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Sound Advice Reviews

Royal treats:
a Princess, a King, some guys from Queens

Good music rules the day, thanks to that girl who is a self-appointed and plucky Little Princess who comes from literature, her story bringing us to Europe and Africa, with the latter continent the setting for the score and roar of The Lion King (carrying on as karaoke king). Queens—the NYC borough, not the female rulers—is represented by a vocal trio named after one of its thoroughfares. Here they are, in all their musical majesty.


Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom Records

Although I've been long familiar with the original story, the movie adaptation starring Shirley Temple, another musical theatre adaptation previously reviewed here, and seeing a presentation of this Brian Crawley/ Andrew Lippa version, I was almost on the edge of my roller coaster seat listening to the plights, perils and perseverance of A Little Princess. The splendid recording grabbed me immediately with its exciting opening (a kinetic, full-bodied overture and highly energized, highly populated opening number). Even though I knew this studio cast's "child" singing the title role was really the adult musical theatre actress Sierra Boggess (Broadway's Little Mermaid), I found it convincing. Her bright and fiercely focused sound works, neither trying nor needing to force any fake "cutesy" kiddie voice to sound adorably young or innocent. It helps that the character, Sara Crewe, is not a coddled, cooing type. She has plenty to sing throughout: confessions, catharsis, daunting declarations and defiances, and an early number of daughter/daddy devotion (with a heroic-sounding, clarion-voiced Will Chase, who played the father in the original presentation of this musical, which has seen productions and is ripe for more).

The rest of the cast includes others we know from musical theatre, too. Julia Murney as the brittle, resentful residential school head corralling Sara Crewe and a crew of other little girls makes Miss Hannigan of Annie seem almost a benevolent despot ruling her roost. But, rather than a cartoon of the queen of mean tolerating the rich kid her dad calls a "little princess," the material and Murney let us see her reveal her reasons for resentment and naked envy in her song "Lucky." Luminous Laura Benanti appears as her sister—alas, only getting one number—to lead us deeper into the psychological pool to recall that, as children, they had their day(s) of imagining themselves as privileged princesses. Sara's survival skill set sets up songs and scenes that keep the story moving as she is separated from her father in more ways than one, with this Little Princess's image of him as her loyal, royal white knight reinforced in a fantasy sequence. Others heard to fine advantage are Remy Zaken as Sara's BFF, Becky (also in the first production, in 2004 by TheatreWorks in California), plus Nikki Renee Daniels, Titus Burgess, and from the original cast of the Lippa-scored Broadway The Addams Family and now cast in Godspell, Morgan James—she plays the actual Queen that our little princess meets, England's Queen Victoria. Michael McElroy is among the strong group of for-the-occasion ensemble members (including the terrific Capathia Jenkins) who display vibrant group singing. Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Will Van Dyke served as vocal conductors, and you'll hear a cameo by the talented and versatile composer singing a couple of solo lines in an ensemble number.

Songs as performed are alternately stirringly strong or disarmingly endearing. Sentiment is not shied away from, especially with the father and daughter serenading their affection for each other, a doll companion standing in for it, lovingly taught lessons surviving separation or death to be internalized, and a reprised mantra to "Let Your Heart Be Your Compass." Those who pooh-pooh proclamations of emotion or sugar-lined silver linings of storm clouds may fear the worst, but this is done so sincerely and without minimizing the struggles that life and a will for independence or dignity presents. Even when gooey, it's gutsy. Brass-filled, busy, bubbling-up and combustible orchestrations by Michael Gibson, with additional ones by Larry Blank, can be thrilling, sweeping us into the whirlpools of feelings or an accelerating parade of vigor. Musical director is Joel Fram. On the final choruses of two or three tracks, they border on overdoing it, amping it up to the point of frenzy, almost giving the sense that the singers are speeding up on an accelerating carousel. It's not needed, as the music of Andrew Lippa (also the record producer) is invigorating and emotionally potent, with lyricist-librettist Brian Crawley letting the characters state their cases and causes plainly and articulately, with their hearts firmly on their sleeves or in their throats. Still, it's a thrill.

Lyrics are all in the booklet, along with a detailed plot synopsis. It's a very worthy score that suits and serves the piece well, and the recording should inspire more productions around the world, with the story itself inspiring many a child (or grown-up) who is beset with challenges, loneliness, bullies, or beleaguered days.


Stage Stars Records

As the king of beasts of the Broadway Disney variety, The Lion King's reign has been a long one, following the hit animated movie (just this autumn re-released in 3-D format) which had fewer songs. Now almost all of those numbers heard on Broadway, including the five from the film, can be heard in your own home and you can do the singing, or roar and dance along, with instrumental accompaniment tracks. There's also a separate disc with the same tracks with vocals added by a talented and energetic cast to demonstrate and entertain. It's one of the most recent additions to such releases of Broadway songs by Stage Stars Records for the karaoke-inclined budding performer types, the instrument-challenged little theatre group or school, the practicing auditionee or those little "lion cubs" who just want to sing around the house for their own pride and joy. But the huge bonus with this company is that the "guide vocals" on a separate disc are much more than just that, rewardingly going way above and beyond the call of duty and being truly delightful performances.

But, first, the instrumentals: The company policy is to record the material in singer-friendly keys and tempi that match the originals, with tracks that would serve as reasonably easy to follow accompaniment without laying out every melodic phrase and line in a heavy, follow-the-bouncing-ball spoon-feeding fashion. It's more about the basic melodic structures and very much about the rhythms and beat; and, since The Lion King with its chants and Africa-inspired music and setting is very much about rhythm, sing-along life is easier here.

There are 12 numbers, including the ending reprise of "He Lives in You"/"They Live in You" (interpolated for Broadway, but missing here, is the old song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," based on "Wimoweh"). The main sung pieces with all-English lyrics are here, although no lyrics are in the booklet, nor is this in the CD/graphics-compatible format where the words will appear on a screen. The instrumental tracks with strong melodies with their percussive backbones should make staying on track quite do-able. A couple of numbers with sparer-styled backing or little gaps for dialogue within songs are more challenging. Some jauntier tracks, however, are orchestrated in such a way that they are more fun to just hear, kind of resembling music for a carousel. The music preparation and programming by David Negron is impressive, with a mix of different sounds and ambiance suited for this particular project.

The disc with vocals is ostensibly a demonstration of how the lyrics and personalities fit the melodies, and it comes off as a swell kind of studio cast album: interpreted, warm or cutely funny in biting into the Tim Rice lyrics. It's cannily cast, consistent in energy, and overall just about the most even set from this company among the ones I've been sent for review. Sure, in some cases they're following in some mighty paw prints, not to mention African drums and drummed-in hit pop single version recordings by composer Elton John on "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" and "Circle of Life," but Stage Stars is going for the stage stars' versions. And there are rich voices here, some with regional theatre and NYC credits and several plucked from recent graduates of the city's American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) (and some fitting both categories). AMDA alumni include Avonce as Rafiki and Vincent McDowell as the older Simba. Paris Nix is Banzai, featured in "The Madness of King Scar" number (and also seen in Scott Siegel's annual concert of young talent at The Town Hall, Broadway's Rising Stars last year). Scar is played by Colin Porter in a fully fleshed-out comic performance. Juson Williams is a delightfully energized Young Simba on "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," with eighth-grader Raina Lopez chiming in charmingly as Young Nala. Anita Welch is her adult counterpoint and her voice has the needed resonance, grace and gravitas. David Nathan Scott is a suitably imposing-plus Mufasa (don't mess with him). Noted NYC cabaret and theatre performers Booth Daniels and Adam Shapiro combine their comic hambones well without overdoing the shtick for that sprightly bit of nonsense called "Hakuna Matata," although it's tough to erase the memorable work of predecessors like irrepressibly animated Nathan Lane. Special props to returning musical director Jason Wynn for sparkling work here in that capacity and for mining the full capacity of entertainment playing the character of Zazu in a spiffy and truly funny "The Morning Report."

The report here, all around, for this Lion King project is a king-sized roar of approval for all, with thanks to the series producer Stephen M. Pearl.


Named for their own neighborhood main drag in the New York City borough of Queens, Astoria Boulevard is a terrific young male musical trio who've been paving their way through music and clubs with some theatrical leanings. Their eponymous album debut submitted is a coup of refreshing harmonies and solid ability in a set of songs they also combined their talents to write. It's immediately captivating, their youthful but adeptly polished sound and blend disarming and imminently likeable. The songs are varied in style and attitude, accompaniment configurations and tempi, with flashes of humor and pathos, and the tracks are particularly well programmed for flow and contrasts, with additional variety coming from some taking turns on lead vocals on some tracks. Two of the guys also jump in a bit instrumentally.

The talented threesome are Max Demers (also on harmonica), Dan Scott (who has a ukulele handy) and Philip Drennen. They co-produced the CD with their skilled pianist/guitarist Chris Cubeta and five other musicians are on board. There's an un-self-conscious, seemingly effortless retro sound suggesting some groups from the 1960s with creamy pop or guileless folk music-style vocal blends somewhat reminiscent of everyone from The Beach Boys to The Kingston Trio and other groups with clean, uncluttered, vibrant sounds and sincerity galore. But, oh, they can be sly, too.

Songs lamenting romantic break-ups or longings, which eschew weeping and wailing in favor of subtle but pointed references to pangs and wishes (such as "Just So You Know"), score. A nifty and tight musicalization of the cautionary tale of the boy who cried wolf makes "The Wolf Song" a standout that sails musically and does not bog down in hammering home the moral. It could easily be picked up as a kid-friendly lesson that's as clear as their true and truly appealing voices. Their baby-faced looks and the youthful, sweet treat of their voices make a couple of coarse words and declarations in "Time" jarring (albeit effective), but ill advised for the character of the whole project and preventing radio play without an FCC-required "bleep." After an early sensitive and gentle but empowering song about saving an injured bird and a feather floating as a symbol, it breaks the innocent Boy Scout impression. Otherwise, it's all very accessible and captivating, a real radiant ray of musical sunshine.

- Rob Lester

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