Sound Advice Reviews
The Top Ten Cast Albums of 2013
The past year brought many pleasures to the ears and mind when it came to cast albums. Some were on the daring side, others were familiar musical comfort food in the form of revivals. Here's my annual personal "bests" of those submitted for review, in alphabetical order.
This version of the fairy tale takes its own spin around the royal ballroom floor. Our heroine simply loves to dance. (It's not a glass slipper she loses at the ball, but a tap shoe.) Playing as much like a modest version of a splashy and smiley 1930s musical, it's adorable but not sticky or blind in its tap-happy and snappy tale. Determined to please, it's a cheerful little charmer spiced with humor. The score is in the hands of composer/lyricist/conductor Ezra Weiss. (He did the same duties for a creative jazz look at Alice in Wonderland). As is often the case with the numerous versions of this tale (musical or otherwise), broad humor is supplied by the ego-centric stepsisters. Show-biz showiness comes in numbers like "The Show Must Go On" and "Practice Makes Perfect." Some of the pieces can stand nicely on their own as theatre-loving instructive messages. High in energy and lower in romantic mush than might be expected, this refreshing new take on an old story is endearing.
The Closer Than Ever revue, from songwriting team Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, gets a polished revisit with another 2-CD set. This show has, as a major strength, songs appropriate for characters who aren't spring chickens, but still have plenty of bite and fight left in them. It's a goldmine for singers looking for such material. Christiane Noll, George Dvorsky, Jenn Colella, and Sal Viviano are a winning quartet of theatre singers. Gratifyingly, this is not just a retread of the original version's interpretations. There are a few differences in song lists from the earlier version; that makes it collectible, but those who more or less memorized the old CD will find new and vibrant, "personality-plus" interpretation.
The British are coming! Strike up the band! A story of the troops and fair maidens distracting them in the 1700s when Manhattan was occupied by the Brits, Dearest Enemy has marched its way into my list of favorite cast albums of this or any year. The very belated full recording of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart's very early work (1925) is cause for celebration. In 1997, a CD was issued which rescued performances from a TV version which featured some of the score and book, with alterations, plus recordings made long ago of the handful of its published s songs. A medley on a Ben Bagley-produced album Rodgers & Hart Revisited, Volume III also had whetted the taste of the songwriters' fans who had to be satisfied with Robert Kimball's book of "The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart" to imagine how the words might sit on music and how firmly the tongue was planted in cheek. Revel in this Revolutionary War tale, but don't take it too seriously (as if you could!).
Kim Criswell, familiar to cast album collectors, nimbly takes the role of Mrs. Murray who hosted and supposedly manipulated the British. With her singing role mostly in the first act, her presence and command are missed on the second disc. There are jokes where the audience is in on it, from their historical perspective a century and a half after the action ("All the oldest witticisms/ Earn our comic opera authors' daily bread" in "Old Enough to Love") and a dialogue line tossed off about New York City being so relaxing as compared to "the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia."
Some selections reveal the influence of operetta in their courtly romanticism and soprano warbling and heroic baritone stoicism. Act two's all-out straightforward declaring of undying love, "Here's a Kiss," especially in its florid reprise in act two, would not be out of place in a traditional Romberg love story or one of the more rhapsodic moments in Show Boat by Rodgers's much-admired role model, Jerome Kern. But, in most cases, the Rodgers strong, forceful gifts of building a song keep them brisker and brighter. Although often encased in formal melodies and characterizations that seem coy and courtly, the cleverness bursts through with many rhymes to the square inch. In "Full-Blown Roses," the officers sing, "Your beauty is your surety,/ Security for purity./ If one man can endure it, he ..." How about that!
Hart frequently worked in little digs that go by so quickly you barely have enough time to raise your eyebrows. He was a sly one. Even at this early career stage, the work of Rodgers & Hart is fully formed and highly polished. In addition to strong but graceful melodies, one after the other, it's so chock full of chuckles and spiffy dense rhyming as to be an embarrassment of riches.
And there's some disc time devoted to letting us just enjoy the melodies on their own with an expanded overture that highlights the score's best-known piece, "Here in My Arms," which survived to later be adopted by Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Dick Haymes and The Mamas and the Papas among others. And many tracks allow time for instrumental interludes or final choruses by the large orchestra. With David Brophy conducting the large Orchestra of Ireland, the feast is sumptuous. The instrumental interludes mid-song are always welcome, getting the melodies under our skin, "selling" the tunes as intended and was the tradition in older shows. Underscoring is also present and non-intrusive, but hardly colorless. The music swells.
Larry Moore took on the sometime jigsaw puzzle-esque task of reconstructing the score, from various incarnations under a few different early titles, using the original orchestrations when possible, adding his own when instinct and necessity prodded him to do so. That's explained in quite a bit of detail in the booklet for this double-CD set. It also includes an interesting history of not just the show, but the period of history it covers, and some key plot points exaggerated more by legend than the writers. And all the lyrics and spoken material heard here are included, too. Only occasionally would the songs' words need to be consulted for catching them, in the case of a few ensemble numbers with many voices and orchestral detail competing for attention on first hearing. On solos and much group singing, diction is attentively crisp and this part of the booklet is valuable to just dwell on the wit and craft.
George Washington finally shows up at the end, but doesn't have a song, only being heard in dialogue. He tells the heroine that we all owe her "a great debt" for "a gift we hope you will always prize." The same can be said of Rodgers and Hart. And further thanks to New World Records, their dedicated endeavors breathing new life into what might otherwise linger in dusty bins of arcane theatre history. Like the last number, a bonus track restoring something cut from a few shows, "The Pipes of Pansy," describing love, the old stuff feels "newer than June is."
Strutting young men on a romp make a bet centering on tricking unsuspecting young women into showing up for a date, the guy who finds the least good-looking one (the "dog") wins. That's what the plot of Dogfight centers upon. It's crass and cruel, but the music and lyrics make for a surprisingly effective and appealing score. As different as night and day Justin Paul and Benj Pasek's warm-and-fuzzy (and comical) hit adaptation of A Christmas Story, Dogfight serves to show their versatility. But there's much more than that. Sympathy is stirred up for the central female, Rose, played to a tee by Lindsay Mendez. "Come to a Party" works its seductive charms, macho style, and Derek Klena as Eddie works his wiles. And the period feel in the songs is skillful and attractive, with its tough-guy preening and male bonding neatly done, with likeable harmonies on group songs. The piece is filled with such little stabs to the heart and to pride. Some result in blistered wounds, some are more shrugged off.
GAY'S THE WORD
Title character Gay is a feisty, you-can't-keep-a-good-gal-down kind of central figure that musicals love. In Gay's the Word, from the beginning of the 1950s, she has her chipper personality chipped away by a big flop in the theatre she runs, then less-than-stellar drama students in the school she then opens. Oh, yes, and there are smugglers using her house as a headquarters for their evil deeds. Sophie-Louise Dann bites into the central role and many songs with glee. She's a belter with a few notes of sarcasm, the material allowing her to be rouse things up or just be playful in a zippy way. A witty highlight is her take on "It's Bound to Be Right on the Night," as she sings of the woesand especially the self-delusionsthat a troubled play can work out its problems. Hope against feeble hope is a hilarious litany of nails in the theatrical coffin ("jokes twice as old as The Flood"). James Church supplies the bright piano accompaniment.
The lyrics, often cutely rhyming or sweetly sentimental, were the work of Alan Melville and the melodies and original book (adapted here) were the work of British musical giant of his day Ivor Novello. It was his last work, as he died just weeks after the opening. His music is bright and bouncy, stopping only occasionally in its fleetness or floweriness to get caught in your ear or pull the occasional heartstring.
The hit of the show, understandably, was the showstopping "Vitality!" in which Gay explains what's missing in much theatre. A button-pushing old-school (even its in day) kind of number, it's great fun and rather irresistible. With the same qualities, but adding a layer of romance, is "A Matter of Minutes" with its emphasis on rhyming about being in love (sincerely, nearly, clearly). Helena Blackman and Josh Little, the younger couple, do the honors (and twiceit's that kind of score). A large male and female chorus participate on many tracks, daring us not be swept along with the musical tide. If that hasn't happened before the hammered-in (in a good way) finale, "Bees Are Buzzin'" about the joys of spring, then you are a resistible listener indeed.
A reissue of the original production came out almost a decade ago, but there are a couple of songs here not included therein. One is "Teaching," in which the instructors complain about their hopeless theatre arts pupils and how they not-so-supportively deal with or dismiss them. Of special note is that one of those staff members is Elizabeth Seal who was in the chorus in the original production more than half a century ago! Cast album fans know she went on to other roles, such as the title role in the Broadway cast of Irma La Douce. This CD is a rosy, rollicking ride.
Often sublime in its beauty or emotion, other times stirring, occasionally tense and sorrowful, Giant is compelling and commanding of attention. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa came up with arguably his most accessible (dare I say "traditional"?) musical theatre score. If the top-notch cast weren't so starry and convincingly connected, they would be upstaged by the melodies and magnificent orchestrations (mainly by Bruce Coughlin). Woodwinds are heartbreakingly wistful in their tenderness, and the full sound of the orchestra's musical landscape is dynamic and yet nuanced when it needs to be. And, yes, those orchestrations are the icing on the cake, more than worthy of a listener's complete focus on later listenings. They feel crafted and smart rather than manipulative.
As the married couple at the center of the Texas-set tale, Kate Baldwin and Brian d'Arcy James are at their absolute best. In what might be a broad-strokes approach to the Edna Ferber novel that became a star-studded Hollywood film, these actors have many moments where they subtly shade words and their reactions are felt sometimes in pauses and sudden bravado or being caught off-guard. The love of the ranch and family history permeates the story as sung here. Bold when called for, ardent in some early songs of love (requited or unrequited), yearning or proud, there are many colors in the paintbox. It's that rare big-scope musical that still invites us in to the feelings and foibles that lurk not far from the surface.
Katie Thompson is invigorating and touching as a seemingly strong woman. Her singing rings and soars. My only frustration with the disc is that the arresting singing voice of Bobby Steggert, who is here as the rebel but noble son, is not featured until the finale of this two-disc set. (He is heard in numerous lines of Sybille Person's dialogue generously included and makes significant impact on its own.) While some may find it bordering overkill with so many mentions of the love for (or resistance to) remaining on the ranch (and in Texas itself), the reality upon reflection is that the land is perhaps the central "figure." Everything revolves around it, for better or worse.
Themes of ethnic prejudice stand out as potent warnings. That and stubbornness could be considered the enemy as much as the money-hungry ranch hand who becomes an oil baron. Strongly felt through direct lyrics is the sung mantra to know when to "look back" and when to "look ahead." It gets through loud and clear. The musical is ultimately life-affirming, despite some sorrow and broken family ties. Broken forever? Maybe not. But be prepared for your heart to break between patches of exciting song.
MARRY ME A LITTLE:
This montage of Sondheim songs is back. Marry Me a Little, mostly odds and ends cut from shows, and numbers from his Saturday Night score and TV's "Evening Primrose", not commercially available as cast albums when the production was first mounted and preserved on vinyl, this new off-Broadway version does some mixing and matching of its own. The two-person cast members Lauren Molina and Jason Tam bring new vigor and youth to the interpretations. The song feel refreshed, thanks in large part, too, to John Bell's piano accompaniment where joy can be felt. The singers sometimes seem more wry and on some numbers, increasingly vulnerable and naked emotionally. The Stephen Sondheim well is deep and brings forth satisfying pleasures all over again.
MEET JOHN DOE
Don't worry that this suicidal Depression-era unemployed everyman, who touches a nerve with the public, doesn't exist. John Doe is the creation of a newspaper reporter in a hoax. The hoax sells papers. But more central here is not just the very questionable ethics, but the feelings and galvanizing camaraderie the story engenders. Ultimately, human goodness and a "change the world" spirit win out over greed and more than one character sees the light.
All this is served to us via a dazzling, jangly score by the very talented team of composer Andrew Gerle and lyricist Eddie Sugarman. Jumping out from the speakers, the musical's splendidly recorded material is at once fresh, edgy and bristling, but in the tradition of "old-school" cast albums. That is to say, numbers build to climaxes, often have "buttons" at their ends, with highly crafted matches of melodies and words. It is consistently rewarding listening with powerhouse performances. This studio cast affair features the leads in a Washington D.C. cast (Ford's Theatre) from several years ago.
Heidi Blickenstaff as the reporter who keeps the bluff going is thrilling with her belting that can send a shiver up and down the spine. But it feels character-justified and that's one reason it has that effect. With "I'm Your Man," her early big solo selling her talents, the actress makes us want to hear a lot more from her. And we get it. She has a large proportion of the songs, but her vocal/acting returns from track to track always feel welcome. Robert Cuccioli is strong without being over the top as the editor. James Moye is engaging as the imposter hired to pass himself off as Doe when public demand requires a presence. He's a baseball player, and the songs find numerous baseball metaphors to make their points ("Bigger Than Baseball" is a treat.)
The milk of human kindness and values lessons that permeate the work of director Frank Capra (on whose film this takes its cues) are evident. Mean-spiritedness is rejected. Can good guys win? This well-made musical in this sizzling yet warm interpretation suggests there's hope.
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
A musical based on Tolstoy's epic novel "War and Peace"? Well, yes, a chunk of it. Adventurous, highly original, and a roller coaster ride, it is fascinating. And at times it is audacious, raucous, and breathtakingly beautiful. We know we're in for something different and irreverent when songwriter Dave Malloy, toting an accordion, begins by singing an amusingly glib and rowdy simplified description of the dramatis personae. Each of the folks in the story gets one word each to sum him or her up ("good," for example), and it takes on an old-style music hall sing-along with accumulative lyrics of these capsule characterization. It serves to break down the barriers that might be there in dauntingly tackling such a huge classic. It invites us in with a grin. And he plays one of the roles himself: Pierre.
Once we're won over, the truly unique and highly eclectic score grabs attention in one way after another. You may not be sure where they're going, but, oh, the carte blanche to do anything and everything is well earned. Musically and rhythmically, things often change in a flash, heightening interest. We go from a spare percussion-accompanied declaration to a lush, full sound.
Phillipa Soo brings passion and gorgeous tones to our heroine in the ballads which soar (just when you think it's not going there). And, with the superb and commanding Lucas Steele as the man she falls for, their ultimate cliché lyric, "I love you!" works as it swirls. What an outstanding pair they are!
We aren't shortchanged on the themes of honor and propriety struggling with unbridled bursts of attraction that throw caution to the wind. Just like the whole approach to this daring dazzler.
The major role of Clara in this Passion revival recording has Rebecca Luker stepping in for Melissa Errico, and, as the tragic and sickly (and also lovesick) Fosca, Judy Kuhn brings intensitybut also the crucial empathy and her own brand of intelligence. Rebecca Luker's Clara is quite marvelous, and not only because it sung in radiant tones. There's some desperation and denial that echoes the more obvious desperation and denial of Fosca. This comes from a sensitive actress's portrayal, and the included dialogue also us to see more sides to the character that could be in danger of being vapid. Ryan Silverman, whom both very different women seek as their own, avoids the grandeur and much of the coldness some might bring the challenging role. And Stephen Sondheim's score sounds rich and stunning. Though hardly sugar-coated, the material, with glorious orchestrations, feels thoughtful and poignant rather than the easy choice of melodramatically dark and dim. Another plus is that the material is so powerfully delivered and emotions so palpable that the big romantic strokes resound with conviction. As a 2-CD set, we have the luxury of more dialogue and occasional respite from that, with the sections with the soldiers and their bravado coming into higher relief.