Category Archives: Reviews by Show Name

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.

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

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

The Band’s Visit

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

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

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

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 diverted airplanes 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