CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: New solo discs from Cheyenne Jackson and Jose Llana

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

This summer, two of Broadway’s leading men released new recital discs capturing studio versions of recent concert set lists: Jose Llana‘s Altitude, based on his Lincoln Center American Songbook concert of last year, and Cheyenne Jackson‘sRenaissance, adapted from the “Music of the Mad Men Era” pops concert he’s performed with a number of different orchestras.

Llana’s album is largely a career retrospective, featuring songs from On the Town,Saturn Returns (aka Myths and Hymns), The King and I, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Here Lies Love, with a few additional songs from both Broadway and the world of pop. The songs from On the Town (“Lonely Town“) and Saturn Returns (“Icarus,” “Hero and Leander,” and the title number) are particularly welcome, as neither production resulted in original cast albums and the material highlights what Llana does best: sensitive singing right at the border of art song and pop. Continue reading

HowlRound: Reconstructing and Reimagining: Noah Diamond and the First Marx Brothers Musical

Originally published on HowlRound.

Noah Diamond needed a change. After co-writing and co-producing a series of topical musical comedies with his frequent collaborator (and now-wife) Amanda Sisk, Diamond was ready to shift gears. The typical developmental process for musical theatre doesn’t lend itself to their kind of timely, ripped-from-the-headlines shows, and Diamond was ready to stretch his legs creatively.

Seven years later and ninety years in the making, he prepared the first revival of the lost 1924 musical I’ll Say She Is, which is barely remembered today as the Broadway debut of The Marx Brothers.

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250 Word Reviews: War

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

(Off-Broadway at LCT3)

So much of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s latest is summed up in its name, War. The title simultaneously refers to a family at odds with each other, the aftereffects of a grandfather’s WWII military service, and a look at how what was (“war” in German) affects what is. The family in question is anchored by Charlayne Woodard as Roberta, a mother felled by stroke, who speaks to the audience from within the cage of her mind as she tries to piece together who might need her to return to the world of the living. Who needs each other in a family is the bigger question of the play, as siblings (Chris Myers and Rachel Nicks) disagree about their mother’s treatment – and each others’ life choices. Michele Shay and Austin Durant’s appearance as strangers claiming to be hitherto-unheard-of family members in need should complicate the ethical discussion, but the play seems to take clear sides, going so far as to end with a long speech from the elder stranger (Shay) that shows everyone the errors of their ways and knits them into a happy family unit. The play suggests that “need” was never the right frame for asking these questions at all, and beyond need might lay a more potent framework for family.

Strong performances (particularly from Woodard) and a touch of heightened theatricality help War rise above the average American family drama. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz beautifully balances the play’s realism and metatheatrics, drawing the audience into the play both literally and figuratively.

Production photo by Erin Baiano. Pictured (l-r): Charlayne Woodard, Reggie Gowland, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay, and Chris Myers.

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: Paint Your Wagon – Encores! Cast Recording

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

Paint Your WagonPaint Your Wagon is exactly the kind of show Encores does best. It was an early effort by one of Broadway’s most successful songwriting teams (Lerner & Loewe), working in an explicitly American idiom (gold-rush Americana). The show was a moderate success, but the cast album was severely truncated. The film bore little resemblance to the show, nor was it very good. So despite a couple of hit songs (“I Talk to the Trees” and “They Call the Wind Maria“), the show more or less faded into obscurity.

When the curtain rose at City Center in March, 2015 to a gloriously large orchestra (44 musicians!) playing a pulsing overture that immediately evoked the American west, audiences knew they were in for a treat. With a trio of perfectly cast leads — Keith Carradine as old miner Ben Rumson, Alexandra Socha as his daughter Jennifer, and Justin Guarini as the love interest Julio — songs familiar and surprising sprang to life.  Continue reading

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: Three Alfred Drake Reissues

KismetOriginally published on CastAlbums.org.

Alfred Drake is having a moment. Sure, he died nearly a quarter-century ago, but with three of his albums newly available, it’s a great time to be an Alfred Drake fan – or to become one.

Once Broadway’s leading baritone, Drake famously originated roles in Babes in Arms, Oklahoma!, Kismet, and Kiss Me, Kate, recording the latter two twice, with later stereo discs complementing the original monaural versions.

That stereo version of Kismet, a recording of the 1965 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival, is the first of the Drake reissues, out now from Masterworks Broadway. Drake reprises the role he originated, Hajj, joined this time around by Anne Jeffreys as Lalume, Lee Venora as Marsineh, Richard Banke as the Caliph, and Henry Calvin as the Wazir.  Continue reading

250 Word Reviews: Red Speedo

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

RED SPEEDO
(Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop)

The intersection of fame and family – and the tremendous pressure that each can produce – animates Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo. This ethical dissection centers around Ray (Alex Breaux), a swimmer from a poor family on the verge of achieving Michael Phelps-level stardom pending his performance in his Olympic-qualifying race. A doping scandal finds him torn between his brother/manager Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) and disgraced ex-girlfriend/ex-physical therapist, Lydia (Zoë Winters).

As each in Ray’s orbit calculates how far they will go to take advantage of the opportunities Ray’s nascent celebrity affords them, the play teeters dangerously on the line of abstracting its characters into symbols. Hnath’s Mamet-like Wall Of Dialogue script, particularly in the play’s early scenes, doesn’t help as people make long-winded declarations at each other in exchanges that only vaguely resemble the act of conversation. When director Lileana Blain-Cruz allows the characters room to breathe (and even occasionally pause), their humanity peeks through and the play becomes more than a philosophical debate, aided by strong performances all around.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set, which includes an onstage pool, is both iconic and functional, but it’s the architecture of Alex Breaux’s superhumanly muscular body that really steals the show, occasionally to the detriment of the dialogue. Combined with Thomas Schall’s blatantly artificial fight choreography, one wonders if Blain-Cruz was aiming for BrecthianVerfremdungseffekt. If so, she falls a bit short, and we’re left puzzling over these half-characters as much as, if not more than, the ideas they suggest.

Production photo by Joan Marcus. Pictured (l-r): Zoë Winters as Lydia and Alex Breaux as Ray.

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: Merman’s Apprentice – Original Cast Recording

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

054871If you’ve ever uttered the phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to anymore,” I would kindly direct your attention to Merman’s Apprentice, the new musical byStephen Cole (book & lyrics) and David Evans (music), which tells “a musical fable” about La Merm mentoring a teenage star to take over the role in David Merrick‘s all-children version of Hello, Dolly!

Wait, what? No, Merrick never pulled off that stunt, though one can easily imagine him hearing about this show from the afterlife and ruefully thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” This is fable, not documentary. But like the best fables, it has plenty of heart and you might learn a little something from it too.  Continue reading