Category Archives: Reviews by Show Name

Death Takes a Holiday

deathOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2011 (PS Classics) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) On paper, Death Takes a Holiday probably looked like a wonderful idea for a musical. Composer-lyricist Maury Yeston has done some very admirable work, and audiences have long been intrigued with the story told here — based on a play by Alberto Casella that has received several adaptations, most famously as a 1934 film that starred Fredric March. So what went wrong? After the success of Titanic, Yeston and librettist Peter Stone chose to create an intimate musical inspired by Casella’s tale of a weekend during which Death puts aside his scythe and falls for a mortal girl. (Thomas Meehan joined the project after Stone’s death.) As it turned out, the plot was the first stumbling block for the adapters; the list of successful fantasy musicals is a short one, and the concept here is a whopper to swallow. Still, a strong opening number can get an audience to accept darn near anything — but Yeston disappoints with “In the Middle of Your Life/Nothing Happened.” Instead of being made to understand what it is about Grazia (Jill Paice) that causes Death (Kevin Earley) to stay his hand when she’s thrown from a car, we’re wincing at the bare exposition of the  lyrics: “What is that darkness I see ahead?” “We’re going into a spin!” Also wince-inducing is the line, “Nothing can go wrong for her.” (Did they really sing that? Yup.) Nor do we buy it when Death, impersonating a Russian prince,  tells Grazia’s father (Michael Siberry) of his desire for a vacation. Earley, who took over the role during preview performances when Julian Ovenden developed vocal problems, has a terrific voice, but its timbre isn’t well suited to the the Grim Reaper’s darker musical moments. He’s more effective in the lighter “Alive!” discovering the joys of breakfast, and in the romantic numbers with Paice, a solid Grazia. Oddly, the score’s best songs center on an unseen character: Grazia’s dead brother, Roberto. Major Fenton (Matt Cavenaugh) sees something in Prince Sirki’s eyes that eerily remind him of “Roberto’s Eyes” when his friend was shot down; and Rebecca Luker, as the mother, tells Sirki what death does to a family in the devastating “Losing Roberto.” The former conveys terror far better than characters intoning “Death is in the house!” and the latter lets Sirki truly know the pain he inflicts with each fatality, effectively leading to Earley’s heartfelt big number, “I Thought That I Could Live.” Would that the rest of the score matched the quality of these songs. Yeston’s melodies are lovely, with a nice Continental air (aside from a shimmy designed to get the cast dancing), but it’s hard to get past the often clunky lyrics. — Laura Frankos

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

dirty-rottenOriginal Broadway Cast 2005 (Ghostlight) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) David Yazbek’s Broadway scores are just plain fun, whether it’s the frenetic farce of Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or the blue-collar humor of The Full Monty. For Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (book by Jeffrey Lane, based on the 1988 film), Yazbek wrote a genuine, old-fashioned musical comedy in which  the various songs put on as many guises as the con-men characters. There are pop pastiches, a scatological list song presented with Cowardesque elegance, a rueful ballad, a samba, and the most vulgar “I want” song in musical history, along with several numbers that require the performers to use accents outrageous enough to start another Franco-Prussian war. For all these varied styles, the score is well-tailored to the characters, and the excellent cast delivers. The scoundrels are the suave Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow) and the crass Freddy Benson, the latter a small-time grifter eager for bigger scams. Klutzy heiress Christine Colgate (Sheri Rene Scott) is their mark, with Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara as the obligatory comic secondary couple. (I told you it’s a traditional musical comedy.) The versatile Lithgow assumes personae ranging from a dignified pseudo-prince to a sadistic Austrian shrink, yet still achieves a believable wistfulness in “Love Sneaks In.” Tony-winner Butz salivates over the “Great Big Stuff” he craves (“I wanna be like Trump!”), shrieks as mad Prince Ruprecht, and, with Scott, croons an anatomy lesson in “Love Is My Legs.” Scott pairs well with both tricksters and soars in the zippy “Here I Am.” (Yazbek is a fan of Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter’s skill with internal rhymes; they’d approve his work here.) Gleason and Jbara make the most of their numbers, especially the absurd yet sexy “Like Zis/Like Zat.” Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations have the right comic-caper tone for the proceedings, and the vocal arrangements by Yazbek and Ted Sperling let the ensemble punctuate the score with jazzy exclamation points. The recording includes two demos by Yazbek, plus Scott in a lovely version of “Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True” — a surprisingly pretty song with Butz’s comic verses removed. There’s also a bit of dialogue from Lithgow, warning listeners just before the tracks that reveal the final twists — the likes of which we haven’t encountered since The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The title of the show’s opening number is “Give Them What They Want.” I want more David Yazbek musicals. — Laura Frankos

Daddy Long Legs

daddy-long-legsOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2015 (Ghostlight) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) In Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs, Jerusha Abbott is an orphan whose intelligence prompts orphanage trustee Jervis Pendleton to pay for her education. He requests monthly reports on her studies through letters from her, though he has made it clear that he will not reply, remaining anonymous. Ultimately, she discovers he is her roommate’s highly attractive uncle. The novel’s success inspired a play, a 1951 London musical (Love From Judy), and four films. (The Fred Astaire movie Daddy Long Legs is far removed from the original.) The challenge for any adapter is the book’s epistolary style; the reader sees Jerusha’s experiences through her highly personable missives, and falls for her as Jervis does. How to translate a bunch of letters to the stage? The obvious answer is to open up the story, crowding the stage with multiple sets and lots of classmates and friends who are referred to in the book. But John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (songs) pared their musical to the bare bones: Jerusha, Jervis, and those letters, which comprise most of Jerusha’s songs, performed by Megan McGinnis with a fine sense of developing maturity. The letters are also the indirect source of the songs written for Jervis (Paul Alexander Nolan),  as they represent his reactions to them. The greatest strength of the score is the arc of these letter songs. In “Like Other Girls,” Jerusha frets about fitting in, given her humble background, and she bemoans her ignorance of the classics in the delightful “Things I Don’t Know.” Jervis believably moves from reserved philanthropy (“She Thinks I’m Old”) to following Jerusha’s syllabus to wondering “What Does She Mean By Love?” Gordon convincingly explains Jervis’s reluctance to emotional attachments, a key reason why he keeps his identity secret even after meeting Jerusha in person. There are other gems — the sprightly “My Manhattan,” a valentine to New York, and the agonizing “Graduation Day,” when Jerusha’s heart breaks because she thinks her mysterious benefactor is a no-show. (He’s there, of course, and also hurting.) Not everything works. The opening is somewhat mired in exposition, especially Jerusha’s impersonation of another orphan. Jervis’ realization number, “Charity,” lacks the emotional punch it needs, and the finale, “All This Time,” is far too understated; we’re invested in this pair, and we want a bigger payoff.  Gordon’s melodies are intimate and sweet, played by piano, cello and guitar. The score is not period, but it fits the property in other respects.  A final note: Those who grew up with the novel may wonder why, in the musical, Jerusha doesn’t change her hated first name, foisted on her at the orphanage. Paul Gordon has said he wrote a song for that scene, but it didn’t work well — and also, unlike the character, he and Caird like the name “Jerusha.” — Laura Frankos

Adding Machine

adding-machineOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 2008 (P.S. Classics) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) You might think The Adding Machine, Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist drama, an unlikely candidate for musical adaptation. It’s a bleak tale of a bigoted, downtrodden bookkeeper who kills his boss and is executed, ending up in the Elysian Fields, where recycling doesn’t mean reusing plastic bottles. Thankfully, Joshua Schmidt (music and book) and Jason Loewith (book) took on the challenge, and this recording recreates most of the largely sung-through show in all its nerve-jangling dissonance. Joel Hatch is outstanding as the bookkeeper, Mr. Zero — so obnoxious that you know he deserves his fate, yet so thick, you understand how he got that way. Hatch conveys Zero’s character through the staccato snarls of Schmidt and Loewith’s lyrics, full of blunt, monosyllabic statements. The joys in Zero’s life are few, but he relishes them, whether it’s the “Ham and Eggs” his harridan wife (the marvelously caustic Cyrilla Baer) brings for his final meal, or recalling their few moments of wedded bliss in “Didn’t We?” But rage smolders within his confused mind, crowded with endless figures. When his boss crushes his fantasy of promotion (“Movin’ Up”), telling him that he’s being replaced by an adding machine, Zero stabs him. In the afterlife, Zero encounters two souls he knew while alive: his assistant, Daisy (Amy Warren), and fellow inmate Shrdlu (Joe Ferrell). Both get songs that break up the harsh score — a gooey love ditty for Daisy, and a gospel rouser for religious nut Shrdlu, detailing his mother’s murder and the hellish torments he expects for his crime. Most of the score is intentionally jarring; piano, synthesizer, and percussion bang into the brain while the repetitive chorus provides a counterpoint of chanted numbers and echoed lyrics. It’s exactly the right tone for Rice’s piece, though you probably won’t find yourself playing this one often because of the shrillness. — Laura Frankos

An American in Paris

ap-filmFilm Soundtrack, 1951 (MGM/Rhino-Turner/Watertower Music) 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) In the 1990s, Turner Entertainment restored one of MGM’s greatest musicals, An American In Paris. The restoration turned up the studio session tapes of the all-Gershwin score, which led to Turner teaming with Rhino Records to release a two-disc album stuffed full of the music heard in the film as well as outtakes, underscoring, and extended and alternate versions of songs. That 1996 CD is now out of print, but in 2015, Watertower Music made it available digitally through their Warner Archives series. The songs in the film, nearly all part of the Great American Songbook, are performed by an engaging trio: Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, a war vet and aspiring painter; Oscar Levant as Adam Cook, an acerbic composer; and Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel, a song-and-dance man. Kelly is at his charming best teaching English to a gaggle of Parisian kids through “I Got Rhythm” and earnestly expressing his passion for Leslie Caron in “Love Is Here To Stay.” He joins Guetary in proclaiming the joys of love (for the same girl, though they don’t know it) in “‘S Wonderful,” and goofs with Levant on “Tra-la-la.” Guetary solos in a “(I’ll Build A) Stairway To Paradise,” so rousing that you expect showgirls to parade through your room. The soundtrack is capped by the MGM Studio Orchestra, up-sized to 72 players and conducted by Johnny Green, performing the glorious 16-minute “An American In Paris Ballet.” Added material includes underscoring and medleys by the studio orchestra and Benny Green and his band, along with outtakes such as Kelly’s heartfelt “I’ve Got a Crush On You” and an incredible set of Gershwin improvisations by Levant, who was a lifelong friend of Gershwin and one of his finest interpreters. The improvs got deleted from the film in favor of another treasure, Levant’s brilliant — and in the film, highly comic — rendition of the “Concerto in F (Third Movement).” This is one of the two pieces in stereo on the album; if this album has any drawbacks, it’s the fact that most of the session tapes didn’t survive in multi-channel format, so almost all of the music is presented here in mono. But that’s a quibble. It all adds up to nearly two hours of pure Gershwin(s), and as Ira wrote, “Who could ask for anything more?” —Laura Frankos

ap-broadwayOriginal Broadway Cast,  2015 (Sony Masterworks Broadway) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Some Gershwin fans may have been wary when they heard of plans to turn the beloved film An American in Paris into a stage musical, filled out with other numbers by George and Ira. Previous attempts to create “new” Gershwin shows through similar methods had had decidedly mixed results; just look at My One And Only, Crazy For You, and Nice Work If You Can Get It.  (On second thought,  please don’t look at Nice Work If You Can Get It.) But in this case, the outcome was far better. Librettist Craig Lucas, director Christopher Wheeldon, and musical supervisor/arranger Rob Fisher crafted a show that takes its inspiration from the film but wisely doesn’t try to replicate it.  Only five numbers — the “Concerto in F,” “I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Stairway to Paradise,” and the title ballet — are in both the movie and the show, and the interpolations were chosen with an eye toward how well they fit the plot and characters. In the stage musical, the time of the action is shifted to the immediate post-WWII years, with Paris recovering both spiritually and physically. That’s clear in the first ensemble number, “I Got Rhythm,” when Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) tells composer Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), “People need to laugh. Paris needs it.” By the song’s end, Henri has brought a snappy 4/4 beat to Adam’s dirge-like melody, and the pair have become fast friends with another fellow vet, painter Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild). Enter Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), a young ballerina destined to become the love object of all three men — another departure from the film. It’s a nice touch, making Adam much more than comic relief, and Uranowitz’s heartbreaking take on “But Not For Me” is one of the cast recording’s highlights. The full trio of male leads also provides lovely harmonies, both joyful (“‘S Wonderful”) and poignant (the 11 o’clocker “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”). Fairchild has an engaging warmth that’s most evident in “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Liza” but also comes through in the bits of dialogue on the recording. In the film, the female roles of Lise and Jerry’s patroness, Milo, don’t get any vocals, but that’s not the case here. Cope gives us a yearning “The Man I Love” and pairs well with Fairchild on one of the Gershwins’ sweetest ballads, “For You, For Me, For Evermore.” Jill Paice, as Milo, provides sophistication and sultriness in “Shall We Dance?” and a glimpse into her heart in “But Not For Me.” As in the film, it’s the concert pieces that really complete the whole, beautifully orchestrated here by Christopher Austin; the title ballet and the “Concerto in F” (the show’s opening) are joined by the “Second Prelude” and the first act finale, which includes the “Second Rhapsody” and the “Cuban Overture.” This cast album doesn’t replace the soundtrack, but it’s not meant to. It has its own merits. — L.F.

American Psycho

American-PsychoOriginal London Cast, 2016 (Concord Records) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Duncan Sheik’s score for this musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ savage (in all senses of the word), satiric novel marvelously captures the musical vibe of the go-go 1980s, when “greed was good.” It helps that interpolated into the show’s score are some of the decade’s big hits — for example, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” — which have been terrifically re-conceived for a theatrical storytelling mode. What’s not always so successful is Sheik’s attempt to capture the book’s biting humor. In certain numbers (“You Are What You Wear,”) his work as lyricist zings,  communicating the characters’ sense of entitlement while also commenting on their vapidity. Other songs — like “Mistletoe Alert” which attempts a similar dual purpose — fall flat on this original London cast recording, without the visuals that audiences encountered in the theater. As a record of the musical, the album provides an intriguing glimpse of it “in process.” Before American Psycho transferred from London to Broadway, new numbers were written and the song order was changed; for those who saw the show during its brief run in New York, it’s fascinating to listen to this OLCR and hear how the narrative became more direct in the journey across the Atlantic. (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wrote the book for the musical.) In the unlikely event that a Broadway cast recording is ever released, it will probably overshadow this one, thanks to the changes and Benjamin Walker’s electrifying performance as Patrick Bateman. Until then, this album will have to suffice, and listeners will find that Sheik’s energetic melodies seem to demand repeated plays. — Andy Propst

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

GentOriginal Broadway Cast, 2014 (Ghostlight) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Based on a novel by Roy Horniman that also inspired the film Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949),  A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is pure wit and charm, but at a slight cost. The musical tells of an English Everyman, Monty Navarro, who discovers that he’s an heir to the prestigious D’Ysquith family’s fortune and then schemes to bump off each member of the family who stands in the line of succession before him. Though this may sound like nasty stuff, songwriters Robert L Freedman and Steven Lutvak present the story in a highly affected, proper-British, light-operetta manner: Agatha Christie meets Gilbert and Sullivan meets Oscar Wilde. They succeeded in making a fun and clever musical, one for which Lutvak composed many hummable melodies and, with Freedman, some exceptionally witty lyrics. Yet the cast album is a bit of a slow burn for the listener; early songs such as “You’re a D’ysquith” and “Foolish to Think” demonstrate Lutvak and Freedman’s difficulty in creating a strong narrative structure for much of the show’s first act. But as Monty (here played with dewy innocence by Bryce Pinkham) gains more confidence with his schemes, so does the show, and by the time we get to the door-slamming farce “I’ve Decided to Marry You” in Act Two, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has risen from commendably intelligent to wonderfully hilarious. The recording boasts a stellar cast: Pinkham glides easily through the score with his silken voice, Lisa O’Hare is perfect as the shallow Sibella, and Lauren Worsham brings operatic flair to the role of the goodhearted Phoebe. Best of all is Jefferson Mays, clearly having a ball playing all eight moribund members of the D’Ysquith family. (This device was carried over from Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which  Alec Guinness plays the victims.) With sophisticated yet daffy orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick to boot, this album offers a great deal of fun to any musical theater fan who’s willing to put in the time and listen through to the end. — Matt Koplik

Billy Elliot

Billy ElliotOriginal London Cast, 2006 (Decca Broadway) 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5) Based on the film written by Lee Hall, who did double duty for the stage musical as librettist and lyricist, Billy Elliot tells of a Northern English boy who discovers a love for ballet but has to hide it from his family — including his father and brother, who are on strike with the miner’s union at the height of Thatcherism. A smash hit in London (this cast album represents that production) and on Broadway, Billy Elliot was a moving, theatrically exciting piece due in large part to its thrilling staging by director Stephen Daldry, who also directed the film, and choreographer Peter Darling. What becomes clear on the cast album, however, is the obstacle that Hall and Elton John faced with this project: How does one write a compelling musical theater score when your leading character only feels comfortable expressing himself through dance? Their answer was to create a score that more or less provided a platform for Daldry and Darling to leap from. This is not to say that the songs are bad; they do exactly what they need to do. Without the umbrella of Disney, Elton John produced some inventive melodies (e.g., “Solidarity”) that are given extra character by Martin Koch’s orchestrations, even if John occasionally tends to lean back into his specialty of pop power ballads that don’t quite fit the piece. Hall, a first time lyricist, does an admirable job of keeping the songs in the language of the working class characters. Due to the physical demands of the title role, three young actors rotated as Billy in the original London production (and on Broadway), though only one, Liam Mower, is heard on this recording. Mower does a fine job, as does the rest of the cast, most notably a crackling Hayden Gwynne as the dance teacher who guides Billy out of his shell. Listeners who haven’t seen the show may wonder why Billy Elliot was such a phenomenon; the answer is that this musical, even more than most others, truly needs to be seen to be experienced. — Matt Koplik

The Drowsy Chaperone

Drowsy-ChaperoneOriginal Broadway Cast, 2006 (Ghostlight) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) This might be the first Broadway musical with commentary written into the script. Alone in his apartment, a musical theater devotee anonymously named Man in Chair plays the recording of one of his favorites, the (fictional) 1920s romp The Drowsy Chaperone. He then proceeds to provide footnotes on the stars and writers as we watch the show come to life in his apartment. On stage, it all worked beautifully and hilariously. With its dynamic original cast and inventive staging, The Drowsy Chaperone was unique in that it allowed those of us who adore musicals to see ourselves depicted on stage, while also giving us the benefit of watching a delightfully silly musical. But when taken out of the frame of the production, the score, by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, proves to be merely decent. Though the songs are cute in their reminiscences of the jazzy musicals of the ’20s, they don’t move beyond hommage. The lyrics can be daffy and quirky (“Show Off”), but they never really channel the wit and sophistication of Lorenz Hart or Ira Gershwin. The music is light but fun, much helped by Larry Blank’s peppy, period appropriate orchestrations. The ensemble, clearly having a blast, revels in old school camp and bravado, and elevates the lyrics so that they seem more humorous than they are. Danny Burstein tastefully hams it up in “I Am Aldolpho,” Beth Leavel gleefully warbles Garland-style in “As We Stumble Along,” and Sutton Foster uses her star power to great effect in “Bride’s Lament.” But it’s co-librettist Bob Martin as the Man in Chair who shines brightest here. Though he has no song of his own, Martin offers anecdotes and opinions on the show within the show and its performers throughout the album. His commentary is hilarious and inventive, delivered with just the right touch of knowledge and enthusiasm. Overall, The Drowsy Chaperone is a highly enjoyable show and a fun album, but to quote the Man in Chair, “just ignore the lyrics.” — Matt Koplik

The Book of Mormon

MormonOriginal Broadway Cast, 2011 (Ghostlight) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) When it was announced that the creators of South Park were writing a Broadway musical, with one of the songwriters of Avenue Q, no less, everyone expected that the show was going to be both shocking and hilarious. But the surprise here was that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) wrote a stellar musical comedy that was traditional in many ways. Yes, it’s  shocking in its profanity and contemporary in its subject matter: two missionaries go to Uganda in the hope of  converting villagers to Mormonism. But rather than try to reinvent the wheel with The Book of Mormon, Parker, Stone, and Lopez chose to adhere to tried and true musical theater structure in the style of the Golden Age, and to have fun within it. The cast is strong, each member giving a fully defined, wonderfully well sung performance. Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, as the two central Mormon characters, make a good team, with Rannells doing the majority of the vocal heavy lifting. Gad is also a strong singer, though his comedic antics can occasionally be grating. Robert Lopez proved with Avenue Q that he has an ear for melody, but here his work is even more inventive while being filled with musical pop culture references to everything from the Osmonds in “All-American Prophet” to The Lion King (a running joke in the show) in “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Each song has a distinct flavor, and yet the score doesn’t feel disjointed. Stephen Oremus’s orchestrations –played by 23 musicians on the cast album, as compared to nine in the production — match Lopez’s level of invention. As is the case with the best musical comedies, because the score is so reliant on the book, not every song shines as brightly on the recording as it does in the theater (for example, “Making Things Up Again”). But this a minor gripe. The lyrics — by Parker and Stone, with contributions from Lopez — are crass, colorful, and hilarious, yet with a surprising amount of heart. The show wouldn’t have worked if the creators had decided to be condescending to their characters and to the audience, but thankfully, this was not the case. — Matt Koplik