All posts by Michael Portantiere

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 highly 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 enjoyable 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 more 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 most of the rest 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 engagements 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.

Anything Can Happen in the Theater: The Musical World of Maury Yeston

Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2019 (PS Classics) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Maury Yeston is one of the finest and most versatile musical theater composer-lyricists of his era, so it’s good to have this cast album of a very enjoyable and well-crafted revue of his work that was presented Off-Broadway by the York Theatre Company in 2019, directed by Gerard Alessandrini of Forbidden Broadway fame. The program includes songs from Yeston’s most famous shows, with one major exception (see below), along with a healthy sampling of  less-well-known material. From Nine, we have the bravura number “Guido’s Song” and the lyrical “Only With You,” both rendered with lovely tenor tone by Benjamin Eakeley, as well as the gorgeous “Unusual Way” and the wittily seductive “A Call From the Vatican,” two fine showcases for the talents of Mamie Parris. Also to be found here is “Cinema Italiano,” written by Yeston expressly for the film version of Nine, performed with verve by Parris, Justin Keyes, and Jovan E’Sean. Two selections from Grand Hotel, for which Yeston contributed much but not all of the score (to augment songs previously written by Wright and Forrest for an earlier incarnation of the show), are the passionate  “Love Can’t Happen” (Eakeley) and the delightful “I Want to Go to Hollywood” (Parris).  Yeston’s Phantom, an alternative to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the same source material, is represented by “Home,” sung by the full company. “New Words,” from a Biblical musical titled In the Beginning, is a touching song, movingly performed here by Eakeley, about a parent teaching language to a young child, the writing marred only by a surprising error in the lyrics. (Mars is a planet, Mr Y., not a star!) The recording also embraces several stand-alone songs, i.e., not from the scores of musicals. Three of the best of these are “Danglin’,” a soulful torcher eased on down by Alex Getlin; “Salt n Pepper,” a sexy/funny item given a spicy turn by E’Sean; and the title tune of the revue, delivered by all as the opening number. Not sampled here is the score of one of Yeston’s biggest hits, Titanic; although an exquisitely harmonized arrangement of that title song was featured as an encore in the York production, it’s not on the album, for some reason. Conversely, one thing the recording boasts that the show itself did not are Doug Besterman’s excellent, specially crafted orchestrations for eight musicians variously playing a total of about 20 instruments. Greg Jarrett is the top-notch musical director — Michael Portantiere

Mary Poppins

Film Soundtrack, 1964 (Buena Vista/Walt Disney Records) 5 Stars (5 / 5) Disney’s Mary Poppins has been beloved from the moment audiences first saw the film in 1964, permeating our culture and becoming a hallmark for family friendly entertainment. Even if you’re a neophyte to the story of the mysterious and magical nanny who teaches a British family the importance of love, fun, and compassion, you’ll understand why the film has attained classic status with just one listen to this soundtrack. The score, by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, remains timeless, with many of the songs long ago having achieved the status of internationally recognized standards: “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “ Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious,” et al. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another original movie musical that has produced as many great songs — and even the lesser-known ones, such as “Sister Suffragette” and “The Perfect Nanny,” are clever and charming enough to avoid being the sort of “skippable” tracks that even some of the best Broadway cast albums contain. As the action of the film is set in London in the early 1900s, Irwin Kostal’s arrangements pay fitting homage to Edwardian music halls, and his incidental music (included on deluxe editions of the soundtrack) craftily rearranges the Sherman Brothers’ compositions to feel like new pieces. As for the cast, they remain unbeatable. Julie Andrews made one of the most smashing screen debuts in history as Mary Poppins, a role that showcases her immense range, from comedic vaudevillian (“Supercalifragilisticxpialidocious”) to intimate chanteuse (“Feed the Birds”). By her side is Dick Van Dyke, effervescent as Bert, a jack-of-all-trades and loyal friend to Mary and her charges, Jane and Michael Banks. Though Van Dyke’s Cockney accent is legendarily awful, it really doesn’t matter at this point, as its humorous inauthenticity has taken on its own charming, nostalgic quality. In short, this soundtrack is a perfect companion to the landmark film. — Matt Koplik

Original London Cast, 2005 (Walt Disney Records) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Although Disney’s Mary Poppins is a beloved classic, author P.L. Travers, who wrote the book series on which the film was based, famously hated it.  For this reason, Travers initially refused any further adaptations of her stories about the magical nanny while she was alive — that is, until producer Cameron Mackintosh persuaded her to grant him the rights to create a stage musical. Travers acquiesced on the condition that the entire creative team for the project would be British and would exclude everyone involved in the Disney movie. Mackintosh kept his word, to a certain extent:  Although he collaborated with Disney Theatrical Productions so that the show could contain the most famous songs from the film, Mackintosh did bring on an entirely British team, including West End regulars George Stiles and Anthony Drewe to create new songs, expanding the score and giving the work a drier tone. While the final result isn’t as ebullient as the film, it’s still charming. The work of Stiles and Drewe is enjoyable in its own right — and, partly thanks to William David Brohn’s intelligent orchestrations, the score feels like a unified work, even if it does have two sets of writers. As heard on the cast album, the supporting players are a bit of a mixed bag: A bold and unleashed Rosemary Ashe stands out as the show’s villain, Miss Andrew (a character added for the musical), in “Brimstone and Treacle,” while Linzi Hatley’s Mrs. Banks is miscast, her modern-style vocalization at odds with the character’s new song, “Being Mrs. Banks” (a replacement for the film’s more entertaining “Sister Suffragette”). Gavin Lee is a wonderful Bert, and Charlotte Spencer and Harry Stott give intelligent performances as Jane and Michael, rewritten here as far brattier versions than the characters in the movie. But the biggest perk of the album is Oliver Award winner Laura Michelle Kelly’s performance as Mary Poppins. Charming, elegant, and ethereal, Kelly swims through the score with her captivating voice, elevating new songs such as “Practically Perfect” while bringing new life to “A Spoonful of Sugar” and other classics. If this recording isn’t the monumental achievement of the soundtrack, with Kelly leading the charge, it stands on its own. — M.K.

Australian Cast, 2011 (Walt Disney Records) 2 Stars (2 / 5) This live recording of a performance of the Australian production of Mary Poppins preserves all the revisions to the show that were made after the London cast recording was released. (No cast album of the Broadway production was issued.) While there are some tweaks in arrangements and lyrics, the most notable change is the replacement of “Temper, Temper,” a nightmarish fever dream in which Jane and Michael are reprimanded by the toys they abuse in their nursery, with the less sinister “Playing the Game.” Neither song is particularly noteworthy, but “Temper, Temper” has a bit more bite to it and would probably have been given Travers’ seal of approval over “Playing the Game.” Other than that, this album isn’t much different from the London recording in terms of material. William David Brohn’s orchestrations perhaps sound a little richer here, and the cast brings a good deal of energy to their performances. The album is billed as “live,” but the performance and the engineering are clean enough that it sounds as if it were recorded in a studio, aside from some applause at the end of certain numbers. Some casting perks here are Matt Lee as an entertaining Bert and Marina Prior as an improvement over Linzi Hatley in the role of Mrs. Banks. The rest of the cast members are either equal or inferior to their London counterparts, with Judi Connelli lacking the necessary vocal heft for “Brimstone and Treacle.” Sadly, although Verity Hunt-Ballard as Mary Poppins has a pleasant voice, she can’t match Laura Michelle Kelly’s luxurious soprano, and her characterization is no better than presentable and professional. This album may please first-time listeners, but there is a greater deal of fun to be had from the previous two recordings. — M.K.