Sound Advice Reviews
The Top Ten Cast Albums of 2015 (plus a shout out)
Before 2016 gets any older, will you join my annual January jaunt through the cast albums new in the previous year. With a backwards glance at favorites and an eye toward those that I'll play again most often in future years, here are the ones (submitted for review) that radiate with initial impact and staying power. Whether their scores were stimulatingly new to my ears or, in the case of revival cast albums, welcome alternate versions of those with which I was fondly familiar, these are the ones in my own Top Ten, with a couple of special mentions. As always, these are not in order of preference.
The terrific team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb continue to leave their stamp on musical theatre. The Visit, their long-gestating project, finally made it to Broadway and a cast recording more than a decade after the lyricist's passing. And what a sumptuous album it is, with an electrifying star turn by Chita Rivera. Besides having the finely crafted and especially atmospheric musical sounds to relish, what lingers in the air is the sound of hearts breaking. We get that from the storyline drenched with regrets, resentment, revenge, resignation and Rivera's character. Heartbreak is relieved by melodies that are dignified and rich in beauty. Also present are Kander & Ebb trademarks: rollicking numbers (like the irresistibly perky "Yellow Shoes") and biting, if dark (but smart) humor. A strong cast and an orchestra bringing shadings and sharpness to a standout score add to the many pleasures of this grown-up, thoughtful, daring work.
A second cast album of Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys, again from JAY Records, with the London cast. Musically structured creatively, largely in the form of a minstrel show, the proceedings manage to let that form's stock characters and narrow, demeaning African-American stereotypes present the story simultaneously as both horrifying and toe-tappingly catchy. Julian Glover as the show-within-a-show's Interlocutor and other white characters brings a more menacing tone than the more subtle John Cullum did in New York. Returning star Brandon Victor Dixon, the oldest and most defiant of the Boys, is even more formidable and defiant here. Included dialogue (David Thompson, book) adds to the theatrical power of the recording. There's some additional instrumental music, and a denouement revealing the latter-day fates of the actual Scottsboro Boys brings a final and haunting despair and stab of reality.
The gorgeous recording of the sublime and exciting Leonard Bernstein instrumental music is a big reason for me to include On the Town on this year's Best Of list. The full sound so beautifully represented on disc, as it was in the theatre, just makes the heart swell. The orchestra is superb throughout, alone or accompanying the likeable cast singing with gusto. The score has a great deal of heart and the Betty Comden/Adolph Green lyrics stand up as classics, mixing sentiment and affectionate humor. A valentine to New York City, youth, and yearning, this classic from the 1940s is welcome in any era. The luxurious two-CD disc set gives us a banquet of pleasures.
Something Rotten! summed up in two words: "Hilarity rules." In the score's highlight, presenting the genre of musical theatre as a new but unlikely form, the song "A Musical" is an 18-karat gold riot. Christian Borle as Shakespeare, Brian d'Arcy James as his jealous would-be competitor, and Brad Oscar as the latter's advisor are savvy, broad and brash. Songwriter brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick have spun out songs with spunk, full of anachronistic jabs and audacious wordplay and decided irreverence. Some regrettable and liberal employment of false rhymes and lowbrow humor dim the polish, but many smart moves help compensate rather mightily.
BE MORE CHILL
Songwriter Joe Iconis is a man of uber-high energy and nerve-jangly music who thinks outside the box, as his previous work in scores and character pieces has shown. His lyrics can bubble over with zing and loopy ideas, but his characters often have a very sweet humanity under all the angst and bravado. He brings a pop/rock sensibility that he molds and stretches to suit musical theatre song needs to advance plot and to revealor rather explodecharacters' feelings. This style serves Be More Chill's high-anxiety high schoolers very well. Based on a novel of the same name, the story is about what happens when a teen ingests a tiny computer chip that can communicate with the brain to re-model a hopelessly nerdy, insecure type into the confident, cool, cavalier and super-popular guy.
Our beleaguered and self-conscious hero begins the story as a nervous wreck just trying to do nothing "More Than Survive" the horrific hells known as high school and hormones. (Some frank language is glibly applied to the latter.) The girl he fancies has her own insecurities, the unpredictability of life and its tongue-tied moments in reality finding their more soothing alternatives in the refuge of being in the school play where she can follow a script and be a different character ("I Love Play Rehearsal"). With a large amount of material and plot on his shoulders, Will Connolly is instantly likeable and impressive as our worried hero who is zapped into a new V.I.P. way of life, soon attracting the opposite sex and praise. He sings with indefatigable brio. Stephanie Hsu is the drama club devotee and brings a nice mix of bubbliness and vulnerability to her performance. Gerard Canonico is a firecracker of talent as Rich, who's already experienced the life-changing effects of swallowing the mini-computer item known as a Squib and highly recommends it. Eric William Morris, a veteran of other Iconis projects, personifies the Squib as a kind of mix of supportive life coach and tough-love taskmaster.
The supportive cast carries on admirably with the busy arrangements and group singing and character work that can be appropriate frantic and frenzied, yet is bracing and exhilarating rather than exhausting. A subplot about the main character's dad (Paul Whitty) being in a funk and emotionally unavailable is not traced and developed through songs, but the dad gets his own fast-tracked reality check and call to action is the intervention-like "The Pants Song."
The cast album, representing a spring 2015 run in New Jersey by Two River Theater, was released a week before Christmas, so it may have escaped your attention in the hubbub of the season. But it shouldn't be lost in the shuffle. It's a nifty entry by a talented songsmith whose music and lyrics magnify the youthful restlessness and adrenalin and the high school "types" without being overly cartoony: the gossip, the tough guy, the changing cliques and dating partners. Folding in many uses of current slang and references with apparent natural ease, it feels as up-to-date as the newest iPhone, but the emotions may ring some timeless bells. And with some snippets of dialog from Joe Tracz's book, the material seems to fit misfit characters especially well.
JOHN & JEN
Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan are superbly multi-dimensional as John & Jen. Ryan plays two young fellows named John; in the first act, he's Jen's brother. In the second act, some years have gone by and the John in her life is her son, named for the beloved brother. We see both grow up, the actor coming off as less than coy and cutesy when playing both as little kids, transmitting the essence of a child's personality and vocal habits without resorting to a cartoony exaggeration. The dynamic but warm Baldwin voice is ever dazzling, radiating kindness and caring, but with musical architecture that allows for many, many powerful, extended notesespecially on endings of songs. While it may seem inevitably formulaic to end big, the emotions in the material and climaxes support it and it's spine-tingling to hear. She really is quite a vibrant singer who has the arsenal to go for broke if need be, but can calibrate the volume changes so it never feels gratuitous. Her soothing, pretty notes in gentler sections can be like a balm.
The Keen Company presented a revival of this two-person musical about family, and ever-busy Broadway records chose to record it. The scoremusic by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Tom Greenwaldis a pleasure to hear again. And it's a moving experience of re-acquaintance. An earlier production spawned a cast album that was released exactly ten years ago next week. The decades covered in the story go from the 1950s when Jen's baby brother is born to the 1990s when her son is ready for college, though the very protective, clutching mom is not quite ready to let him go. We follow Jen as a loving sister and then loving mother with the two Johns, as the separate relationships go through their ups and downs, their periods of mutually desired inseparability to separations caused by one or the other drifting away or needing space. This come together/pull apart/push back cycle is effectively illustrated in the songs, solos and duets. The two performances spark off each other quite well, and neither the actors nor the material shy away from intense emotions, not settling for pat oversimplification, although the long expanse of time requires some fast jumps. An especially creative device, which also allows the two locked into their characters to don TV host personalities, comes with a montage of the mother/son changing dynamics seen as a series of hyped daytime television talk show topics ("On today's show ...").
The singers map the evolving relationships with grace or gloves-off combativeness as required. An especially affecting moment comes in "Hold Down the Fort" when the sister goes off to college, leaving the younger sibling without the lifelong-accustomed protection from the volatile father we only can imagine. Her suggestion to channel his feelings and confidence-seeking into "Little League" baseball is memorable, too, the images of bats smacking the ball and related activity are crisp. Such bolstering and struggles to be strong are far more interesting than overindulgence in weeping, blame games, and catharsis. But there is some of each of that, too.
Some specific references in lyrics to the eras are impactful, with Jen coming of age in the drug and anti-war movement of the '60s and brother John, contrastingly, joining the armed forces. While the singer-actors unhesitatingly take on the harsher tones of argumentative relatives, including the mother/teen son power struggle, they also play the subtext of their characters still loving each other or being hurt and disappointed with one another. With song topics that range from believing in Santa Claus to believing in each other and, ultimately, in themselves, John & Jen is a thoughtful, life-affirming musical very well played on this revival cast recording.
1954's The Golden Apple, whose best-known song is the intoxicatingly seductive "Lazy Afternoon," is filled with far more songs than most musicals. The short-lived adventurous re-imagining of characters from ancient myths in a more modern American setting got a only a one-disc album back in the day, later reissued on CD. Now it rewardingly spills over onto two generous-length CDs. Adding in the many numbers not released in the 61-year-old recording, the full bounty of varied flavors comes a production at Lyric Stage in Texas, recorded live. A large orchestra (36 pieces) and a fine cast bring to light the delights of this well-crafted score by composer Jerome Moross and witty, often sly lyricist John Latouche. What finds these generally long-lost songs are! The capable cast is an appealing mix of trained, more operatic voices and sassier character singing and choral work, suiting the differing styles of song.
Here's a cast album of a show that never was. In an unusual turn of events, Barry Singer, an admirer of composer Vernon Duke, met up with Duke's widow who gave him permission to write new lyrics for a long-ago unproduced project with someone else's French lyrics. Singer's project had a completely different storyline and set of characters and he soon got permission to use other orphan Duke melodies. Misia tells the tale of a real-life beauty, a model for painters who was also a wealthy patron of the arts. Marin Mazzie plays the title character, bringing her elegance and earthiness to the score. If the lyrics aren't up to the level of the lush, resplendent melodies, the bar was set very high. Master orchestrator Jonathan Tunick brings his customary multi-layered ideas for a 13-piece ensemble. Solid and characterful work is contributed by Broadway actor-singers Jonathan Freeman, Eddie Korbich, Bobby Steggert, Marc Kudisch, and Jason Danieley. A kind of soufflé of a musical, it's a fanciful and elegant affair.
Based on a film of the same name, 2008 Broadway too-quick visitor Cry-Baby: The Musical has a kind of underdog, quirky, and scrappy feel that charms. Unpretentiously satirical, lampooning the 1950sa romp with edge. David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger came up with some zingy items that are quite entertaining in their lighthearted, truly fun way. James Snyder struts as the title character, Ali Mauzey is a winner as a girl in his thrall, and Harriet Harris scores as a smug, snide society lady with a secret. The CD cover cheekily labels it as "88.4% of the original Broadway cast." This belated souvenir is more than 88.4% satisfying.
The plight of the real-life Daisy and Violet Hilton, paraded for the curious who wanted to see the exploited pair paraded as "Siamese twins" (the long-common term for what we now called conjoined siblings), might seem to be less than a broad-appeal subject for a musical. Can they free themselves from their manipulative court-appointed guardian? Will they be happier singing as a vaudeville act? Will they take the chance on very risky surgical separation as adults when possible romantic relationships come on the horizon? Would the setting of a carnival Side Show, with the Hiltons, the bearded lady, the three-legged man, etc. intrigue, as a barker invites in song, "Come Look at the Freaks"?
The first Broadway production, in 1997, chalking up 91 performances after previews, had its ardent supporters, lamenting the brevity of its run. This past season, history pretty much repeated itself, even more woefully, despite significant tweaks and a strong cast, with only 56 showings after previews. Count me in as an admirer of the score by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (lyrics), although I recall feeling distanced from the first version. That was initially because of what, on the skimmed surface, seemed at first like insensitive word play about the twins joined at the sidefrom that double meaning of the show's title, to songs that seemed to be cheap shots at irony: the similarly tacky "When I'm By Your Side" and "I Will Never Leave You" and "We Share Everything" and the pun about being "Very Well-Connected." I had first thought of it as heavy going and sometimes strident. The show has changed (songs cut, songs added) and so have I.
The new album got to me emotionally right away with its haunting atmosphere that was not just gloomy and eerie, with characters menacing or angelic, and these people seemed to come to refreshing life. Emily Padgett and Erin Davie find both delicate and dazzling shades to highlight the songs and their portrayals of the Hilton sisters, their interaction and chemistry being a major asset. Both singing voices are appealing, without being too similar.
Action unwinds almost like a radio play as a listening experience. I find two of the male voices especially compelling and interesting: David St. Louis as the caring Jake, and Javier Ignacio as the legendary Houdini. The magician/escape artist, who did know the Hiltons in real life, was not featured in the original production, but Ignacio takes the song added for him and makes it a major highlight in performance and function. Houdini advises the young women about a coping mechanism: "It's All in the Mind." It's high drama with characters unlike those we know in typical lives, but the actors and director take these very specific situations and make the feelings general enough to allow us to relate and sympathize. Hurt, hope, and happiness are universal. Try being reached by their palpable emotions that come through in the nuanced singing and acting.
The orchestra sounds exciting and doesn't overwhelm the already-intense story and singing with busy instrumental figures or melodrama. It's not about tricks or manipulating or underlining the moods in a belaboring way. That's a blessing. The sound balance and mix are mostly just right, to my ears. The sum of the many parts makes us care about the characters, and that is the secret to involving the listeners and pulling them in.
The title song cut from both Broadway versions (but reinstated for an out-of-town mounting) is a bonus track. "Typical Girls Next Door," a replacement vaudeville number for the sisters, is a spiffy bit of pastiche fluff that is adorably done. Matthew Hydzik as Buddy gets some more singing that shows more sides to his personality. Undoubtedly, some fans of the score will prefer numbers that appear on the '97 album and some will like the new numbers morea reasonable argument for having one version or the other ... or both. Or should I say all three, because a concert of numbers, familiar and otherwise, also came out this past year, as a kind of sidebar/appendix to this Side Show cast albumwith the same cast ...
SIDE SHOW: ADDED ATTRACTIONS
Manhattan's nightclub 54 Below (now rechristened Feinstein's/54 Below) is a mecca for theatre fans wanting to revisit scores in concert form and get up close and personal with Broadway figures in a more intimate setting. Side Show got the 54 treatment with its recent cast. The resultant live album is a treat. Not quite an alternate universe or exclusively a collection of discarded material, it is a treasure chest of Side Show material in new or different forms. After becoming very familiar with the number "Like Everyone Else," it's a fan's fun twist to have Erin Davie and Emily Padgett in their roles as the sisters revisit it, but switching their roles and solo lines.
A couple of other numbers are performed in longer versions to good effect. "You Should Thank Me Every Day" by Blair Ross as the mother substitute called Auntie is more interesting and impactful in the fuller version. Especially worthy and eye-opening are pieces that were in the show, but not making it onto the album. In the case of "Buddy's Confession," it feels now essential to flesh out the thickening plot. "These Two Have Faced So Many Trials" is probably self-evident by its title as its agenda, and it's another M.I.A. moment that fills a gap. The concert also includes the cut title song which has merit and potency (also on the cast album as a bonus track). Most moving of all is "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" as a group number with each of the "freaks" getting a solo moment in his/her turn, allowing us to get heart-wrenching reminders that their loneliness and outsider status is shared, not just the lament of the two sisters.
Although the edited concert is minus lyricist Bill Russell's host comments, and that is one reason for the jagged transitions, the album otherwise unwinds nicely in a scrapbook kind of way. The presence of composer Henry Krieger on piano and contributing some vocals adds to the "Event" and "family" feeling.
A shout-out to something that tickles me as a campy, goofy guilty pleasure. Provoking laughter on repeat listens is never a minor achievement, but this very short album represents an atypical mix of spoken material, brief songs, and a piece de resistance bonus track presenting its 1991 original cast that had not resulted in a cast album.
The beauty queens are played by guys in drag. First seen in 1991 and in other mountings, Pageant is a spoof of beauty contests. The proceedings are an Albert Evans/Bill Russell/Frank Kelly collaboration, and cast members Nick Cearley, Nic Cory, Alex Ringler, Marty Thomas, Seth Tucker, and Curtis Wiley are all game and chirpily enthusiastic as the prancing lovelies from the different parts of the USA. John Bolton is very funny and spot on as the plastic, smarmy singing host crooning the praises of females and the competition and the beauty products that sponsor it. The brevity of the album and the dearth of songs make it feel more like something between an EP and a regular cast album, but I wanted to give it a nod because what it does, it does very well. You know you're in for a dippy time when the contestants, in their opening group number, profess with pride to be "Natural Born Females."
So much for suspension of disbelief. As each shows "her" talents, we don't get an original song for every one. One section relies on lyrics set to American classics such as Stephen Foster's "Oh Susannah" and the old folk song "Red River Valley," etc. Others are spoken interludes, as the lovelies tout the products the sponsor produces. (Talent in being a poised spokesperson for them is one of the categories.) The big sung showpiece is a religious rouser, "Banking on Jesus" (with the Saviour as co-signer). Some of the bigger laughs come from Bolton's spoken intros with fun facts about the contestants ("She has a combined major in home economics and cancer research").
Actually, the most entertaining musical section is a bonus tracka recording of the original (1991) cast having a ball with their silly ode to outer space, "It's Gotta Be Venus." Sometimes the mind needs a vacation. Here it is.