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The Top Ten Cast Albums of 2014

Assuming no iPods are allowed on desert islands and there's no Wi-Fi there and the "sound cloud" isn't overhead, here's what I'd bring if forced to only bring ten cast albums from 2014 of those submitted for review. Besides their overall high quality and being able to hold up or reveal more strengths with repeat exposure, we can find some similarities: Three feature bravura performances by a male actor-singer playing numerous roles and a plot involving murder, two focus on central gay characters, two have a World War as the backdrop, two played Broadway this past season, and two of the Off-Broadway entries actually played those engagements in 2010, but weren't released until this year. And two albums represent shows from the middle of the last century, but it took until this year for them to appear with all their songs. If you do the math, you'll see that clearly some fall into two of those descriptive categories.

BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY
ORIGINAL 2014 BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records
Original review

Composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown continues to prove his versatility as his scores come along year by year. Bridges of Madison County is drenched in atmosphere, poignant and uncompromising. It holds on to our emotions and doesn't let go. It specializes in longing—whether it be controlled or bursting. Relationships and mindsets that are claustrophobic or cathartic are expertly expressed in the writing, orchestrations (Brown's own), and performances. Desperation and struggle feel real, no matter how we may question character motivations and choices, or switch loyalties. There's real beauty here, the kind of art that elevates mundane details of living into something elegant and noble.

Kelli O'Hara, in arguably her most fascinating and multi-faceted recorded cast (or studio solo) performance work, brings us a fine example of how a character (Francesca) can be musicalized by a thoughtful writer to be neither purely heroic nor worthy of being damned and dismissed for her faults or weaknesses. People are complicated and the songwriter/arranger brings that out, as does the actress. Hunter Foster and Steven Pasquale as, respectively, Francesca's husband and the stranger in town she's drawn to, bring committed, sympathetic performances. Acting and singing choices feel in balance to make the drama riveting and let us suspend disbelief and even judgment. The album is sumptuously recorded with much attention to detail.

FUN HOME
ORIGINAL (2010 OFF-BROADWAY) CAST RECORDING

PS Classics
Original review

It's good news for the new year, that Fun Home will make its home on Broadway at Circle in the Square in the spring. This musical is brave and powerful, heartbreaking and occasionally hilarious. With passages that are irreverent and some that are sorrowful, fierce, or gripping, there's a lot to recommend it. While the family at the center lives in a building that also literally houses a funeral home, thus the title, it's ultimately life-affirming. The female protagonist (played by three different actresses, as she ages) is plucky, independent, and a survivor. We can root for her. Both she and her father (played by the ever-commanding Michael Cerveris) are struggling with accepting their homosexual nature, though they don't share this with each other at first. Lisa Kron's words, based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, are embodied with integrity and believability. And composer Jeanine Tesori, no stranger to character veracity and nakedness, colors them with a broad palette.

A psychological exploration, we get to see our heroine gain perspective and coping skills. Confessional without being indulgent, the score and album invite us into a world that can be weighted down with pain and loneliness. But, since we're won over by everything from a kids' version of a funeral home jingle to the breathtaking honesty of characters, we care. Singing voices and accompaniment hit just the right disarming tone and don't feel manipulative or pat.

A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records
Original review

In musical theatre, there's no joy like the kind that comes from a polished combination of the ridiculous and the sublime—outrageously goofy characters and situations paraded before us via songs with zingy melodies packed with wild and witty lyrics. The cast album of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder is a rarely gentle guide to laughter and mayhem. Nutty in the smartest kind of way, the energy of the winking performances and the hyperactive score delight. If Gilbert & Sullivan could choose their heirs, this show gives reason to believe that writers Steven Lutvak (composer/co-lyricist) and Robert L. Freedman (co-lyricist/bookwriter) would get the nod. The spiffy doings also give us reason to believe again in escapist musical comedy entertainment.

Master orchestrator Jonathan Tunick brings his muscle and knowhow to the orchestrations—accenting without telegraphing, he stirs the brew. And it feels relished by performers Bryce Pinkham, Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham. While the cast spinning this oh-so-British and class-conscious tale is wonderfully solid, playing broadly (buffoons a specialty), the most impressive is Jefferson Mays. He plays multiple loopy and varied characters (male, female, old, young, etc.) as the body count rises. It's all a giggle-fest that remains amusing on repeat listening.

HERRINGBONE
CONCERT CAST

Yellow Sound Label
Not previously reviewed

For the ultimate tour de force for one singing actor playing all the roles (12) in a musical, we have Herringbone. This remarkable show dates back quite a few years; it began as a non-musical play by Tom Cone, who adapted it, now the bookwriter for this musical version that first appeared in 1982. BD Wong, who's performed the role onstage in four productions in different states, recorded Herringbone live in 2012, but it was just released at the end of 2014. The laughing and applauding appreciative audience response adds to the impact for the listener. As a live stage piece, perhaps one would reasonably become most impressed with the energy and quick gear shifts from character to character, including the aspects of physicality. Such an experience would serve as a constant reminder of the theatrical device—and the implication that many personalities and influences make up one person (and, in the story, quite literally one is inside another, the character of a boy possessed by the spirit of a murdered vaudevillian with whom he can communicate). As a purely listening experience, there are the benefits of two worlds: being in awe of the versatile, facile performance and getting wrapped up in the storytelling and story themselves. Wong's performance immersion and the script are so strong that it works either way. His chameleon-like deftness in frequently switching voices and manner dazzles, and I often had to remind myself that all these spoken and singing voices are the same person, so distinct and different and characterful are they.

Billed as "A Bizarre 12 Character Musical for One Actor," Herringbone indeed wears its strangeness proudly and the dark humor and harrowing moments make it often hilarious and sorrowful at the same time. Set up as a narration where the incidents are enacted as described, the actor is allowed to directly address the audience, often wryly, as he comments on the action and characters from some later distance. Rather than interrupt the flow, these asides anchor and illuminate the goings-on set in 1929. As an example of the irreverent humor, early incidents involve the will of a rich relative whose death was caused by a despairing person jumping out of a window hearing the news of the stock market crash and landing on him. Terse sum-ups clarify things and allow for swift transitions and sculpting of the more complex incidents.

The two-disc set brings us long stretches of dialogue, but (unlike other talk-heavy cast albums) the language, population, and situations are so entertaining and quirky that interest doesn't lag. While there's more talk than singing—in fact, there aren't that many full songs at all—the nifty musical numbers are quite effective. They bring out personalities and add spice. Melodies are by Skip Kennon, with lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. With an on-target timid, breathy voice for the boy (who is eight years old and under the thumbs of domineering parents and show biz manipulators), little George is a recognizable fragile flower. The put-upon, pushed-on-stage little fellow makes us smile and cluck sympathetically as he sings about wanting to grow up to pursue what he cares about, not the higher goals his mom advocates for ("Not President, Please"). Particularly captivating are the sparkling vaudeville numbers which capture the style: simple, ingratiating melodies and super-sunny lyrics that make rhyming a smile-inducer. Selling a song as a performance skill and strutting, razzle-dazzle elements are there, too. I'm happily addicted to "Little Mr. Tippy Toes" with its tongue-twisting torrent of T-words for alliteration matching the tap-dancing tempo. The sly salute to the virtues and burdens of having "A Mother" has it both ways: delicious, but ominous.

Pianist/musical director Dan Lipton (addressed directly as a character named Thumbs Dubois) keeps the music going as pulse or decoration at times, keeping things lively and/or tense—and linked. He's joined by Ben Campbell on bass and Rich Huntley on percussion to fine effect. Dancing turns allow the disc to present us with their instrumental sections, sometimes with chat and instructions, as they are rehearsal/training scenes. "The Frog Shuffle" is swell, short but energetically sweet.

Much credit must also go to the director, Roger Rees. The wonderfully strange piece holds together well on this recording. With Wong's vocal personalities ranging from a drawling Southern-accented mother or a tough-talking show biz old hand, the colorfully oddball comments ("You need to eat, right? And I don't see ya eatin' tomatoes.") and lyric lines (in "God Said" it's claimed the Lord spoke aloud directly, offering career advice: "If we make Christian movies, he'll get his name in lights ...I swear to God that's what God said"). The off-center whirlwind of a performance has so many aspects of theatricality in its pocket—and without compromising its other agenda as entertainment, the desperation, loneliness, drive, and power plays in the story make this play one that is also provocative and unsettling. It's a win/win.

THE MAN WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS
ORIGINAL STUDIO CAST

Take-the-Cakeable Records
Original Review

Here's what could be thought of as my under-the-radar choice. While I enjoyed many tracks on many cast albums, some were uneven or had old songs that I'll likely prefer to hear other versions of as time goes by. But The Man Who Saved Christmas isn't like those. I get a kick out of its affectionate yet sassy tone, being a throwback to perky, simpler musical comedy styles without taking its tongue totally out of its cheek. And, while it's set at Christmas, the songs aren't all about the holiday and its trademarks, so it doesn't feel stuck in a yuletide limited-time zone. It's just fun and cute and determined to spread some non-seasonal-specific mirth. It's the work of Ron Lytle, who's been working as theatre Renaissance man in California for some years and built up a body of work for family audiences and beyond. The story is interesting in that it's based on a true chapter from America's past. The titular character, head of a toy factory ordered by officials to stop making toys and manufacture items needed for war, eventually resists because it would mean insufficient toys available for kids.

Although its first of numerous productions dates back to 2006, this is its first recording, and it lives up to its subtitle: "A New Old-Fashioned Musical." Crisply recorded with a quite competent cast, its cheer will last throughout this New Year ... and many more.

MURDER FOR TWO
2013 OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Ghostlight Records
Original review

Do I have a soft spot for zany musicals with murderous doings with one actor playing multiple characters, or is it Ghostlight Records which wisely grabbed the rights to record them? It may be a grin-causing coincidence that albums for this breathlessly off-kilter Murder for Two and Broadway's A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder should come along in the same year. Jeff Blumenkrantz's high-pitched, screechy female characters and rowdy, rough men add up to no less than a hoot. Sometimes, he's dialoguing with himself as two people, with the quickest back-and-forths. Castmate Brett Ryback is a terrific foil and trigger as the investigator. It's important to remember not just that all those loopy people are Blumenkrantz, but that he and Ryback also share the piano accompaniment job Their teamwork is tight and the disc's included dialogue lets us follow the story and characters as the plot thickens.

Lyricist Kellen Blair and composer Joe Kinosian, who share credit for the book, seem also to be a felicitously matched pair. Beyond the laughs, there are tunes that stick in the mind as glib cascades and loveable pastiche with a kind of nod to old time splashy show biz. "A Friend Like You" jumps out instantly and wears well as a favorite. The classic old standbys in a zillion murder mysteries in close quarters are embraced as twists and turns and suspects are musicalized. It's a splashy mix of clues and clueless characters, with the listener the beneficiary throughout.

ONE TOUCH OF VENUS
STUDIO CAST-FIRST COMPLETE RECORDING

JAY Records
Original review

While I envy anyone totally unfamiliar with songs from Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's score to One Touch of Venus who gets them all in one fell swoop with this two-disc studio recording, those who've only known its most famous numbers, like "Speak Low," still have of marvelous discovering to do. It may have taken the patience of Job for theatre lovers to get their ears wrapped around all this. A collection of several songs was first released on heavy 78 rpm discs soon after the 1943 show came to Broadway. A full version of the score has been on hold for years, spurred by a few performances back in 1996 by New York City Encores! starring Melissa Errico, who has bewitchingly recorded her role, joined by a top-notch studio cast. With the stalwart but accessible voices of Brent Barrett and Ron Raines and a big chorus, the songs come forth as blithe and lovely—and sometimes peppy. While there are admittedly elements of a style that now seem antiquated and fluffy, that is to be expected. The main melodies are worked and reworked in reprises, as was the style in the day.

The too-rarely heard-from Miss Errico is grace personified here, making the character refreshingly earthy, her bewilderment with the human ways endearing. (There's a generous amount of dialogue included.) Quite the studio production, we can be swept away while being amused. There's froth and wit, with satirical lyrics especially delightful. Cut material has been unearthed, which is a real treat to hear—not just as esoteric interest, but in the "highlight" category. A full booklet with history, commentary, and the sung and spoken words all included, along with descriptions of the actions as in a script, add to the experience and appreciation.


THE SHAGGS
PHILOSOPHY OF THE WORLD
OFF-BROADWAY CAST

Yellow Sound Label
Original review

A quirky musical with pathos is a good start. Now mix in the fact that we have something based on a true-life family story that happens to be compelling and sympathetic—and odd—and you've got a winner. The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World is a show that fascinated me, both by the way it was done and by what I learned of the real tale as documented by those drawn to the bizarre page from musical history. Deluded wannabes in show biz are nothing new, and pop music is a morgue of misfires and the misguided. Telling the story of a trio of sisters in an uber-insulated family with only a small sample of their actual recorded material as singers and instrumentalists (we use both words lightly), the score by Gunnar Madsen (music/ co-lyricist) and Joy Gregory (co-lyricist/ bookwriter) instead focus on the naïve-to-dysfunctional family dynamics and wishes. We're in the 1960s in a small town. It's the father who's convinced his teen-aged girls are the family's ticket to financial success and he forces the sadly unmusical and socially awkward girls to practice endlessly, keeping them virtual prisoners. Moments of blinder loyalty ("Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Dad") and rebellion (especially by the youngest daughter) are touching.

The portrayals by the cast laudably make the teens endearing and wistful rather than mocked cartoons. As in many examples of good storytelling, the secret is finding the universal in the specific. The songs and cast, as captured here, manages to do that. The show and album's coup is a segment in the recording studio where we hear both the naked truth of the off-key, plodding actual performances weaving in and out of a romanticized, pleasant version of the same piece as the father thinks it sounds. And so, ironically, an album ostensibly "about" bad music makes my "best music" list this year.

IVOR NOVELLO'S VALLEY OF SONG
2014 CAST RECORDING
Tribal
Available at Footlight.com and at Dress Circle
Original review

When I budget my listening time during any year, I always find time for an old-school "innocent" operetta. It's where musicals came from, and romantic waltzes and stirring melodic choral pieces retain their appeal. To jaded and judgmental modern ears, they may sound naïve and syrupy, but that's more often true for the lyrics. Valley of Song was a kind of lost musical, until recently, even though it was the work of one of Britain's most notable composers, Ivor Novello. He hadn't finished it when he died in 1951, but it was completed and tweaked by others, including the lyricist Christopher Hassall. Novello's work has always been worth seeking out, despite—or because of—the fact that it's redolent of its time and often an old style of more formal and pristine music composition. While embracing the lyrics here requires acceptance of more flowery and poetic phrases, their idealism has charm beyond quaintness. And the Novello melodies are variously sweet and lilting or sturdy and brisk. And, yes, there's even some humor and some lively numbers, too.

The story concerns a lady named Lily, a singer who leaves home (the valley in Wales, where the composer was born) to find fame and also finds suitors of various stripes. It's a joy to spend some time in this particular valley and let the music flow. A 10-member chorus and 12-member orchestra are on hand and sound sufficiently "full." As bonus tracks, we get some classic nostalgic Novello: "Keep the Home Fires Burning (Till the Boys Come Home)," with lyric by Lena Gilbert Ford, and "We'll Gather Lilacs," with the composer's own words. The story is set in the last days of 1914 ... one hundred years ago, and about a week more.

YANK!
ORIGINAL (2010) OFF-BROADWAY CAST RECORDING

PS Classics
Original review

Plenty of period flavor and nostalgia drape the score of Yank, a musical about closeted gay men in World War II's US army, but it's no innocuous sentimentalizing of patriotism rah-rah-rah or non-stop pastiche "period" numbers. There is that, and it's welcome, but 20/20 hindsight informs it. It's spiced with welcome humor, affectionate nostalgia, and the looming real dangers of war are not absent, but wistfulness bookends and bolsters the piece, structured as a long flashback. Brothers Joseph (music/arrangements) and David (book and lyrics) Zellnik have a show that, to use military jargon, is "Major" and should make any fan of good musicals snap to attention.

The extremely endearing and adept Bobby Steggert is the heart and soul of the piece as the central figure, Stu, coming to grips with his attraction to men, and the prices of either hiding or revealing it. He sings (and acts) with sincerity and vulnerability. But this army squad is indeed all about teamwork, and the team is strong: Jeffrey Denman and Ivan Hernandez; and the sparkling Nancy Anderson as all the female characters. Now graced with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Yank is a winning musical of the first rank, and I have no reservations.

Next week: The top vocal albums of 2014. And here's to a happy musical new year..


- Rob Lester


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