Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2020 (Ghostlight) (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
Original Cast, Two River Theater, 2015 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill is a cautionary tale about a loner teenager named Jeremy Heere who attempts to become “chill” by ingesting something called a “squip” (super quantum unit Intel processor), which winds up controlling his thoughts and actions. The show premiered at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey for a one-month limited run in 2015. That production received mixed reviews, but this cast recording gained huge popularity on the internet through streaming and downloads, eventually sparking the Off-Broadway production of 2018 and the subsequent Broadway transfer (see below). Even if it’s hard to explain exactly how the score “went viral,” it’s easy to understand why it did: Composer-lyricist Joe Iconis has a firm grounding in the classic musical theater canon, and a great talent for being able to wed traditional structures and other methods of craft with an up-to-the-minute sound and sensibility. Listen to the opener, “More Than Survive,” a spot-on, character-establishing, “I want” song for Jeremy that begins as follows: “C-c-c-come on, c-c-c- come on! Go, go! I’m waiting for my porn to download.” (The album has an “explicit lyrics” label.) Or sample “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire),” a super-clever takeoff on “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie. Also quite amusing is Iconis’s depiction of present-day high school theater subculture, as in “I Love Play Rehearsal” and other songs. The pretty much ideal cast heard here is headed by Will Connolly as a charmingly nerdy Jeremy, with Eric William Morris as The Squip; George Salazar as Jeremy’s staunch friend, Michael; Stephanie Hsu as Christine, the girl with whom Jeremy’s obsessed; and Gerard Canonico in a ball-of-fire performance as Rich, the ill-fated guy who turns Jeremy on to The Squip. Salazar does a tour-de-force job with arguably the best song in the score, the one that became the biggest viral phenomenon of all: “Michael in the Bathroom,” an affecting anthem of teen angst. — Michael Portantiere
Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) (4 / 5) Buoyed by the extraordinary online popularity of its score, as described above, Be More Chill was produced Off-Broadway at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center in the summer of 2018, with plans for a move to Broadway already largely in place at that time. This production featured several cast members from the Two River production, including Hsu, Salazar, and Canonico reprising the roles they originated. New cast members included Will Roland as Jeremy, Jason Tam as the Squip, Tiffany Mann as Jenna, Britton Smith as Jake, and Jason “Sweettooth” Williams as Mr. Heere, but not all of these changes were improvements; for example, Roland’s performance doesn’t have quite the likeability of Connolly’s. On the plus side, Tam makes the role of The Squip very much his own through his strong, distinctive voice and his fun Keanu Reeves imitation. As heard here, the score is well performed, with some relatively minor changes and additions in material. (This album is longer than the original, 24 tracks as compared to 21.) Both the off-Broadway and Broadway engagements of Be More Chill were marred by painfully loud sound amplification, which may have been partly responsible for the brevity of the 2019 Broadway run (only 177 performances) of a show that many had expected to be a big hit, so the fact that listeners to the cast album are in full control of the volume is a huge plus for the experience. Music and lyrics this good don’t need to be blasted at an audience, and suffer greatly rather than benefit from such treatment, a lesson that Iconis and his colleagues will hopefully learn for future productions of his shows. — M.P.
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2019 (PS Classics) (4 / 5) Maury Yeston is one of the finest and most versatile musical theater composer-lyricists of his era, so it’s good to have this cast album of a very enjoyable and well-crafted revue of his work that was presented Off-Broadway by the York Theatre Company in 2019, directed by Gerard Alessandrini of Forbidden Broadway fame. The program includes songs from Yeston’s most famous shows, with one major exception (see below), along with a healthy sampling of less-well-known material. From Nine, we have the bravura number “Guido’s Song” and the lyrical “Only With You,” both rendered with lovely tenor tone by Benjamin Eakeley, as well as the gorgeous “Unusual Way” and the wittily seductive “A Call From the Vatican,” two fine showcases for the talents of Mamie Parris. Also to be found here is “Cinema Italiano,” written by Yeston expressly for the film version of Nine, performed with verve by Parris, Justin Keyes, and Jovan E’Sean. Two selections from Grand Hotel, for which Yeston contributed much but not all of the score (to augment songs previously written by Wright and Forrest for an earlier incarnation of the show), are the passionate “Love Can’t Happen” (Eakeley) and the delightful “I Want to Go to Hollywood” (Parris). Yeston’s Phantom, an alternative to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the same source material, is represented by “Home,” sung by the full company. “New Words,” from a Biblical musical titled In the Beginning, is a touching song, movingly performed here by Eakeley, about a parent teaching language to a young child, the writing marred only by a surprising error in the lyrics. (Mars is a planet, Mr Y., not a star!) The recording also embraces several stand-alone songs, i.e., not from the scores of musicals. Three of the best of these are “Danglin’,” a soulful torcher eased on down by Alex Getlin; “Salt n Pepper,” a sexy/funny item given a spicy turn by E’Sean; and the title tune of the revue, delivered by all as the opening number. Not sampled here is the score of one of Yeston’s biggest hits, Titanic; although an exquisitely harmonized arrangement of that title song was featured as an encore in the York production, it’s not on the album, for some reason. Conversely, one thing the recording boasts that the show itself did not are Doug Besterman’s excellent, specially crafted orchestrations for eight musicians variously playing a total of about 20 instruments. Greg Jarrett is the top-notch musical director — Michael Portantiere
Film Soundtrack, 1992 (Walt Disney Records) (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. The film features a score with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, previously best known for their work on Little Shop of Horrors. Aladdin was a passion project for Ashman, who envisioned the story of a teenage hoodlum who happens upon a magic lamp and genie as a madcap romp set in the Middle East. However, 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 fun 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 / 5) The success of Aladdin as an animated film led to a stage adaptation two decades later. The good news is that the results here are 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 (“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 / 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 the same as 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 their performances in 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. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are both fine as, respectively, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, but they certainly don’t wipe away memories of the originals. 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.
Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Universal Music) (5 / 5) There’s always a sense of déjà vu when a jukebox musical opens on Broadway, as most people walk in humming the tunes. If Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations doubles that feeling, it might be due to another “ain’t” from distant memory: Ain’t Misbehavin’, the first jukebox revue to take home the Tony Award for Best Musical. Ain’t Too Proud offers audiences just what that 1978 show did, with great songs delivered in great performances. Praised for its spirited direction (Des McAnuff), clever book (Dominique Morisseau), and high-voltage choreography by Sergio Trujillo, who took home a Tony for his work, Ain’t Too Proud also delivers the goods in its cast recording. The energy of what’s being performed eight times a week at the Imperial Theatre is all here in an album made up of more than two dozen Temptations songs, featuring the one-of-a-kind Detroit rock & roll rhythms and harmonies for which the group became famous. Highlights include such favorites as “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” As the show’s storytelling reveals, there were more than a few “Temps” over the course of the group’s long career besides its original foursome. But Derrick Baskin, James Harkness, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, and Ephraim Sykes stand front and center, leading a tremendously talented cast. The recording also offers a good deal of interstitial narrative, directly from the show’s book, that aids in the appreciation of the story. (Of course, if you so choose, you can eliminate those tracks and custom design the album for your own listening pleasure). Mention should also be made of the fine orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, who at age 75 had his legendary, 50-year Broadway career capped with a special 2019 Tony Award for his contribution to the American musical. — Ron Fassler
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Ghostlight) (5 / 5) Stranded in an Israeli desert town by mistake, an Egyptian band stays overnight with the locals before heading on to their engagement. Composer-lyricist David Yazbek has created a luminous score that highlights not the differences between these strangers, but their commonality, mankind’s shared needs for love and connection. The music incorporates klezmer influences and American jazz, but especially Arabic folk and classical idioms and instruments: the oud, riq, and darbouka. Katrina Lenk’s nuanced voice brings life to the role of cafe owner Dina; she and her friends offer the Egyptians a heaping dish of sarcasm and watermelon in “Welcome to Nowhere.” (Their sleepy village has more “blah, blah, blah” than that Gershwin song.) “It Is What It Is” hints at Dina’s history, but the haunting “Omar Sharif” reveals more, describing how young Dina and her mother adored Sharif movies and the exotic singing of Oum Kaltoum. This admission resonates with Tewfiq, the Egyptian band’s buttoned-up conductor (Tony Shaloub). His single solo is an a cappella number in Arabic, “Itgara’a,” hinting at inner sorrows. Yazbek deftly slides the concluding phrase of “Itgara’a” into Dina’s response, “Something Different.” The other Egyptians also forge bonds with the Israelis, often through music. “The Beat of Your Heart” is an exuberant memory song, evoking how former musician Avrum (Andrew Polk) met his late wife; Camal (George Abud) and Simon (Alok Tewari) joyfully add their violin and clarinet. The awkward Papi (Etai Benson) relates his trouble with girls in the hilarious “Papi Hears the Ocean,” so Haled (Ari’el Stachel) advises him in the style of his idol, Chet Baker (“Haled’s Song About Love””). Camal accompanies Itzik (John Cariani) as he soothes his child in “Itzik’s Lullaby.” The transcendent “Answer Me” concludes the vocals, sung by the “Telephone Guy” (Adam Kantor), who’s forever waiting by the village’s single pay phone in the hope that his girlfriend will call. For a few glorious seconds, the entire company joins in, reflecting the basic human need for connection. Like the Telephone Guy, our ears are “thirsty” for more of that. – Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) How far will a musical go to give you a good time? In the case of Beetlejuice, all the way to the Netherworld and back. Based on Tim Burton’s cult ’80s classic movie of the same title, the show centers around its title character, a fast-talking and wisecracking demon who helps a recently deceased couple try and scare away the family that’s recently moved into their home (though he has his own agenda for doing so). While Burton’s film famously delivered its morbidity with a wry sense of humor that earned it a PG rating, the musical adaptation takes a much zanier, PG-13/R approach. Eddie Perfect’s score has some classic Broadway flourishes sprinkled throughout, but it mostly leans to ’80s-style pop and musical theater faux-rock, which Kris Kukul elevates with his rollicking arrangements and orchestrations. Perfect’s lyrics are also reasonably well crafted, walking the line between wit and crassness. As Beetlejuice, the endlessly energetic Alex Brightman heavily indulges in vocal fry (as a respectful nod to Michael Keaton’s performance in the film) and devours songs like “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing” and “Say My Name” to enjoyable effect. Kerry Butler and Rob McClure are also terrific as the recently deceased couple, Barbara and Adam. They embrace their characters’ intentional blandness in “Ready, Set, Not Yet” without being bland themselves, giving Brightman even more comedic fodder to play with in all of their tracks together. Leslie Kritzer is delightfully wacky as Delia; her “No Reason” duet with Sophia Ann Caruso’s Lydia has some of Perfect’s best lyrics, and is a major highlight of the recording. As the death-obsessed Lydia, Caruso displays a thrillingly unique voice that’s put to good use in her solos “Dead Mom” and “Home.” Enjoyable as the album is, there’s one gripe: Because the score is so eager to entertain, most of the extremely lively songs are packed back to back against each other, and are given no room to breathe. This makes for a rather overwhelming listening experience, with some numbers offering diminishing returns (“Creepy Old Guy” and “That Beautiful Sound” for example). The album may also repel listeners who wanted a more direct replica of the movie, or who prefer their musical comedy without references to cocaine and “ghost zombie Jesus.” But those who are willing to accept Beetlejuice on its own terms are in for a highly entertaining listen. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Rhino Warner Classics) (1 / 5) The 2001 Jean-Pierre Jeunet film Amélie caused a major resurgence in American audiences’ interest in French cinema and at least briefly made a star of its leading lady, Audrey Tatou. Set in Paris, the film tells of an introvert who decides to do random acts of good deeds for her fellow Parisians while maintaining her distance so as not to actually get involved with the messiness of real life. The film is recalled by many as purely airy and whimsical, remembered largely for its fantastical imagery and Tatou’s impish charm. The stage musical follows the movie very closely in plot and structure, and has a very talented cast at its disposal. Unfortunately, writers Daniel Messé, Nathan Tyson, and Craig Lucas don’t seem to have realized that Amélie also deals with disappointment, grief, and loneliness, none of which comes across in the show or on this album. It doesn’t help that the score by Messé and Tyson aims more for a contemporary musical theater sound than for a classically French one. (There is no accordion to be heard in Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations). Two of the least effective songs in the score are “Goodbye Amélie” and “A Better Haircut,” which are meant to be comedic relief but instead come across as glaringly wrongheaded. Some of the other songs begin with fascinating, ethereal introductions that give hope for what’s to come, but then the songs themselves seem to evaporate, never delivering on the promise of the intros and the incidental music. In the title role, Phillipa Soo is surprisingly dry and often restrained by the score’s inability to properly showcase her mellifluous voice. She is, however, given strong support by a diverse cast that gives everything they can to add some spunk to the show. Sometimes they succeed, as in songs like “World’s Best Dad” or “Times Are Hard For Dreamers,” but these are small victories in an inoffensive yet undistinguished adaptation. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Broadway Records) (3 / 5) In Bandstand, composer Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor, who co-wrote the book and lyrics with Oberacker, created an original musical set in the 1940s, but with echoes that resonate today. At its heart is newly discharged WWII veteran Donny Novitski (Corey Cott). Though the show opens with people proclaiming that everything will be “Just Like It Was Before” the war, this is obviously not true; Donny can’t find work in his old haunts, Cleveland’s jazz clubs, and he’s plagued with PTSD. A “Tribute to the Troops” competition inspires him to form a band of his former brothers-in-arms. With braggadocio covering desperation, Cott turns “Donny Novitski” into a character-defining piece, as he hopes his project will “block out the mem’ries.” The group assembles in the zippy “I Know a Guy,” and it’s clear that all of them carry mental and/or physical scars from the war. They’re joined by Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), the widow of Donny’s war buddy, who just happens to be a singer and a poet. Osnes’s silvery tones and the extraordinary level of nuance she packs into her singing are highlighted in several numbers, from a song about Julia’s struggles as a Gold Star wife (“Who I Was”) to the torchy “Love Will Come and Find Me Again.” The latter deftly works on several dramatic levels: as a diegetic performance piece, an indication of the increasing attraction between Donny and Julia, and a reflection of her emotional growth. Beth Leavel adds depth to any show, so one wishes she had more to do as Julia’s mother, but she does get to deliver the second act powerhouse “Everything Happens.” Some tracks on the album showcase the vocal and instrumental talents of the other band members: Alex Bender, Joe Carroll, Brandon J. Ellis, James Nathan Hopkins, and Geoff Packard. Running through the orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen are variations on Gene Krupa’s fabled drum rhythms — first as explosions in a war flashback, then haunting Donny’s nightmares, and finally as the pulsing beat of New York City. Bandstand’s plot wraps up a bit too conveniently, but this recording has a good deal to offer. — Laura Frankos