All posts by Michael Portantiere

Prince of Egypt

Film Soundtrack, 1998 (Dreamworks) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Like several other animated musical classics of the screen, from Snow White to the clutch of far more recent Disney films (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Coco, et al.), Prince of Egypt contains considerably fewer songs than would be included in a stage musical. But the songs with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz that are heard here, beautifully augmented by Hans Zimmer’s lush orchestral score, make for a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. Highlights of what is basically an animated musical remake of The Ten Commandments (!!!!) include the powerful opening chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, “Deliver Us”; Moses’ plaintive “All I Ever Wanted,” sung by Amick Byram, with the “Queen’s reprise” delivered equally persuasively by Linda Dee Shayne; a weird, comic-villain number, “Playing with the Big Boys Now,” performed by Steve Martin and Martin Short as two of the Pharoah’s henchmen; the inspirational ballad “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” which allows us to revel in the wonderful Broadway baritone of Brian Stokes Mitchell; and the lovely duet “When You Believe,” prettily sung in pseudo pop-style by Michelle Pfeiffer and Sally Dworsky, with the bonus of a full-on pop version by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. — Michael Portantiere

Original London Cast, 2020 (Ghostlight) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Unsurprisingly, no music by Hans Zimmer is to be heard in this stage adaptation of Prince of Egypt, but Stephen Schwartz augmented the film’s song stack to create a full-fledged stage musical that made its debut at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in 2017, then had its international premiere in a Danish production at the Fredericia Teater in April 2018, followed by a summer run at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen and a presentation at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Ivins, Utah. A revised version opened at the Dominion Theatre in London’s West End on February 2020 and, after closing in March of that year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reopened on July 1, 2021. “Playing With the Big Boys Now” was eliminated from the show score early on (probably for the best), but as noted, many new songs were added, resulting in a cast album that’s full to bursting with 23 tracks (including three reprises). “Deliver Us” makes for a thrilling opening sequence, and the other items retained from the film (“All I Ever Wanted,” “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” “When You Believe”) work equally well as stage musical numbers. Among the major new additions are songs titled “Faster,” “One Weak Link,” “Footprints on the Sand,” “Make it Right,” “Never in a Million Years,” “Always on Your Side,” and “For The Rest of My Life.” If none of these represent Schwartz’s top-shelf work, they are all worthy efforts by one of the musical theater’s greatest composer/lyricists, performed by a strong cast headed by Luke Brady (Moses), Liam Tamne (Ramses), Christine Allado (Tzipporah), Alexia Khadime (Miriam), Joe Dixon (Seti), Debbie Kurup (Queen Tuya), Gary Wilmot (Jethro), Mercedesz Csampai (Yocheved), Adam Pearce (Hotep), Tanisha Spring (Nefertari), and Silas Wyatt-Barke (Aaron).  — M.P.

Anyone Can Whistle

Original Broadway Cast, 1964 (Columbia/Sony) 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) The show was a flop, but virtually every number is a winner, and so is this recording. Broadway audiences were bored by Arthur Laurents’ bizarre, satirical fable in which corrupt, small-town politicians fake a miracle by pumping water out of a rock, thus creating a new Lourdes with its attendant tourist trade. But what a cast! Angela Lansbury launched her musical theater career as Cora Hoover Hooper, the scheming mayor. Her co-stars were Lee Remick as Fay Apple, head nurse in the local nuthouse (named The Cookie Jar!), and Harry Guardino as J. Bowden Hapgood, a phony psychiatrist who stirs up trouble. And what a score! Stephen Sondheim’s wildly inventive songs include a lengthy musical-dramatic sequence, “Simple,” and a campy ballet, “The Cookie Chase.” Lansbury’s opener, “Me and My Town,” is a riotous spoof of nightclub-diva dramatics. Remick gets the achingly beautiful title tune, and Guardino delivers the biting, driving “Everybody Says Don’t.” The final duet for Hapgood and Fay, “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” is one of Sondheim’s finest, most adult love songs. Don Walker’s orchestrations are brassy and delightful. Recorded the day after the show closed, the album has a raw quality — Lansbury, for one, evidences some vocal strain — that, paradoxically, makes it seem fresher than many recordings that are more polished. One of Remick’s numbers, “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” was cut before the show opened and left off the LP, but has been restored for the CD. This kind of “failure” is far more interesting than lots of long-running hits. Note: Look for the version of the cast album marked “Deluxe Expanded Edition.” It includes bonus tracks of Sondheim singing demo versions of, among other things, the cut number “The Lame, the Halt, and the Blind” and an alternate version of “With So Little to Be Sure Of.” — David Barbour

Carnegie Hall Concert Cast, 1995 (Columbia/Sony) 1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) This live recording of a starry concert version of Anyone Can Whistle, produced as a benefit for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, preserves more of the score than is heard on the original cast album. It includes “There Won’t Be Trumpets” as well as “There’s Always a Woman,” an unpleasant bitch-fest between Cora and Fay that was also cut from the score before the show opened on Broadway. But, 30 years on, nobody can muster much conviction for Laurents’ talky satire. As Cora, Fay, and Hapgood, Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters, and Scott Bakula respectively offer tentative, vocally wobbly performances, while Angela Lansbury narrates. Peters manages a lovely version of the title tune but lacks Remick’s vulnerability, and she’s really at a loss in the scenes where Fay impersonates a sexy French temptress. Kahn is the biggest disappointment here, giving a performance that lacks bite or energy. And Bakula doesn’t possess Guardino’s rough authority. What’s especially missed is the urgency of the original album. As sometimes happens in live recordings, the balance between singers and the orchestra is not ideal. Even Don Walker’s orchestrations, supervised by Jonathan Tunick, lose some edge. — D.B.

Studio Cast, 1997/2020 (JAY, 2CDs) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) Elephants, who take 23 months to gestate, have nothing on this two-disc set, which incubated for 23 years. Recording began, and the bulk of it was completed, in 1997 — several presidential administrations ago. This is one of those JAY efforts billed as complete recordings, including playoffs and curtain call and exit music. Chat room savants insist that certain numbers have been cut slightly, and “There’s Always a Woman” is M.I.A. Nevertheless, this is the fullest recorded edition of Anyone Can Whistle that we are likely to get. Happily preserved are “The Cookie Chase” (in a lengthier version than that contained on the OBCR) and the ballet attached to “Everybody Says Don’t,” one of the jazzier passages in any Sondheim-composed musical. But the overly reverent approach to this score, treating a scrappy, satirical musical like a tony Gesamtkunstwerk, is counterproductive. Of the three stars, Julia McKenzie comes off best, punching her way through “Me and My Town” and “A Parade in Town” with gusto, but, unlike Lansbury, she doesn’t seem to be having fun with Cora’s cartoon-villain qualities. John Barrowman is a disconcertingly boyish Hapgood, which may be why he oversells “Everybody Says Don’t,” shouting every fifth or sixth word of the lyrics to signal his passion. Also problematic is Maria Friedman as Fay — a joyless Joan of Arc, lacking in warmth and applying an unpleasant vibrato to several numbers. Everyone’s line readings are pretty dire; this is a real issue in “Simple,” which weaves together music and dialogue. Conductor John Owen Edwards gets an expansive sound out of the National Symphony Orchestra, not always an asset in a show designed to be a sprightly spoof. It’s a pity that nobody recorded the 2010 New York City Center Encores! production of Anyone Can Whistle, which boasted the nearly ideal cast of Raúl Esparza, Sutton Foster, and Donna Murphy. But if you’re a superfan of the show, you’ll want to hear this recording if only because it does have material not available anywhere else — with Arthur Laurents, sounding like he needs a nap, providing occasional narration — D.B.

Carrie

Premiere Cast Recording, 2012 (Ghostlight) 2 out of 5 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 out of 5 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 several famous works, most notably the operas La Bohème and La Traviata and their literary source material) as well as 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 the ridiculously frenetic editing of the film as directed by Baz Luhrmann. Presumably, at least some people 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 instead 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 the 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 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) People 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 Eurtyhmics, etc. are now included as others have been jettisoned) and some of the story elements and dialogue. Those who enjoyed 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’ll know exactly what to expect when/if you get your hands on it: a truckload of pop hits, or fragments 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 and, in some cases, after 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.) Although 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 out of 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 out of 5 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 musicalized skillfully, 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 shortened 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 the 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

Paramour

Original Broadway Cast, 2016 (Cirque du Soleil) 2 out of 5 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.) and accoutrements 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 dialogue?) 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 far too generic to make any significant effect. The same might be said for the bulk of the score.   — Michael Portantiere

Passing Strange

Original Broadway Cast, 2008 (Ghostlight) 4 out of 5 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 out of 5 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 out of 5 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 out of 5 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 via internet 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 song 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.” The pretty much ideal cast heard here is led 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 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Buoyed by the extraordinary online popularity of its score, as described above, Be More Chill was presented 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 Theater production mentioned above, 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, and Smith is miscast. On the plus side, Tam makes the role of The Squip very much his own with his strong, distinctive voice and his very funny Keanu Reeves imitation. The score is well performed as heard here, with some relatively minor rewrites and additions to the material. (This album is longer than the original, 24 tracks as compared to 21.) Both the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions 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; on the contrary, any score suffers greatly rather than benefits 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 out of 5 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 out of 5 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, a lesser-known 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 is marred only by a surprising error in the lyrics. (Mars is a planet, Mr Y., not a star!) This recording also embraces several stand-alone songs, i.e., not from the scores of musicals. Two of the best of these are “Danglin’,” a soulful torcher eased on down by Alex Getlin, and the specially written title tune of the revue, delivered by all as the opening number. An exceptionally noteworthy item is the sexy/funny “Salt n Pepper,” originally written for the unproduced musical The Queen of Basin Street, here given a spicy turn by E’Sean. Not sampled 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 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 out of 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 out of 5 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 out of 5 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.

Frozen

Film Soundtrack, 2013 (Walt Disney Records) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) One of the most popular titles in Disney’s history, Frozen revolves around two royal sisters: Elsa, who has the power to conjure snow and ice but is unable to control it, and Anna, who possesses no magical powers but is adventurous and desirous to be in love. By the end, they realize that the love they have for each other is strong enough to help Elsa control her powers, and is just as meaningful as any romantic relationship. A massive and enduring success, Frozen has received constant exposure in pop culture and media, leading many to become exhausted by the film, but first time listeners to this soundtrack will likely understand why it has continued to capture audiences. The songs, written by the married team of Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (with incidental and choral scoring by Christophe Beck), are an intelligent blend of traditional musical theater and modern day pop, making the score feel both classic and current. (Doug Besterman provides lush and creative orchestrations.) The lyrics are often playful and cute while still offering strong character insight. “In Summer,” in particular, has a wittily morbid edge to it as sung by Olaf, a clueless snowman (Josh Gad) who wants nothing more than to experience warm weather, not realizing how it will effect his snow-based body. Frozen also benefits from having the strongest vocal cast for a Disney film since Beauty and the Beast, employing almost exclusively Broadway talent. In addition to Gad, we have Idina Menzel as Elsa, Kristin Bell as Anna, and Santino Fontana bringing credible Prince-ly charm to Hans. Bell gets quite a few songs to showcase her pure, classic-Disney-Princess soprano (she and Fontana work particularly well together on “Love is an Open Door”), but it’s Menzel who does the vocal heavy lifting, as in the soundtrack’s phenomenal breakout hit, “Let It Go.” Though it has been overplayed to the point of its becoming a pop culture punchline, at its core the song is well-structured and catchy, belted out by Menzel with great relish. In the movie and on this soundtrack album, only Jonathan Groff is musically  wasted as Kristoff, a romantic foil for Anna, his singing limited to the thankfully short “Reindeers are Better Than People.” Otherwise, Frozen is a delight. — Matt Koplik

Original Broadway Cast, 2018 (Walt Disney Records) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) In the continuing line of movies translated to the stage, Disney has had an erratic track record, ranging from great success (The Lion King) to major disappointments (The Little Mermaid, Tarzan). The Broadway adaptation of Frozen, which this recording represents, lies somewhere in the middle. On the plus side, the show tries to dig deeper into its source material than most other Disney stage musicals, but the results are often middling. Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have been brought back to expand their score from the film, and Dave Metzger’s orchestrations pretty much follow Doug Besterman’s blueprints. But while new songs like “Dangerous to Dream,” “Hans of the Southern Isles,” and “True Love” are commendable in their intentions to give the characters complexity, they really can’t be described as anything more than serviceably listenable. Of all the additions, the song that comes closest to standing out is “Monster,” a second-act number for Elsa — but, musically, even that feels more like a lesser “Let it Go” than a fully developed new piece. While the principal players may not be able to separate themselves completely from the original movie cast, they are all strong singers and inject plenty of personality into their performances. As the two sisters, Caissie Levy (Elsa) and Patti Murin (Anna) work particularly hard not to present cartoonish interpretations while skillfully navigating the demands of the score. The recording is also well worth a listen for Stephen Oremus’s stunning vocal arrangements, which give the pre-existing songs from the film a shot of Broadway adrenaline and provide the show’s ensemble with rich choral material (“Vuelie” and “Queen Anointed” are particularly haunting). If this recording isn’t good enough to replace Frozen’s original soundtrack, it’s worthy to stand alongside it — or a few steps behind, at least. — M.K.

Aladdin (Alan Menken et al.)

Film Soundtrack, 1992 (Walt Disney Records) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Following the immense success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Disney Animation firmly solidified what is now known as “The Disney Renaissance” with the critical and financial success of Aladdin in 1992. All three films featured scores with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, previously best known for their work on Little Shop of Horrors. Ashman envisioned Aladdin,  the story of a teenage hoodlum who happens upon a magic lamp containing a genie, as a madcap romp set in the Middle East. But Ashman succumbed to complications from AIDS before he could finish work on the project, and some of the songs he co-wrote were ultimately not used. In fact, only three songs with lyrics by Ashman remain in the film — “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali” — with Tim Rice providing lyrics for two additions, “One Jump Ahead” and “A Whole New World.” If Rice’s lyrics don’t have the same level of wit and character as Ashman’s, they’re still fun and don’t feel like a jarring departure. This is a very enjoyable recording, and it boasts what remains the best vocal leads of any Aladdin recording. Brad Kane is a charismatic Aladdin, blending well with Lea Salonga’s Princess Jasmine on the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World,” and Robin Williams is definitive as the genie of the lamp. Note: The deluxe edition of this soundtrack album includes bonus tracks of Howard Ashman singing demos for two songs cut from the film, the moving “Proud of Your Boy” and the fun “High Adventure.” — Matt Koplik

Original Broadway Cast, 2014 (Walt Disney Records) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) The success of Aladdin as an animated film led to a stage adaptation two decades later. The good news is that the results were far more successful than many other Disney transfers, though with some caveats. Choosing to underline Ashman’s original concept of presenting the story as a zany romp, the Broadway Aladdin is shinier, zippier, and sillier than the film. But while the show benefits from the inclusion of three songs with lyrics by Ashman that did not make it into the movie (“Proud of Your Boy,” “High Adventure,” and “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Hassim”), Chad Beguelin’s libretto isn’t quite clever enough to hold it all together. Although this is less of a problem on the cast recording than it was on a stage, enough of Beguelin’s meta-commentary jokes are peppered throughout the album (“Everyone here has a minor in dance!”) to make you roll your eyes. On the bright side, the score is given loving treatment in Danny Troob’s vibrant orchestrations and Michael Kosarin’s tight vocal arrangements. The one major misstep is turning the Genie’s “Friend Like Me” into a nearly 10-minute-long production number. While it’s performed energetically by James Monroe Iglehart, the song now feels overstuffed and tiresome. Iglehart is given a much better opportunity with “Prince Ali,” which has also been expanded from the film version, but to more satisfying effect. New additions to the score, such as “These Palace Walls” and “A Million Miles Away,” are pleasant enough, with Menken once again proving his gift for ear worms, but Beguelin’s lyrics are not on the same level as his predecessors’. Adam Jacobs gives an earnest performance as Aladdin, which works in ballads like “Proud of Your Boy” and “A Whole New World” but less well in peppier songs like “One Jump Ahead.” Courtney Reed’s Jasmine is mostly serviceable, though her voice is not as comfortable a fit for “A Whole New World” as Lea Salonga’s. And in a fun bit of déjà vu, Jonathan Freeman vamps it up as the evil villain Jafar, the part he voiced in the 1992 film. If this recording doesn’t have the overall charm of the original soundtrack, it’s still enjoyable, and it introduces audiences to some wonderful Ashman/Menken songs that had previously gone unheard. — M.K.

Film Soundtrack, 2019 (Walt Disney Records) 1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) This is the soundtrack recording of Disney’s recent live action remake of Aladdin, a trend the company has continued ever since the massive financial success it had with its remake of Beauty and the Beast. The Aladdin soundtrack is not nearly the disaster that Beast was: the arrangements are mostly similar to the originals (though some pop and hip hop influenced percussion has been added), and the cast is of a higher vocal caliber (if still auto-tuned). Yet, the recording is mostly free of personality; everything is clear and pleasant enough, but it’s missing energy and character. Nowhere is this more evident than in Will Smith’s performance as the Genie. Whereas both Robin Williams and James Monroe Iglehart gave everything they had to the role, Smith goes for a more laid back, casual approach to the magical sidekick. This is a mistake, and though he doesn’t completely bungle his two big songs, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” they barely register here. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are both fine as, respectively, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, but they certainly don’t wipe away memories of their predecessors in these roles. Scott has been given a new number written by Menken with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “Speechless,” but the lyrics are so nondescript and the melody so jarringly different from the rest of the score that it doesn’t do anything to distinguish Scott’s Jasmine from Salonga’s or Reed’s. So, while this isn’t the worst soundtrack of a Disney remake, it’s the blandest of all three Aladdin recordings and is really more for completists than for anyone who want to be exposed to the score for the first time. — M.K.

Inner City

Original Broadway Cast, 1971 (RCA/Masterworks Broadway) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Perhaps the source material was too obscure for audiences to really understand this show, which only ran on Broadway for 97 performances (and 24 previews). What poet Eve Merriam originally wrote was Inner City Mother Goose, a new take on nursery rhymes from an urban, sometimes violent perspective. So the familiar “Fee Fi Fo Fum” was followed by the less-expected “I smell the blood of violence to come,” while “Now I lay me down to sleep” was followed by “and I pray the double lock will keep.” Helen Miller set the poems to theatrical rock music. Most of them last a minute or less, but they’re memorable minutes. In “Hushabye Baby,” an unwed teenager sings about the child she’ll soon have, and it sounds like something that Brecht and Weill might have written had they been around in the early 1970s. Other highlights include “On This Rock,” a statement of urban pride; the jaunty “City Life”; and the pulsating “Law and Order,” which the TV series of the same title should have used as its theme song. “Deep in the Night” and “It’s My Belief” are solid anthems that helped win Linda Hopkins a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress. Then there’s “The Hooker,” in which a prostitute sings, “If they want to hear a story, then I give out with a story…I need ten dollars for grandma, who is coughing and spitting up blood. But whaddaya say we cut the crap?” The same socko melody is used for both “The Pusher” and “The Pickpocket,” but that last one didn’t make the album. That’s all right, we should be very grateful that this short-running show yielded a cast recording at all. — Peter Filichia

Pretty Woman

Pretty WomanOriginal Broadway Cast, 2018 (Atlantic) 0 stars; not recommended. Movies that were popular in the latter part of the 20th century have become the go-to source material for Broadway musicals these days. If a film is beloved, a show based on it has a built in audience, and if the movie was made more than 20 years ago, the show can cash in on the “nostalgia factor.”  Or so the thinking goes. This cynical mentality is nowhere more prominently seen than in Pretty Woman: The Musical. Based on the wildly successful 1990 romantic comedy, the show tries to please its audience by sticking so closely to the original screenplay that whole scenes are recreated line for line. (Garry Marshall, the film’s director, worked on the libretto with J.F. Lawton before his death in 2016.) It also trades on nostalgia by bringing in ’80s-’90s pop-rock team Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance to write the score,  and if none of the songs are offensively unlistenable, they’re all ultimately unnecessary. Each one starts by stating the basic intention of the character singing it, usually at a grooving tempo, with the following verses essentially rewording that same sentiment in a higher key and at a faster tempo. While this allows power belters like Samantha Barks and Orfeh to wail appropriately, it does little for the story. One need only read generic song titles such as “I Can’t Go Back,” “Something About Her” and “Never Give Up On a Dream” to understand the lack of insight Adams and Vallance have brought to the score. Set in a sanitized version of LA, the show follows Vivian (Barks, in the role that made Julia Roberts a movie star), a down-on-her-luck hooker who’s hired by reserved billionaire Edward (Andy Karl) as his escort for the week. After some playful banter and small blowups, the two fall in love, and all turns out well in the end. As Vivian, Barks decides not to channel Roberts’ bubbly charm in the film and go for a more nuanced performance, but her attempts are undermined at every turn by the banality of the lyrics and the repetitiveness of the music. Though Karl’s faux rock and roll growl suits the score’s style, he is ultimately wasted in the role of the withdrawn Edward. As Vivian’s spunky fellow prostitute Kit, Orfeh goes for broke and pulls out every vocal trick she has on songs like “Rodeo Drive” and “Never Give Up on a Dream.” But, like her costars, she’s failed by the lifeless pop tunes. Only Allison Blackwell, in a featured spot, gets any music with energy in it, during the sequence when Edward takes Vivian to the opera — but this is because she gets to sing a bit of La Traviata, which orchestrator/arranger Will Van Dyke seamlessly incorporates into the Adams-Vallance song “You and I.”  It’s a memorable moment in a recording you’ll otherwise forget about as soon as you finish listening to it. — Matt Koplik

Hadestown

Hadestown - ConceptStudio Cast, 2010 (Wilderland Records) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Though indie singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell always meant for Hadestown to be a stage musical, its first incarnation was in the form of this concept album, recorded for posterity and to give the piece greater audience outreach. The response was overwhelmingly strong, and Hadestown grew a dedicated fan base over the years until a production opened at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, followed by the show’s Broadway premiere in 2019. Considering the immediately intense response from fans, it’s surprising now to hear how simplistic the concept album is; compared to other concept albums that became stage musicals (Evita, for example),  this one is a much more relaxed affair. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, who travels to the Underworld (“Hadestown”) to bring back his love Eurydice, the piece as heard on this recording is a fairly straightforward retelling of the myth and is mostly a platform for Mitchell’s talents as a songwriter. Her music can groove festively (“Way Down in Hadestown,” “When the Chips Are Down”) or float dreamlike (“Wedding Song,” “Wait For Me”), always with an edgy undercurrent that foreshadows the danger lying ahead. Mitchell’s lyrics are poetically expressive, though they become sharper and more story-driven on the later cast albums. Here, Mitchell herself sings the role of Eurydice while Justin Vernon performs Orpheus. An odd choice is made in the mixing of Vernon’s vocals so that it sounds like multiple Vernons are singing together each time Orpheus is present. (According to the myth, Orpheus possessed a mystically beautiful singing voice, and the mixing may have been meant to reflect that, but the effect is off-putting.) Those who were unfamiliar with Hadestown until it came to Broadway and who desire to hear its origins will find this album mostly engaging, but both subsequent recordings of the score are superior and, of course, more indicative of what the piece eventually became. — Matt Koplik

Hadestown - NYTWOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (Warner Classics) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Recorded live at the New York Theatre Workshop, this album has high-energy performances and a number of welcome changes to the piece since its original incarnation. The biggest change is that the Hadestown heard here is no longer so straightforward a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but builds upon it by expanding characters that didn’t have much presence on the original recording and giving them more active roles. These include the messenger god Hermes (Chris Sullivan), who now narrates the proceedings. A trio of actresses called The Fates are more fully present as a Greek Chorus, and the myth of Hades (a quietly domineering Patrick Page) and his wife, Persephone (Amber Grey), is explored with greater depth here, showing us how their marriage, once passionate but now cold, has detrimentally effected the characters on earth. These changes make Hadestown a more fulfilling and well rounded piece, but they also create a new problem: Mitchell has written the supporting characters with a hard edge and a playful attitude, whereas her songs for Orpheus and Eurydice have a more earnest romanticism. On a surface level, this makes sense, as the young pair are meant to provide the heart of the piece. But in giving the supporting characters such rich, lively material, Mitchell has made them more interesting than the two leads. It doesn’t help that several of Orpheus and Eurydice’s songs included in the NYTW production are inexplicably not on the album. (“Wedding Song” is a major loss). Considering all of this, Damon Daunno and Nabiyah Be do admirable work as the doomed lovers. In fact, Daunno, is perhaps the best Orpheus heard on any of the official Hadestown recordings; he gives the character a confident, passionate swagger, and his voice sails smoothly through Mitchell’s score, seamlessly gliding in and out of a pure falsetto. Generally speaking, what’s presented on this recording is so well done that it almost makes up for the material that isn’t included. Fan favorites from the concept album, such as Orpheus’ “Wait for Me” or Hades’ scarily relevant “Why We Build the Wall,” are still here, but Mitchell’s additions are also worth noting: Persephone is given the jaunty “Livin it Up On Top,” gracefully vamped by Grey, and Hermes begins the show with a new opening number, “Road to Hell.” From the moment a trombone wails a jazzy, New Orleans-fueled intro to that song (orchestraters Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose continue from the concept album), you know that the energy of Hadestown has shifted from relaxed mysticism to hot theatricality. It’s a welcome change. — M.K.

Hadestown - OBCOriginal Broadway Cast, 2019 (Sing It Again Records) 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) After the workshop production at NYTW, Hadestown was staged in Canada and at the Royal National Theatre in London, where it continued to develop until it finally came to Broadway nearly a decade after the release of the concept album. On stage, the result is often breathtaking, with Mitchell’s score embracing its theatrical potential and director Rachel Chavkin and her team of designers working visual wonders. Some have complained that, in turning Hadestown into a full evening of theater, Mitchell overstuffed the piece with unnecessary material. There’s some truth there, in that, when the show is experienced live on stage, some numbers feel less important than others and/or seem to reiterate points made previously. But when listening to the recording, all of those complaints melt away, and we’re left with Mitchell’s fantastic work sung by a phenomenal company. Grey and Page are back as Persephone and Hades, with André de Shields offering a wiser and kinder Hermes than his predecessors. Eva Noblezada is a passionately sung Eurydice; her performance, and the addition of “Any Way the Wind Blows” (an already established song of Mitchell’s), give the character some much needed grit. Reeve Carney’s interpretation of Orpheus aims more towards a wandering man-child than the swaggering heartthrob offered by Daunno. This is fine, although it robs the character’s romantic pairing with Eurydice of heat. Also, while Carney has a strong voice and does well by the material, his singing is not quite as smooth and effortless as Daunno’s. Still, these are small quibbles about what’s overall a terrific album. One of its major highlights is “Wait for Me,” Orpheus’ cry to Eurydice as he travels to the Underworld to save her.  While the song was moving and pretty on the concept album, Mitchell, Chorney and Sickafoose here have shaped it into something spectacularly theatrical. And, speaking of waiting: Fans of Hadestown had to wait almost 10 years for the piece to become a completely satisfying stage musical, but their patience has been well rewarded. — M.K.

Tina: The Tina Turner Musical

TinaOriginal London Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) When experienced live in the theater, a “bio-musical” — like any other show — may be judged on several levels, including the production values and the quality of the storytelling, over and above the performances. But a cast album is all about the music. In that regard, this recording of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, shorn of the show’s execrable book and direction, succeeds  thanks to the searing, passionate singing of Adrienne Warren in the title role. Also a pleasure to hear are the arrangements (by Nicholas Skilbeck) and orchestrations (by Ethan Popp), which deftly approximate the original charts of the songs that brought Turner worldwide fame during her decades-long career as a rock music goddess.  Warren was an Olivier Award nominee for this role on the London stage, and her portrayal was considered so vital to the show’s success that she was signed to repeat it on Broadway. Pick any tracks from the album at random — for example, “River Deep – Mountain High,” “Proud Mary,” “Private Dancer,” or “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” — and you may find yourself marveling at how skillfully Warren pays tribute to the icon’s one-of-a-kind voice and delivery while still making her performance sound organic, something deeper than sheer mimicry. The other singers heard here are fine, including Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Ike Turner. Still, the recording is All About Warren, and she will not disappoint those who feel they want an audio memento of this show even though, of course, Turner’s actual recordings of these songs are still and no doubt always will be very much available — Michael Portantiere