All posts by Michael Portantiere

Once

Once-SoundtrackFilm Soundtrack, 2007 (Columbia) 4 Stars (4 / 5) This is the deservedly popular soundtrack album of a gorgeously bittersweet indie film, set in Dublin, about the brief but intense romance and songwriting partnership of an Irish busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova). Their love affair ends due to other entanglements, but not before they record a demo together — and he buys her a piano as a parting gift. However close to real life the events and characters of the story may or may not be, the whole thing is lent a wonderful air of authenticity by the fact that all of the songs heard in the film and on the recording were written and performed by Hansard and Irglova. The gentle, simple, almost hypnotically lovely ballad “Falling Slowly” was the movie’s big hit, charting in Ireland, Canada, the U.S. and Brazil, and winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But there are several other delights here, such as “Say It To Me Now,” “Leave,” and the deliciously quirky “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” (The Hansard character repairs vacuum cleaners to earn a living.) This recording is eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable in its own right, aside from its interest as the soundtrack of a film that served as the basis for one of the most unexpected Broadway musical hits of its era. – Michael Portantiere

Once-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2012 (Masterworks Broadway) 4 Stars (4 / 5) It probably never occurred to most fans of the film that a stage musical version of Once would ever be created or that it would be successful anywhere, let alone on Broadway, which generally tends to traffic in larger,  faster-paced, less subtle entertainments. But the brief-candle romance of the lovers at the center of the story is potent enough that one could envision such a musical connecting with audiences if pains were taken to assure that the intimacy of the piece was retained. Which is exactly what happened. With a book by Enda Walsh (based on the screenplay by John Carney) and a score comprised almost entirely of the Hansard-Irglova songs from the movie, Once premiered at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, MA  in 2011 before transferring to the New York Theatre Workshop and then to Broadway, where it collected a bunch of 2012 Tony Awards — including Best Musical — and achieved a three-year run. Among the several wise decisions made in adapting the film to the stage were Bob Crowley’s unit set design, which created the feel of a homey Irish pub; and the fact that the cast also served as the onstage orchestra. Steve Kazee as “Guy” is a real charmer in these songs, sounding far more comfortable with this style of music than that of his previous big Broadway lead, Starbuck in 110 in the Shade. He and Cristin Milioti as “Girl” make beautiful music together in “Falling Slowly,” “If You Want Me,” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” She also does a persuasive job with “The Hill,” though some may find her rather thick Czech accent a bit distracting on repeated listening. The ensemble of actors/musicians includes familiar names such as as David Patrick Kelly and Anne L. Nathan, along with some super-talented newcomers. Cheers to them as well as to director John Tiffany and musical supervisor Martin Lowe for not radically changing or distorting Once in the stage transfer. – MP

Rothschild and Sons

RothschildOff Broadway Cast, 2016 (Jay Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Here is a major revisal of the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, cut down to one-act and including several previously unheard Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick songs,  plus some revisions by Harnick. The romance for son Nathan and the big ensemble numbers are gone, and the political leaders’ roles have been trimmed. The cast totals 11, compared to more than 30 on Broadway; when Mayer Rothschild (Robert Cuccioli) sings a shortened version of  “He Tossed a Coin,” it’s clear that the Frankfurt fair isn’t crowded. Joseph Church has reorchestrated the score for four players, compared to Don Walker’s sumptuous originals. What if anything in this York Theatre Company production compensates for the loss of size and spectacle of the original? Lyricist Harnick and librettist Sherman Yellen (composer Bock died in 2010) had long wanted to refocus the story on the Rothschild family and less on the sprawling European setting. In this, they succeeded; Rothschild and Sons is an intimate piece that emphasizes feelings and relationships. Mayer’s wife, Gutele — a moving Glory Crampton — is a more significant presence as the action unfolds through her memories. She grows from being satisfied with “One Room” to standing strong against Metternich in the reprise of the driving anthem “Everything.” Crampton also gets the best of the added songs, “Just A Map,” in which she frets over her sons as they crisscross wartime Europe. Nathan (Christopher M. Williams) has lost his silly patter number, but here he makes mistakes on arrival in England (“Tea’s Hot”) and then butts heads with his father in “He Never Listens.” The heart of the show is Mayer, the father. Cuccioli’s voice sounds terrific — his “In My Own Lifetime” is rousing — yet he lacks the warmth and humor that Hal Linden found in the character. On the one hand (as another Bock-Harnick character said), it’s wonderful that this revisal may grant new life to the show. But on the other hand, while there are plenty of musicals about families, how many are as daring as The Rothschilds — set in the chaos of late 18th-early 19th century Europe, about a family relying on financial maneuverings and political cunning to survive, with a rich score evoking late Baroque and classical masters? Stick with the original. — L.F.

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn

HIOriginal Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight) 2 Stars (2 / 5) In 1939, Irving Berlin imagined a themed revue set at an inn that opens only on holidays, with songs highlighting seasonal celebrations. It didn’t make it to the stage, but the idea became the basis for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and featuring the biggest-selling song in history, “White Christmas.” Success breeds success, so the inn setting, Crosby, and that song reappeared in the 1954 film White Christmas. Both movies became perennial holiday offerings on television, prompting theatrical adaptations. Berlin himself recycled songs like aluminum cans; the original Holiday Inn lifted “Easter Parade”  and “Blue Skies” from earlier shows. In similar fashion, librettists Gordon Greenberg (who also directed) and Chad Hodge ransacked Berlin’s catalog for gems to shoehorn into the plot of the stage version. The nine interpolated songs sometimes work (“Shaking the Blues Away” as an obvious cheer-up number) and sometimes don’t (“Heat Wave” sounds out of place, “Cheek to Cheek” is sadly truncated). Three songs from the film were cut: “Lazy,” replaced by “The Little Things In Life,” a more satisfactory “I want” song for Jim Hardy, along with the Presidential tributes “I Can’t Tell a Lie” and the minstrelsy “Abraham.” The plot largely follows that of the movie, with nightclub performers Jim (Bryce Pinkham), his girlfriend Lila (Megan Sikora), their pal Ted (Corbin Bleu), and Connecticut gal Linda (Lora Lee Gayer) variously torn between their desires for show biz, settling down, and each other. Pinkham gives Jim an earnestness (“Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today”) that distances him from Crosby’s laid back portrayal. He wisely keeps “White Christmas” simple, with Gayer delicately joining him. The latter conveys Linda’s sweetness in “Nothing More to Say,” one of the lesser-known tunes. In contrast, Sikora’s Lila is sometimes just too brassy, and the talented Megan Lawrence is wasted here, squeaking weirdly on the title song. Bleu ably handles the production numbers, including the literally explosive “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” but he doesn’t have much of a character to develop. Larry Blank’s exuberant orchestrations generally fit the material, but there are some odd changes in tempo during “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Easter Parade” sounds lethargic. — Laura Frankos

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

WCPremiere Recording, 2006 (Ghostlight) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Librettists David Ives and Paul Blake based this Irving Berlin songfest on the 1954 film of the same title, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as ex-G.I.s, now performers, saving their former general’s failing Vermont farmhouse by — what else? — putting on a show. Ives and Blake altered some characters and eliminated four songs (“Heat Wave,” “Gee, I Wish I Were Back in the Army,” that unfortunate minstrel medley, and the campy “Choreography”) while adding eight Berlin classics. These numbers are better integrated into this show than those used in the later Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn; pairing 1933’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” with “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” is particularly effective. “Happy Holiday” provides a quick jump from 1944 to 1954, and “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” lifted from 1949’s Miss Liberty, is a kicky piece for the three women. “Love and the Weather” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” also fit well, and the former gives some character insights. “Let Yourself Go,” however, has a mid-thirties vibe doesn’t sound quite right for a mid-fifties setting. White Christmas debuted at the St. Louis Muny in 2000, followed by a production in 2004 in San Francisco and a Broadway holiday run in 2008. This recording features the San Francisco leads — Brian d’Arcy James and Jeffry Denman as Bob and Phil, with Anastasia Barzee and Meredith Patterson as their girls, sisters Betty and Judy — plus Muny original Karen Morrow as Martha, the general’s aide. It’s a pleasure to hear d’Arcy James’s rich baritone in classics such as the title tune, “Blue Skies,” “Count Your Blessings,” and“How Deep Is the Ocean?” Barzee’s versatility is apparent; she’s wistful in “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” crackling with Patterson in the Andrews Sisters-styled “Sisters,” and tender in the reprise of “How Deep.” Patterson and Denman have a lot of fun in “Snow” and the tap extravaganza “I Love A Piano.”  (The latter was written in 1915, but it’s timeless.) Morrow instills comic zest into the old Al Jolson hit “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” revealing Martha’s desire to perform, yet she manages not to become a caricature. The recording benefits from a sizable orchestra led by Rob Berman, with Larry Blank’s orchestrations intentionally sounding like a fifties movie musical.  A solid choice for Berlin fans or those seeking something for their holiday playlist. — Laura Frankos

It Shoulda Been You

ShouldaOriginal Broadway Cast, 2015 (Ghostlight) 2 Stars (2 / 5)  Weddings have inspired musicals since at least as early as the 1920s (often with multiple couples overcoming ridiculous obstacles before tying the knot) up through Fiddler on the Roof, Mamma Mia! and The Drowsy Chaperone (which parodied those ’20s shows). The combination of romance, mishaps, family conflict, and celebration is irresistible to writers. It Shoulda Been You joined the list in 2015, having originated as composer Barbara Anselmi’s concept piece at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Brian Hargrove came on as librettist/lyricist, though five of the workshop lyricists also retained credits; unfortunately, their lyrics vary in quality and are dissimilar in style from Hargrove’s work. Anselmi’s music, while not especially memorable, is sprightly enough, with occasional jazz overtones. Doug Besterman’s orchestrations provide that brassy, old-fashioned musical comedy feel. The cast is comprised of killer comic talent: Tyne Daly as the overbearing Jewish mother, Chip Zien as her husband, Sierra Boggess as the bride, Lisa Howard as the older sister who is in many ways the show’s central character, Harriet Harris as the unhappy mother of the groom, Josh Grisetti as the bride’s ex-boyfriend, and Edward Hibbert as the wedding planner. Plus, any show that has Montego Glover in a throwaway role has star power to spare. There are a few solid character numbers here: the sisters’ relationship is revealed in “Perfect”, Harris as the groom’s mom mourns the loss of her son to marriage in “Where Did I Go Wrong?”, and Howard and Grisetti conjure up childhood memories (“Who Was Angel to My Buffy?”) in “Who?” Daly gets a heartfelt 11 o’clocker in “What They Never Tell You,” and naturally, everyone is reconciled by the finale. So why does the score as heard on the cast recording seem nearly as flat as champagne opened last night? Probably because the show plays like an extended skit from The Carol Burnett Show, moving methodically from situation to situation, punctuated with a running gag about panini stations. “Albert’s Turn,” performed by Hibbert, largely serves to set up a later joke, while “Jenny’s Blues,” sung by Howard, is a textbook declaration of independence, and an ’80s power ballad sung by Glover and Nick Spangler is just pointless. (Spangler replaced David Burtka as the groom during the show’s brief Broadway run.) The comedy all-stars push to nail each joke, but they’re still playing stale stereotypes. Finally, It Shoulda Been You’s nuptial conditions and revelations rival the “ridiculous” factor of those ’20s shows, though in a 21st century social context. Musical comedy fans can accept all kinds of preposterous scenarios, but when practically the entire wedding party is hiding something, that’s harder to swallow than an overstuffed panini. — Laura Frankos

Anastasia

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

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

Waitress

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

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

Dear Evan Hansen

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

Pretty Filthy

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

Cagney

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