Category Archives: A-C

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

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

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

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

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.

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