Sound Advice Reviews
Reality shows: three musicals about famous people
Notable figures from three different centuries inspired recent theatre pieces that make history sing. Representing different countries (the USA is not among them), the musicals' real-life figures inhabit the spheres of religion, politics and painting.
Beginning with the compellingly disarming a capella "My Prayer" and then "The Call" effectively establishing motivation, a one-woman musical drawn from history draws us in. As she sings and narrates her own history (using present-tense verbs), we make the acquaintance of the determined, dedicated, and seemingly unflappable Marguerite Bourgeoys. She left her native France to build a religious community and be an educator in Canada. A nun whose life took up the last 80 years of the 1600s, she helped build the city that came to be called Montreal and its congregation of Notre Dame. Responsive to the needs of women, children and the poor, she fostered a church, schools and non-cloistered religious settings. Her accomplishments and legacy led to the Pope naming her a Saint in 1982.
Lyricist/bookwriter Anton Dudley and composer Michael Cooper originally titled their ambitious and mostly earnest piece about this Sister Second to Nun (pun in name intended); a production in Virginia a few years ago had Molly Pope (name pun coincidental) in the role. Now titled Marguerite (not to be confused with the same-titled, unrelated musical with a Michel Legrand/Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg score), it arrived in New York City's borough of Queens in 2019 when the Astoria Performing Arts Center presented it in a site-specific production in a local church. Directed by Dev Bondarin, the game and gallant Cady Huffman donned the habit to be its sole performer and is likably present on Broadway Records' release billed as the "original cast recording." The musical accompanists are just twice as numerous as the cast, the excellent, evocative and subtle playing in the hands of pianist Yan Li (also serving as musical director) and cellist Luke Krafka.
While the proudly (if pushed) patriot's declaration "Je suis Canadienne" is a suitably stirring, twice-occurring anthem, the project does not oversell or overdramatize the heroic/pioneer persona or present Marguerite Bourgeoys as self-satisfyingly "holier than thou." Facing her decisions and challenges as natural choices, given her perspective, she seems refreshingly approachable. Songs that let her (and, thus, us) be charmed by local activities like "The Annual Fair of Furs" and the season's "First Fruits" are sweetly appealing. And the alliteration in those two titles and the light lilt of fitting melodies add to the understated cute factor. A number acknowledging the "Bearable" annoyance of dealing with insects adds some welcome humor. Cady Huffman soldiers through the recounted bearings of burdens and inspirations, but her sunny voice and personality often shine most winningly on the more low-key stuff.
With a large amount of spoken material, the recording's 30 selections vary in length from 14 seconds to six minutes. As quite a few of the tracks with singing also have narration within them, the talk can't all be programmed out if you want to hear just the songs on later listens. Attractive underscoring in some spots makes the reminiscences more emotionally effective, and things are livened up dramatically, briefly, when the actress takes on the theatre's "show, don't tell" prescription and ably switches timbres to approximate interactive dialogue. There's a TMI factor with references to hygiene challenges and gritty, groin-centric observations. Recollections of early inspiration, conflicts and risks command more attention than reports of dire conditions and acts of selfless bravery that still come off as self-effacingly matter-of-fact. Arguably, there's a lack of dramatic tension owing to an absence of moments that might make us (or the character) wonder if any obstacle will cause doubt, dismay or hesitation.
Marguerite is a portrait of perseverance and, of course, a matter of faith.
International financial dilemmas can provide great, thigh-slapping fun and the musical equivalent of daring high-wire acts (who knew?). With tongues firmly in cheek, but voices soaring, the audaciously outsized Angela's Ring imagines Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other European figures cartoonishly expressing their politics and pecuniary positions in the genre of opera. It could have been a one-joke sketch comedy gimmick unlikely to sustain its cute conceit over the length of two CDs, but it beats those odds due to the panache and polish of performers and sharpness of its satire. Yes, it's a hoot and musically rewarding. The fact that the cast features accomplished, dazzling voices that are thrilling on their own termsrather than settling for approximating or mocking the stylegoes a long way to sustaining pleasure. And somehow it doesn't get old to hear the public and private pleas and protestations play out in this grand scale, with headline-makers we were predisposed to think of as stern or discreet rather than seductive or sneering over-the-top melodrama queens.
Ten years ago, news follower Kabir Sehgal was working his day job as an investment banker in New York City, and his perspective about how money makes the world go around meshed with his musical instincts. A jazz bass player, he co-composed the music (with pianist Marie Incontrera) and wrote the libretto. They brought aboard The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra and guest musicians comfortable in opera and jazz styles. But there's more of a feel of opera or operetta than jazz, with a few passages noted as exceptions. Although not credited in the packaging/liner notes, famous melodies are also prominently used: the main theme from Beethoven's 9th ("Ode to Joy") Symphony and Puccini's aria "Nessun Dorma." If they've given any of the musical selections titles, they haven't listed them for listeners. So I can't comment specifically with the usual track-identifying information, but the sung suggestions from the opening double-entendre "Let us lie together" to the numerous debates to be or not to be forgiving of Greece's heavy debts are sly and sizzling.
The stellar five-person singing cast consists of: Lucy Schaufer as Merkel; David Gordon as Greece's prime minister, George Papandreou; Brandon Snook as France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy; Erik Bagger as Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi; and Marnie Breckenridge as Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. They all amusingly bluster and beg to differ, challenging and chastising each other with much self-aggrandizing pomp and circumstance. Inviting broad humor and the recognitions of stereotypes, some identifying stylistic trademarks, via ethnic music sounds or country-specific accents, are used. To divide segments and to provide a "real feel" timeline and sense of the world watching, actual print and TV journalists have been enlisted to record "breaking news"-style sum-ups of progress (or lack thereof).
With Angela's Ring, in musical splashiness and humor, you're getting a lot of bang for your euro.
Scholars disagree on who first said that a picture can be worth a thousand (or ten thousand) words, but the pictures painted by Vincent van Gogh have indeed inspired many wordsto describe his artworks, their inspiration, impact, importance, and the troubled life of the man himself. In their word-dense musical about him, Starry, co-lyricists Kelly Lynne D'Angelo (also the bookwriter) and Matt Dahan (also the composer) use language full of naked emotion and decoration. They had a head start with the vast amount of surviving family correspondence. The writers paint a picture of the painter that is poignant, as it veers from hope to despair, mixing the passing of daily struggles with glimpses of sensing being "On the Threshold of Eternity." With lyrics enveloping wishes, memories, frustrations and catharsis, the musicthrobbing or tender, intense or fragilelets hearts be worn on sleeves. This dominant vulnerability is somewhat offset by the equally deft characterizations of jaded, jeering painters (famous ones) and citizens of France.
Some mystique and controversy still surround the biography. Other musical theatre writers, including Michel John LaChiusa, have taken up the challenge of capturing aspects of the brief and troubled life (artistically, financially, psychologically) of the Dutch Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Dylan Saunders rises to the task of making this burdened creative soul quite sympathetic. Hearing the score, we hear the sensitivity and yearning come through the frustrations, even if things sometimes feel rather "on the nose" or idealized.
Although still awaiting a full-fledged production, the concept recording has been reissued with three bonus tracks. These are demos with the appealing vocals provided by the writers (Dahan on all three, D'Angelo joining him on the short "Paris at Night"). The "original" version of "Something After All" shares the title and the majestic melody of another piece sung in the main body of the story with passion by Joe Viba in the large role of Theo, Vincent's brother. As Theo's understanding and caring wife, Mariah Rose Faith also capably delivers warmth and strength, especially on her two solos reflecting on "Enlightenment" and "Sunlight and Storms."
Multitasker Dahan not only does most of the singing on the three demos, but he also joins the chorus on company numbers (as does his collaborator, with whom he is the recording's co-producer) and he is on hand for piano, guitars, programming, arrangements, orchestrations, music direction, engineering, mixing and mastering. Only two other musicians are named: Mark Desrosiers on electric bass and Austin Farmer on drums/percussion. It all feels very full, yet intimate when appropriate for the more fragile feelings and thoughts.
While one senses much love and care lavished on the characters and how they express themselves, some goals may still be elusive. So many instances where these lyricists settle for near-rhymes and musical notes that put the stress unnaturally on a syllable distract from and dilute the impact of more articulate and graceful passages. Some thoughts are pithy, such as "What happens when we die?/ The answer's in the sky ... The sight of 'The Starry Night' sets me free" and "There's no serenity in living without feeling" (in the song proclaiming "A New Horizon"). In the number called "United in Distaste" we note both false rhymes and true rhymes (some using French words), the concise yet aggrandizing "We paint a destiny/ With ecstasy" and the clever tongue-twisting "In absinthe's absence you'll see there's no abstinence." These last lines are sung solo by Jeff Blim, spot on as a caustic Paul Gauguin. In "The Yellow House," he snarls "You could charge a battery/ With our backhanded flattery." Other pieces may risk overstatement or leaning quite a bit, literally and metaphorically, on words unavoidably tied to the painter and his demons: "dark," "bright," "light," "dark."
Starry is full of affection, humanity, and promise.