Kind of a bit of déjà vu ... a new recording of Jason Robert Brown's Parade from London; Mel Brooks strikes again, bringing his old movie Young Frankenstein to the stage as a musical; and stage favorite Sweeney Todd comes back to life both as a much-discussed film and as a karaoke set with vocals.
Riveting, haunting and striking, the new cast recording of Parade makes for some very intense listening. At the suggestion of its composer-lyricist, Jason Robert Brown, the dialogue by Alfred Uhry was recorded along with the songs, like an old radio play. The true story of the murder of a young factory worker in 1913 Georgia and the trial and jailing of her employer, awash in prejudice, politics and media frenzy, is truly painful - and truly fascinating. The skilled, committed and emotionally charged acting of the cast makes this new performance gripping, even with repeat playings. Dialogue is rarely lengthy, and is often accompanied by particularly effective underscoring or weaves in and out of sung material, so spoken sections don't slow the momentum. The 1998 New York production's assistant choreographer/swing Rob Ashford staged this version fluidly and to avoid applause breaks, and the CD experience, too, feels at times like a virtually non-stop roller coaster ride. There is, however, musical variety so things don't blur together and though there are pauses for effect, they are often the kind that make you hold your breath rather than catch your breath.
Those familiar with the original version and its strong recording will note differences. A few songs are cut or changed, and there's new material; the reporter character is de-emphasized and a housekeeper is added. Playing in the intimate space of the Donmar Warehouse, there is a smaller orchestra of nine players and a smaller cast, with some playing multiple roles. Actors are so vocally versatile in their multi-tasking characterizations that I was not distracted by their reappearances.
New orchestrations by David Cullen are quite effective and satisfying, bringing a more vividly aching emotionalism in some numbers and at other times the spareness lets the actors' voices come more front and center. The new song for act two, "The Glory," sung by the judge and prosecutor, is a highlight, bringing yet one more musical color to the palette. Whereas much of the score tends to bring out the discord, conflict and suspense, this song has a strong melodic line that is pleasing on its own, in addition to bringing out character (some not very attractive traits of characters co-existing with a very attractive tune). The appropriately named "Pretty Music" and the big, stirring choral piece that begins and ends the show, "The Old Red Hills of Home," remain strong, memorable melodies that stand out as they did in the original. As the young solider leading the latter, and also singing the role of Frankie in "The Picture Show," Stuart Matthew Price should be mentioned for his very refreshing and disarming sound.
Southern accents by this British cast are not laid on very heavy and sometimes barely at all. The only number I find disappointingly ineffective is "My Child Will Forgive Me," a solo for the victim's mother. Helen Anker sings it in a way that sounds surprisingly dispassionate and detached. There's almost a sense of emotional voyeurism when things become so painful and frightening for the mourners and for the leads, Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver, who play the accused Leo Frank and his loyal wife, Lucille. From a purely musical point of view, though, these two don't provide excitement with big, rich or distinctive singing voices in what might benefit some of the cathartic numbers, but a restraint and coiled tension are evident and such qualities can have their own subtle power. If they don't have overwhelming grit or fierce resolve one might want to come through on disc, they surely have vulnerability and their ache is palpable. It's a matter of touching the heart rather than getting goosebumps from unleashed bravura singing; thus, some of the quieter moments are more satisfying than the grander declarations. For example, Bertie Carvel's "It's Hard to Speak My Heart," with Leo straining to speak and quite drained, is quite moving. For unblinking force and tough excitement, the chain gang scene and song with its harmonies is a knockout in an oppositely harsh way. Sound quality, true dramatic ambience and attention to detail are commendable: Jeffrey Lesser, who produced the fine American cast album, returns to supervise this fuller, more challenging update.
The two discs of the play itself are supplemented by a third disc which is a PAL format (though it may play on some U.S. players) 20-minute DVD about the show. Most of DVD consists of comments from the writers and director, on camera separately, and we're bounced back and forth among them and Donmar staff frequently. Displaying their belief in the project and its new incarnation as well as their personal investment and satisfactions, their comments are welcome if not overly illuminating or controversial. Happy campers all, they are articulate and professional, certainly, but those familiar with the show or the idea that a big production can find value in a scaled-down version won't get a tremendous amount of new insight. Some stills from rehearsals are shown, as is the backdrop with a bit of footage of preparations, but there are no performance clips or actors' comments. The set comes with a booklet with some background information on the actual case, color production photos, and the words for all of the lyrics as well as some of the shorter dialogue sections.
What's on the menu with Young Frankenstein is pure ham, served in thick slices, and much of it can be quite delicious. Unabashedly silly in style and with tremendous desire to entertain in all-stops-out broad Broadway style, it succeeds on its own level, although that often amounts to sinking to the lower levels of humor for which the brash, energetic cast is happy to rise to the occasion. Mel Brooks' second full score, following his triumph of The Producers, produces less wit and fewer laugh-out-loud audacious moments but it's got its own goofy glories. On disc, the cast sounds joyfully game and gutsy in their presentations of the madcap merriment.
Musically, there is a lot to appreciate, especially as a wise guy valentine to various styles of pop and theatre music - the pomp and formality of operetta, rousing choral numbers for villagers, razzmatazz numbers that build and build just for the sake of doing so, love songs dripping with sincerity, and the craze for a dance crazes (here, the specialty, "The Transylvania Mania"). Liner notes by noted music critic Will Friedwald affectionately point out the reference points, especially helpful if you're thinking, "I know that reminds me of something ..." (Lyrics are all in a booklet with some photos, too.) Some songs that are especially juvenile and smarmy with one-joke (or to be generous, two-joke) premises are immensely helped by the arrangements and orchestrations and how well they are played. Filled with sparkle and energizing playfulness, happily rich with splashy show bizzy trademarks, they are a delight, thanks to arranger Brooks' Producers colleagues Glen Kelly and orchestrator Doug Besterman, with Patrick S. Brady as musical director all returning (along with director-choreographer Susan Stroman and star Roger Bart). For the recording, 11 more string players have been added to the theatre orchestra.
The cast is unflagging in energy and there are many examples of sharp comic timing, some coming in spoken asides. Roger Bart is a joy from start to finish as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who at first resists the route of mad scientist, just admiring rather than tinkering with "The Brain "as he breezes through the tricky wordplay of that ode to its virtues before gleefully jumping into experiments of "monstrous" proportions. Bart bonds entertainingly, with Christopher Fitzgerald (a howl as Igor) as well as his erstwhile fiancée Elizabeth, the belting and brash Megan Mullally. Elizabeth's affections are transferred to the Monster, played by the barely heard on disc Shuler Hensley, whom the doctor hopes to make into a suave "Man About Town" in one of the best zippy pastiche numbers, a real corker of a song-and-dance charm piece. Andrea Martin does well in her not very subtle, growling, tour de force-fed Weill/Brecht parody and Sutton Foster brings some sweeter fizz to her appearances but only has one number to herself, the tamer "Listen to Your Heart." The full-sounding chorus is solid and sings brightly and with a few extra doses of cheer whether they are celebrating the news of a new dynamic dance or their delight in the death of a demonized doctor.
Added for the cast recording are two tracks (and there is a third available only at iTunes, an extra "Transylvania Mania Blues" sung by Mullally backed by a jazz quartet): a cut song for Megan Mullally's spoiled character, "Alone," and an overture. It's one that really sets the mood for this take-no-prisoners adventure, complete with the sound of ominous thunder for comical melodrama, with a rollicking mix of snazzy melodies. It may bring listeners into Young Frankenstein's nutty world, kicking and screaming - kicking like Rockettes and screaming with (guilty) pleasure. Give in or give up.
"There was a barber and his wife ...." Perhaps you've heard the story? There's been much chat, spoken and posted, about the new movie version of Sweeney Todd, which has some stunning and intense visual aspects, but it's time to shut our eyes and only open our ears to consider only what can be heard on the soundtrack album of a film not cast for performers by virtue of their polished or powerful singing voices. To quote the film's director, Tim Burton, from his short introduction in the CD's booklet, "What makes these recordings so unique is that they are performed by actors who for the most part had no formal musical training. I believe this gives the songs a different dimension than any previous version." "Different" it is all right, and that may be a nice way to put it. (To quote another musical running on Broadway, A Chorus Line, "Different is nice, but it sure isn't pretty.") It can be pretty and pretty disappointing, but there are some huge saving graces and plenty of dramatically effective moments and some fine work. I found a lot to enjoy, even though as a devotee of the stage score in its full and full-length glory at its best, I can understand how some would consider this misguided.
In the title role, Johnny Depp certainly brings a lighter sound than we've heard, but not an unappealing one. More quietly brooding in his singing, the ticking time bomb that is Sweeney still comes through. He seethes at a modest boil and there is integrity and tension in much of his phrasing, not often sounding studied. He's compelling and darkly charismatic even on disc, whether raging or muttering. Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett is a different matter. Her weak, whimpery, whispery vocals are a major problem, especially on the first few hearings. After a while, one can begin to appreciate a kind of modest sweetness and some likeable phrasing when acting the lyrics more than singing the notes anemically. Opportunities for humor are rarely taken by her (or others, for that matter), but there are inklings of the character's humanity and confusion.
The best singing by far comes from the 14-year-old British Edward Sanders, cast as Toby in his film debut. His disarmingly determined performance of "Not While I'm Around" and his corralling of customers, literally singing the praises of the pies and of the "miracle elixir" promising hair growth, are the miracle elixir here, musically speaking. It's his alternately angelic and vibrant voice that's the real tonic here: refreshing and wonderful. The truncated singing opportunities for the despicable Judge and Beadle, and the little dialogue of theirs heard on the CD, don't make them sound very threatening or imposing. Others are rather satisfactory, if unremarkable, with Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener appropriately sincere as Anthony and Johanna, though their singing roles are abbreviated, too.
The CD's best argument for the casting is the excellent final track. Some of the most demanding acting is required and convincingly done in these final confrontations; the leads and all involved are at their best, with some very well-done singing in snippets and reprises weaving in and out of dialogue. It's a long track, and is omitted from the "Highlights" CD that also excludes the Beggar Woman's brief aria, plus "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" and the instrumental main title, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Pies and throats are not all that's sliced up in this Sweeney Todd, of course, though even robbed of all its lyrics, the "Ballad" is powerful mood-setting opener, chilling and truly spectacular.
The orchestra, in fact, sounds grand throughout, with original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and conductor Paul Gemignani in charge again providing the familiarly superb sounds enriching Stephen Sondheim's masterful music and lyrics. Album producer Mike Higham gets credit for additional arrangements along with Alex Heffes; additional orchestrations are by Julian Kershaw.
The "complete" edition also has a 78-page booklet with 27 photos inside plus the lyrics and dialogue heard on disc ... and quite a lot of it is rewarding to hear, fright and sight unseen.
UNDER THE RADAR
Demons are prowling everywhere, nowadays - even in karaoke, that demon barber has shown up. Rather sing Sweeney Todd yourself? Here's the newly released karaoke version: instrumental accompaniment on one disc with "guide vocals" on the other that go way above and the call of duty and stand up quite well as entertaining listening.
In the latest in their series of user-friendly karaoke albums, Stage Stars Records brings out their Sweeney Todd. The accompaniments, as usual, are generally easy to follow, though Sondheim music with its complexities and repeated phrases can be tricky. Though using synthesizers, the sound here is more natural-sounding, clearer, fuller and less tinny than past efforts. In some sections of some songs, there is more melody line in strings, whereas in others the accompaniment is more spare, with simple staccato rhythmic figures dominating when keeping in time might be more the challenge in learning.
The tracks can be used for auditions or learning the roles for productions. Though some schools and community theatres use such recordings in lieu of musicians for rehearsals and even actual performances, note that this Sweeney is not complete. For example, it is missing the early song, "No Place Like London" and the Pirelli segments, totaling 16 selections, all in vocal and instrumental versions. The notes state that the songs are in the original show tempi and keys. Music preparation and programming are by David Negron. You're on your own for coming up with the lyrics and sheet music, for they are not included in a booklet and the discs don't flash them when played on a computer or DVD player ("graphics compatible format") as some in Stage Stars' series do.
The vocals are generally quite satisfying to hear for pure listening enjoyment, and for the most part there's careful attention to diction and musical time and pitch, the real priority for the singers' mission as role models/guides. As trained and experienced actor-singers, they inject plenty of personality and characterization. The company has a cast of semi-regulars. It includes some talented New Yorkers familiar to cabaret fans. For example, one of the brightest performances is in the work of Booth Daniels (who will be performing at Don't Tell Mama tomorrow). Singing the Beadle and some lines in "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," his voice chimes out ebulliently and his crisp reading of the lyrics brings special attention to some lines and their comic potential. He and Miles Phillips as Judge Turpin attend to the musical values consistently so that the musicality comes to the fore rather than overdoing the characterizations.
Versatile Rob Langeder as Sweeney truly acts the role with panache and dark colors while fully singing it. His Mrs. Lovett is Marilyn O'Connell with a "legit" sound that is nice to hear, clear and not cutting corners, but with some spunky personality and a maternal quality. She's best in "God, That's Good" which is begun strongly and strikingly by high-voiced Michael Hopewell, whom I hope to hear more from in the future. Emily Grundstad and Billy Ernst do well as Johanna and Anthony, both in their serious numbers and are quite adept with the comical and tricky, fast "Kiss Me." Dara Seitzman belts a short section of the Beggar Woman's role, with Sarah Downs and Christine Hope also in the ensemble numbers. Good work all around!