Sound Advice Reviews
Top 10 Cast Albums of 2009
Curtain up on the annual list of recordings of theatre scores that have lasting appeal and will have a longer run ... on my CD player. When choosing among those submitted for review, the profile or success of a related stage production is not relevant: it's about the listening experience. Here they are, not in order of preference, but simply in alphabetical order, some previously reviewed over the year, some I didn't get to write up along the way but am happy to include now as favorites.
An inventive adaptation of a classic story brings a happy, very off-the-beaten-path discovery. It's a true jazz version of Alice in Wonderland. It hails from Portland, Oregon's Northwest Children's Theatre and School. Many songwriters have ventured down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass to musicalize the Alice stories by Lewis Carroll, some faithfully, using some of the dialogue and rhymes, and others taking that as a reference point and branching off with mostly original lyrics. Tone can vary greatly. This score by composer-lyricist Ezra Weiss has some songs whose lyrics are of his own invention and some, like a blues for the duchess and "The Knave's Letter," that are verbatim Carroll. They're all set to jazz melodies, some quirky and odd, suiting the oddness of the characters. The daring experiment works deliciously and is refreshing, amusing and hip. With a mixed-age cast embracing the musical choices, puns and merrily mad characters, it's an impressive set of performances. Big fans of jazz as well as those less versed in the style and find it or themselves, as Alice would say, "curiouser and curiouser" should find plenty of delight. Consciously or not, sounds may seem familiar, like a quote from the Duke Ellington theme "Take the A Train" that is quoted to begin one segment. An introduction to jazz forms is one of the stated goals of this educational organization.
Two women share the roles of the Queen of Hearts (leading the ensemble in "Off with His Head" and the finale) and the Dormouse (for the tale of "Three Little Sisters"). Rather than make a choice for the recording, the three songs are heard twice (bonus tracks at the end of the disc) so both get to do them. The two, Marilyn Keller and Shirley Nanette, are royally entertaining, polished performers of somewhat different styles and voice types, so why not? Alice (a solidly in-character young Annabel Cantor) is mostly relegated to spoken dialogue for reactions to the wonders of Wonderland. I do wish she had a song of her own but there's plenty here to tickle our fancies and ears.
The songwriter is also the pianist and music director, joined by a small but very able group of musicians playing trumpet, trombone, drums, bass, clarinet and the very prominent saxophone. Tracks, varying in length from under 90 seconds to over five minutes, are either cute or cool, and often a bit of each. Kids comfortably singing jazz? Yes, and having a ball, it seems. So did I.
Not only is the studio cast 2-CD recording of 1947's Allegro beautifully recorded and full of top-notch theatre stars' fine performances, but it also fills a major gap. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that dared to experiment and not fit the usual mold had an abbreviated cast album back in the day that did not give a very full picture of the ambitious production. The more serious, thoughtful, tart and non-traditional moments revealed here show that there was more than sunshine and briskness. We get to hear how the commenting, urging Greek chorus element worked, and there's dialogue setting up and illuminating songs plus sections not previously recorded. The piece has a cumulative dramatic effect with the examination of its universal themes of family, home and integrity. And "integrity" is the word for the approach of all who have a hand in this, with exciting and rich orchestrations (the Robert Russell Bennett originals) sumptuously and vibrantly played and conducted by Larry Blank, with thoughtful interpretations by a dream cast: Patrick Wilson, Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Marni Nixon, Nathan Gunn and many more. It's moving, melodious and marvelous.
Ever poking great fun at Broadway shows, blithely biting the hand that feeds it, Forbidden Broadway has brought a world of wonderful wit on-target for lampooning its targets. Those targets, naturally, are the excesses and lowlights of any Broadway season, not forgiven or hidden here by hype or commercialism. The emperor has no clothes. This 2009 release looks with a jaundiced eye at some of the more recent Great White Way wayward moments that brought attention. Gerard Alessandrini's flair for pointed parody lyrics set to familiar show tunes is on full display as the cast members sing with gusto, slicing and dicing Patti LuPone's Gypsy scenery chewing, Daniel Radcliffe's Equus nudity, the longing for a new Sondheim show and much more. Even this website's chat board, where followers discussed these same topics, comes up for a spotlight moment, with "All That Chat" set to the tune of "All That Jazz." This album is packed with playful punch, more high-spirited than mean-spirited, and the numbers are performed with flair and focus by veterans of the series as well as more recent additions to the cast. Despite the fact that, of course, the shelf life of many a Broadway show may be over and that you may remember the set-ups and punch lines, it remainsperhaps surprisinglystill pretty fresh (in both senses of that word).
A long-lost musical from the 1920s turns out to be a quintessential '20s musical full of the silly, sunny, bright and breezy qualities we associate with that period. Happily, Kitty's Kisses has especially catchy, adorable melodies and if the lyrics aren't full of cleverness and originality, they have an endearingly satisfying charm. The lyrics are by Gus Kahn with a few assists from Otto Harbach, another noted and prolific lyricist here mainly working as one of the writers of the dialogue. The music is by the less well-known Con Conrad who later wrote the first Academy Award-winning melody "The Continental," tossed in here at the end as a bonus. The score may not be the buried treasure of treasures that becomes our all-time favorite musical ancestor, but it's a swell disc of discovery and a pleasure. Don't look for depth, just let the fluff and fizz engulf you and you'll have a blithe trip down this unknown Memory Lane. It's like an extra-sweet dessert with a mountain of whipped cream. Serving it up is a splendid cast ready, willing and so able to give themselves to the innocence and goodwill of the piece and period. Chipper and plucky, ready to fall into rhythm and ready to fall in love at first sight (and first song), they don't tiptoe around the big pool of sentiment or stand outside and mock it but dive right in. No one drowns.
With a slim plot giving way to big, fat musical numbers, the action takes place first on a train (all aboard for the ingratiatingly cheery "Choo Choo Love") and then a hotel. After an overture that makes it clear we're in for bouncy bubbliness, the first sung track is about the train tracks being the setting for a little dance number, "Walkin' the Track." Kate Baldwin brings it her infectious high spirits and the spirits really never let up through the CD. With her sailing soprano in "glide" mode, Rebecca Luker as heroine Kitty floats through the cascades of confusion and confectionary romance. Philip Chaffin makes a suitable suitor with his eager gentlemanliness and always-welcome clear tones. Andréa Burns, Victoria Clark and Danny Burstein bring vital comic relief in their less idealized or heroic roles. But, for me, the real hero here is Sam Davis, conductor of the ten-piece band/orchestrator/co-pianist (with Mat Eisenstein). He brings snappy '20s flavor with his own freshness and flair, but keeps things in check when others would just lop on the cotton candy and curdle the cream-puff by overdoing.
The engaging liner notes by record producer Tommy Krasker bring an interesting tale/context of the times, the unearthing of the forgotten score and his nurturing of it. Certainly a labor of love, the love shows but not the labor. There's a light touch throughout, clichés and creakiness be darned; a good time is had by all, including, for sure, the listener. Three cheers for excavation and dusting off cobwebs and bringing in the polish.
In all ways stronger than she has been in years, Liza Minnelli made a spectacular return to Broadway, and she sounds super on the 2-CD studio-recorded set of songs from the show. There are several of her signature numbers newly recorded, with her sounding involved and in rather fine fettle. However, for those who have purchased her past albums, such as numerous recordings of live concerts, this means déjà vu, so that's not enough reason to "start spreadin' the news" that this is a must-buy. What makes this special and spectacular is the material she hasn't presented before. The centerpiece is the tribute to her godmother, entertainer/vocal arranger Kay Thompson, with dazzling nightclub flashy vocal arrangements written years ago for herself and The Williams Brothers, and here there's the truly terrific teamwork of Cortés Alexander, Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina and Johnny Rodgers. Add Billy Stritch to the mix and you've got even more magic. The fast-paced zesty "I Love a Violin" and "Jubilee Time" are bursting with joy and happy harmonies. The icing on the cake is the big medley mother Judy Garland did at this same historic New York theatre, and recorded, with some new material added. In it, stars who played the venue in decades past are saluted with their own trademark songs. Also included is a new song written as a valentine for the loyal fans, "I Would Never Leave You," that pushes all the right buttons. This is show business electricity powered by star power that never quits.
"Powerful" is the word. Next to Normal is a riveting and serious musical exploring psychological frailties, family dynamics and tragedy. Though not an easy ride, due to its unsettling story and conflicts with lots of heartbreaking moments, it is also cathartic and highly theatrical. It grabs and holds you and you hold on for dear life. An uncompromising approach by its writers, director and small cast headed by Alice Ripley as a struggling woman makes for a real feel on what is a roller coaster listening time. The well-crafted, gutsy Tom Kitt/ Brian Yorkey score is passionatewith emotions bursting, tension mounting and some tenderness, yearning and remorse gracefully expressed. Dark? You bet, but appropriately so, and it has the level of rewards and audience involvement that only an emotionally realistic and human dynamics-exploring piece of theatre can have. It's thought-provoking and multi-layered. The metaphysical aspect of having the interactions with the deceased character so superbly played and sung by Aaron Tveit make the piece especially intriguing and powerful. Admittedly, it's a knockout punch one may not be up for casually or regularly while doing household chores but for real absorbing as a radio play would be, the full experience is one that retains its thunderstorm strength.
One word, "Sondheim," is often enough for many of us to make considering a cast album on most year's Top Ten lists a no-brainer. When there's a lot of new material, as there is for this revision of the show previously recorded as Bounce, there is a bounty of brilliance to relish. It also happens to be handled with distinction: a class act lovingly delivered by class actspast collaborators of Stephen Sondheim such as orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, bookwriter John Weidman, director John Doyle, record producer Tommy Krasker, and stars Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani taking on the roles of the real-life Mizner Brothers. The chemistry of the conflicts between them succeeds, but perhaps more importantly for the project, the story has becomes more universal and involving since its earlier incarnation. Comparing the two versions could easily take pages, but suffice to say that taking this latest one on its own merits makes for an album that is satisfying, very often compelling, occasionally funny, and always full of evidence of stunningly high level of craftsmanship in the writing of songs. Minor mosaic-like details of word choices and rhymes to the broad swaths of inventive, satisfying melody ... it's all there to admire, surprise, entertain and to sneak up on one's tear ducts and heart.
Eager to please, pulling out all the stops non-stop, it's difficult not to give in to the wacky and frenetic world of Shrek and its misfits. It's filled with boisterous shtick and snarkiness but quite well done. A lot of the humor holds up, with many little moments that encourage a smile. For example, Shrek (the likeably underdog-ish hero wannabe Brian d'Arcy James) begrudgingly admits that the priority heroic act of slaying a dragon is still "on my to-do list" with his tone of voice making it sound like picking up a quart of milk). It's one of the cute bits by thought up by lyricist-bookwriter David Linsday-Abaire, like his unexpected little comments that pop the balloon of optimism in songs: Shrek as a child being told by his parents, as the music builds triumphantly, that "every dream comes true ....." (pause/ then the tough-luck P.S.): "....except for you."
The surprises of these sudden reality checks are enhanced by how they work with Jeanine Tesori's upbeat melodies that merrily mislead us into thinking that all is happily ever after. Sutton Foster sparkles as the princess beset with her own plateful of problems. Underneath the gloss and grandstanding, Shrek has a heart that beats as its drum beats for the misfits of the world who bond to find that in union there is strength as they let their "Freak Flag" proudly wave on a wave of enthusiasm and optimism that is kind of contagious for the listener.
Here come the nuns! Although this time their particular sound of music is disco, the cheekiness of the odd choice works to energize the proceedings and create a comic atmosphere where anything goes. With the strongly melodic composer Alan Menken and his witty lyricist partner Glenn Slater, the largely disco and 1970s rock pastiche styles that dominate the score become a hoot and have plenty more to engage us than just foot-tapping to repetitious material. Though nuns expressing themselves in a disco style is admittedly a one-joke surprise idea, they get a surprisingly lot of mileage out of it and it holds up. The exuberance of the cast and playful high-voltage arrangements and orchestrations help. Frequent Menken partner Michael Kosarin is musical supervisor, with Doug Besterman orchestrating. Twenty-one musicians are credited, with the three wind players each taking on more than one instrument.
Although the pop sounds are nifty fun, it's the more traditional musical theatre style numbers that are ultimately more satisfying. The highlight is the very funny sharing of Sisters' personal stories, "How I Got the Calling." From the one who saw religious figures in her food to the one who simply relates, "I had a revelation/ When I skipped my medication," it's a slam-dunk, capped by the lead character's semi-honest telling of her own background. She's a feisty nightclub singer seeking stardom but now hiding out for her own safety because her life is in danger, and it's not easy to fit in. Soon she's taking over the choir and shaking things up literally and figuratively; the convent becomes less conventional. The order is soon disorder but their church is attracting much-needed parishioners with donations when word spreads of the happenings. Thus, hilarity ensues and the church rafters ring. It's goofy but it works; no need to go to Confession for this guilty pleasure.
Patina Miller is a dynamic lead with a big voice that is up to the disco and belting demands, also succeeding in the title song where she sings about the satisfaction she found in her new way of life. Katie Rowley Jones is a winner as the nun who sings dramatically of missing "The Life I Never Led," a number that's reprised and that builds well and traditionally. Top-billed Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior doesn't have too much musical material but makes her presence felt with what there is and in some included dialogue where she is strong and effective as the de rigueur authority figure that is wary and resists the changes. The slinky and sly material for the male characters doesn't have as strong an impact and the lyrics for these aren't as creative but they provide some contrast in style and vocal sound.
All in all, it's a very entertaining feel-good musical that brings many grins in a listening experience. The booklet is loaded with color photos and has all the lyrics and an interview with the composer. He has a real fondness for the way the project has developed and that seems to have been shared by this very joy-spreading cast. A production that remembers its job is to entertain and goes all out to do somay I say hallelujah?
The story of The Story of My Life is friendship and how it can get damaged and die if not nurtured. A small and intimate musical, it's one whose protagonists' sincerity, regrets, recollections of childhood and warts-and-all self-examinations are very moving. It's a delicate piece with a generous amount of sentiment, some grit and no pat answers. With sensitivity and specific characterizations that show open or guarded hearts and sometimes contrasting priorities, Will Chase and Malcolm Gets play two friends who bonded in boyhood and drift apart. Neil Bartram's music and lyrics and what we hear of Brian Hill's book are full of yearning, thwarted emotion, guilt, appealing character idiosyncrasies, heartbreak ... with great skill in the writing that brings all this out. The standout song is the rich-in-detail and narrative piece about of an understanding elementary school teacher, "Mrs. Remington," who brings the two boys together, sensing they need each other. She was right, just as so much about this tender show comes off so rightand realand really rewarding to revisit.
Currently available as a download or hard copy CD via PayPal by the show's website is the following item that may feel a bit like a "demo" but what it demonstrates is more than just potential.
A participant in the New York Musical Theatre Festival this past fall, Gay Bride of Frankenstein brought along a cast album from its earlier workshop cast in New Hampshire. Rather than settle for only heavy winking and pure camp, the show billed as "a Comic-Book-Rock-n-Roll Musical" treats its teen characters with respect and affection throughout the wild ride. Wanting the best of both worldsreality and horror fantasythe show has its crazy cake and eats it gluttonously. A Halloween costume party lets a quartet of high school students cut loose and they get mixed up in a science experiment echoing the Frankenstein story. Focus is on the somewhat glum Edna who harbors a same-sex crush on her initially clueless best friend Chloe, who has a steady boyfriend and is dressed as the bride of Frankenstein. What a difference a Halloween day and night makewith Chloe at death's door and at the mercy of a mad scientist and a soul from the past.
Though rock musicals are not my favorite genre, the music style fits the youthful flavor, the quirky, spunky and edgy tone. The electrified sound (in both senses of the word) and some roughness suits the teens' unrest and bursts of previously pent-up energy and emotion. Composer-lyricist Billy Butler, on keyboards, leads the Monster Makers instrumental quartet and they sing, too. Some songs are harder-edged than others; there's a kind of cute sweetness to "Little Miss Bad News," with the flavor of rock from another era while the title song and others have more of a sense of a simple aggressive riff and rant with a smile behind it. The standout is the meatier and powerful "Here Comes the Rain Again" catharsis as the girls have their moment of truth. (Unfortunately, what seemed to be very much the other audience favorite in New York, a sentimental change-of-musical-pace non-rocker about a missed pet, was added after this recording.)
Some included dialogue presents our protagonists not as strutting rock star personalities sometimes sensed from the singing but rather as down-to-earth and insecure kids. One spoken song cue cheerfully acknowledges the musical theatre form: "There's something I've been meaning to sing you." There's loopy, irreverent fun and free-spirited wild-and-wooly rocking out that only really hints at the bigger picture of what is also a very visual show, with comic strip projections as an ongoing element, a farce-style chase with comically costumed characters, its off-the-wall, hand-made style. Nevertheless, the surprisingly innocent and humorous sensibilities come forth through the raucous and rowdy rock. It's all sung with bright energy by a likeable small ensemble cast.