CastAlbums.org: Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

Lady Day album coverLady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill is one of those shows that feels like it’s been around forever, making regular appearances at small venues around the country whenever a local singing actress wants to flex her chops a bit with a show that’s pre-sold on the name of its subject, Billie Holiday. In reality, the show debuted in 1986 at the Alliance in Atlanta before coming to New York in a well-received off-Broadway production and has been twice recorded before, in 1997 with Gail Nelson in the title role, and in 1998 with Pamela Isaacs.

I had never given much thought to the play itself, structured as a concert during Holiday’s drug-fueled decline, and when it was announced for Broadway with no less than Audra McDonald in the title role, I was frankly surprised she’d bother with the show. But once performances started, it quickly became a hot ticket, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen her performance and not been thrilled. Continue reading

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Jewschool: Meet the Man Behind The Men of the Naughty Jewish Boys Calendar

Originally published on Jewschool.

Naughty Jewish Boys CalendarLast February, I shared a link right here on Jewschool to a Craigslist ad advertising for models for a “Naughty Jewish Boys” calendar. I was so tickled by the idea when I saw it on my friend Duncan Pflaster‘s Facebook page, I didn’t even realize that he had posted the ad – or that the Jewschool post would bring it widespread Jewish media attention. Fast forward five months, and the calendar is a real thing that exists in the world in two versions: the regular and extra-naughty editions. I sat down with Duncan this week to chat about his adventures in putting these calendars together.

Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know about was what kind of controversy the calendar had generated. Duncan’s run-ins with the creator of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar have been well documented elsewhere, but I had to know: were religious people offended at the images of nearly-naked men with ritual objects? Were liberals offended at a non-Jewish photographer eroticizing or even fetishizing Jewish men? Nope. “Most everybody has thought it’s been a fantastic idea,” he told me, “Especially the Jewish press.” While he did have a couple of people get upset over eroticizing Judaism, the more common response has been from women saying “it’s incredible. Thank you so much for doing this.” Continue reading

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: West Side Story – San Francisco Symphony

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

Recording Cover

Leonard Bernstein only wrote four Broadway musicals in his career, and all four already have widely available symphonic recordings to complement their various stage cast recordings and film and television soundtracks. What need could there possibly be for new recordings of any of these scores in 2014? The new symphonic recording of West Side Story from the San Francisco Symphony, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, makes such questions irrelevant by sheer force of artistry. (We’ll revisit this question in the fall when the 2014 revival cast recording of On The Town debuts.)

The liner notes for this album stake its uniqueness on it being the only live, symphonic, nearly-complete recording of the Broadway version of the score, but the hair splitting requited for that distinction to mean anything likely doesn’t matter to most listeners. What does matter is this: it’s the entire show, including all dance music (but thankfully excluding most scene change music, bows, and exit music), played by world-class musicians utilizing the excellent original Broadway orchestrations. Unlike the dreadfully operatic symphonic recording conducted by Bernstein himself back in the 80s (starring Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras), this recording features appropriate tempi, an orchestra that knows how to swing when necessary, and most importantly, a cast of singing actors from the world of Broadway who understand the idiom for which the music was intended. Continue reading

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: If/Then

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

Recording Cover

If you enjoy original cast albums in the Goddard Lieberson mold, which is to say, those that reconfigure the songs to be enjoyed without needing to follow the story from which they’re drawn, then you’re well-primed to appreciate If/Then, the new Idina Menzel vehicle by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. The show follows two different life stories of the same urban planner, Elizabeth, exploring how one inconsequential choice might set off two entirely different life paths. These two parallel lives are portrayed in alternating (and occasionally overlapping) scenes on stage, with different color schemes, nicknames (“Liz” and “Beth”) and the hardest working pair of eyeglasses this side of Clark Kent cueing the audience which timeline they are seeing.  Continue reading