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (Broadway Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) A moving and tragic true-life story inspired this musical about The UpStairs Lounge, a popular gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that was destroyed by arson in 1973, resulting in the deaths of 32 people. Max Vernon wrote the book, music, and lyrics. The show employs an interesting narrative device centered around a present-day fashion designer, Wes (Jeremy Pope), who inquires about renting the space where the UpStairs once existed, and who there encounters and interacts with its denizens through a sort of time warp. Among them are the hard-drinking house pianist (Randy Redd), the bulldyke bartender (Frenchie Davis), a budding young Puerto Rican drag queen (Michael Longoria) and his mother (Nancy Ticotin), and the outrageously campy resident diva (Nathan Lee Graham). Also on hand are a gay priest of the Metropolitan Community Church (Benjamin Howes), a hustler (Taylor Frey) who forms a serious attachment with Wes, and the sketchy guy (Ben Mayne) whom we are led to think may be the one responsible for torching the bar after being ejected from it. While some of the show’s situations and dialogue have trouble avoiding cliché, the time-warp setup allows for both jokes and dramatic points to be made as the UpStairs patrons school Wes about gay history and he tells them about the future. Vernon’s ingratiating, eclectic score well suits the characters and effectively sets the atmosphere for the tale, employing period song styles for the bar people and more modern sounds in some of Wes’s material (such as his opening number, “#householdname”). Highlights of the album include the opener, “Some Kind of Paradise,” led by Redd with soulful fervor; “World Outside These Walls,” led by Davis in excellent form; and the big, inspirational number “Theme Song,” featuring the amazing Graham. “Sex on Legs” is quite the show-stopper as delivered by Longoria, possessor of one of most exciting voices to be heard on or off Broadway. The two prettiest songs in the score are the title tune, which serves as the finale; and “And I Wish,” not included in the Off-Broadway production but heard here as a bonus track, sung by Frey with great vocal beauty and deep emotion.  — Michael Portantiere

Bandstand

BandstandOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Broadway Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) In Bandstand, composer Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor, who co-wrote the book and lyrics with Oberacker, created an original musical set in the 1940s, but with echoes that resonate today. At its heart is newly discharged WWII veteran Donny Novitski (Corey Cott). Though the show opens with people proclaiming that everything will be “Just Like It Was Before” the war, this is obviously not true; Donny can’t find work in his old haunts, Cleveland’s jazz clubs, and he’s plagued with PTSD.  A “Tribute to the Troops” competition inspires him to form a band of his former brothers-in-arms. With braggadocio covering desperation, Cott turns “Donny Novitski” into a character-defining piece, as he hopes his project will “block out the mem’ries.” The group assembles in the zippy “I Know a Guy,” and it’s clear that all of them carry mental and/or physical scars from the war. They’re joined by Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), the widow of Donny’s war buddy, who just happens to be a singer and a poet. Osnes’s silvery tones and the extraordinary level of nuance she packs into her singing are highlighted in several numbers, from a song about Julia’s struggles as a Gold Star wife (“Who I Was”) to the torchy “Love Will Come and Find Me Again.” The latter deftly works on several dramatic levels: as a diegetic performance piece, an indication of the increasing attraction between Donny and Julia, and a reflection of her emotional growth. Beth Leavel adds depth to any show, so one wishes she had more to do as Julia’s mother, but she does get to deliver the second act powerhouse “Everything Happens.” Some tracks on the album showcase the vocal and instrumental talents of the other band members: Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, and Geoff Packard. Running through the orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen are variations on Gene Krupa’s fabled drum rhythms — first as explosions in a war flashback, then haunting Donny’s nightmares, and finally as the pulsing beat of New York City. Bandstand’s plot wraps up a bit too conveniently, but this recording has a good deal to offer. — Laura Frankos

Come From Away

 Come From AwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (The Musical Company) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Alhough they’ve been a songwriting team for years, husband and wife David Hein and Irene Sankoff made their Broadway debut with the musical Come From Away. The show is based on the true story of a small Newfoundland town’s locals taking in more than 7,000 passengers from derailed flights on 9/11/2001, offering food, clothing, and shelter without a moment’s hesitation. At first glance, Come From Away shouldn’t work; Hein and Sankoff’s lyrics are often rough, and their book tends to lean heavily on exposition. Plus,  the subject matter, though not directly about the events of 9/11, does deal with consequences of the tragedy. But for all of of that, the show succeeds — largely because, despite wearing its heart on its sleeve, Come From Away never feels forced or overly earnest. If Hein and Sankoff are not great lyricists, their music, orchestrated with pulsing vitality by August Eriksmoen, is remarkably inventive and thrilling; and their book, though understandably truncated on the album, employs a great deal of intelligence and a surprising amount of humor to win over the audience. With charmingly honest performances by an excellent ensemble cast, the album provides a strong representation of these effects, even if also underlines some of the show’s rougher elements. First-time listeners may roll their eyes during pedestrian moments such as “Lead Us Out of the Night” or “Costume Party,” but by the time they get to the roof raising “Screech In,” they’ll likely find themselves leaning into the show’s charm and enjoying the rest of the recording. They might even wipe away a tear or two. — Matt Koplik

Bright Star

Bright-StarOriginal Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight) 2 Stars (2 / 5) Steve Martin is a man of many talents: actor, playwright, stand up comic, novelist. And here, with Edie Brickell as his collaborator, he adds musical theater writer to the list. Martin’s original story for Bright Star centers on both Billy Cane, a young Southern man striving to become a writer (A.J. Shively), and Alice Murphy, the austere female publisher who mentors him (Carmen Cusack). Due to the story’s setting and Martin’s familiarity with the genre, the score is written with a heavy bluegrass influence. (The reliable August Eriksmoen keeps the banjo plucking with his blood-pumping orchestrations.) Given Martin’s many previous successes, it’s a shame that Bright Star is such a mixed bag as a musical, and even more so as an album. While Martin and Brickell have a gift for writing music that can be quietly moving (“It Can’t Wait”) or enticingly catchy (“Another Round”), their lyrics prove to be a major obstacle that the score and the show can’t quite get past; they often lack adequate insight into characters’ psyches or fail to propel the plot forward, tending to be repetitive and broad. (“A Man’s Gotta Do” is a prime example.) The cast is strong overall, though the talents of Broadway veterans Dee Hoty and Stephen Bogardus are sadly wasted in small roles that get lost in large group numbers or throwaway songs like “She’s Gone.” Luckily, the album has radiant performances by Cusack as Alice and Paul Alexander Nolan as her childhood love. In their first song together, “Whoa Mama,” the recording begins to pick up steam as Cusack’s throaty alto blends beautifully with Nolan’s pure tenor, creating intimate chemistry. The other songs these two share together (“It Can’t Wait,” “What Could Be Better,” “I Had a Vision”) are further highlights of the album. Some of the remaining items are very pleasant listening (“Asheville,” “Bright Star”), but it’s only when Cusack and Nolan take focus that Bright Star actually becomes a bluegrass musical. — Matt Koplik

Groundhog Day

GDOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Masterworks Broadway/Broadway Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5) After the immense artistic and commercial success of Matilda, Tim Minchin turned his efforts next towards adapting the beloved comedic film Groundhog Day, working with the film’s screenwriter, Danny Rubin. The central character is the egotistical, misogynistic weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray in the movie), who finds himself stuck living February 2nd over and over again in the small town of Punxsutawney. Rather than attempt to slavishly recreate the film’s most famous moments, Rubin and Minchin delved into the source material and truly adapted it to give us an endlessly inventive and rewarding musical with a perfect leading performance by Andy Karl. Hilariously smug at the start, Karl believably navigates Phil’s journey from narcissist to humanist, all the while staying well outside of Murray’s large shadow. Minchin’s score is not quite as tightly crafted as his score for Matilda, but it’s more experimental in terms of structure and style, and is ultimately a more mature work. Of course, Minchin still allows himself some fun shock humor with the cheeky “Stuck” and the hillbilly hoedown “Nobody Cares,” but these songs are just facets of a multidimensional score that never feels disjointed, partly thanks to Christopher Nightingale’s astute orchestrations. If the cast recording has one fault, it’s the surprising lack of dialogue included here. Not every Broadway album needs to offer dialogue to be successful (see, for example, the original Oklahoma! or A Little Night Music), but given how important director Matthew Warchus’s staging was to the storytelling of the original production, the lack of context makes tracks like “Philandering” and “Hope” lose some of their comedic edge. On the other hand, the small amount of dialogue we do hear on the album allows Groundhog Day to show its heart. The uplifting “If I Had My Time Again” is not just catchy but is also deceptively moving in its optimism, as Phil’s producer Rita (an endearing Barrett Doss) convinces him that this endless cycle he’s in is actually a gift. And when the two finally connect in the show’s finale “Seeing You,” listeners may be surprised to find themselves so moved by a score that earlier rhymed “toxins” with “constipated oxens.” But that’s musical theater for you. — Matt Koplik