Sound Advice Reviews
Chills, Thrills, and Hills
Fasten your seat belts in the listening booth! It's time for life and death, good and evil, power and morality struggles, a mountain of melodrama, and climbing the Alps (and maybe the walls). Journey from eerie (Carrie, Jekyll & Hyde, two musicals we first heard from at the end of the 1980s) to spiffy, smirking supposed "sequel" to the ultimate in musical theatre cheery (The Sound of Music gets its satirical antidote).
Scary? At times. Full of tension, turmoil, and teen angst? Quite a bit. Intense? You bet. That's Carrie, the tale from the Stephen King novel transformed into a musical which followed a rocky road to Broadway back in 1988. There, as the liner notes by its bookwriter Lawrence D. Cohen say, it famously "crashed-and-burned" (like an element of its plot). This quite revamped/revised/rethought version, smaller-scaled, with songs old and new by composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford, found its way back to New York recently.
The cast album is an edgy, often relentlessly frenetic and visceral experience; it throbs and rages, with some moments of seeming tenderness or beauty that are chilling in context of the saga and characters as one waits for the next threat, confrontation, or extended burst of unleashed rage and/or frustration. Enervatingly or restlessly repetitive rants fill the air, harrowing harangues haunt and taunt, and sometimes some underlying innocence or hope gleams through. But subtlety is largely a stranger, as the emotions are laid on rather thickly.
The high school scenes, reset in the present, have the students' language peppered with some crass words, but more often loaded with insecurities, mean teen-speak immaturity and cattiness, restlessness, bravado, or all of the above, as in "In," the opening track of 24 (there's no overture here). And in the rare ray of optimism, "Unsuspecting Hearts," is not understated and nuanced; this number's intended encouragement, romantic reflection and perspective for the caring teacher (Carmen Cusack) comes off as a power ballad. But in its bold strokes and strong stabs, Carrie's group numbers have some undeniable excitement and lightning-bolt impact. Tormenting teens shouldn't be cuddly or softened. Ringleader Chris (Jeanna de Waal) certainly isn't, with her brashly bratty/catty attacks and her mantra of survival, which empoweringly infects others, "The World According to Chris" ("Better to burn than get burned ... Better to whip than get whipped").
Most riveting are the pieces with Carrie (a sympathetic and committed Molly Ranson) and/or her religious fanatic mother (Marin Mazzie, whose soprano is used in theatrical and rewardingly varied ways, in sorrowful sobs and desperate warnings and prayer). Their interaction is well matched as cries for help and understanding dance with demands of their changing power struggles. Their quieter broken and hurt catharses, desperately yearning, confused prayers, lonely laments or lullaby-like croons are achingly believable and movingand all the while unnerving. The sweetest turns come from the calm in the stormthe endearing Derek Klena as Tommy, who gallantly escorts Carrie to the prom, has his tender pre-prom private meeting with girlfriend Sue, played with grit and heart by Christy Altomare ("You Shine"), and sings his English class poem ("An eagle's just another bird/ Until he can spread his wings ... Like things I dream and things I feel/ There's more to me than I reveal").
The CD comes with a booklet that has all the lyrics (and the sections of dialogue included), quite a few color photos, and a detailed plot synopsis. Intently listening to the recording can be like a claustrophobic and rocking ride through the haunted house at a not-so-amusing amusement park. Some tracks will provide aural respite, even though you know something more treacherous and jolting is right around the bend.
JEKYLL & HYDE
Yes, here we go again, on the roller coaster of rage and passion to enter the dark side. After many productions around the world and various cast albums (which all began on disc in 1989 with its first studio "concept album" long before its Broadway bow), Jekyll & Hyde is back. It's trading some histrionics for more of a contemporary pop sheen. Where once it was musical inferno time, now things simmer for a while and then flare up. It's often more of a slink and slither than a pounce. But is is very much J & H and has its requisite grandness. With new arrangements for a 14-piece orchestra, it's not as in-your-face, with some of the 18 tracks beginning with breathy phrasing and muted, mellowed vocal approaches. But be ready for the build to thunder.
Singing the three major roles here are the same performers who are touring the USA with the musical now, setting sail for Broadway again for April of next year: Constantine Maroulis (Rock of Ages) in the dynamic dual titular role; R&B recording artist Deborah Cox (a Broadway Aida) as Lucy; and Teal Wicks, who recently went green in Wicked, as Emma. Joining them for this studio version are two more "Girls of the Night" for the track of that name, Shannon Magrane and Carly Robyn Green, and then we have Tom Hewitt and Corey Brunish on the "His Work and Nothing More" number (this is one of two pieces where credit for words goes not just to the project's lyricist, long-historied Leslie Bricusse, but to the show's composer, Frank Wildhorn and original co-conceiver Steve Cuden; the other is "Once Upon a Dream"). As in the tour, Jason Howland is credited with arrangements and these are his orchestrations; he's on keyboards, as is Billy Jay Stein (who also did the mixing), and these two produced the CD with Wildhorn.
Those who found earlier versions too over the top and "big" might be seduced by these treatments which are tempered (at least until they heat up) and have some more glossy glow in the female vocals rather than full-throttle belt. Those familiar with the score who like a richer, go-for-broke theatrical fearlessness in approach may miss all that and see this as somewhat lukewarm or gutted of some of its grisliness and gusto. Fans of these artists and a more modern pop sound will likely find the material accessible, with added melisma and other personal touches. Certainly the show's dedicated followers, the Jekkies, and more casual admirers will have to admit this is a quite different aural experience, not a clone or imitation.
Less maniacal, the fierce Maroulis opts to start with brooding and muttering in beginnings of numbers, but does pump up the volume and heft of the wailing, bellowing and holding longer, showy notes. However, at times, there's more of a "yell" (not wildly inappropriate) than richly resonating tones. But rest assured he's got the confidence and scare tactics as well as the troubled, tormented soul thing. His "This Is the Moment" is effective without exhaustingly, early-peaking redundancy. But it lacks a climactic triumphant ownership. Talented Deborah Cox hardly abandons all sleek pop/contemporary studio sensibilities, but delves into theatrical characterization. Teal Wicks brings a welcome sense of reflection and vulnerability to "Once Upon a Dream" and the Wicks/Cox duet "In His Eyes," calmer, is not the diva duel that folks might fear or wish to relish.
This is still a melodramatic and powerful rendering, just a different prism with different personalities emerging.
The gods of satire smiled upon The Hills Are Alive! as they joined its creators in merrily throwing poison darts at The Sound of Music that melt its sugar. Rather than doing an incident-by-incident parody of the original story of the von Trapps and Maria, they go one step furtheror many steps, up and over the Alps after their escape from the Nazis for an imagined Part Two. Things go awry and the troupe lose their way, their once-indomitable hope, and seemingly their family members, due to the dangers of battling Nature, wild beasts, and starvation. Dormant sibling rivalry is unleashed and the idyllic family that sang their troubles away start to resemble the characters in Lord of the Flies with loopy ideas and comical vitriol. And all the while, the moods and songs of the original Rodgers & Hammerstein stoicism and good cheer gets a pastiche parade and trouncing.
The Hills Are Alive! is the smart and delightful work of husband-and-wife team, composer Eric Thomas Johnson and lyricist/bookwriter Frankie Johnson. She is in the cast of this recording of the original developmental reading (as one of the daughters), as she was in a theatre festival production last year. It is a laugh riot that knows its source material inside and out, with many references that are sly fun, from glibly making mincemeat of "Do Re Mi" with a convoluted teaching sing-along of its own about music to jibes about the teenage girl whose boyfriend turned out to be a Nazi. The looking on the bright side is sweetly mocked when the youngest (played by Honey Ribar) brings up the joys found when "It's the Little Things" one focuses on. (Forget those pesky life-and-death realities.)
Then, of course, there's the relentless sunshine and optimism of governess-turned-stepmother Maria. Specifically, the role as portrayed by Julie Andrews in the film version is the model, with Ashley Ball right on target vocally with the crystal-clear, high voice and exuberance. Her sanity becomes doubtful in the face of the very real dangers as she metaphorically wears blinders and keeps singing and strumming. And the film version's "Something Good" has its evil twin in "Something Bad." The character names have been changed, with Mathilde replacing Maria (as in "Mathilde Is a Problem"remind you of another song?). She encourages oldest son Felix to call her Mother when his attraction to her becomes something more fueled by hormones, and in "Darling Felix, Darling Mother" they sing of puberty's power and dance away from it.
The album is a delight: the artfulness of the writing consistently impresses and the performances are delightfully well sung, with distinct characterizations nailing moments. Other highlights: Especially amusing is a running gag about one of the sisters being constantly ignored and lost of the big-family shuffle. She's played with spot-on sighing glumness by Daniele Hager. She, Ball, Trenton Weaver as the weary Captain (a small role here) and the wiley and wonderfully sneaky, strong-singing Christopher Tiernan as the increasingly fuming/frustrated Felix were part of the excellent NYC cast at the Fringe Festival and delightful on disc. It's great fun whether you are a fan or foe of The Sound of Music, as the ribbing is warm-spirited and celebrational in its playful way. Aside from that, the songs and performances have much to offer on their own merits. I can imagine that many theatres will jump at the chance to have a go at this piece (the book is full of great lines, too). What a treat it would be to do in repertory with a standard production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein show, with the same cast, maybe as a late-night frolic.