Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Listening to emotion-packed Broadway
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's open our ears to the recordings of some musicals that arrived on Broadway this past season, with stories you may have encountered previously on the screen or in a novel. They have optimistic, life-affirming aspects, but keep tissues handy for tears. Two of them (Water for Elephants and The Outsiders) have sympathetic central male protagonists whose parents had been killed in a car crash, with more deaths to come as the plots thicken. Days of Wine and Roses has its own drama and, like the others, characters with struggles and strengths.

Masterworks Broadway
Digital | CD release 7/12 | Vinyl release 8/9

A storm of angst, conflict, resentment, and frustration brews (and rages) in The Outsiders, the coming-of-age saga based on the novel by S. E. Hinton (written when she herself was just a teenager). But there's a lot of heart, too.

With characters who are mostly males in–or just past–their teen years, in volatile or pressured situations, some lyrics reflect the restlessness and short fuses while certain plot twists cue tender feelings to surface in songs. Accordingly, the cast members' voices show steely forcefulness as well as lurking tenderness. This recording's most impactful selections are the ones displaying raw nerves and open wounds, plus those that show interpersonal bonds that have formed and then fracture.

Although set in "Tulsa, 1967" as stated in the bustling opening song, which effectively packs in much exposition and atmosphere, the music that has a rock or country flavor doesn't blatantly feel like conscious pastiche of songs that zoomed up the charts in that specific period. The heartfelt ballads and several sung conversations are not redolent of any particular genre, but feel more than sufficiently theatrical. They are varied, with lyrics that often have appropriate naturalistic punch rather than the sheen of wordplay and wit, sometimes settling for near-rhymes which are more common in non-theatre songs.

Multi-tasker Justin Levine, with recent work on musical aspects of Here Lies Love and Moulin Rouge!, is all over the credits here, as he collaborated on the music and lyrics with Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance (aka the duo Jamestown Revival) and co-produced the recording with the pair. He is also the musical supervisor, did the arrangements and orchestrations, and contributed an essay about the show's creation to the digital booklet that also has photos and all the lyrics of the 19 tracks that reveal the bold, bracing, and moving sides of The Outsiders.

As the three orphaned Curtis brothers from the poor side of town, the actors present formidable characterizations and potent emotion rings through their singing voices. Brody Grant is charismatic and sympathetic as Ponyboy, the youngest. This "greaser" gang member also provides some narration. Brent Comer plays Darrel, the oldest sibling and formidable hard-working rock of the family who also shows his temper. Jason Schmidt is engaging as middle brother, nicknamed Sodapop, and the pleading "Soda's Letter" is a highlight.

But the concept of family extends beyond the blood relations as the family-like friendships and loyalties among Ponyboy's fellow gang members and others are crucial to the story and songs as the young people deal with fights, desperation, and deaths. Connections with a friend named Johnny are also key and when Sky Lakota-Lynch, in this role, starts singing "Stay Gold," the sweetness and caring in his sound and delivery capture the essence of urging perseverance. It's the soul of the score, and it's a standout. Other fine work comes from Joshua Boone as Dally (dynamically leading "Trouble" and "Little Brother"), Kevin William Paul in the dual role of a policeman and Bob, a member of the rival gang called the Socs, and Emma Pittman as Bob's girlfriend who finds a kind of simpatico with Ponyboy, too.

And, next year, audiences beyond Broadway will have a chance to relate to the Oklahomans in The Outsiders, as a national tour has just been announced–to start, appropriately, right in Tulsa.

Nonesuch Records
CD | Digital

Those who've been dazzled and swept away before by the passion and yearning in composer/lyricist Adam Guettel's work are not surprised that there are similarly artful whirlwinds of beauty and emotion in his latest score, Days of Wine and Roses. There are grandly soaring swaths of melody for euphoria and despair, with language that can burst forth poetically or be remarkably economical, packing much meaning into terse phrases. Tension, tragedy, romance, and remorse take turns in the spotlight as a man and woman are seduced by alcohol and pay the tolls of addiction. This story has had previous "lives" as a teleplay, major motion picture, non-musical stage version, and novelization.

A modest amount of the dialog by Craig Lucas is present; the first number, "Magic Time," is a mix of spoken and sung material. It's also the longest of the 16 tracks at almost six minutes, while half last shorter than two and a half minutes. Unfortunately, there's no overture to let us focus just on the melodies, but I can imagine a sublime suite of them, created for orchestra, to be played in concert halls.

Strong-voiced stars Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara sing and act commandingly, as we follow their characters, Joe and Kirsten, from initial connection through to the crashes and catharsis. The high-level craft of the songwriting and the instrumental sounds (orchestrations by Mr. Guettel and Jamie Lawrence, also the recording's co-producers) allow for richness and depth, with fraught moments evidencing much brewing below the surface. They are ticking time bombs that could explode.

The sorrowful songs have poignancy, detail, and a kind of elegance so they are not merely exercises in one-dimensional breast-beating, wailing, and wallowing in misery. Nevertheless, the gloom and gut-punch pain are palpable. But it's not all misery or misery-loves-company for these drinking companions who fall in love. Early numbers are brighter and exuberant (albeit fueled by alcohol and/or the intoxicating effects of a love connection), like "Evanesce" and "Are You Blue?" which zip along by employing zingy jazz rhythms. And there's more respite from the rue and rage with a lullaby and expressions of hope.

The recording was made in August of last year, after Days... ended its Off-Broadway run and before it began its time on Broadway in January. Thus it's the Off-Broadway cast member Ella Dane Morgan singing the role of Joe and Kirsten's young daughter here, the only other performer with solo singing lines, and her sweet, unaffected sound and emoting are touching as her character expresses concern and affection for her mother in the words of "The Letters" they exchange while apart. The six-member Off-Broadway band features the distinctive sounds of marimba and vibes not part of the instrumentation for the Broadway transfer (which employed eight musicians).

While some may find the drama draining in the most intense segments, it's also riveting. Those for whom the music is not instantly accessible or that some of the "bigger" singing in laments is overwhelming may, with repeat exposure, experience it more gratifyingly. For me, it was more like love at first hearing, with increasing affection after spending more days with Days of Wine and Roses.

Ghostlight Records
Digital | (CD release planned for summer)

While there's much to dazzle the eye in a grand stage production set in a circus, the audio souvenir that it is the Broadway cast recording of Water for Elephants offers plenty of pow and drama even without being able to see the spectacle–acrobats, a man on the flying trapeze, the animal puppets, and all the bright colors.

The score by the seven-man group called PigPen Theatre Co. is varied, containing robust ballyhooing about the enticing charms and realities of this particular circus, songs of love and carpe diem, a balm-like lullaby, anguished lamenting, and confrontations. The music bursts with electric excitement, joy, braggadocio, and distraught moments. The atmospheric and emotionally charged arrangements are by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Benedict Braxton-Smith, with the latter sharing orchestration credits with Daryl Waters and August Eriksmoen.

A captivating cast brings energy galore, with the vigor vulnerability in the voice of Grant Gustin as Jacob a major attraction in the center ring of our attention. Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman brings his skills to smoothly play the older version of Jacob, reliving his past. Romantic sparks fly in the musical numbers, dramatizing the character's interactions with Marlena (the compelling Isabelle McCalla). Trouble ensues when their mutual attraction is observed by her husband, the imposing and abusive boss/ringmaster of the circus (Paul Alexander Nolan, in a commanding performance with more than a shadow of danger).

The combination of camaraderie and frankness in the group singing of "The Road Don't Make You Young" is an instant smile-inducing attention-grabber, contrasting with the soothing "Easy," Isabelle McCalla's disarmingly gentle and spare solo. The vehement lashing out in "You've Got Nothing," with August pulling his weight and pulling no punches, is high drama.

Water for Elephants has the intensity of sorrow and conflicts, while also satisfying with numbers that bring out the happiness and zip we associate with circus performances. So it lets the performers in the acts strut their stuff while, along with the behind-the-scenes relationships, getting heavier than other musicals about circus folk such as Barnum and Jumbo. The latter extravaganza had a real elephant with the same name as the one in this show: Rosie. "Ode to an Elephant" salutes Water's prized pachyderm and is an irresistible treat.

Some key events in the story, especially toward the end, aren't revealed in the cast recording's 19 musical selections. However, most of the tracks stand on their own as engrossing scenes and statements. Not all of them are equally polished in their attention to true rhyming, unfortunately, but it's not a major detriment as there's plenty to pull us in that sizzles and bubbles, with committed performances all around.