Category Archives: Reviews by Show Name

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 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

A Bronx Tale: The Musical

BTOriginal Broadway Cast, 2017 (Ghostlight) 2 Stars (2 / 5) In 1989, Chazz Palminteri told the story of his youth in the Bronx as a one-man play, chronicling his conflicting loyalties to his working-class father, Lorenzo, and the charismatic local mob boss, Sonny. A 1993 film version starred Palminteri as Sonny and Robert De Niro, who directed, as Lorenzo. For the musical, Palminteri penned the libretto while De Niro co-directed with Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks. It conjures up memories of Jersey Boys (music, gangsters, lots of narration) and West Side Story (gritty neighborhoods in ethnic conflict, lovers from opposite sides). Alan Menken’s versatile score, evoking nearly every style of music heard on a transistor radio in the sixties, is the most enjoyable facet of A Bronx Tale. The composer returns to his Little Shop of Horrors doo-wop roots in the effective opener, “Belmont Avenue,” as Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton) vividly describes the Italian-American neighborhood while “next year’s Frankie Vallis” harmonize on the corner. There’s a Sinatra-style swing tune (“One of the Great Ones”) for Sonny (a gruff yet sexy Nick Cordero), driving funk in “Hurt Someone,” a pop love duet (“Out of Your Head”), and Motown soul for the black neighborhood kids (“Webster Avenue”). Unfortunately, other than in the scene-setting descriptive numbers, Glenn Slater’s lyrics often rely  on clichés and sentimentality. “Look To Your Heart” is a maudlin piece of advice given by Lorenzo (an underused Richard H. Blake) to young Calogero (Hudson Loverro, who holds his own with his elders); Lorenzo’s wife (Lucia Giannetta) reprises it, and the inescapable title phrase worms its way into other songs. Thornton and Ariana DeBose handle “Out of Your Head” well enough, but the lyrics could fit any generic pair of star-crossed lovers, while Cordero’s“Mack the Knife”-like ditty about “Nicky Machiavelli” is marred by some painful rhymes and syntax. Slater’s on better footing in “I Like It,” as young Calogero revels in the respect, free Cokes, and comic books that come with being Sonny’s favorite. The show concludes with “The Choices We Make,” and Lorenzo says, “It’s just another story.” One might wish it were told with more originality and verve. — Laura Frankos

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