Category Archives: A-C

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

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

Curtains

curtainsOriginal Broadway Cast, 2007 (Manhattan Records) 2 Stars (2 / 5) Part backstage satire and part whodunit, Curtains was a long-gestating property. At the time of its opening, the show was touted as having the last original score by the legendary team of lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, and composer John Kander. (Whatever the order of composition, it turned out that the team’s adventurously rewarding The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit both premiered in later years.) Peter Stone, who died in 2003, is credited with the original book and concept of Curtains; Rupert Holmes, who already had “whodunit” experience with Drood, came in to help restructure the book and to work with Kander on writing  some additional lyrics. The result is a modestly entertaining piece, but it doesn’t have quite enough bite to succeed as satire or enough intrigue to succeed as a murder mystery. Centered on a Broadway-bound musical that’s experiencing out-of-town woes, Curtains opens with the mysterious murder of the show’s lame leading lady (a hilarious Patty Goble). The cast and production team are up in arms trying to figure out who the culprit is while simultaneously attempting to improve their show so it won’t meet the same deadly fate at the hands of the New York critics. At the center of it all is theater-crazed detective Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, played with boyish charm by David Hyde Pierce. The star is supported by a strong cast including Debra Monk as the show-within-the-show’s gruff producer; Edward Hibbert as the catty director; and Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley as the songwriting team, once married but now divorced. The cast works their magic — especially entertaining is Monk’s delivery of her character’s hard-as-nails mantra, “It’s a Business” — but the material is rarely up to the intelligence or melodic zeal of previous Kander and Ebb scores. The always reliable William David Brohn provides orchestrations that practically come with their own pair of jazz hands, but they aren’t able to elevate Kander’s music beyond the level of stylishly presentable. Although Curtains is a pleasant diversion from the darker K&E works, it will not likely stay with you for long. — Matt Koplik

Adding Machine

adding-machineOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2008 (P.S. Classics) 3 Stars (3 / 5) You might think The Adding Machine, Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist drama, an unlikely candidate for musical adaptation. It’s a bleak tale of a bigoted, downtrodden bookkeeper who kills his boss and is executed, ending up in the Elysian Fields, where recycling doesn’t mean reusing plastic bottles. Thankfully, Joshua Schmidt (music and book) and Jason Loewith (book) took on the challenge, and this recording recreates most of the largely sung-through show in all its nerve-jangling dissonance. Joel Hatch is outstanding as the bookkeeper, Mr. Zero — so obnoxious that you know he deserves his fate, yet so thick, you understand how he got that way. Hatch conveys Zero’s character through the staccato snarls of Schmidt and Loewith’s lyrics, full of blunt, monosyllabic statements. The joys in Zero’s life are few, but he relishes them, whether it’s the “Ham and Eggs” his harridan wife (the marvelously caustic Cyrilla Baer) brings for his final meal, or recalling their few moments of wedded bliss in “Didn’t We?” But rage smolders within his confused mind, crowded with endless figures. When his boss crushes his fantasy of promotion (“Movin’ Up”), telling him that he’s being replaced by an adding machine, Zero stabs him. In the afterlife, Zero encounters two souls he knew while alive: his assistant, Daisy (Amy Warren), and fellow inmate Shrdlu (Joe Ferrell). Both get songs that break up the harsh score — a gooey love ditty for Daisy, and a gospel rouser for religious nut Shrdlu, detailing his mother’s murder and the hellish torments he expects for his crime. Most of the score is intentionally jarring; piano, synthesizer, and percussion bang into the brain while the repetitive chorus provides a counterpoint of chanted numbers and echoed lyrics. It’s exactly the right tone for Rice’s piece, though you probably won’t find yourself playing this one often because of the shrillness. — Laura Frankos

An American in Paris

ap-filmFilm Soundtrack, 1951 (MGM/Rhino-Turner/Watertower Music) 5 Stars (5 / 5) In the 1990s, Turner Entertainment restored one of MGM’s greatest musicals, An American In Paris. The restoration turned up the studio session tapes of the all-Gershwin score, which led to Turner teaming with Rhino Records to release a two-disc album stuffed full of the music heard in the film as well as outtakes, underscoring, and extended and alternate versions of songs. That 1996 CD is now out of print, but in 2015, Watertower Music made it available digitally through their Warner Archives series. The songs in the film, nearly all part of the Great American Songbook, are performed by an engaging trio: Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, a war vet and aspiring painter; Oscar Levant as Adam Cook, an acerbic composer; and Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel, a song-and-dance man. Kelly is at his charming best teaching English to a gaggle of Parisian kids through “I Got Rhythm” and earnestly expressing his passion for Leslie Caron in “Love Is Here To Stay.” He joins Guetary in proclaiming the joys of love (for the same girl, though they don’t know it) in “‘S Wonderful,” and goofs with Levant on “Tra-la-la.” Guetary solos in a “(I’ll Build A) Stairway To Paradise,” so rousing that you expect showgirls to parade through your room. The soundtrack is capped by the MGM Studio Orchestra, up-sized to 72 players and conducted by Johnny Green, performing the glorious 16-minute “An American In Paris Ballet.” Added material includes underscoring and medleys by the studio orchestra and Benny Green and his band, along with outtakes such as Kelly’s heartfelt “I’ve Got a Crush On You” and an incredible set of Gershwin improvisations by Levant, who was a lifelong friend of Gershwin and one of his finest interpreters. The improvs got deleted from the film in favor of another treasure, Levant’s brilliant — and in the film, highly comic — rendition of the “Concerto in F (Third Movement).” This is one of the two pieces in stereo on the album; if this album has any drawbacks, it’s the fact that most of the session tapes didn’t survive in multi-channel format, so almost all of the music is presented here in mono. But that’s a quibble. It all adds up to nearly two hours of pure Gershwin(s), and as Ira wrote, “Who could ask for anything more?” —Laura Frankos

ap-broadwayOriginal Broadway Cast,  2015 (Sony Masterworks Broadway) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Some Gershwin fans may have been wary when they heard of plans to turn the beloved film An American in Paris into a stage musical, filled out with other numbers by George and Ira. Previous attempts to create “new” Gershwin shows through similar methods had had decidedly mixed results; just look at My One And Only, Crazy For You, and Nice Work If You Can Get It.  (On second thought,  please don’t look at Nice Work If You Can Get It.) But in this case, the outcome was far better. Librettist Craig Lucas, director Christopher Wheeldon, and musical supervisor/arranger Rob Fisher crafted a show that takes its inspiration from the film but wisely doesn’t try to replicate it.  Only five numbers — the “Concerto in F,” “I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Stairway to Paradise,” and the title ballet — are in both the movie and the show, and the interpolations were chosen with an eye toward how well they fit the plot and characters. In the stage musical, the time of the action is shifted to the immediate post-WWII years, with Paris recovering both spiritually and physically. That’s clear in the first ensemble number, “I Got Rhythm,” when Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) tells composer Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), “People need to laugh. Paris needs it.” By the song’s end, Henri has brought a snappy 4/4 beat to Adam’s dirge-like melody, and the pair have become fast friends with another fellow vet, painter Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild). Enter Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), a young ballerina destined to become the love object of all three men — another departure from the film. It’s a nice touch, making Adam much more than comic relief, and Uranowitz’s heartbreaking take on “But Not For Me” is one of the cast recording’s highlights. The full trio of male leads also provides lovely harmonies, both joyful (“‘S Wonderful”) and poignant (the 11 o’clocker “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”). Fairchild has an engaging warmth that’s most evident in “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Liza” but also comes through in the bits of dialogue on the recording. In the film, the female roles of Lise and Jerry’s patroness, Milo, don’t get any vocals, but that’s not the case here. Cope gives us a yearning “The Man I Love” and pairs well with Fairchild on one of the Gershwins’ sweetest ballads, “For You, For Me, For Evermore.” Jill Paice, as Milo, provides sophistication and sultriness in “Shall We Dance?” and a glimpse into her heart in “But Not For Me.” As in the film, it’s the concert pieces that really complete the whole, beautifully orchestrated here by Christopher Austin; the title ballet and the “Concerto in F” (the show’s opening) are joined by the “Second Prelude” and the first act finale, which includes the “Second Rhapsody” and the “Cuban Overture.” This cast album doesn’t replace the soundtrack, but it’s not meant to. It has its own merits. — L.F.