Cast Albums Blog

REVIEW: The Visit - Original Broadway Cast

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When I saw the musical The Visit at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, I must admit I found it a tough sell. Sure, there was talent abounding in the material and on stage (score by John Kander and Fred Ebb! book by Terrence McNally! starring theater legend Chita Rivera!), but the show (based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play of the same name) is awfully grim. A woman Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera) returns to her childhood home to seek revenge on Anton Schell (Roger Rees) the man who, as a young boy, stole her heart but ruined her life. (Spoiler alert, Claire wants Anton killed and in turn will pay the destitute townspeople of Brachen to look the other way.) Between John Doyle’s direction and the set and lighting design by Scott Pask and Japhy Weideman, respectively, The Visit was a decidedly somber chiaroscuro affair that was hard to warm up to, and which might explain its short-lived life on Broadway when it transferred there this spring.

So given all that, it’s with much surprise but also joy to report that the cast recording of The Visit is one of the best new releases of this season. Stripped of the show’s dark visual cues, Kander and Ebb’s intriguing and wonderfully leitmotif-heavy score really soars on disc, inviting listeners to go on a romantic and moving theatrical journey. It may not be Kander and Ebb’s best score — stylistically and quality-level it’s on par with Zorba — but it’s quite good with a number of songs that linger, most notably “You, You, You” and “Love and Love Alone.” Rivera and Rees are accomplished veteran performers and while they might not possess the smoothest voices — Rivera is in her 80s — what they do possess in buckets is a deep commitment to their characters which comes through in their spoken dialogue and duets together. The childhood love affair that their characters shared feels visceral on the album as does Claire’s wonderful iciness and thirst for revenge in her songs “I Walk Away” and “Winter.”

Rivera and Rees are well-supported by a top-notch cast of supporting actors who both shine in their individual moments (Jason Danieley is excellent as the School Master in “The Only One”) and in multiple group choral numbers, especially the toe-tapping showstopper “Yellow Shoes,” which have those instantly recognizable Kander vamping chords. Also delightful are Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer as Claire’s two henchmen who, having been castrated by Claire, sing in gorgeous falsetto in “I Would Never Leave You” and "Eunuch's Testimony." The orchestra might be small at just nine players, but it’s a tight ensemble that sounds terrific playing Larry Hochman’s orchestrations with folksy hints of accordion and mandolin woven throughout. Kudos as well to Broadway Records not only for preserving this short-lived show, but for producing such a handsome CD with lots of photos from the production, complete lyrics, essays by McNally and director Doyle, in a booklet designed in the show's signature yellow color.

It’s unlikely that The Visit will see a lot of future productions, but how great for future generations to have a top-notch beautiful recording of the last Broadway show by Kander and Ebb.

REVIEW: The Golden Apple - First Full-Length Recording

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The Golden Apple is one of those scores that has taken on something of a mythic air, which is entirely appropriate for this Broadway rethinking of The Iliad and The Odyssey through the lens of turn-of-the-century Americana. The original production was an early transfer from off-Broadway, and despite critical enthusiasm, it shuttered within four months. It left behind a frustratingly truncated original cast album, which (to add insult to injury) was out of print for many years. Despite fans' adoration of this score (music by Jerome Moross, lyrics by John Latouche), the scope of the show (24 named characters plus chorus and full orchestra) has made it difficult to revive or record. (A persistent rumor of Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel's dislike of the show has further aggravated fans.) All of which is to say, when PS Classics announced a full-length recording of the show's recent production at the Lyric Stage of Irving, Texas, with massive cast, expanded chorus, and 36-piece orchestra, a certain segment of the show tunes collecting community let out massive cheers.

I'm pleased to report that the cheering was well warranted. Recorded live over the course of three days, the album has the vibrancy of a live performance (if curiously sporadic audience response) with studio-quality sound. While none of the cast is likely to be familiar to listeners outside of Texas, they are across the board well-cast. If the current cast lacks some of the unique personalities of the original (which featured, among others, Kaye Ballard, Bibi Osterwald, Portia Nelson, and Stephen Douglass), the lack of known performers allows us to really hear these characters as characters.

Despite the operatic ambitions of the score, it is best performed by the type of performers for which it was written, which is to say theater singers. The music is particularly well-served by this cast of singers (particularly Christopher J. Deaton as Ulysses and Kristen Lassiter as Penelope) who can handle mid-century legit style that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaurs on contemporary Broadway without slipping into "full opera" mode. With its mix of Copeland-esque Americana, art songs, vaudevillian turns, and Broadway toe-tappers, the score offers delights for all kinds of show music fans. That it all blends so seamlessly into one, coherent epic is a testament to Moross and Latouche's achievement.

The recording appropriately received the deluxe treatment in its packaging, with a handsome 56-page booklet (designed by Arts Marketing Network, Inc.) including a synopsis, lyrics, production photos, and a handful of essays to help contextualize the show.

One might quibble with some elements of the album -- I'm told there are a couple of minor cuts to the score, and I wish the sound balance had placed the orchestra a little further forward -- but what's the point, really? Most of us never expected to hear a full recording of this score with a cast and orchestra of this size and quality, and to have it delivered with such finesse is nothing short of a miracle. Thank you to producer Tommy Krasker and the entire PS Classics team.

REVIEW: Donna McKechnie and Danielle Hope

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I guess it says something when the patter in a cabaret act is more interesting than the singing, but that's sadly the case on two new cabaret CDs by both a musical theater legend and an up and coming young Brit performer.

Donna McKechnie's Same Place: Another Time, recorded live in London, recreates the show that McKechnie performed earlier in the year at 54 Below. McKechnie, of course, has had an impressive stage career and is best known for her Tony Award-winning role as Cassie in the original production of A Chorus Line as well as other Michael Bennett shows including Promises, Promises and Company. But even to her fans, McKechnie was typically better known for her spectacular dancing than for her singing which was more adequate than stunning. Now in her 70s, McKechnie's voice shows its age, often lacking control in its upper registers. It doesn't help that McKechnie has picked a vocally rangy set of songs for her CD including Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?" and "At the Ballet" (from A Chorus Line); all push at the limits of her voice and the results aren't always pretty.

McKechnie has a winning personality and her show is peppered with fun backstage stories about the shows she was in and how she made her way as an actress in New York. The tales are extremely charming and you get a real sense of McKechnie as a person. This says a lot as the set list of songs for the show are rather sui generis and with few exceptions lack connection to McKechnie's career. The 70s disco hit "Hustle" is there plusIrving Berlin tunes from Easter Parade and Annie Get Your Gun. Even a song from The Poseidon Adventure gets thrown in. McKechnie doesn't seem to exhibit much affinity for these songs, leaving me wishing for the end of each song just so I could hear her next juicy story. I'm happy for McKechnie that she got to put this show together, but for her fans, better dig up her original cast albums and listen to her glory days there.

align=leftAt least with McKechnie, there is real stage presence and proven talent on exhibit. The same can't really be said of Danielle Hope and her show called Bring the Future Faster. This young Brit was the winner of an Andrew Lloyd Webber BBC reality show Over the Rainbow that catapulted her into fame and led to her starring in a production of The Wizard of Oz. The show didn't air here so I didn't see her competition, but it must have been rather weak as Hope is a rather green performer. Her youthful energy can't really mask her lack of experience and a voice that shifts awkwardly between head and chest in ways that are completely frustrating. Hope's CD, recorded live at 54 Below, is a strange amalgam of songs: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is there, but so is "Mambo Italiano" and a rather underwhelming version of Rodgers' and Hart's " Manhattan." There's also an endless Disney medley (it's over 12 minutes long) because Hope claims she's the biggest Disney fan. The album isn't helped by musical director Steven Jamail's string-heavy arrangements for piano, guitar, and cello (but no drums), especially on tracks like the title number which really need some driving percussion.

Ms. Hope tells her audience, which seems to be filled with her British compatriots and friends, that performing on an American stage was one of a number of life goals she wanted to achieve in the last five years. Good for her for achieving that accomplishment, but I think she might fare better in London where her talents will be better appreciated.

REVIEW: An American in Paris - Broadway Cast

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This past Sunday, the new stage version of the 1951 film An American in Paris picked up four Tony Awards including Best Choreography, Best Set Design of a Musical, and Best Lighting Design of a Musical. In a show that is so heavily defined by dance and the visual, how does this work stack up in the audio department? The newly released cast recording of An American in Paris offers a surprisingly engaging listen and without the stage pictures to compete with, the rich score, made up of hits by George and Ira Gershwin, really dazzles. From the opening excerpt from "Concerto in F" to hits like "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," the album often plays like a "Best of the Gershwins." This is never a bad thing (despite the fact that at times the show feels like it's treading a bit too closely in the waters of Crazy For You, especially with its "found object" version of "I Got Rhythm"), but the success of the cast album really rests on the shoulders of one individual. No, it's not director Christopher Wheeldon, leading man Robert Fairchild, or even George Gershwin. You have to look way down in the cast of credits to see the name Rob Fisher who adapted, arranged, and supervised the score and happily got to write the album's liner notes.

REVIEW: James and the Giant Peach - Studio Cast

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At some point over the last few years, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have developed into one of the finest songwriting teams of the “new musical theatre” generation. They moved from their first show, Edges, created while they were still in college and pleasing but also a little redundant in form, to the off-Broadway hit Dogfight, Tony- and Drama Desk- nominee A Christmas Story, larger national exposure with songs on Smash (and also in an Old Navy ad), and, with the release of a new cast recording, James and the Giant Peach.