All posts by Michael Portantiere

Carrie

Premiere Cast Recording, 2012 (Ghostlight) 2 Stars (2 / 5) Based on the supernatural horror novel by Stephen King, which had previously been adapted as a highly successful film in 1976, Carrie is/was one of the most infamous, ignominious flops in musical theater history. After a disastrous tryout run in Stratford-Upon Avon, the show managed only 16 previews and five performances on Broadway in the spring of 1988, yielding no cast album. Many critics and others felt that the work of composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford, and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen was wildly inconsistent in quality, with several riveting moments of confrontation between the bullied, telekinetic teenager Carrie White and her religious zealot mother Margaret playing out powerfully in the midst of risible scenes and songs concerning Carrie’s experiences in high school. Apparently, much of the problem with the production rested in the fact that the American creative team and director Terry Hands of the Royal Shakespeare Company were not on the same page as to what the look, tone, and presentation style of the show should be. But, as noted, there were also huge problems in the writing, leading to major changes for the revisal that was presented Off-Broadway in 2012. The songs “Dream On,” “It Hurts to Be Strong,” “Don’t Waste the Moon,” “Heaven,” “I’m Not Alone,” “Wotta Night,” and the camp classic “Out for Blood” were all dropped, while several new ones were added; two of the best of them are the ballad “Dreamer in Disguise,” sweetly sung by Derek Klena in the role of Tommy Ross, and “Stay Here Instead,” in which Margaret pathetically pleads with her daughter not to go to the prom. (If only she had listened!) But there are still a few mediocre or worse numbers among both the old and new songs, for example, “In” and “A Night We’ll Never Forget.” As was the case with the original version, the score’s musical/dramatic highlights are the unnerving Carrie/Margaret duets “And Eve Was Weak” and “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance,” and Margaret’s moving solo “When There’s No One.” On the cast album of the 2012 production, these and other songs benefit greatly from the deeply committed performances of Molly Ranson as the tormented Carrie and one of the all-time Broadway greats, Marin Mazzie, as her sadly deranged mother.  Rounding out the strong cast are Christy Altomare as Sue, Jeanna de Waal as Chris, Ben Thompson as Billy, Wayne Alan Wilcox as Mr. Stephens, and Carmen Cusack in a wonderfully warm turn as Miss Gardner.  — Michael Portantiere

Moulin Rouge!

Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film, 2001 (Interscope) 1 Stars (1 / 5) Here is the soundtrack recording (partly; see below) of what might be described as a movie musical that’s perfect for the ADD generation in terms of its “plot”(based on well-worn tropes from any number of famous works, most notably the operas La Bohème and La Traviata and their literary source material) and its jukebox score (an overstuffed basket of pop hits from the last half of the 20th century). Also geared toward those who suffer from attention deficit disorder is Baz Luhrmann’s direction of the film, and its ridiculously frenetic editing. Presumably, those who enjoyed the musical performances in Moulin Rouge! might wish to own the soundtrack album if only to experience the songs without having to endure the over-editing of the film itself. But caveat emptor, as the album titled Moulin Rouge! Music from Baz Luhrmann’s Film does not, for the most part, feature performances from the movie, instead offering covers of those covers. To cite only one major example, this collection starts with “Nature Boy” sung not by John Leguizamo (who plays Toulouse-Lautrec in the film and sings the song to open it), but by David Bowie. A highlight of the album is a performance that is, indeed, heard in the movie: Ewan McGregor’s lovely, romantic rendition of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s beautiful “Your Song.” But fans of the film who want audio-only versions of all of the major performances in it will need to additionally seek out the album Moulin Rouge! 2, which includes such items as Nicole Kidman’s “Sparkling Diamonds” (a silly mash-up of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl”); Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, et al. having their way with “Like a Virgin” (yes, another Madonna song); and the Can-Can pastiche “The Pitch (Spectacular Spectacular).” There are also excerpts from the film’s background score by Craig Armstrong, for anyone who might care a whit about that. – Michael Portantiere

Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (RCA) 1 Stars (1 / 5) Those who loved Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! on the screen won’t necessarily have similar affection for the Broadway musical based on the movie; there are many differences, including much of the score (songs first made famous by Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, the Eurthymics, etc. are now included as others have been jettisoned) and some of the story elements and dialogue. Those who got off on the seemingly fueled-by-crack editing of the movie will, of course, miss that element in the stage adaptation, while others who abhorred and deplored all that relentless, insanely quick cutting will appreciate being able to make their own decisions about what to focus on when seeing the show, and for how long. As for the cast recording, at least you know exactly what to expect when/if you get your hands on it: a truckload of pop hits, or little bits of same, performed by Karen Olivo as Satine, Aaron Tveit as Christian, Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Tam Mutu as The Duke of Monroth, Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse-Lautrec, and the other original cast members who sang them on stage at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre before the show was forced to suspend performances due to the COVID-19 crisis of 2020. (Cast album listeners have the additional assurance that they will, indeed, hear Satine’s songs delivered by Olivo, who was frequently absent during the eight months or so that Moulin Rouge! ran prior to its closure at the onset of the pandemic.) Though Tveit tends to come across as bland on stage, his strong, clear, unaffected tenor voice is a pleasure to hear on this album, and Burstein is always a vivid presence. The musical supervisor here is Justin Levine, with Cian McCarthy as conductor and Matt Stine as Music Producer – that last credit an unusual one for a Broadway show, or at least it used to be. – M.P.

Spamilton

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (DRG) 5 Stars (5 / 5) Of course, you knew Gerard Alessandrini wasn’t going to leave Hamilton alone, but who would have predicted this? It’s a whole evening of Revolutionary spoofery, punctuated by multiple Forbidden Broadway-like riffs on other shows and stars of the day. And it works spectacularly well. Alessandrini’s engaging liner notes reveal his insecurity about learning to write rap and hip-hop, yet he appears to have mastered those forms thoroughly, betraying a show-tune sensibility only through his preciser-than-Lin-Manuel rhyming: “I’m getting nervouser, Sir/ Be terser in your verse, Sir/ You’re no Johnny Mercer.” After the briefest of full-orchestra intros, the music’s in the hands of Forbidden Broadway vet Fred Barton at the piano, and he supports one of the best casts Alessandrini was ever blessed with. How they manage to clearly utter every rapidly passing syllable, and land every joke, is a miracle. As Hamilton, Dan Rosales is Lin-Manuel Miranda with more voice. Chris Anthony Giles and Nicholas Edwards serve up wicked parodies of Leslie Odom, Jr. and Daveed Diggs. Glenn Bassett is King George in “Straight is Back,” Juwan Crawley plays all of the other guys, and in the women’s roles, Nora Schell is simply amazing; she transitions expertly and rapidly between Renée Elise Goldsberry and Philippa Soo with laser accuracy, also serving up delicious Bernadette and Audra cameos. (Her Barbra isn’t quite there yet.) Even Christine Pedi’s beloved Liza turns up for a funny “Down With Rap” turn. With virtually the entire Hamilton score lampooned, plus side trips into astute 2017 Broadway commentary and some outrageous musical-hybrid moments (An American Psycho in Paris, The Lion King and I), this album’s a nonstop party. — Marc Miller

The Visit

Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Broadway Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5) The Visit is an extraordinary late-career work by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who enriched the American musical theater with multiple scores of excellent quality over a 40-year period. In partnership with book writer Terrence McNally, their previous collaborator for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, Kander & Ebb crafted a flawed but compelling adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play about Claire Zachanassian, a fabulously wealthy old woman who returns to the town where she grew up and offers to save it from financial ruin if the citizens will be the agents of her ultimate revenge against Anton Schill, her former lover, who wronged her terribly when they were both in their youth. Shocking, moving, and bitterly funny by turns, this story has been skillfully musicalized, for the most part, in songs that run the gamut from the darkly comic “I Walk Away” to the gorgeous love ballad “You, You, You” to the creepy “I Will Never Leave You” to the hauntingly wistful “Love and Love Alone.” One of the most astonishing facets of the show is the production number “Yellow Shoes,” in which the townspeople rejoice over material goods purchased with credit they have been granted in anticipation of the windfall they expect in return for murdering Schill. Following runs in Chicago and at the Signature Theatre in the Washington, D.C. metro area, a condensed version of The Visit was presented as part of the Williamstown Theater Festival in 2014 and then came to New York the following year in  a  production poorly directed by John Doyle. The Broadway run amounted to only 61 performances, but that tally should not dissuade one from experiencing the cast album, which showcases the stellar performance of beloved Broadway veteran Chita Rivera as Claire. Captivating as always, Rivera is partnered by the Anton of Roger Rees, who recorded this album while suffering from brain cancer that forced him to bow out of The Visit during its short Broadway run. (In retrospect, his passing in July 2015, as well as the deaths of Fred Ebb in 2004 and Terrence McNally in 2020, amplify and deepen the elegiac feel of the recording.) Among the other standouts in the cast  are Jason Danieley as the schoolmaster who represents the conscience of the town in “The Only One”; Tom Nelis, Matthew Deming, and Chris Newcomer as Claire’s “entourage,” two of them eunuchs who sing in falsetto; and, in the role of Young Anton, John Riddle, whose beautiful tenor is a pleasure to hear in “You, You, You.” With a score that also contains a few songs less effective than those mentioned above, The Visit is not so finely honed a musical as the very best of the best, such as Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, but it’s a worthy addition to the canon. — Michael Portantiere

Cirque du Soleil Paramour

Original Broadway Cast, 2016 (Cirque du Soleil) 2 Stars (2 / 5)  With its spectacular entertainments showcasing nouveau-circus acts of all types, accessorized with top-drawer production values and very listenable if somewhat bland music, Cirque du Soleil has experienced great success over the decades since the company’s birth in Quebec in 1984. But Cirque did not have a hit with its 2016 attempt to create a Broadway musical incorporating the sort of acts (aerialists, acrobats, etc.) for which it has become world famous. The show was called Paramour, or rather, Cirque du Soleil Paramour, and simply reading the credits is enough to give one pause. Believe it or not, no book writer is listed, with West Hyler acknowledged only for the “story” and as “scene director.” (So, who wrote the dialouge?) As for the score credits, here you go: music by Bob & Bill (????), co-composer Andreas Carlsson, assistant composer Martin Laniel, lyrics by Andreas Carlsson, additional lyrics by Jenny Stafford. The resulting mess of a show purported to tell a tale of “The Golden Age of Hollywood,” though there were countless anachronisms in the dialogue and only intermittent nods toward period authenticity in the score and the design elements. The plot, such as it is, has the megalomaniacal film director A.J. (Jeremy Kushnier) discovering a potential new movie star in nightclub chanteuse Indigo (Ruby Davis), leading to lots of clichéd goings-on while the audience waits to see if our heroine will eventually end up with her pianist/songwriter, Joey (Ryan Vona), the nice guy who adores her. Given this show’s pedigree and the fact that Cirque did not feel it necessary to hire anyone with traditional musical theater talent or experience to put it together, the cast album is more pleasing if you approach it as a collection of pop songs rather than a recording of a score written to serve a cohesive and compelling narrative, which is certainly not what we have here. From that perspective, three of the most enjoyable items are “A.J.’s Blues” and “The Muse,” both performed for all their worth by Broadway veteran Kushnier; and “Something More,” a pretty ballad persuasively rendered by Davis in her Broadway debut. On the minus side, “Everything (The Lover’s Theme)” and the opening number, “The Hollywood Wiz,” are too generic to make much of an effect. The same might be said for the bulk of the score.   — Michael Portantiere

Passing Strange

Original Broadway Cast, 2008 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Passing Strange is the semi-autobiographical work of singer/songwriter Stew, co-written with his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald. The story follows Youth,  a young black man played by an explosive Daniel Breaker. Anxious to be an artist and eager to search for what’s real in the world, Youth leaves behind his life of comfort in a California suburb for the exoticism of Europe. In doing so, he ends up cutting ties with everyone in his life — including his loving if not completely understanding mother, a role sung with warmth by Eisa Davis. On stage, Passing Strange was a highly energetic experience for audiences, but also a divisive one. This cast album, recorded live at the Belasco Theatre where the show played, will most likely prove divisive as well. First time listeners may be confused: There is very little dialogue between songs, leaving major gaps in the plot, and the method of the storytelling constantly changes so that characters either sing to each other, about each other, or from the point of view of the Narrator (played by Stew), often within the same song. However, to dismiss Passing Strange because of its non-traditional structure and its difficulty to categorize would be to ignore everything else that the show and this album have to offer. Stew and Rodewald’s music, which they also orchestrated, pulsates with creativity and spirit, whether permeating the air with soothing, lilting ballads such as“Keys (Marianna)” and “Come Down Now” or working up a sweat in “Keys (It’s Alright)” and “Mom Song.” As for Stew’s lyrics, they are artfully crafted while also conveying real emotion and conflict. Before the Broadway production of Passing Strange closed, Spike Lee filmed it; that film can be sought out by anyone who would like a more comprehensive understanding of the piece, and it also allows a greater appreciation of the work of the phenomenal cast. But even on stage, Passing Strange was less concerned with the details of its story than with the emotional potency of its journey. Perhaps if neophytes approached the recording as more of a pop/rock concept album, like Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar, they’d have a clearer idea of what to expect from this highly creative work. — Matt Koplik

Emojiland

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2020 (Broadway Records) 2 Stars (2 / 5) This recording represents the Off-Broadway production of Emojiland, a knowingly campy musical that proudly planted its digital freak flag on the theatrical landscape. In an era when even many Off-Broadway ventures are crafted for mainstream appeal, usually in the hope of receiving a transfer to Broadway, it’s somewhat refreshing to listen to this cast album of a show that has no objective other than to entertain through humor and absurdity. How successful it is at doing so is another matter. Written by Laura Schein and Keith Harrison, the musical takes its title from the ideograms that have become so popular in the age of communication through digital devices. The story explores a world populated by these emojis — including such favorites as Kissy Face and Pile of Poo — as they grapple with the disruption of their society that has resulted from the latest software update. Though the show’s plot touches on major themes like xenophobia and prejudice, Emojiland has no intention of being any meatier than a bag of gummy bears. Schein and Harrison’s upbeat score appropriately leans towards techno-pop, and if their lyrics aren’t laugh-out-loud funny, they’re contentedly witty and keep the fun going. Emojiland also benefits from a cast that appears game for the ridiculousness of the piece, led by Schein herself as ingénue Smize. Lesli Margherita and Josh Lamon, in particular, give ingenious comedic turns as the emojis Princeess and Prince, respectively. Like any sugar rush, the show starts to wear itself out rather quickly, and once Lamon and Margherita finish letting loose with the Act 2 opener “Firewall Ball,” the album becomes something of a chore to finish. But even if it doesn’t stay with you for long, Emojiland offers lots of fun in the moment. — Matt Koplik

Broadway Bounty Hunter

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2020 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Here’s a highly enjoyable cast album of a fun show with a fanciful, meta-theatrical concept, built around the dynamic singer-actress Annie Golden, who started out as the leader of the punk band The Shirts before going on to play Jeannie in the film version of Hair, then to numerous other film, TV, and stage roles. In Broadway Bounty Hunter, Golden played a highly fictionalized version of herself caught up in a crazy plot involving — well, bounty hunting. The show was (obviously) crafted specifically for her by the super-talented composer-lyricist Joe Iconis, working in collaboration with co-book writers Lance Rubin and Jason Sweettooth Williams. It would have been interesting to see if Broadway Bounty Hunter would have worked with someone else in the title role in subsequent productions, but it was not a box-office success in its limited Off-Broadway run, and there was no transfer to an open-ended engagement on Broadway or anywhere else. So it’s nice to have Iconis’s clever, tuneful, post-modern theatrical rock and pop songs preserved on this well produced cast album. Golden’s strong, exciting voice and her abundance of charisma come through big-time in a clutch of songs, from the roof-raising “Woman of a Certain Age” (wisely used as both the show’s opener and closer) to the soulful “Spin Those Records” and the intense, hard-rocking 11 o’clock number “Veins.” Other major voices and personalities heard on the album include Badia Farha, Alan H. Green, Christina Sajous, Emily Borromeo, and the always welcome Brad Oscar. A kick-ass band is led by conductor/musical director Geoffrey Ko, and Joel Waggoner’s vocal arrangements are excellent. Given the lack of commercial success of both Broadway Bounty Hunter and Iconis’s Be More Chill, at least in their NYC runs, it’s devoutly to be wished that he’ll soon have the major hit he deserves.  — Michael Portantiere

Be More Chill

Original Cast, Two River Theater, 2015 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5)  Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill is a cautionary tale about a loner teenager named Jeremy Heere who attempts to become “chill” by ingesting something called a “squip” (super quantum unit Intel processor), which winds up controlling his thoughts and actions. The show premiered at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey for a one-month limited run in 2015.  That production received mixed reviews, but this cast recording gained huge popularity on the internet through streaming and downloads, eventually sparking the Off-Broadway production of 2018 and the subsequent Broadway transfer (see below). Even if it’s hard to explain exactly how the score “went viral,” it’s easy to understand why it did: Composer-lyricist Joe Iconis has a firm grounding in the classic musical theater canon, and a great talent for being able to wed traditional structures and other methods of craft with an up-to-the-minute sound and sensibility. Listen to the opener, “More Than Survive,” a spot-on, character-establishing, “I want” song for Jeremy that begins as follows: “C-c-c-come on, c-c-c- come on! Go, go! I’m waiting for my porn to download.” (The album has an “explicit lyrics” label.) Or sample “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire),” a super-clever takeoff on “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie. Also quite amusing is Iconis’s depiction of present-day high school theater subculture, as in “I Love Play Rehearsal” and other songs. The pretty much ideal cast heard here is headed by Will Connolly as a charmingly nerdy Jeremy, with Eric William Morris as The Squip; George Salazar as Jeremy’s staunch friend, Michael; Stephanie Hsu as Christine, the girl with whom Jeremy’s obsessed; and Gerard Canonico in a ball-of-fire performance as Rich, the ill-fated guy who turns Jeremy on to The Squip. Salazar does a tour-de-force job with arguably the best song in the score, the one that became the biggest viral phenomenon of all: “Michael in the Bathroom,” an affecting anthem of teen angst. — Michael Portantiere

Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Buoyed by the extraordinary online popularity of its score, as described above, Be More Chill was produced Off-Broadway at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center in the summer of 2018, with plans for a move to Broadway already largely in place at that time. This production featured several cast members from the Two River production, including Hsu, Salazar, and Canonico reprising the roles they originated. New cast members included Will Roland as Jeremy, Jason Tam as the Squip, Tiffany Mann as Jenna, Britton Smith as Jake, and Jason “Sweettooth” Williams as Mr. Heere, but not all of these changes were improvements; for example, Roland’s performance doesn’t have quite the likeability of Connolly’s. On the plus side, Tam makes the role of The Squip very much his own through his strong, distinctive voice and his fun Keanu Reeves imitation. As heard here, the score is well performed, with some relatively minor changes and additions in material. (This album is longer than the original, 24 tracks as compared to 21.) Both the off-Broadway and Broadway presentations of Be More Chill were marred by painfully loud sound amplification, which may have been partly responsible for the brevity of the 2019 Broadway run (only 177 performances) of a show that many had expected to be a big hit, so the fact that listeners to the cast album are in full control of the volume is a huge plus for the experience. Music and lyrics this good don’t need to be blasted at an audience, and suffer greatly rather than benefit from such treatment, a lesson that Iconis and his colleagues will hopefully learn for future productions of his shows. — M.P.

Sing Street

Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Sony Masterworks Broadway) 4 Stars (4 / 5) First, a few words of explanation: The show that yielded this cast album opened Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in December 2019.  It was announced for a Broadway transfer even before the NYTW run ended — but then the COVID-19 crisis that began in the spring of 2020 scuttled those plans, indefinitely closing all theaters in New York City (and pretty much throughout the world). So even though this album literally has “Broadway” written all over it, we have no way of knowing at this writing if Sing Street will ever make it to The Street. At any rate, the show has a wonderfully infectious score, here preserved as one of the most compulsively listenable cast recordings in recent memory; and since all of the performers heard on the album were officially cast in the Broadway transfer of the show, the “Original Broadway Cast” designation is arguably not inaccurate. Based on a 2016 coming-of-age film set in Dublin in 1982, the musical features a generous handful of terrific songs that were originally written by Gary Clark and John Carney for that sweet indie flick, plus some new material. The opening track, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” gives us a happy hint that we’re going to be hearing lots of catchy up-tunes crafted in ’80s-rock style, with irresistible hooks. That certainly turns out to be true, as with such other cuts as “Drive It Like You Stole It,” “Brown Shoes,”  “A Beautiful Sea,” and “Girls,” but there are also some lovely ballads (“Dream for You,” “Go Now”). Brenock O’Connor, in the central role of schoolboy/aspiring rock star Conor Lawlor, does a fine, authentic-sounding job with much of the solo singing on the album, and there are also worthy contributions from Zara Devlin as Raphina, a young model on whom Conor develops a major crush; Martin Moran as the authoritarian Brother Baxter; and Gus Halper as Conor’s troubled brother, Brendan (he does a beautiful job with “Go Now”). One of the best songs in the score, “Up,” is heard in two different versions — ballad and up-tempo, both highly enjoyable. At the end of the show, Conor leaves his family and his band to go with Raphina off to London, where they will seek their fortunes. Here’s hoping that the future will be bright for them and for this charming, affecting, lovable little musical.  — M.P.