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

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

Jose Llana: AltitudeThis 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

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

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Studio Cast

Originally published on CastAlbums.org

300_hunchbackIf you only know The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the 1996 Disney animated film, you’re in for a surprise the first time you listen to the newly released Studio Cast Recording of Disney Theatrical’s stage adaptation. Taking a more “adult” approach to the material by hewing closer to the Victor Hugo source, composer Alan Menken, lyricist Stephen Schwartz, and librettist Peter Parnell have given us a Hunchback that bleeds, lusts, and ultimately soars.  Continue reading

The Sondheim Review: A lotta Sondheim songs

Cabaret offerings prove the strength of the material

 

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KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar perform Another Hundred People at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Photo by Russ Weatherford.

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

 

On any given night in New York City there is likely to be at least one cabaret offering some kind of Sondheim program. That leaves intrepid fans to wonder if artists can still show something new at such a performance. Recently, KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar and Broadway leading lady Alice Ripley took up the challenge.

Harnar and Sullivan’s Another Hundred People at the Laurie Beechman Theatre is billed as “Act Two” of their Sondheim program Our Time, from 2014, but it’s fully satisfying on its own, and in many ways superior to its predecessor. Based on the idea that Sondheim’s lyrics can do the heavy lifting, the performers eschew banter for a song-stuffed program of 18 numbers — 40 songs in all, from Sondheim projects.

Their program is most exciting when numbers take on fresh ideas through new contexts and dialogue with other songs, ably shaped by musical director Jon Weber and director Sondra Lee. Harner’s smarmy take on “I Know Things Now” from Into the Woods in medley with “More” from Dick Tracy turned the song about a young woman reaching maturity into a celebration of a gay man’s discovery of sexual abundance. The duo’s medley of songs about partnership (including the opening number from Wise Guys, the title song from Bounce, plus “It Takes Two” and “Side by Side by Side”) became a mini-musical in itself.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide by Ethan Mordden

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

On SondheimIn Passion, Fosca sings, “If you have no expectations, you can never have a disappointment.” These are wise words to bring with you to Ethan Mordden’s latest book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide. Judging by its title, you might expect the book to provide a complete listing of Sondheim’s output with the author’s assessments of same, but it is oddly inadequate as both opinion and guide. The book immediately shirks its guide obligations by referring readers on the very first page to SondheimGuide.com (without a mention of Michael H. Hutchins, the man responsible for putting it together). It falls short in the opinion arena as well, offering far fewer than the title implies and hardly any that might register as controversial. And yet, taken on its own terms it offers pleasures for both the Sondheim expert and newbie alike.

Mordden knows his subject well, but he occasionally lets that get the better of him. Acknowledging in his preface that he generally did not consult other books on his subject in the writing of this one, he lets the occasional misstatement slip through. Mordden’s prose style is characterized by an awkward combination of SAT words (“manumission,” “equiponderant”) and slang (relating an artistic disagreement as a “hard-on contest,” or describing the opening scene of My Fair Lady as “an Instagram of the show’s analysis of class”). A quick poll of acquaintances who have read other Mordden uncovers that this is a common quirk of his writing about musicals, and the percentage of those who hate it is fairly close to those who adore it.  Continue reading

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: The Wiz Live! Original Soundtrack of the NBC Television Event

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

197.pngIt makes sense that The Wiz Live!, the best of NBC’s recent live musical broadcasts, should produce the best album of the three as well. Even so, you might be surprised by just how good this soundtrack is. As exciting as the live show was, there were some iffy notes and more than a few moments of sub-par sound mixing. None of that is in evidence on the album. Superstar producer Harvey Mason, Jr. and co-producer/music director Stephen Oremus have lovingly spun the raw material from the broadcast into recording gold. And despite the addition of effects (most obviously a lot of additional reverb and yes, some auto-tuning) to create a sonic experience more akin to a studio-recorded pop album, The Wiz Live! never sounds overproduced and, oddly enough, comes out more theatrical than the self-consciously pop original cast recordingContinue reading