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10 from '11
Top Cast Albums of the Year



Also see last week's column on the year's Top Vocal Albums.

Please note that this list reflects selections of new cast albums submitted for review in the calendar year 2011. Here we go, not ranked in order of preference, but in alphabetical order.

Betty Blue EyesBETTY BLUE EYES
First Night Records
Original Review

With a pig—yes, a pig—at the center of the story of their musical, the team of composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, writers of the memorably cute and spunky Honk!, the musicalization of "the Ugly Duckling" story, might have called their recent London show Oink!. Instead, they simply use the name of the sought-after animal-to-be-meal in war-rationed times in this adaptation of a movie called A Private Function. It functions as a chance to spoof the class system and the times, but also to be surprisingly touching. The songwriters, who added some spiffy songs to the long-running stage version of Mary Poppins, are expert at turning out especially catchy and well-crafted songs that can be a delight to treasure. And the very capable cast here digs into them. The numbers include pastiche of period-evoking strutting music hall-style numbers to the madcap mayhem surrounding the would-be stealthy sealing of a pig, but there's more than just satire and sass or jolly, jaunting smile-inducers. The loneliness and weariness of wartime's effects and people trapped in their small, boxed-in lives informs some of the numbers, making them touching and occasionally haunting.

The Burnt Part BoysTHE BURNT PART BOYS
OFF-BROADWAY CAST
Yellow Sound Label
Not previously reviewed

One thing in stories and plays that always gets to me emotionally is this: the vulnerability and deep hurt that boys trying to "be men" think they are valiantly and successfully masking. It's at the center of The Burnt Part Boys, an intriguing and surprising musical. Listening to its cast album had me enthralled, feeling like I was a worrisome step behind the two danger-laden hikes and hunts up the trails, even though I'd seen the production and remembered the outcome. We hear some connecting tissue of Mariana Elder's script along with the songs by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics).

Unassuming and full of natural-sounding speech as song, the literal and emotional claustrophobia that inform the piece bring a listener into the boys' world in the tale that takes place over the course of one day. At the onset, the lamenting, lingering echoes of tragedy surround us as we're confronted by the eerie but oddly comforting sounds of the the voices of men who died in a coal mine tragedy a decade ago. We soon learn that the fatherless boys we'll be following were among the family members left behind and a radio report announces that the mine is about to be re-opened and be a work site again. This infuriates 14-year-old Pete (played convincingly and with a sense of purpose by Al Calderon) who considers the tragic site sacred ground ("I am one of many boys/ Hearing heartbeats in the hill ... with giant boots to fill/ Is there something I can do ..."). Already troubled by the fact that brother Jake, older by four years, himself has taken a danger-filled job as a miner in the small town instead of finishing high school, he is filled with a sense of outrage and righteousness. He sets off for the mine with dynamite to do damage that he thinks can make the mine unusable. Jake soon discovers what's happened and sets off to catch up with him and prevent the risky action. Each is accompanied by a friend for help and company and support. Another loose cannon in the mix is a scrappy girl with a gun whom they come upon, another variety of lost soul with potential as helper. She's played with fierce bravado and tough skin by Molly Ranson.

Pete also turns to heroic historic figures his imagination conjures up, all on his mind from seeing the movie The Alamo. With some needed comic relief, Michael Park entertainingly plays all three larger than life figures, imaginary "guides" (Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Jim Bowie) with lessons to casually pass on. Park also plays the role of one of the four deceased miners—not coincidentally, he's cast as the one who is Pete and Jake's dad. Reflecting the past and ever present, they function musically as a harmonizing quartet. Evan Harrington is one, the sole performer here replacing an original cast member not on the recording, Asa Somers, whose billing is retained on the outside of the packaging. The quartet is filled out by Steve French and Randy Redd, the latter with a strikingly memorable voice heard in Parade and as a replacement in Million Dollar Quartet as Jerry Lee Lewis.

As the 18-year-old pals, Charlie Brady (as Jake) and Andrew Durand (Chet) sing with macho-fueled gusto and sudden glimpses of their fears and regrets ("Remember the time/ We swore to join the circus/ ... Up here/ I swear I feel 11 ..."). They make for fine, mutual-support-system, beer-swilling buds who snap to attention when Pete "snaps" and runs off with the dynamite. With all the swagger and tough skin barely covering tenderness or denial, one of the most affecting and disarming moments comes with the plaintive-voiced solo by young Pete's nervous friend, "Dusty Plays the Saw." The accompaniment, featuring country-inflected music on strings (guitars, mandolin, viola, bass), is achingly evocative and stirring, a constant companion, spurring on the motivations and confessions. The name of Vadim Feichtner as conductor/pianist is always a welcome sight and assurance that music will be commandingly precise, unfettered without wasted detouring distractions or hampered by button-pushing effects substituting for guts. Not to be underestimated for their lean and atmospheric impact, the orchestrations are by the talented Bruce Coughlin. The very specific storyline opens up to be more universal in its thought-provoking themes of faith, responsibility, personal choices, legacy and blood ties (the impactful song "Family Tree") and moving on.

FolliesFOLLIES
2-CD SET

PS Classics
Original Review

A much-discussed production of a much-loved musical brings forth yet another cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's masterful score. On a 2-CD set, it includes some sections of James Goldman's dialogue to put the songs and moments in context. In years to come, this should re-ignite vivid memories of this show that's all about memories. The intense emotions attached to revisiting the past—swirling, sweetened, or crashing and burning with sting—are often palpable here as a strong cast makes some strong acting choices. Richly and beautifully recorded and produced, it's an exciting and exhilarating ride. To be moved, unsettled and involved are nearly as inevitable as the piper-paying passing of time and 20/20 hindsight considering "The Road You Didn't Take." Filled with stunning numbers (the generous-length showstopping "Who's That Woman?" is not the only one holding up a mirror to the past where you might just see yourself), it's a feast. A wealth of riches that overshadows any single item's assessment. And, oh! that sumptuous orchestra and orchestrations that so add to the already-abundant emotion!

HalloweenHALLOWEEN: THE MUSICAL
ORIGINAL FLORIDA CAST

Not previously reviewed

Who would imagine that John Carpenter's horror movie Halloween would make for a hoot of tongue-firmly-in-cheek wild ride of a musical? Surprise! It does, campy in the best knowing and affectionate way possible. John B. deHaas, songwriter/bookwriter/pianist/producer, shopped his quirky show and got a production going, privately pressed a small number of copies of the rather bare-bones Orlando, Florida, cast recording for its cult followers late in 2010 before a wider distribution in 2011. And here it is, in all its small-scale, zippy gory glory. Guilty pleasure or underdog goofy audacious triumph, it's grand silliness and full of homages to not just scary flicks but various musical styles from Broadway to bubble gum rock of different eras. The nine-member cast, most playing multiple roles, include John Graham from the original movie.

The teen-speak overuse of an all-purpose word becomes a song; "Totally" will remind you of any conversation overheard walking behind adolescents in a mall or street. A song of a schoolgirl's obsessive crush on a dreamy boy named "Ben Tramer" is sweet and fluttery—you can almost picture her writing his name over and over in the margins of her notebook in class. The cast gives the material their all, jumping in with abandon, whether the material gets them to rock out with fear, innocence or the twisted mind of a revenge-seeking nut job set off by the nut-filled chocolate bar stolen.

There are self-referencing songs, with the frantic proceedings blithely interrupted by comments about having to rhyme certain words in a lyric or the need to finish a song before the action, as it were, can continue. The variety of musical styles and the mostly very short numbers make the proceedings zip by without numbers overstaying their welcomes after points and pastiches are established and exploited. The whole thing ends with a winking "Mega Mix" of the songs as a bonus track experience.

With the implied consent that everybody loves a good scare, and that mocking the horror genre can be as enjoyable as reveling in it, Halloween: The Musical is a real trick and treat. It celebrates the communal experience of scare tactics in such stories, embracing the suspension of disbelief—or not—of "It's only a movie; why are we screaming?" The bouncy songs in this free-for-all are full of fun, and the show's only purpose seems to be to have a blast and provide one. Notable is that, despite the teen horny hormonal agenda of a song like "Don't Get Dressed" and the blood and gore at its disposal, deHaas's Halloween does not go for the easy vulgarity in language or descriptions of death and dastardly doings. It pokes fun at musical theatre and spine-tingle movies without a superiority complex that makes fans of genres feel foolish.

How to Succeed ...HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING
2011 BROADWAY REVIVAL CAST

Decca Broadway
Original Review

This 50th anniversary revival of the smart musical satirizing the corporate world smartly remains feisty without indulging in latter-day mean-spirited snarkiness. It has its own energy, with the very youthful bubbling-over charm of a quite endearing Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role. Frank Loesser's sharply playful score comes up shining again. It's simply a ball to listen to—a blast of bombast and cheer that is infectious. A little ham, plenty of sparkle from cast and orchestra, gallons of glee all make this the cast album that makes you want to dance and march around with a big grin, offering the musical equivalent of that "one chemical substance" workers are frantically seeking in "Coffee Break." Peppy and just plain fun, the pluck parades on, all done "The Company Way."

A Little PrincessA LITTLE PRINCESS
STUDIO CAST

Ghostlight/ Sh-K-Boom Records
Original Review

The skill set for survival in trying times is what the title character of The Little Princess has, and the old story's adaptors and studio cast have some solid skills themselves to bring a sincere triumph of the human spirit to life. Andrew Lippa and Brian Crawley's version of the piece has equal parts sentiment and gritty determination, served family style, without condescending into a cute, sugar-coated treatment. Heroic one moment, lonely and vulnerable the next, a young girl separated from her father but holding fast to their love and lessons learned, we root for them. Interestingly, the characters who could be portrayed as all-good or all-evil get more three-dimensional characterizations through the varied and vivid songs. The score has a range of styles and is well served by top musical theatre performers in this studio cast album, including Sierra Boggess, Will Chase and Julia Murney. Not shying away from throbbing songs of yearning, "words to live by," axioms and laments, the heart is on the sleeve—but ultimately soars. Along the way, we're swept up in a tale of how cruel Fate and kids and can be and urged to remember the more crucial things that count when hope and happy endings seem unattainable. One also is intrigued to hope for a major production of this play in New York, but meanwhile, its strengths will find it homes in regional theatres as a fine musicalization of a beloved property with a life-affirming core and score.

Sweet Bye and ByeSWEET BYE AND BYE
PS Classics
Original Review

Buried in the rubble of Broadway roadkill and too many cooks spoiling the broth, glimmers of golden gems can often be found in the dust. The Sweet Bye and Bye is one of those very old musical comedies that got de-railed and rewritten and recast and revamped a few times before giving up the ghost and being forgotten to history. Almost. PS Classics' Tommy Krasker knew about it, researched it, and has had it on his wish list for years. He finally gets his wish come true with a delightful studio cast album. The show was heavily revised, with some details and reasoning murky after all these years, and so what we have is not everything written along the various detours, nor is it the most coherent of stories as is (it seems it never, ever was). But that's kind of besides the point, pretty much, for a story that's mostly silly to begin with. What is the point is that we have some splendid, well-performed numbers with spice and splash, an excellent studio cast of theatre performers diving in. Among them are Danny Burstein and Marin Mazzie. The story of the future and unassuming little guy thrust into the crass world of big-time corporate greed brings forth a treasure trove of songs by Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash. It is both fascinating for the curious historian and quite entertaining for the more casual or devoted musical comedy lover. The especially interesting and informative booklet gives the "what were they thinking?" background of the show that reads like a farce of epic proportions. Some of the songs have been, thankfully, picked up by singers over the years, but much of the search-and-rescue mission is "fresh finds" and happy discoveries. Better late than never!

The Trumpet of the SwanTHE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN
A NOVEL SYMPHONY FOR ACTORS AND ORCHESTRA

STUDIO CAST
PS Classics
Original Review

An unusual choice as a cast album in that it's full of dialogue and instrumental music rather than songs, but The Trumpet of the Swan is a story with music and characters—and favorites from the musical theatre world that makes it a winner. Adapted here by playwright Marsha Norman, E.B. White's book for young readers, sitting proudly alongside his Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little immortals is another tale of animal smarts and finding one's way in the world. With a score by Jason Robert Brown that is alternately grand and delicate, it is full of feeling. It holds up surprisingly well on repeat listenings, thanks to the quality and performance of the music itself and the investment of the performers. Anchored by John Lithgow, narrating and interacting as our hero, we also get the talents of actors Kathy Bates, Martin Short and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. A love of music and a zest for life are factors in the story which has some sly humor and much tenderness.

With GleeWITH GLEE
OFF-BROADWAY (PROSPECT THEATER) CAST

Brimmer Street Productions
Not previously reviewed

Bristling and bubbling over with the restless, jangled-nerves, self-righteous-but-questioning energy of teen-aged boys, With Glee makes for a rollicking roller coaster ride of a cast album. The boys are a motley crew thrown together from various places and backgrounds at a Maine boarding school. The misfit, the misunderstood, the miserably lonely boys whose parents are otherwise occupied chasing careers and money or fighting fiercely with each other have sent them off to what some of them see as a dumping ground tagged as a "Bad Kid School" (the opening number). Composer/lyricist/bookwriter John Gregor has captured both the outward and inward expressions of five boys and authority figure adults as perceived by them. All grown-ups are played by voice chameleons Greg Horton and Erin Jerozal.

Originating at the NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program a decade ago, I caught it and was quite taken with it in 2007 in the annual festival of new works, NYMF, before it was picked up in 2010 for a run at Prospect Theater. The cast album contains much of the humor, brashness and underlying heart I vividly remember. The company was directed by Igor Goldin. Warning: Some of the melodies and musicalized mindsets are so jaunty and rollicking or march-like that they do get stuck in your head, but they feel welcome. One affecting lyric that gives the show its title (no relation to glee clubs or a certain TV show that came along later) has the boys longing to be declaring "with glee" that it would be so wonderful to have another kind of life and be "Normal." Encapsulating the mind-exploding burdens of juggling an outpouring of knowledge in various classes led by demanding professors, "Gaul Was Divided in Three Parts" is a dynamic ensemble number. Another tour de force is grand fun for the theatre aficionado as the boys perform a student-written opus aping the indulgences and excesses of musical theatre styles of writing and performing ("Tomas: A One-Act Musical," lasting a rarely lagging seven minutes). The sense of being trapped in close quarters, getting close with others, and the thrill of freedom in escape to the imagined glories of the Massachusetts city "Worcester" all are vividly and vigorously enveloped.

Especially well done and crucial is the musical accompaniment as played and orchestrated. The instrumental accompaniment becomes strong punctuation, crisply and in detail, unflaggingly reinforcing the intensity of commentary and emotions, or suggesting subtext when feelings are hidden. Rob Hartmann is orchestrator, with Daniel Feyer, musical coordinator/conductor, at the piano and synthesizer, credited with additional arrangements. He's joined by a small group of musicians and the sounds include banjo and bassoon.

The young actor-singers are exemplary: the first one we hear is Christopher David Carlisle as the simmering fellow who explains that he was just trying to win friends and influence pupils when, at his original school, he "possibly accidentally I set off fireworks ... but maybe set off a rather large fire." He creates plenty of fireworks of another kind in a consistently strong-willed, rewarding performance. Impressive Zach Bandler gets our ear and our sympathy as the rich kid whose parents give him everything but real care and attention. Dan Lawler is especially effective as Clay, the isolated, socially challenged boy with a therapist and an obsession with his prized model boat he calls his friend. Jason Edward Cook and Max Spitulnik round out the kinetic quintet winningly.

WonderlandWONDERLAND
2011 BROADWAY CAST ALBUM

Masterworks Broadway
Original Review

This last-alphabetical choice surprises even me. A longtime follower/collector of adaptations of the rich Lewis Carroll writings, I might have written off Wonderland as simply the frustrating misfire with missed opportunities. I was hardly the only one to cavil, but I'm jumping off the bandwagon. My initial impressions were somewhat colored by having seen the problematic show which was more of a desperate mishmosh—and the exhausting "noisiness" of several tracks on the CD. It's grown on me and its very real assets on their own (sometimes not very Carroll-like) outweigh the negatives more so than in the cases of some other candidates for a slot. Commercial success should be irrelevant and, ultimately, it's the performance that counts. A crucial criteria for being included on a list like this, for me, is if the CD loses a lot of interest after the novelty or a plot's surprise or the humor in comedy wear off with repeated exposure.

The Frank Wildhorn/ Jack Murphy score has its pleasures and certainly goes for a plentiful helping of the "madness" quotient that's so key to the ambiance of the bizarre land where most of the action takes place—and check also the box for showing self-centered, self-satisfied characters. Major assets are the splashily savvy performance by Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts and Darren Ritchie really shining as the sweet and heroic knight in shining armor. And, finally, as Alice, Janet Dacal has a fully satisfying song in the finale, "Finding Wonderland." There's heart here.

HONORABLE MENTION

This Hills Are AliveBROOKLYN RUNDFUNK ORKESTRATA (B.R.O.)
THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
SONGS FROM RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN'S
THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Canal Records
Original Review

I can't look back on 2011 without a smile for this wild rethinking and reshaping of the score of the immortal The Sound of Music. Creative and seemingly irreverent at first shocked glance, this often loopy, genre-hopping pastiche samples and echoes everything from contemporary music to Motown to other musical theatre scores (such as a teaspoon of West Side Story's "Maria" in this show's song of the same name). It's a music-lover's picnic to identify the sources, and those of us who've known this score's traditional sound inside out may be amazed, or at least refreshed, to hear it turned inside out. Vocalists include folk notable Jane Siberry and a satisfying "Something Good" written for the movie version by Carolyn Leonhart and Everett Bradley, plus some far-out, less "recognizable" adventures. There's a love for the basic material, rather than razzing, that is at hand with this work from the creative musical mind of Peter Kiesewalter, which originally alarmed—and then was embraced by—the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization.


Next week: top vocal CDs of 2011


- Rob Lester


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