Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Hollywood Records) (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
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Masterworks Broadway/Broadway Records) (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
Original Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight) (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
Premiere Recording, 2006 (Ghostlight) (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
Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Ghostlight) (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
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2013 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) Texas is big. Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel, Giant, is big, spanning decades and two generations of rancher families. The 1956 movie version is big, with spurting oils wells and thundering cattle herds (plus a stunning young Liz Taylor and a sultry James Dean). How to translate something so gigantic to the stage? By going big with the score. Giant may not be Michael John LaChiusa’s most important musical, but it’s his most melodic, alternately sweeping and introspective. This recording is jam-packed with 26 songs from the three-hour show: Mexican folk songs, country hoedowns, ballads of hope and regret, swing, and early rock. (LaChiusa subtly mirrors changing musical tastes as the story moves from 1925 to 1952.) Linking the various parts of the whole is the anthem “Heartbreak Country,” for at its heart, Giant is the tale of that land — the Reata Ranch — and how it changed through the years, affecting everyone connected with it. At the center is the owner, Bick Benedict (the wonderful Brian D’Arcy James), who, like his older sister Luz (Michele Pawk), loves Reata and is always aware of his obligation to “take care of the land.” Yet, instead of marrying the daughter of a neighboring ranch owner, he weds an educated Virginian, Leslie (Kate Baldwin). LaChiusa chronicles their relationship in nine telling numbers. “Your Texas” is about Leslie’s dreams during their courtship, including a kind of frontier utopia. The lilting “Did Spring Come To Texas?” reveals Bick’s joy at their wedding. Things don’t always run smoothly, not with Luz’s interference and sexy mechanic Jett (PJ Griffith) hanging around; but there is genuine love here, and Bick and Lesie try repeatedly to work out their differences (“Heartbreak Country,” “Topsy Turvy”). A major issue is the treatment of the Mexicans who work the ranch, once Mexican property (“Aurelia Dolores”). The racism appalls Leslie, and her views are shared by the couple’s bookish son, Jordy (Bobby Steggart), who loves Juana (Natalie Cortez). Things reach a crisis in the climactic “The Desert,” a musical sequence (with dialogue by librettist Sybille Pearson) that’s a mini-play in itself. Others — there are nearly a dozen significant characters — play their roles in this changing Texas. Griffith works hard to distance himself from Dean’s iconic portrayal; his rock growl helps. Pawk’s Luz is perhaps overly villainous in “No Time For Surprises,” but fares better in her duets with Bick. John Dossett and Katie Thompson each get strong solos as Bick’s uncle and the girl Bick jilted for Leslie. The younger generation — Steggert, Cortez, Miguel Cervantes, and Mackenzie Mauzy — have their own chances to shine as well, notably in the bouncy “Jump” and the tender “There Is A Child.” This is a rich, vibrant score, loaded with emotion and power. — Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2008 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) (4 / 5) Winner of 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations, In the Heights was the first Broadway musical hit to use rap as an essential storytelling component in a score that blends Latin musical styles with hip-hop sensibilities. Set in the Latin-American community of Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the show nestles sentimental stories of first- and second-generation immigrants pursuing their various American dreams and romances amid larger themes concerning notions of home and gentrification. The Grammy Award winning cast album, a two-disc set, preserves the entirety of a dynamic score with both music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also conceived the show and played the leading role of bodega-owner Usnavi. Fueled by high-octane horns and propulsive percussion, the passion-filled orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman support Miranda’s dramatic rapping and the superb singing of the other leads. If you don’t like salsa, merengue, Latin jazz, and hip-hop, you’re out of luck here; but even if the score overall is somewhat lacking in variety, the lengthy individual numbers are built of different-sounding sections. They mix diverse styles, tempi, rhythms, instruments, dynamic levels, and vocal qualities (both spoken and sung), constituting variegated musical journeys unto themselves. Most of the songs also integrate lots of funny, interestingly detailed, and/or emotionally touching dialogue, lending a potent theatricality to what is essentially a pop-music score. Album highlights include “When You’re Home,” a snappy duet performed by Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson as the show’s young lovers, Nina and Benny; the tear-jerkers “Everything I Know” and “Inutil,” gorgeously sung by Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez, respectively; “Benny’s Dispatch,” a rhythmic treat; and the exciting ensemble number “Carnaval del Barrio.” — Lisa Jo Sagolla
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2006 (PS Classics) (3 / 5) Based on Albert and David Maysles’ fascinating 1975 documentary film of the same name, the musical Grey Gardens depicts the dysfunctional relationship between Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, and the shocking squalor into which they had descended by the mid-1970s. The aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the eccentric, elderly Edith and 56-year-old Edie were discovered residing in a filthy Long Island mansion overrun with cats and wild raccoons. While the musical’s second act takes place in 1973 and replicates much of the film’s ghastly content, the first act is a fictionalized confluence of three real-life events that likely impelled the socialites’ downfall: Edith’s father rebuking her, Joe Kennedy, Jr. inexplicably breaking off his engagement to Edie, and Edith’s husband secretly running off to Mexico to obtain a divorce. Though Christine Ebersole gives a tour-de-force performance in the leading dual role (playing Edith in the first act, Edie in the second), and Doug Wright’s penetrating book is buttressed by well-crafted songs by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, the original Off-Broadway cast album of Grey Gardens can make for difficult listening. Aside from “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” a poetic ballad, and “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” an amusing illustration of Edie’s idiosyncratic sense of fashion, the score’s primary attractions are its pastiche evocations of once-popular song genres, ranging from minstrelsy to marches, jazz, soft-shoe, gospel, and those beloved waltz-songs commonly used in musicals as emblems of nostalgia. However, the album also preserves much of the songs’ internal and contextualizing dialogue, most of which is argumentative or otherwise unpleasant and therefore compromises the aesthetic appeal of the music. While it is a representative souvenir of the stage production, this is the kind of album likely to sit on one’s shelf. — Lisa Jo Sagolla
Original Broadway Cast, 2007 (PS Classics) (5 / 5) Upon the opening of the Broadway production of Grey Gardens (and the release of the Broadway cast recording), the creative team deemed it the definitive version of their show and requested the discontinuation of the cast album of the original Off-Broadway production, turning that recording into a collector’s item. Considering the musical’s generally grim story about former First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s peculiar aunt and pitiful cousin, Edith and Edie, who wind up living in sickening seediness, the Broadway album is a surprisingly fun listen. In its revamping, the musical lost four of its least inspired songs and gained three shiny new ones. Whereas the Off-Broadway album opens with a scratchy old recording of Edith singing “Toyland” that gets drowned out by the mother and daughter bickering, the Broadway album launches with the newly written “The Girl Who Has Everything,” an optimistic tune set within a conversation of pleasant reminiscing. The new song “Goin’ Places,” sung by Edie and her boyfriend, Joe Kennedy, Jr. (before he jilts her), substitutes a showy jazz number with upbeat lyrics about Joe’s future for Off-Broadway’s “Better Fall Out of Love,” a downer emphasizing why Joe and Edie aren’t right for each other. While the plodding “Tomorrow’s Woman” from Off-Broadway was simply eliminated, the spirited march “Being Bouvier” was re-constituted as “Marry Well,” changing the song from a cold military man’s boasting to warmer-toned advice for young girls from a concerned grandpa. The album also benefits from sparkling new orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; the only major casting change made for the Broadway transfer, namely the replacement of Sara Gettelfinger by the superior singer Erin Davie as Edie in the first act; and the trimming of the unsettling dialogue that weighed down the Off-Broadway recording, which makes it easier for us to appreciate the humorous aspects of the story of poor, pathetic Edith and Edie. — L.J.S.
Original West Coast Cast, 1965 (Capitol/no CD) (4 / 5) Edwin Lester of the Civic Light Opera Company of Los Angeles and San Francisco was known for bringing Broadway’s first national tours to the West Coast, and for mounting revivals with as many original Broadway cast members as possible. He was also famous for creating and producing such successful “modern” operettas as Song of Norway and Kismet. This show began in Vienna in 1930 as an operetta (Walzer aus Wien) based on the lives and music of Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr. As The Great Waltz, it traveled abroad successfully, then opened on Broadway in a new version in 1934. The credits on this recording reveal the complicated history of the show: music by the two Strausses; musical adaptation by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Robert Wright, and George Forrest; lyrics by Wright and Forrest; additional lyrics by Forman Brown; book by Jerome Chodorov, based on versions by Moss Hart (1934) and Milton Lazarus (1949). The book of the Lester version involves the father/son conflict that actually existed between Strausses père and fils. The melodies are, of course, ravishing, and the adaptations are scintillatingly orchestrated. Metropolitan Opera stars Giorgio Tozzi (as the elder Strauss) and Jean Fenn (as an opera singer who had a serious flirtation with Strauss in his youth) are wonderful in their respective introductory solos, “I’m in Love With Vienna” and “Philosophy of Life.” And when they raise their voices together in their duets “Of Men and Violins” and “The Enchanted Wood,” they are simply grand. The role of Strauss, Jr. is sung with ringing tenor tone by Frank Porretta; the character has no solos in The Great Waltz, but his duets with Fenn and with Anita Gillette in the ingénue role of Resi are thrilling. Gillette delightfully joins with Wilbur Evans (as Herr Dommayer) in the infectious “A Waltz With Wings.” There is also a fine quartet of conflict for the four principals, “No Two Ways”; a trio titled “Music,” performed with verve by Evans, Leo Fuchs, and Eric Brotherson; and the effective “Blue Danube” finale. — Jeffrey Dunn
London Cast, 1970 (Columbia/no CD) (2 / 5) Edwin Lester’s Waltz was the impetus for this production at London’s famous Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. With a few textual changes (Julius Bittner is added to the songwriting credits), it ran for 706 performances. The cast album features an overture that’s not included on the earlier recording, and there are other differences in the song stack. Sari Barabas, a genuine European operetta star, exudes Continental flair in a gorgeously sung, heavily accented “I’m in Love With Vienna,” and she could not possibly be more playful or charming in “Teeter-Totter Me” with the sturdy-voiced David Watson as Strauss, Jr. Watson also works well with the Resi of Diane Todd, whose soprano is fluttery yet attractive. As the elder Strauss, Walter Casell displays a huge, mature baritone of great authority. The quartet for the principals gets a little wild, but the finale has Todd and Barabas doing some lovely trilling of the famous “Blue Danube.” — J.D.
Film Soundtrack, 1972 (MGM/no CD) (4 / 5) Recorded in 1972, this is the soundtrack for a movie that was clearly out of step with the era in which it was created. Still, the film is a very pleasant and artful musical version of the life of Johann Strauss II. As in the other incarnations of The Great Waltz, it uses the melodies of Strauss but adds new lyrics by Wright and Forrest of Kismet and Song Of Norway fame. The big change here is that the lyrics are completely different from those created for the 1937 MGM movie and the 1965 Los Angeles Light Opera production. Many of the songs in the ’72 film were designed to actually narrate a biopic directed by the famously realistic Andrew Stone; others were created to utilize and exploit the singing talents of the beautiful opera star Mary Costa, best known as the voice of Sleeping Beauty in Disney’s animated film. In this way, the film manages to have a sturdy dramatic arc while adding great music and fantastic ballroom sequences choreographed by Onna White. The handsome German actor Horst Bucholz is well cast in the non-singing role of Strauss. The narrative songs here are effectively sung by tenor Kenneth McKellar, and all of the others are realistically presented as on-site performances. Wright & Forrest’s new songs have a greater maturity and sophistication than those heard in previous versions of The Great Waltz; operetta fans may well be enthralled by Costa’s renditions of “Who Are You?” and “Love Is Music.” There is also a small gem called “Say Oui, Say Ya, Say Yes” (performed by Joan Baxter), as lovely and seductive as any operetta number ever written. Sadly, this movie was made about 20 years too late; it was green-lighted as a follow up to 1970’s Song Of Norway, which was an improbable hit even then. Today, this golden example of operetta on film can be enjoyed for what it is, a thrilling Strauss cornucopia. And the soundtrack album is a must for any operetta fan’s collection — if you can find it. The recording is now quite rare, as it was one of the last issued on the MGM records label as a vinyl LP and has never been released on CD or in any other digital format. — Gerard Alessandrini