Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (Broadway Records) (3 / 5) A moving and tragic true-life story inspired this musical about The UpStairs Lounge, a popular gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that was destroyed by arson in 1973, resulting in the deaths of 32 people. Max Vernon wrote the book, music, and lyrics. The show employs an interesting narrative device centered around a present-day fashion designer, Wes (Jeremy Pope), who inquires about renting the space where the UpStairs once existed, and who there encounters and interacts with its denizens through a sort of time warp. Among them are the hard-drinking house pianist (Randy Redd), the bulldyke bartender (Frenchie Davis), a budding young Puerto Rican drag queen (Michael Longoria) and his mother (Nancy Ticotin), and the outrageously campy resident diva (Nathan Lee Graham). Also on hand are a gay priest of the Metropolitan Community Church (Benjamin Howes), a hustler (Taylor Frey) who forms a serious attachment with Wes, and the sketchy guy (Ben Mayne) whom we are led to think may be the one responsible for torching the bar after being ejected from it. While some of the show’s situations and dialogue have trouble avoiding cliché, the time-warp setup allows for both jokes and dramatic points to be made as the UpStairs patrons school Wes about gay history and he tells them about the future. Vernon’s ingratiating, eclectic score well suits the characters and effectively sets the atmosphere for the tale, employing period song styles for the bar people and more modern sounds in some of Wes’s material (such as his opening number, “#householdname”). Highlights of the album include the opener, “Some Kind of Paradise,” led by Redd with soulful fervor; “World Outside These Walls,” led by Davis in excellent form; and the big, inspirational number “Theme Song,” featuring the amazing Graham. “Sex on Legs” is quite the show-stopper as delivered by Longoria, possessor of one of most exciting voices to be heard on or off Broadway. The two prettiest songs in the score are the title tune, which serves as the finale; and “And I Wish,” not included in the Off-Broadway production but heard here as a bonus track, sung by Frey with great vocal beauty and deep emotion. — Michael Portantiere
Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Broadway Records) (4 / 5) Any cast album that has the incomparable Chita Rivera as its headliner pretty much falls into the category of “indispensible” as far as I’m concerned — and when she’s delivering songs by the multi-award-winning team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, it becomes even more so. But, despite that hyperbole, this recording of the musical based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s black comedy — about an elderly millionairess who returns to her impoverished hometown, from which she was thrown out when she was an unmarried, pregnant teen — doesn’t quite rate a full five stars. Yes, Rivera’s delectable as she purrs her way through songs of revenge and long-lost love, and Ebb’s music has a jaunty Kurt Weill-sound to it. Much of the score is infectious. The trouble here stems from a problem with the dual tones of the show as reflected in both the songs and Terrence McNally’s book. On one hand, The Visit is an indictment of mob mentality, and on the other, it wants to be a sentimental love story. Thus, the score has something of a seesaw effect on the listener. For example: “You You You” is a faux-Viennese waltz that seemingly drips with sugar as Rivera’s character, Claire, reconnects with Anton (played by Roger Rees), the man who had fathered her child and then betrayed her in their youth. The song is lovely and very effective in itself, but its tone jars in contract with more darkly comic numbers such as “I Walk Away” — about the myriad husbands that Claire has buried, allowing her to amass her fortune. As you might expect, both songs represent great work from the Kander-Ebb team, as do so many others on this album, but they simply don’t sound as if they belong in the same show. — Andy Propst
Original Broadway Cast, 2005 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) This show, about a regional spelling bee with prepubescent contestants, marked the Tony Award winning composer/lyricist William Finn’s return to Broadway after a long absence. For that reason alone, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is worth celebrating. It also happens to be an inventive, warm, and joyful musical. Finn shines best as a writer when his characters are up to his intelligence, and here we have six abnormally smart, strange, prematurely eloquent pre-teens who let their insecurities, jealousies and hormones rage during the competition. It seems evident that Finn enjoyed himself while writing Spelling Bee, as this marks his most playful work since In Trousers. The cast album isn’t given the highest possible rating here only because the score is woven so intricately into Rachel Sheinkin’s excellent libretto (arguably one of the best of its era) that a good deal of it may not impress listeners out of context as much as it does in the theater. One exception is “The I Love You Song,” a beautiful piece in which speller Olive Ostrovksy (played beautifully by Celia Keenan-Bolger) imagines the support and devotion of her parents, neither of whom are present at the bee. The entire cast is definitive, including Deborah S. Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Dan Fogler, Jose Llana, and Sarah Saltzberg as the other young competitors. In addition to being excellent singers, they are charming, intelligent actors so in tune with their roles that it’s easy to forget they’re all a good decade or two older than the characters. — Matt Koplik
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1998 (Resmiranda) (3 / 5) Dorris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” — about a young woman who, maimed by an axe blade as a child, goes on a journey of healing — was the basis for this gem with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Brian Crawley. Lauren Ward’s Violet is a complex heroine; injured inside and out, she’s full of both bitterness and hope, and her lovely performance translates well onto the recording. It’s when Violet’s biting tongue turns sweet that she sings the highlight of the score, “Lay Down Your Head,” with a melody that makes one’s heart ache. The other songs don’t quite reach that level of simple perfection, but a few that come close are the all-too-brief “Water in the Well,” the thrilling “Let It Sing,” and “On My Way,” a rousing ensemble number that sets Violet and her fellow passengers off on their bus trip. Violet’s trek takes her from North Carolina to Oklahoma, where she goes to meet the televangelist whom she hopes will heal her. On the way, she becomes involved in a love triangle with two soldiers, one white (played by Michael Park), the other black (played by Michael McElroy). Crawley tells their story through colloquial lyrics that feel effortless and natural, and Tesori comes up with a handful of fine countrified tunes. Her gospel songs are less distinguished, but the Broadway Gospel Choir and the powerhouse singer-actor McElroy give this spirited musical some real soul. — Brooke Pierce
Film Soundtrack, 1982 (MGM/Rhino/GNP Crescendo) (1 / 5) The Blake Edwards film that served as the basis for Julie Andrews’ last Broadway musical is really a comedy with a few incidental songs. Based on a 1933 German film, it stars Andrews as Victoria, a light opera soprano stranded in 1930s Paris. She’s taken in by Toddy (Robert Preston), a gay nightclub performer who reinvents her as Victor, a Polish female impersonator. Trouble sets in when King Marchan, a Chicago gangster (James Garner), finds himself attracted to “Victor.” The wildly padded soundtrack disc is filled with instrumental interludes from Henry Mancini’s easy-listening score. The film’s few actual songs, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, are heard repeatedly in different versions; for example, the silly specialty item “The Shady Dame From Seville.” Andrews and Preston are never less than pros, but this recording is barely worthwhile. — David Barbour
Original Broadway Cast, 1995 (Philips/Decca) (1 / 5) Julie Andrews’ much-anticipated return to Broadway was upstaged to a certain extent by this show’s many peripheral dramas, including Andrews’ frequent absences, her Tony Awards boycott, and the notorious replacement runs of Liza Minnelli and Raquel Welch. Victor/Victoria was a long-run disappointment, a ham-fisted adaptation of a hit Andrews film put together by a mediocre creative team led by Andrews’ husband, director-librettist Blake Edwards. As in the film, which was also written and directed by Edwards, Andrews’ Victoria is transformed into Victor by Toddy, played here by Tony Roberts (see the review above for more of the plot). Even with her voice darkened by age and afflicted with mannerisms, Andrews is fun to hear on the album; but to get to the pleasant bits, you’ll have to put up with some of the weakest songs ever written for a Broadway show. The main culprits are Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, but additional music was written by Frank Wildhorn after Mancini’s death. “If I Were a Man” sets up the plot in the most laborious fashion. Even worse is “King’s Lament,” in which Victoria’s love interest, King Marchan (Michael Nouri), wrestles with his masculinity. The rock-bottom songs go to Rachel York in the role of King’s chorine girlfriend; they include “Chicago, Illinois” from the movie version (“Smack on the lake, this is a rare port / Someday, they say, we’ll have an airport!”) and the egregious “Paris Makes Me Horny,” which rummages through the names of European cities for the sake of smutty jokes. (Sample: “Been to Munich, where every guy’s a eunuch.”) Andrews makes something out of generic ballads like “Crazy World” (again, from the film) and “Living in the Shadows,” and she has fun with “Le Jazz Hot” (also from the film), but she and Nouri are defeated by the deadly “Almost a Love Song,” which has almost a melody. An unintentional camp highlight is “Louis Says,” one of Victor’s onstage numbers, in which Andrews swans about the stage as Marie Antoinette. Just try to parse the impenetrable stream-of-consciousness lyrics of this song. — D.B.
Broadway Cast, 1975 (DRG) (3 / 5) Very lively, very catchy, very melodic — but not Very Good Eddie. The Goodspeed Opera House’s revival of the 1915 Jerome Kern musical — the first show in the famed Princess Theatre series — was such a hit in Connecticut that David Merrick picked it up and brought it intact to Broadway, where it ran for nearly a year. But, as is Goodspeed’s bad habit, the production fiddled with perfectly fine original material. The result was a kind of hybrid, with several songs missing and others appropriated from various other Kern shows, so much so that nine lyricists are credited! Russell Warner’s lean orchestrations are probably reasonable reductions of Frank Saddler’s originals but, as musical director/conductor, Warner sticks pretty much to one speed: “rollicking.” Yes, the score is full of infectious ragtime, but even ragtime should have more variety than this. Worse, the performance style evinces much winking and borderline camping, especially among the women: Virginia Seidel’s Minnie-Mouse-on-speed chirping just about kills the irresistible “Left All Alone Again Blues,” and Travis Hudson stomps “Moon of Love” into the floorboards. But male leads Charles Repole and David Christmas are more appealing, and the chorus numbers, such as “I’ve Got to Dance” and “Hot Dog,” are so ingratiating that you will, in fact, want to get up and dance. — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1979 (Original Cast Records) (2 / 5) This was a good idea: a sort of unofficial musical version of the old “St. Trinian’s” stories and movies about an English school filled with horrid little girls. The first 10 minutes of the show are fun, as authors Clark Gesner and Nagle Jackson (who also directed) set up various characters and story lines — and then simply abandon them. The rest of The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall is plotless, filled with incidents that don’t tie together. For example, one group of girls believe they’re about to be sold into white slavery; a young boy in love mails himself to his girlfriend in a trunk; and there’s a grown-up romance between a secretary and a salesman who must hide their passion. Presiding over all of this is the dotty headmistress, played amusingly by Celeste Holm. As events spin out of her control, the woman simply withdraws, locking herself in her office and happily pressing flowers. Gesner, the composer-lyricist of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, provides a score that’s lightly mocking in a stiff-upper-lip sort of way, but with nothing substantial to hang these songs on, they don’t add up to much. — David Wolf
Original Broadway Cast, 2001 (RCA) (4 / 5) This show, which winks at Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill works and like-minded tuners, poses the musical question: Is it possible for a score to be too clever? The answer is probably yes. To complement a book about a Mahagonny-type burg where the citizens are oppressed by a corporation that controls all restrooms, composer-lyricist Mark Hollmann and lyricist-librettist Greg Kotis wrote a tuneful score that cannily mocks even as it pays homage. While hooting at musical cliches in song and dialogue, the creators walk a thin line with the agility of world-class aerialists. Spilling from this words-and-notes cornucopia are send-ups of such musical conventions as title tunes, double-edged ballads (“Follow Your Heart”), comedy turns (“Don’t Be the Bunny”), and heart-lifters (“Run, Freedom, Run!”). The cast is led by staunch Hunter Foster, full-of-his-bad-self John Cullum, cute-as-a-frayed-button Spencer Kayden, sincere Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Jeff McCarthy, who places his tongue very firmly in his cheek in the role of Officer Lockstock. All have the required fervor. The problem is an embarrassment of riches that begins to tire the listener as the songs, delivered by a dynamic ensemble, start to sound alike. Of course, those who experience Urinetown only via the recording can’t see the wonders worked by John Rando and John Carrafa, who followed the tunesmiths’ ribbing of various styles of musical theater writing by doing the same with their direction and choreography, respectively. Still, the score is far above average for contemporary musicals and very well played by a sassy five-person band, with Edward Goldschneider at the piano. — David Finkle
Original Broadway Cast, 1960 (Capitol/Angel) (4 / 5) “I Ain’t Down Yet” shouts/sings the title character of this rowdy musical based on the real-life story of Molly Brown, and that might also be the motto of the show itself. Composer-lyricist Meredith Willson wrote this score right after his spectacular success with The Music Man. In a sense, The Unsinkable Molly Brown is the feisty younger sister of that great American musical; it’s rough around the edges, but just as appealing in its own way. One reason for its moderate initial success was the casting of the young Tammy Grimes and Harve Presnell, who were instantly recognized for their star quality in the show’s leading roles. Grimes’ inimitable voice is perfect for Molly, and her performance on the album is full of energy, especially in the rousing “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” Presnell’s gorgeous baritone is a joy; when he belts out “I’ll Never Say No,” goose bumps rise. The album is so well recorded that it makes you feel as if you’re seated front-row-center for this joyous musical. Oddly, although Johnny Brown’s “Colorado, My Home” is in the show’s printed score and the melody is heard briefly in the overture, the song is not sung by Presnell on the album. But the recording is otherwise quite full, and since so many numbers were cut from the film version of Molly Brown and its soundtrack album (see below), this is your only opportunity to hear the bulk of the original score, including “I’ve A’ready Started In,” “My Own Brass Bed,” “Bea-u-ti-ful People of Denver,” “Are You Sure,” “If I Knew,” “Chick-a-Pen,” and “Dolce Far Niente.” — Gerard Alessandrini
Film Soundtrack, 1964 (MGM/Rhino-Turner) (4 / 5) Debbie Reynolds wrapped this musical around her little finger when she made the movie version. While the film is uneven, Reynolds propels it into the realm of a great MGM musical by shouting, grunting, and absolutely refusing to give less than 100 percent of herself to the role of Molly. Happily, Harve Presnell recreates his stunning Broadway performance as Johnny Brown; here, he sounds less big-baritonal and more tenorish than he does on the Broadway recording, but the effect is appropriate for the greater intimacy of the film medium. One of Presnell’s best numbers is the majestic “Colorado, My Home,” absent from the Broadway album. “I Ain’t Down Yet’ and “Belly Up to the Bar Boys” are the high points for Reynolds. Robert Armbruster’s musical direction is excellent, and the thrilling orchestrations are just about up to par with the great MGM musical sound of earlier decades. The only unfortunate aspect of the film and the soundtrack album is that so many of the Broadway songs were excised; missed most of all are “Beautiful People of Denver” and “Are You Sure?” Willson did write one new song for the film: “He’s My Friend,” a free-for-all dance number that helps keep the second half of the movie buoyant, at least until that scene where the Titanic sinks. Rhino’s expanded soundtrack CD is a delight. — G.A.
Original Broadway Cast, 1952 (RCA/Masterworks Broadway) (3 / 5) Bette Davis always claimed that she knew exactly what she was doing when she decided to star in this revue. “Just turn me loose on Broadway as a musical comedy girl,” she sings (?) here. Two’s Company certainly had some prime talent behind it: composer Vernon Duke, lyricists Ogden Nash and Sammy Cahn, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and a strong cast that included David Burns, Ellen Hanley, and Nora Kaye. But the critics were bewildered, and the star’s illness forced the show to close after three sold-out months on Broadway. Without this particular star, Two’s Company would have been just another late-entry collection of topical skits and so-so songs; with her, it has retained a status perched somewhere between legendary disaster and unparalleled curiosity. The cast album certainly makes for interesting listening. The material is adequate, the supporting cast and presentation are strong, and the opening “Theatre Is a Lady” is a worthy anthem. Onstage, Davis’s authority may have masked some of her musical deficiencies, but on the recording, she sounds like a drag impersonator in a piano bar just before last call. Her pitch is uniquely her own, and her phrasing is a harbinger of her odd line readings in her later films. In a hillbilly number, “Purple Rose,” she’s game but uneasy and not very funny, yet she’s touching in the torchy “Just Like a Man.” Since her only subsequent musical was the ill-fated, unrecorded Miss Moffatt, the Two’s Company album is a fascinating footnote to a long, magnificently uneven career. — Richard Barrios