Category Archives: A-C

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.

American Psycho

American-PsychoOriginal London Cast, 2016 (Concord Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Duncan Sheik’s score for this musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ savage (in all senses of the word), satiric novel marvelously captures the musical vibe of the go-go 1980s, when “greed was good.” It helps that interpolated into the show’s score are some of the decade’s big hits — for example, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” — which have been terrifically re-conceived for a theatrical storytelling mode. What’s not always so successful is Sheik’s attempt to capture the book’s biting humor. In certain numbers (“You Are What You Wear,”) his work as lyricist zings,  communicating the characters’ sense of entitlement while also commenting on their vapidity. Other songs — like “Mistletoe Alert” which attempts a similar dual purpose — fall flat on this original London cast recording, without the visuals that audiences encountered in the theater. As a record of the musical, the album provides an intriguing glimpse of it “in process.” Before American Psycho transferred from London to Broadway, new numbers were written and the song order was changed; for those who saw the show during its brief run in New York, it’s fascinating to listen to this OLCR and hear how the narrative became more direct in the journey across the Atlantic. (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wrote the book for the musical.) In the unlikely event that a Broadway cast recording is ever released, it will probably overshadow this one, thanks to the changes and Benjamin Walker’s electrifying performance as Patrick Bateman. Until then, this album will have to suffice, and listeners will find that Sheik’s energetic melodies seem to demand repeated plays. — Andy Propst

Billy Elliot

Billy ElliotOriginal London Cast, 2006 (Decca Broadway) 2 Stars (2 / 5) Based on the film written by Lee Hall, who did double duty for the stage musical as librettist and lyricist, Billy Elliot tells of a Northern English boy who discovers a love for ballet but has to hide it from his family — including his father and brother, who are on strike with the miner’s union at the height of Thatcherism. A smash hit in London (this cast album represents that production) and on Broadway, Billy Elliot was a moving, theatrically exciting piece due in large part to its thrilling staging by director Stephen Daldry, who also directed the film, and choreographer Peter Darling. What becomes clear on the cast album, however, is the obstacle that Hall and Elton John faced with this project: How does one write a compelling musical theater score when your leading character only feels comfortable expressing himself through dance? Their answer was to create a score that more or less provided a platform for Daldry and Darling to leap from. This is not to say that the songs are bad; they do exactly what they need to do. Without the umbrella of Disney, Elton John produced some inventive melodies (e.g., “Solidarity”) that are given extra character by Martin Koch’s orchestrations, even if John occasionally tends to lean back into his specialty of pop power ballads that don’t quite fit the piece. Hall, a first time lyricist, does an admirable job of keeping the songs in the language of the working class characters. Due to the physical demands of the title role, three young actors rotated as Billy in the original London production (and on Broadway), though only one, Liam Mower, is heard on this recording. Mower does a fine job, as does the rest of the cast, most notably a crackling Hayden Gwynne as the dance teacher who guides Billy out of his shell. Listeners who haven’t seen the show may wonder why Billy Elliot was such a phenomenon; the answer is that this musical, even more than most others, truly needs to be seen to be experienced. — Matt Koplik

The Book of Mormon

MormonOriginal Broadway Cast, 2011 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) When it was announced that the creators of South Park were writing a Broadway musical, with one of the songwriters of Avenue Q, no less, everyone expected that the show was going to be both shocking and hilarious. But the surprise here was that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) wrote a stellar musical comedy that was traditional in many ways. Yes, it’s  shocking in its profanity and contemporary in its subject matter: two missionaries go to Uganda in the hope of  converting villagers to Mormonism. But rather than try to reinvent the wheel with The Book of Mormon, Parker, Stone, and Lopez chose to adhere to tried and true musical theater structure in the style of the Golden Age, and to have fun within it. The cast is strong, each member giving a fully defined, wonderfully well sung performance. Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, as the two central Mormon characters, make a good team, with Rannells doing the majority of the vocal heavy lifting. Gad is also a strong singer, though his comedic antics can occasionally be grating. Robert Lopez proved with Avenue Q that he has an ear for melody, but here his work is even more inventive while being filled with musical pop culture references to everything from the Osmonds in “All-American Prophet” to The Lion King (a running joke in the show) in “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Each song has a distinct flavor, and yet the score doesn’t feel disjointed. Stephen Oremus’s orchestrations –played by 23 musicians on the cast album, as compared to nine in the production — match Lopez’s level of invention. As is the case with the best musical comedies, because the score is so reliant on the book, not every song shines as brightly on the recording as it does in the theater (for example, “Making Things Up Again”). But this a minor gripe. The lyrics — by Parker and Stone, with contributions from Lopez — are crass, colorful, and hilarious, yet with a surprising amount of heart. The show wouldn’t have worked if the creators had decided to be condescending to their characters and to the audience, but thankfully, this was not the case. — Matt Koplik

The Bridges of Madison County

BridgesOriginal Broadway Cast, 2014 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Robert James Waller’s novel about an Italian war bride’s brief affair with a photographer who passes through her Iowa town became a cultural phenomenon and something of a joke in the mid ’90s. While some were swept up in the romance of the story, others rolled their eyes at the corniness of the dialogue and proceedings. The fact that Jason Robert Brown was able to mine a great deal of musical theater gold from his source material — so much so that he won a Tony Award for his efforts — speaks very well of his craft. In the role of Francesca, the Italian housewife, Kelli O’Hara is in top form on the cast album. She wraps her silvery soprano around Brown’s gorgeous melodies, all the while giving a mature, grounded performance that makes songs like “Almost Real” and “Look at Me” particularly moving. Steven Pasquale is every bit her equal as Robert, the photographer with whom Francesca falls deeply in love; his glorious baritone is rich, strong, and masculine, bringing to mind classic leading men of the Golden Age. Together, these two make the recording essential. Their voices blend to such rapturous effect that their duet “One Second and a Million Miles” is not only the highlight of the whole album, but one of the best love duets written for musical theater in recent years. That said, while the entire score is gorgeous to listen to, the musical loses dramatic steam when Brown and librettist Marsha Norman expand the story to focus on several other characters — and the songs for those characters, though catchy and technically well done, reflect that. The twangy “State Road 21” is a jarring follow up to the wistful “Falling Into You” and is skippable on the album, as are “Something From a Dream” and “Get Closer.” One fine exception is “Another Life,” sung beautifully by Whitney Bashor as Robert’s first wife; the song chronicles the couple’s courtship, marriage, and divorce, and it’s the only one that competes with the songs for Francesca and Robert. Brown’s orchestrations, for which he won another Tony, are lush without being sentimental, and they have a slight country edge. Even with a few substandard songs,  Bridges is true romance whenever O’Hara and Pasquale are front and center. — Matt Koplik

Altar Boyz

Altar-BoyzOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2005 (Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom) 4 Stars (4 / 5) A boisterous, satirical show in the form of a concert by a Christian pop-rock boy band espousing wholesome morality through their music, Altar Boyz speaks to adolescent worries about being different while pointing out the hypocrisy of those who use religion to discriminate. Via Kevin Del Aguila’s brainy, laugh-a-minute book and clever songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, criticisms are not aimed at specific targets, but are subtly suggested through wise questions and stories containing humorous symbolism. In one of the show’s funniest sequences, the “sensitive” boy in the band tells of getting beat up by “Episcopalian thugs” because he is…“Catholic,” then sings a prideful anthem proclaiming his “epiphany.” The others — a tough homeboy, a Latino, a Jew, and a super-cute jock — also get solo turns that side-splittingly spotlight push-button issues through diverse musical styles. At various points in the score, Jesus’s accomplishments are related rap-style, eternal life is explained to a salsa beat, a gospel sound is used to illuminate one boy’s story of being “called” by Jesus on his cell phone, and a hard-driving funk number insists “you gotta’ work on your soul.” Although the songs sound like pop-rock, they are well crafted as musical theater songs, illuminating characters and creating moods. The lyrics are of the witty, informative theatrical variety, not the numbing, repetitive rock ilk; sung with impeccable diction, they’re easy to discern over the energizing, rock-band instrumentation. This  cast album represents skillful songwriting in support of the thematic content of a smart show. – Lisa Jo Sagolla

All Shook Up

All-Shook-UpOriginal Broadway Cast, 2005 (Masterworks Broadway) 2 Stars (2 / 5) A lightweight jukebox musical showcasing 25 songs made famous by Elvis Presley, All Shook Up concerns a motorcycle-riding roustabout who brings romance and rock ‘n’ roll to a dreary Midwestern town in 1955.  Flimsily scaffolded by Joe DiPietro’s contrived book, the show contains no original music, thus the value of its cast album lies solely in the degree to which the familiar songs are rendered in new or especially pleasing fashions.  Only about a third of the tracks succeed in that respect. The up-tempos fare better than the ballads, most of which are too fast, encumbered by multi-part choral embellishments, and/or robbed of their emotional warmth by strident wailing.  The performers don’t try to imitate Elvis, but one almost wishes they could, as it was the velvety beauty of his voice that made Elvis’s renditions of songs like “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” such memorable hits.  While none of the cast has a gorgeous enough voice to make those simple melodies as riveting as The King did, Jenn Gambatese (as the roustabout’s love interest, temporarily cross-dressed as a man) gives an impressive interpretation of “A Little Less Conversation,” her bright belt nipping crisply at the rapid-fire lyrics.  With arrangements and musical supervision by Stephen Oremus, the album garnishes solo vocals with harmonizing back-up singers and propulsive instrumental breaks, most satisfyingly in “C’mon Everybody,” a “Teddy Bear/Hound Dog” medley, the country-styled “That’s All Right,” and a Motown-flavored “Let Yourself Go.”  But the recording’s only true standout numbers are “Jailhouse Rock” and “Burning Love,” classics so intrinsically exciting that they never fail to electrify. — Lisa Jo Sagolla

The Color Purple

CP-OriginalOriginal Broadway Cast, 2005 (Angel) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is a work with a lot of heart that was sadly compromised in its original Broadway production by the attempt to present it as a grand, epic musical. Though all of the songwriters are well established in the pop and R&B world, this was the first musical theater score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. For the most part, their efforts are worthy. The lyrics are smart and clean, but occasionally heavy handed when leaning towards the poetic. The music, however, is consistently strong, and provides various flavors of jazz, gospel, and soul. LaChanze was given the daunting task of playing Celie, a poor woman who goes through a series of devastating life events, starting the musical at the age of 14 and ending well into her 50s. Acting-wise, the star is up for the task; she wears her heart on her sleeve, and has done the work to specify for the listener what age Celie is at any given moment. However, LaChanze is not always equal to the vocal demands of the score; she’s at her best in the quieter moments (“Our Prayer”), but her two biggest numbers (“What About Love” and “I’m Here”) don’t pack the wallop that they should, because she doesn’t sound completely comfortable from a vocal standpoint. The rest of the cast — including Felicia P. Fields, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Brandon Victor Dixon — are all vocally gifted, but they perform rather broadly. Too often in this recording, characters come across as caricatures of their literary counterparts, undermining their contribution to Walker’s powerful story. Also, in a rare misstep for Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrations are often busy, seeming to have taken too big a cue from Quincy Jones’s sweeping compositions for the film. This is not a bad score or even a bad recording, but when it’s over,  you may be smiling with appreciation rather than wiping away a tear. — Matt Koplik

CP-revival

Broadway Cast, 20015 (Broadway Records) 5 Stars (5 / 5) Well, this is different. In bringing The Color Purple back to Broadway in a stripped down, bare-essentials production, director John Doyle — a master of simplicity — shed a whole new light on the musical and exposed all of its hidden qualities. In terms of the actual material, there’s not much difference between this revival and what was presented 10 years previously; but the approach is vastly different, and that’s why the production and the recording are a revelation. The cast — including TV star Danielle Brooks and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, both making their Broadway debuts — finds the humanity that make these characters resonate so deeply. Their powerful acting is reflected in their singing voices, as they attack the score with a ferocity rarely heard on Broadway. While everyone in the cast is stellar, British newcomer Cynthia Erivo is the major find here. Erivo’s Celie may experience brutality and devastation, but she is never a victim. She has strength, humor, and grit; her unstoppable voice can whisper with hurt or soar in triumph, making the 11 o’clock number “I’m Here” the tour de force it was meant to be. Special attention should also be given to the orchestrations of Joseph Joubert, who has removed the fussiness of Jonathan Tunick’s originals and instead has made the orchestra function as a support system (albeit one with great color and versatility), so that the characters are truly front and center. It’s rare for a revival cast recording to be preferable to the original, especially when the revival is significantly smaller in size. But sometimes, with a dynamic cast, a smart director, and a gifted orchestrator, miracles happen. — M.K