10 out of '12:
Also see Rob's list of Top Ten Vocal Albums of 2012
Here, in alphabetical order, are what I consider the top ten cast albums of the past year of those submitted for review. Some were covered earlier in the year, but several I never got until December or never got to until December, so with the need to cover holiday albums, too, I had to postpone posting my sense of "comfort and joy" until now. These are the ones that make me want to press "repeat play" repeatedly and think will hold up and I'll hold closer over the coming years.
Hardly uncommon are the peppy, poppy musicals set in high school, from, well, High School Musical to Grease to this past season which brought on Bring It On, Lysistrata Jones, and brought back a retooled appearance of Carrie. But the four-character Calvin Berger is the one that I took a shine to. An update of the old story of Cyrano de Bergerac, we have a supposed big nerd with a big nose with a big crush on the beautiful girl. If only he could be the seeming Mr. Perfect handsome jock who attracts her (Roxanne in the original story and Rosanna here). But the jock does not have the facility for words suitable for love notes and courting that articulate Calvin has, and the girl who pines for Calvin (his best bud becomes female here) wishes she had Rosanna's glamour, but, of course, she's not all that super-secure, wondering what she has to offer. So, "How Can I Compete with That?" is an anthem for this group wanting the others' attributes. And, as in the original, the lovestruck guy who thinks his nose and self-consciousness are barriers agrees to be the "ghostwriter" for the other fellow, Matt. Book and songs are by Barry Wyner and the show, which has had a few productions, has garnered several grants and awards named for prestigious musical theatre writers who came before. It's both touching and funny. As one of the song titles goes, there is "More Than Meets the Eye" here.
Noah Weisberg in the title role is a dogged underdog we root for immediately, and he makes Calvin more three-dimensional than we often get in teen sagas. David Hull is funnier and more fully rounded than one might hope for in a presumed stereotypical semi-dumb hunk of dude attitude. He's feisty and funny and kind of edgy. Krystal Joy Brown as Rosanna is more than a pretty princess presence and a fine voiceshe has a mind of her own and her own surprising insecurities. Contrastingly, Dana Steingold has one of those piercing youthful voices that suits the role of the needy, down-on-herself teen. The chemistry in various combinations has zing and a whole-is-more-than-sum-of-the-parts impact. You kind of want to hug them all as they stumble and take their knocks, with unrequited love and hope that springs eternal one moment and gets dashed decidedly the nextor at least so they assume with defeatist attitudes. This is crystallized in an early number called "Security Meltdown" (Lyric sample: "I'm in high school and, let's face it, every day is Judgment Day ... I could make a friend today/ If I had something cool to say ..."). Much later, they plea, "See me as someone different" beyond outward appearances and behaviors. The words, all included in a booklet on pages like ruled notebook paper, are filled with tidbits that find a balance between tedious twitchy teenspeak and polished or poetic lyrics that older characters might sing.
It's heightened reality without like, the, you know, "like"s and "y'knows." This seems like a marketable charmer for all kinds of groups to put on, with the added plus that it will perhaps nudge some to explore the classic tale. Produced by the writer, savvy orchestrator Doug Besterman and Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom's captain, the resourceful and prolific Kurt Deutsch, the album sounds great and makes for good company without strain or push, like high school pals who are easy to hang with and make you feel good.
A CHRISTMAS STORY
Here's the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. A success likely to be back on the Broadway boards and many other theatres for years to come, A Christmas Story is an affectionate adaptation of a holiday perennial in its earlier incarnations and story and non-musical film. Having had its own pre-Broadway road trip, the recording available presents not the same cast seen in New York this season, but one main player and other reliably warm-and-fuzzy solid star presences such as Liz Callaway as Mom and Tom Wopat as our narrating host. Notably, the children are cherubic and chipper without being slick and cloying. There is razzle dazzle and wackiness mixed with sentiment and sweetness, making for a very digestible, delicious nutty fruitcake. Talented songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul thus make their Broadway debut and rise to the occasion with a score that entertains, has splash and spunk, and captures the coziness and quirkiness of the film. With its fantasy sequences and dance numbers, family-friendly family fun medicine going down easy, this successful, splashy album is not one to keep on ice until next Christmas. Its department store Santa is more of a Scrooge and, from a kid's point of view, an adult or two may at times seem a stooge, but there's a more universal joy here.
The senior citizen of our group brings a lively and lovely bounty of melody and good old-fashioned, well-fashioned work. Who would suspect that a 95-year-old comic opera would hold up so well? It sure does for me, and I hope that New World Records and its admirable mission to bring back the old world of operettas will reach new ears as they lovingly remove the dust from somewhat creaky ancestors of the musical theatre form worth celebrating and enjoying for what they were/are. The two-disc delving into Eileen is thorough and thoroughly entertaining for anyone with a taste for rich musical whipped cream, high jinx and high notes, performed knowingly but not condescendingly. Have a soft spot for the romantic and/or the antic foolishness that can come with madcap identity theft and quaintly convoluted tales? This bustling and bubbly confection, placed in Ireland during an uprising at then of the 1700s (and written when there was another in 1916) fills the bill.
Including dialogue and material cut along the way to Broadway when the show was known as Hearts of Erin, and liner notes that give researched background and historyas well as all the lyrics and dialogue heardand a disc-ending bonus of an instrumental suite, this is one labor-of-love packed package. What a treasure chest! Authenticity and surviving arrangements and sketches, when available, are honored. With the huge Orchestra of Ireland, led by David Brophy, front and center and an opera-experienced studio cast (many of whom are Irish) sounding glorious and in character, it's a time capsule of treats. My only complaint is that while the name of composer Victor Herbert is rightly in large print on the front and back covers of box and booklet, the name of lyricist/librettist Henry Blossom is only found inside them, and in such small type in his billing! While I'll agree that the sweet, swelling and frolicsome melodies are the main attraction and perhaps the words "serve" them more than catapult them, let's let Blossom's contributions be fully honored, too.
The lyrics being included help one get past what might otherwise be the roadblocks of lines sung with unfamiliar Irishisms, pronunciations, and poetic language (Try this on for size: "I should be forsaken quite, Love, parted from thee!/ Heart of mine!/ Don't repine!/ Love in my soul is awake!") In the titular ingénue role, soprano Mary O'Sullivan gracefully sings this in "When Love Awakes" and generally executes the romance and plot confusions sweetly. Numerous others take turns in the spotlight, with Eamonn Mulhall as the elusive footloose rebel on the loose, dazzling energetically and with versatility. As Dinny, Dean Power's high-voiced golden tones and, well, power voice are a particular pleasure. The song cue, "Sing her a welcome! Go on! You're the boy wid the voice" makes me smile in soon-to-be-rewarded anticipation as he begins a rhapsodic solo, and he comes back strong with the patriotic and celebratory "The Irish Have a Great Day Tonight."
There's a large chorus that sounds full and present rather than generic and faceless. Humor and male bonding make their presence felt among the troops with numbers such as the sarcastic hindsight about the Garden of Eden wondering what man and woman would be like "If Eve Had Left the Apple on the Bough." Authority figures become threats and then buffoons, as lustily-singing characters such as Lynda Lee's Lady Maude mock the one-step-behind Colonel Lester (no relation) sung brightly and briskly by Philip O'Reilly. While the much-appreciated, much-appreciating liner notes make logical cases why the numbers in the appendix section were cut or replaced, as stand-alone pieces they are superb and among the standoutsnot just for being rare but for being strong and well done. I especially like the feisty look at "Cupid, the Cunnin' Pandeen" ("In regard to this sly little elf/ That, though half of the world he has mated,/ He's never been married himself"). And a scene where Eileen accompanies herself on the harp and can't figure out where the offstage voice is coming from is comical and that comes across as performed here.
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: ALIVE AND KICKING!
Although I grabbed my ticket and attended and loved and laughed at the welcome return of the much-missed Forbidden Broadway series of skewering of the Great White Way's questionable ways, I purposely held back from playing the CD. I thought it might remind me too much of some of my own feelings about some blockbusters whose cast albums I was considering perhaps for this list. (A Christmas Story hadn't yet come along when Forbidden opened, however.) But, once I made my list of the others, I came back to this new edition called Alive and Kicking. I enjoyed Newsies, for example, more than most of the new Broadway cast albums (a photo of the cast in newsboy get-up adorns the back cover), but didn't admire it as much as others on this list, including this extremely potent, witty parade of parodies. Original (in both senses of the word) creator and writer (and co-director, with Phillip George) Gerard Alessandrini is as sharp and justifiably pouncing and clever as ever, sometimes jovially winking and other times taking pretty sharp aim at commercialism, content, and casting choices. The castNatalie Charlé Ellis, Scott Richard Foster, Jenny Lee Stern, and Marcus Stevensare versatile in their impressions and strong-voiced with splendid comic timing. Returning musical director/pianist David Caldwell nails moment after moment, too. Making mincemeat of theatrical excess and proudly announcing that the emperor has no clothes, Once and for always, it's Anything Goes when it comes to on-target targets, including TV's take on Broadway, "Smash." A hoot that starts with an especially felicitous choice of the return of the Forbidden franchise itself, framed as the rising from the Brigadoon mist as theatre-seekers stumbling on the familiar midtown theatre and the kick ass Alive and Kicking! kicks into gear and gives a lively swift kick to hits and practically no one misses getting a kick. Spider-Man's lawsuits seems especially suited to a kick 'em while they're down but not out out-and-out pounce, and the "rethinking" of the classic Porgy and Bess and accompanying excess and excising material includes dialogue by director Diane Paulus laughingly ripping pages out of the original script ("Don't need it!!!"). Simply brilliant, and yet there's plenty of affection for the form, function and dysfunction of the Broadway we love and forgive and this gives much reason for relish.
FUGITIVE SONGS: A SONG CYCLE
This album made me open up my ears and open up my heartand my tear ducts and own memories kind of opened up, too. With a youthful and restless perspective, these snapshots of moments in time and thought are filled with wanderlust and frazzled frustrations. The slices of intensely-felt life are by Nathan Tysen (lyrics, associate record producer) and Chris Miller (composer, orchestrator/vocal arranger, producer, and guitarist and pianist in an excellent band that includes Yellow Sound label's executive producer Michael Croiter). These Fugitive Songs are character portraitsvisceral, surprising, and disarming, not pat or predictable in the writing and powerfully performed by a cast of six who sound like they are living them in the presentand realizations fresh and unguarded. Epiphanies pop up as often as expressions of confusion, hopes rise and fall, and desire drives the engine.
Originally produced on stage in 2008 in New York by the Dreamlight Theatre Company with a different cast, the show was a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Revue. Somewhat miraculously avoiding the traps of seeming glib or tediously, myopically self-absorbed, these very rich and detailed bursts of energy and experiences can strike a chord. There is variety in subject matter as well as style and soundsolos, duets and group numbers with dynamic harmonies. For those who haven't had life handed to them on a silver platter, there will be much to relate to, such as working "maximum hours for minimum wage" at a dead-end job serving sandwiches ("Subway Song" led by Matt Caplan, who also shines in a sum-up of "Growing Up" from getting into Hello, Dolly!'s school play cast to falling in love). Sounding especially terrific and vulnerable, Joshua Henry appealingly croons and frets as his character tries to make a case for getting intoand wanting to get out ofliving way uptown in "Washington Heights." Gavin Creel and Karen Olivo are striking as they pick up on "Wildflowers" as a metaphor. And Alysha Umphress and Barrett Wilbert Weed are effective and reflective, whether considering real life choices or wondering what it must have been like for the heiress who became a bank-robbing kidnapped fugitive, "Poor Little Patty" Hearst.
While a couple of tracks have a peppering of language preventing play for sensitive ears and radio, the lyrics and music feel more like in-the-moment or diary entry musings and memories rather than premeditated formulaic song constructions pushing buttons or plowing through the rhyming dictionary. But the underlying writing skill and overlay of gutsy emotion is their magic and mystiqueand great accomplishment. While a few tracks may seem to fall a bit into the contemporary musical theatre tendency to open a vein and then stand back and belt, there's daring sharing here, with crisp captures of specifics that make one connect and commiserate. There is craft in the catharsis.
THE GOLDEN TICKET
Roald Dahl's story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory run by the odd man named Willy Wonka has been brought to the screen, with songs, in two quite different versions. Now, the fanciful adventure comes to the stage with a whole new musical flavor that's just as tasty as its chocolate river, and that is high praise indeed. And, you might say, high art, because, yes, it's an opera. A family, kid-friendly accessible opera, but an opera it is. Grand, showy, artful, elegant, it has many colors and its varied musical pieces capture the whimsy and inventiveness of the story and the behaviors of the mostly bratty, spoiled children.
Now called The Golden Ticket, after the coveted enclosure in a candy bar that only five lucky winners find that lets them have a tour of the unique and awe-inspiring factory where the Oompah-Loompah creatures toil and gargoyles guard, it's again a big barrel of fun. Using operatic "types" like the showy coloratura soprano, the buffoon, and deeper-voiced heroic, flamboyant men as well as a countertenor, the comically unpleasant children are played by adult opera singers and our hero, modest and well-mannered Charlie, is the only one actually played by a kid, making him much more real than his cartoony counterparts. In his own way, Wonka remains mysterious and intriguing yet off-putting in this particular version.
The show was recorded live, but laughter and applause are only occasionally intrusive. Sound quality is quite good. Daniel Okulitch in the role of Willy Wonka (perhaps surprisingly low-key) and Benjamin Wenzelberg as Charlie ground the piece, while the wacky over-the-top characters provide the loony components. But nuttiness and absurdity are never too far out of reach. Despite the length, short attention spans will not be overly challenged with some careful (and repeat) listening.
The score by composer-conductor Peter Ash and wordsmith Donald Sturrock (also the author of a major bio of Dahl) runs the gamut from lively marches to yearning quiet pieces to big, boisterous production numbers and bite-sized arias. Without oversimplifying the genre, the show is a rollicking and melodic introduction to opera for children and others not familiar with the style or who might think they're opera-phobic. Instrumental sections are invested with evocative shapes and crisp sounds so that they stand on their own and don't feel like filler. Charm and character carry the day, wafted on waves of melody and accessible, character-interactive conversational lyrics, all with strong personality and punch. There are carefully chosen, contrasting, consistent and very strong styles for each of the main dramatis personae so each has a kind of musical identity or signature. Beyond that, it's just plain entertaining and very full in this 2-CD set. The show has been mounted in a few different cities so far, and was in the works for some time. Like the perfect candy, all ingredients blend together quite well. For those of us who know the book and the film incarnations, it's especially fascinating to see how well their components and moods and attitudes translate so well to such a different medium.
In its own way, this is the richest, deepest chocolate, but not the darkest (leave that to Tim Burton's recent film version). The Golden Ticket has childlike wonder, but still eschews the overly artificially sweetened gooey center.
Yes, it's a satire aimed at those cheery and plucky folks in the classic musical The Sound of Music, but The Hills Are Alive! is more inventive than just rehashing the plot. It's an imagined sequel on the other side of the mountains after the escape from the Nazis. With the kids, their father (briefly) and new former nun of a stepmother, the score makes numerous references to the original score, without falling into the von Trapp of pure parody and shadowing. Elements and themes of melody and subject matter are suggested and have their kind of parallel universe analogous relatives, such as a more complicated musical lesson than "Do Re Mi." Specifically aiming arrows at the Julie Andrews characterization in the film version (and thus its added songs, too), the relentlessly optimistic and fearless leader of the kids becomes borderline demented in her determination and stoic stances. Has she lost it? And the kids become increasingly impatient and frantic and argumentative as patience and food supplies wear thin when they are stranded and lost with danger at every turn. Or so it seems as they mysteriously disappear one by one. But not before the adolescent male child (played with a skillfully cagey and coiled manner by Christopher Tierney) reveals his Freudian suppressed lust for his new stepmother.
It's all twisted and nutty, edgy and cutely small-scaled, showing affection rather than unadulterated mockery in a nasty way. I caught the production in a festival, with loveable simple set pieces with a "can-do/ little-show-that-could" sensibility. Composer Eric Thomas Johnson and lyricist/bookwriter Frankie Johnson (who is also in the cast) are mischievously creative in a small-scale, pack-a-big-punch way. Ashley Bell nails the Andrews persona and sound, and Daniele Hager is a standout as the pouting "lost in the shuffle" child in the big family. Everyone's on task and on the money in this piece and, like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, well, you know, it's one of my favorite things.
As the years merrily roll along, a new cast album with a favorite old score by Stephen Sondheim is no surprise appearance when I roll out my top ten. And producer Tommy Krasker of the PS Classics label can be labeled as the man with golden touch by now for his many Sondheim projects. The 2012 New York City Encores! cast of its limited-run concert production of Merrily We Roll Along goes a long way toward giving piece more colors and shadings and possibilities for interpretation than we might have thought had been exhausted by a few prior cast albums. While the score has had its changes and surgeries, and is in some ways full of hurdles with its reverse-chronology storyline and its characters sometimes unsympathetic and pouting, it's a gem. Rather than be just one more go-round, there's enough that feels fresh and thought-provoking in the takes by this cast and the kinetic orchestra work to justify another look and bring cause to jubilate. Sondheim mines are rich and full of jewels and Merrily, with its themes of friendships nurtured and soured, illusions and innocence tarnished, artistic versus financial successes explored, shines brightly here. Big and subtle changes are noted as a new cast takes its turns and twists and PS Classics is still on a roll.
The writing team of composer Joshua Salzman and lyricist-bookwriter Ryan Cunningham score again with another look at the love lives and ambivalence and restless of 20-somethings in New York City, as they did in their little gem called I Love You Because. That show's affable and put-upon leading man, Colin Hanlon, is again cast here as the good guy, and he's as appealing and winsome as ever, especially effective in a broken-heart number, "If She Were Coming Home." Jay Armstrong Johnson is solid and engaging as his unknowing rival and workmate, and their male bonding in song is buoyant. Lauren Blackman, who was in the production I saw, is also on the recording as the restless singer ready to move on from Manhattan. Patti Murin (star of Lysistrata Jones) shows versatility as the bartender who says she wants to be an actress, but seems in a rut and is pursued by the two male members of the four-person cast. The songs have an easygoing, easy-to-like natural flow and contemporary feel, approximating conversation and private confessions. Unlike many contemporary scores by young writers, this is not over-written, cramming five ideas into one long song. Salzman and Cunningham know how to be lean and terse, to the point, and find a balance between the pulse of pop and old-school musical comedy styles.
A winner all the way, and you never see them sweat or pushcast, band or writers. And yet it's ultimately moving in the soul-searching and hurt and desire to have a more meaningful life and relationshipminus heavy moralizing, message telegraphing or any holier-than-thou superior, arch philosophizing. And no "easy answer" predictable plot wrap-ups either. Good work!
Here, oh so belatedly but ever so welcome, is a re-creation of a 1924 serving of lovingly preserved fluff and swell craftthe genuinely sweet Sweet Little Devil. It's a smile-inducer. A show title that felt like a mystery, represented by a handful of isolated songs that have been recorded before, reveals itself to be full of pleasures and nifty nuggets, despite one of those silly plots that were so prevalent in early decades of the last century. With George Gershwin as composer and Buddy G. DeSylva as the lyricist, it's no surprise that there's gold in those unmined hills. "Hooray for the USA" and "Matrimonial Handicap" are fun, juicy pieces and the teasing jibes at romance mismatches and misadventures are made all the more enjoyable with real-life musical theatre spouses Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker playing a courting couple. Philip Chaffin, PS Classics' partner and resident sincere, soaring-voiced leading man, makes his usual reliable sunny appearance and the full cast captures the spirit. Goodwill, gentle laughs and cheer come in major super-sized amounts. Keep up the exciting excavations, please, PS Classics.
Next Week: 2012's top ten vocal albums. And then back to business as usual.