Category Archives: L-M

Moulin Rouge!

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

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

Cirque du Soleil Paramour

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

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.

Mean Girls

Mean GirlsOriginal Broadway Cast, 2018 (Atlantic)  3 Stars (3 / 5) Mean Girls has been a major staple in pop culture ever since the film was released in 2004. With instantly quotable dialogue and numerous iconic moments, the movie is so beloved that it was only a matter of time before the property made its way to the stage as a splashy musical. The plot is similar to Heathers, if a little more family friendly in its delivery: Having spent most of her young life in Africa with her zoologist parents, Cady Heron is thrust into a suburban U.S. high school, where she’s quickly lured in by the appeal of the school’s popular clique, The Plastics , and its glamorous and calculating leader, Regina George (Taylor Louderman). With legendary comedy writer Tina Fey adapting her original screenplay, her husband Jeff Richmond composing the music, and Tony nominee Nell Benjamin providing the lyrics, expectations for the musical were high, but the final product proves to be a mixed bag. Rather than stick to one genre of music, Richmond chose to incorporate golden-age Broadway, rock, bubble gum pop, salsa, and more to reflect the different social cliques of high school. This  isn’t a bad idea, and the mixing of different musical styles has certainly been done successfully in many previous shows. But even though John Clancy’s versatile orchestrations accommodate the various genres, they often clash with each other, and many of the songs lack the sort of structure that would allow them to build to a satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s lyrics are clever and well crafted but rarely have the bite of Fey’s dialogue (though little of that is presented on the recording). Still, for the most part, the album is an enjoyable listening experience thanks to Richmond’s talents for creating catchy ear worms, as well as the performances of exceptionally talented cast, who do a commendable job of making their mark on characters so strongly associated with the film portrayals. Most successful are Louderman as queen bee Regina and Grey Hansen as the comfortably flamboyant Damien; she revels in Regina’s viciousness, often singing in a low whisper before crescendoing to a commanding high belt, as in the vengeful “World Burn,” while he gives the album Broadway sparkle with his natural comedic timing and brassy vocals. However, it’s Kate Rockwell as Karen, the ditzy member of the Plastics, who has the best song in the score, “Sexy” — a paean to achieving female empowerment by dressing up in skimpy Halloween costumes. Here, Richmond brings musical theater know-how to the bubble gum music, and Benjamin’s lyrics are genuinely funny (“This is modern feminism talkin’ / I expect to run the world in shoes I cannot walk in”). In this song, Mean Girls the musical briefly reaches the same satirical heights as its source material. — Matt Koplik

A Minister’s Wife

MinisterOriginal Off-Broadway Cast (PS Classics, 2011) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Bernard Shaw’s plays do not easily adapt into musicals; My Fair Lady took Lerner and Loewe two tries, and only worked when they opened up the action beyond Shaw’s scenes. The opposite approach is taken in A Minister’s Wife, based on Shaw’s Candida (1897). Composer Joshua Schmidt, lyricist Jan Levy Tranen, and librettist Austin Pendleton, following a concept of director Michael Halberstam, concentrated rather than expanded the narrative. They jettisoned a key character (Candida’s crude father) and focused on the domestic triangle of fiery minister James Morell (Marc Kudisch); his lovely wife, Candida (Kate Fry); and Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert), a young poet whom Morell has rescued from the streets. Liz Baltes as Morell’s secretary, Prossy, and Drew Gehling as his earnest curate, Lexy, complete the outstanding cast. Kudisch’s opening number, “Sermon,” conveys the basic tenets of Christian Socialism, but an unsettling dissonance in the music hints that while Morell claims “we must learn to live for each other,” perhaps he needs to listen to his own words. Steggert is terrific as Marchbanks: his poet is frail, self-pitying, whiny, and yet confident in his passion, especially in “Shallops and Scrubbing Brushes” and the “Second Preaching Match.” Fry gets the benefit of the most melodious parts of Schmidt’s score, yet she wallops both men in the blunt “Spoiled From the Cradle.” Kudisch’s minister progresses from poised to angry to fearful as his inner flaws are revealed. The whole piece is wrapped up in the gorgeous “Into the Night,” as the cast ponders the future. Tranen’s lyrics are Shavian to the core, with many lifted directly from the play; Schimidt’s orchestrations for a chamber orchestra do a good job of advancing the subtext, with Laura Bontrager’s cello and Pasquale Laurino’s violin especially exquisite.  Like Schmidt’s Adding Machine, this is an unusual, challenging show. One could wish for more distinct songs, rather than so many extended scenes set to music. But A Minister’s Wife is  a small gem in itself. — Laura Frankos

The Little Mermaid

LM-filmFilm Soundtrack, 1989 (Disney) 4 Stars (4 / 5) After a decades-long dry spell, Disney film animation finally sprang to life again with The Little Mermaid, a musical adaptation of the children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen. Thanks in large part to its fantastic score by Little Shop of Horrors team Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Mermaid single-handedly revived the animated musical. And in its main character, Ariel — a mermaid daughter of King Triton, desperate to join the human world — the film also birthed the first really spunky and smart Disney princess. As Disney has progressed to even more feminist stories and even stronger princesses, certain elements of The Little Mermaids’s plot have come under scrutiny, but the score has stood the test of time. Ashman and Menken created a charmingly magical work; Menken’s music ranges from funky calypso (“Under the Sea”) to sassy Broadway (“Poor Unfortunate Souls”), with Ashman bringing his usual touch of unpretentious intelligence to the lyrics. And the vocal cast of the film is still definitive. Best known to musical theater fans for her powerhouse vocals in Crazy For You and Smile, Jodi Benson here produces a purer, smoother, more intimate sound that allows “Part of Your World,” Ariel’s finely crafted “I Want” song, to deeply resonate with the listener. Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, and René Auberjonois are wonderful in other roles, and the score is smartly but not overly lushly orchestrated by Thomas Pasatieri.  — Matt Koplik

LM-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2008 (Disney) 1 Stars (1 / 5) Howard Ashman sadly died at the height of his career, and he never saw any of his work with Alan Menken make it to Broadway. The legacy he left behind may be relatively small, but it is substantial in quality and much beloved. When Disney brought Beauty and the Beast to the stage with financially successful results, it was only a matter of time before The Little Mermaid, the movie that started it all, would make the transition as well. Unfortunately, in this case, Disney should have left well enough alone. With Ashman gone, Glenn Slater was brought in to contribute lyrics for new songs to expand the score for a full-length stage musical, and while he managed to come up with a few good fish puns, none of his work here matches the heart and inventiveness of Ashman’s work. Menken wrote some lovely melodies for the additional songs, though some of them are recycled from incidental music heard in the movie. The cast — Sierra Boggess, Sean Palmer, Sherie Rene Scott, Tituss Burgess, Norm Lewis, et al. — is talented and, in a few cases, vocally superior to their film counterparts, but most tend to go for vocal tricks, making the majority of the score sound over-sung. While Danny Troob’s orchestrations add the necessary flashes of Broadway brass to the Menken-Ashman material without going overboard, they don’t bring as much flair to the Broadway additions. Even though this recording has more songs and offers vocal flair from some Broadway favorites, you’re better off sticking to the movie soundtrack. — M.K.

The Light in the Piazza

PiazzaOriginal Broadway Cast,  2005 (Nonesuch) 5 Stars (5 / 5) The Light in the Piazza seemed to re-open the door for lush scores and musicals of honest sentiment of the type not seen since Rodgers and Hammerstein, at a time when modern musical theater writers were for the most part shying away from works of pure romance. Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s novel of the same title, the musical tells of Margaret Johnson, a Southern socialite, who takes her adult daughter, Clara, on vacation to Florence, Italy in the 1950s — only to have a local young man and Clara fall in love, despite Clara’s stunted mental maturity due to an accident in her childhood. For his Broadway debut, Adam Guettel wrote an overwhelmingly romantic score, rich in musical complexity and tender in its poetically precise lyrics, a fair percentage of which are in Italian in order to properly dramatize the native characters. Guettel uses the language and cultural barriers between the Johnsons and the Italians to his advantage by employing a musical language that is distinctly modern in structure, yet traditionally sweeping in sound. (Guettel and Ted Sperling are responsible for the fluid orchestrations.) Piazza is moving in its beauty, whether in its more intimate moments (“Dividing Day,” “The Beauty Is”) or its grander songs (“Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” “Say It Somehow”). The cast is exceptional, with Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Morrison providing touching, lovely performances as the two young lovers. But it’s Victoria Clark as Margaret who defines the album. Her delivery of the final song, “Fable,” in which Margaret prepares to finally let Clara go, would be reason enough to own this recording. The Light in the Piazza is a masterwork given a definitive presentation on the cast album — Matt Koplik

Memphis

Memphis-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2009 (Rhino) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Winner of 2010 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Book, Original Score, and Orchestrations, Memphis charts an enjoyable journey through the pioneering days of rock ‘n’ roll, when rhythm and blues morphed into a new musical genre mixing black and white influences and exciting young, integrated audiences. Set in the 1950s, when racial segregation was still the norm in much of America, the energetic musical’s plot centers around a Memphis-based, white DJ, Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball), who is enamored of and daringly promotes African-American music. He soon falls in love with a black female singer (Montego Glover) and jump-starts her rise to stardom. Joe DiPietro’s serviceable book frames an invigorating score, with music by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan and lyrics by Bryan and DiPietro. The songs recall iconic rock performers, sounds (guitar riffs, doo-wop harmonizing, soulful blues), and hits of the period; at least three numbers sound remarkably like “Jailhouse Rock.” Yet these references are packaged within a score that’s structured Broadway-style, featuring dramatic solos enhanced by solid ensemble singing, colorful orchestrations, wordy (sometimes overly so) lyrics, and infectious dance breaks. The cast album highlights come at the beginning and the end. The opening jump blues number, “Underground,” is  followed by the searing ballad “The Music of My Soul,” and these songs let us know we’re in for a rebellious ride through rough racial terrain, while the catchy “Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night” gets us gleefully on board. Heightening the show’s bittersweet climax, when the lovers part, “Memphis Lives in Me” salutes Huey’s hometown and all it represents emotionally, culturally, and musically. The upbeat finale, “Steal Your Rock ‘n’ Roll,” exemplifies the score’s accessible if unimaginative blend of pop appeal, Broadway pizzazz, and early rock sensibilities. Throughout, Kimball sings Huey’s songs with scratchy grit and raw expressiveness; his superb acting contributed immeasurably to the musical’s success on Broadway. As Felicia, the singer who captures Huey’s heart, Glover offers dramatically nuanced versions of the showpieces “Colored Woman” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Fails.” — Lisa Jo Sagolla

Memphis-LondonOriginal London Cast, 2015 (First Night) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Five years after it opened on Broadway, Memphis played for a year on London’s West End. Though one can detect slight differences in the arrangements, orchestrations, and tempi of several songs, the only significant dissimilarities between the Broadway and London cast albums lie in the singing of the lead performers. As Huey, a character loosely inspired by the trailblazing, Memphis-based, white DJ Dewey Phillips (who championed black music), Killian Donnelly offers smoother, prettier, more technically polished singing than Chad Kimball in his renditions  of the heartfelt “The Music of My Soul” and “Memphis Lives in Me,” as well as the wild “Crazy Little Huey.” Beverley Knight sings Felicia’s songs with greater authority than Montego Glover, perhaps too much authority for the vulnerable character. Overall, the Broadway album proves more effective as theater music; there’s more variety among the vocal qualities of the cast members, so their characters come through with greater distinction. “She’s My Sister,” a heated duet between Huey and Felicia’s brother, generates less tension on the London album and is harder to follow because the performers’ voices don’t contrast as forcefully as do those of their Broadway counterparts. But whereas the Broadway album offers a superfluous bonus track of Memphis composer/co-lyricist David Bryan singing “The Music of My Soul” over his own too-loud piano accompaniment, the London recording’s bonus is an impressive performance by Bryan of “Memphis Lives in Me.” — L.J.S.

Matilda

Matilda-LondonOriginal London Cast, 2013 (RSC) 5 Stars (5 / 5) This recording reflects the Royal Shakespeare Company’s world premiere production of the musical Matilda, based on Roald Dahl’s book about a precocious, five-year-old British girl. A rather dark, cerebral show that also happens to be wickedly funny, charming, and moving, Matilda is in some ways the antidote to Annie; whereas the redheaded orphan patiently waited for the sun to come out tomorrow, Matilda fights to change her life and the bad deck of cards she has been dealt, including a moronic family that doesn’t care about her and a fearsome headmistress who hates children in general. For his first musical theater work, Australian comedian Tim Minchin has written a stellar score, one with playfully odd melodies and deliciously smart lyrics that fit the wonderfully twisted world of Dahl perfectly. There’s much fun to be had in “Naughty,” “Telly,” and other songs; and when Matilda shows its heart, it thankfully doesn’t wear it on its sleeve like so many children-centered shows. Songs such as “Quiet” and “My House” are simple and understated (a rarity in modern musical theater), allowing the actors to live in them and explore their dramatic potential. Christopher Nightingale’s orchestrations are by turns playful (“Miracle”), funky (“Revolting Children”), and beautiful (“I’m Here”). The cast of this recording is wonderful, with three young performers covering different tracks of Matilda (because they rotated in the role on stage). Special praise goes to Bertie Carvel, who plays the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Avoiding camp, Carvel instead performs like a dry, British piranha, making the character’s evilness funny yet still menacing. Perhaps the greatest song on this album is “When I Grow Up, ” by far the most uplifting number in the score: “When I grow up / I will be brave enough to fight the creatures / That you have to fight beneath the bed / Each night to be a grown up.” It reveals that, for all its cleverness and mischief, Matilda is at its core an optimistic show. — Matt Koplik

Matilda-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2013 (Yellow Sound Label/Broadway Records) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Here we have a rare situation: a London cast album is actually preferable to the recording of the Broadway incarnation. While all of the new performers are as talented as their predecessors, and much is the same in terms of material (there is more dialogue included on the OBC recording, and there are some minor lyric changes), something is slightly off here. In trying to “Broadway-ize” the piece, Matilda’s creators made the show a difficult listening experience. Perhaps the biggest problem is/are the new orchestrations by Christopher Nightingale; brassy and brash, they frequently overpower the singers (even on the recording), making it hard to understand Minchin’s brilliant lyrics. Perhaps to compete with the orchestra, the performances of this cast are broader, less smart, and less human than those of the British company. Even Carvel, repeating his role of Miss Trunchball, seems less funny and more fidgety than before. On the bright side, Lauren Ward as Miss Honey, also returning from the London production, is just as touching and perhaps even stronger vocally than on the previous recording. She is the sole caring adult character, and the beating heart of the show. All of the Matildas here (four of them, as opposed to the British three) are smart actresses and talented singers. Thankfully, for their tracks, Nightingale chose to remain faithful to his original orchestrations.  — M.K.

The Last Ship

TheLastShip-conceptStudio Cast, 2013 (Cherrytree/A&M) 4 Stars (4 / 5)  Rock icon Sting introduced most of the songs that would fuel his Broadway musical The Last Ship in this eponymous, 12-track concept album, released a year before the show premiered. (A deluxe version featured five additional songs, while a super-deluxe edition comprising 20 tracks was made available exclusively through Amazon.) The first recording of original music that Sting had released in a decade, The Last Ship proffers heartfelt, Celtic-flavored songs inspired by his youth in a shipyard town in northern England. The 16-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter appealingly intermingles pop, rock, jazz, and world music — and, in this outing, draws particularly from Northumbrian folk forms and Latin dance rhythms. While each song is musically enchanting, Sting performs them all himself, lending a lulling sameness to the recording’s vocal palette; the deluxe editions fare better in this regard, as they involve additional singers and a wider array of accompanying instruments. Fans of Sting the rocker will thrill to the deluxe version’s addition of “Jock the Singing Welder,” a raw, rockabilly tune that didn’t make it into the Broadway musical. But it’s Sting the balladeer who shines brightest in the original 12 tracks. He persuasively captures the righteousness of an angry young man relating the tale of “Dead Man’s Boots,” and his renditions of the poignant “I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else” and “Practical Arrangement” (which also didn’t make it to Broadway) are especially piercing.  “Show Some Respect” sounds like it came straight out of The Threepenny Opera, and the stirring title song and “What Have We Got?” seem promising fodder for Broadway production numbers. However, it’s the entertaining qualities of the lively waltz-time ditty “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance” that most blatantly marks this recording as an album of Broadway-bound material. —  Lisa Jo Sagolla

The-Last-Ship-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 2014 (Universal) 5 Stars (5 / 5) Featuring wonderfully earthy, Celtic-inflected music and lyrics by Sting, The Last Ship is marred only by John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s unimaginative book, its parable-like plot and melodramatic ending providing clichéd framing for the touching songs. The show explores a working-class community’s struggles upon the closing of the shipyard that provided not only its financial lifeline, but also its people’s sense of self-worth. The central character, Gideon, had left town years earlier; he comes home to discover he has a son, reigniting deep-seated conflicts concerning father-son relationships, romantic love, and self-fulfillment. Pulling three songs from his career as a solo musician, Sting’s score is more theatrically successful than one might expect from a pop artist. The title tune’s swaying, triple-meter pulse recalls the rocking of a ship on ocean waves with anthem-like grandeur. “Shipyard” mixes Gilbert & Sullivan-esque verses with raucous, Irish dance music, conveying battles between old rules and new revolutionary fervor. Enriched immeasurably by Rob Mathes’s music direction, orchestrations, and arrangements, the Broadway cast album proves more entertaining than the concept recording, which was performed largely by Sting. The haunting “August Winds” sits better in the voice of Rachel Tucker (who plays Gideon’s love interest, Meg), making her hopeful version of it easier on the ears than Sting’s mournful one. As Gideon’s competitor for Meg’s love, Aaron Lazar sings the memorable “What Say You, Meg?” with a silkiness preferable to Sting’s rawer sound. Every track on the album is winning, none more so than “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” A range-y showpiece with character-revealing lyrics set to sexy ethnic rhythms, it exemplifies Sting’s achievement in crafting a well-functioning musical theater score out of songs so specifically rooted in his personal experience.  — L.J.S.