Cast Albums Blog

REVIEW: Dames at Sea - Original London Cast Recording

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Dames at Sea is the quintessential "little show that could," growing from a sketch to a nightclub show to a proper off-Broadway musical to an international hit that's spawned multiple cast recordings, a television production, rumors of a forthcoming Broadway revival, and, oh, it helped launch the career of an ingenue by the name of Bernadette Peters. Originally performed with two pianos and percussion, the original off-Broadway cast recording featured sumptuous new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.

Ironically, the presence of those gorgeous charts and the unmistakable Peters are two of the best arguments for adding the London Cast Recording to your collection. The London production, which opened a year after its off-Broadway progenitor, features no such breakout performance, enabling the entire ensemble to shine. (Sheila White, who plays the part originated by Peters, does a fine job, but her biggest credit was Brigitta in The Sound of Music.) The London cast recording doesn't return to the show's two-pianos-plus-drums orchestrations, but the new charts by Bill Shepherd are closer to the "let's put on a show" aesthetic of the show.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it's a tuneful evocation of the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s (and 42nd Street in particular), teetering right on the line between pastiche and parody. If the off-Broadway recording steps a little too close to pastiche, risking becoming the very thing it's parodying, the London recording sits distinctly on the opposite side of the line. This means that the voices – particularly Joyce Blair as Mona and William Ellis as Lucky – tend toward broad "schmacting" that sometimes hovers around the notes of the song without ever quite hitting them. But Blayne Barrington is a charming leading man as Dick, and Sheila White is entirely winning as Ruby without subjecting us to the vocal tics that Bernadette Peters's fans adore and detractors hate.

As for the score itself, it's full of charming, hummable songs, although their pastiche nature means you are as likely to leave the album humming "We're in the Money," "The Shadow Waltz," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and all the other antecedent songs as you are to remember "Wall Street," "The Echo Waltz," or "Choo-Choo Honeymoon." Still, there's a reason why Bernadette Peters has kept the torch song "Raining In My Heart" in her concert repertoire for all these years, and the only real clunker in the lot is the uncomfortably dated (even as parody) "Singapore Sue." While hardly an essential purchase, this recording is a lot of fun, and if the songs don't stay with me for long after the album spins to a close, I certainly enjoy hearing them when they play.

REVIEW: Jack the Ripper - Original London Cast Album

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If you ever wondered what Sweeney Todd might have sounded like in the hands of Lionel Bart, you should give Jack The Ripper a spin. The long-lost cast recording -- recorded in 1975, but unreleased for 40 years -- has finally been given its due by Stage Door Records, and if it's not exactly an undiscovered gem, it certainly has much to recommend it. Composer Ron Pember names Bart as a primary influence in the liner notes of this release, but that's evident from the first note of the jaunty opening number, "Saturday Night." Pember and his co-lyricist/co-bookwriter Denis De Marne chose the music hall as a setting for exploring the infamous murderer, and the festive nature of the setting trumps the dark nature of the story, making for a tuneful if perplexing collection of songs. The lack of a plot summary in the liner notes doesn't help.

There is a certain sameness to the songs, perhaps a side effect of the music hall concept: everything sounds like a drinking song. While one number may remind you of the title tune from Mame ("The Ripper's Going To Get You") and another may invoke the spirit of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's best collaborations ("What A Life"), nothing from Jack the Ripper approaches the level of invention to raise the numbers quite to the levels of the more famous songs they resemble.

But really, if you like ladies who belt and cut-time marches, you'll find much to admire in Jack the Ripper. Terese Stevens, perhaps best remembered as the girl replaced out of town in the title role of the original Broadway production of Gigi, makes the strongest impression as Marie, delivering her numbers with a verve reminiscent of Eileen Rogers. She gets the most material of anyone in the show, and her jazz waltz "Love" is by far the best number in the score.

It's not hard to see how this show might have charmed audiences for a couple of years, but it's also not hard to understand why it never made it to Broadway or into the musical theatre canon. If you find yourself longing for the days of simpler melodies and voices with character, Jack the Ripper might just hit the spot.

REVIEW: The Memory Show (Original Off-Broadway Cast)

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A two-person musical about dementia? It might be a strange choice of material, but such is the content of The Memory Show which played off-Broadway in 2013 in a production by the Transport Group. Written by up-and-coming writers (Zach Redler-Music; Sara Cooper-Book and Lyrics), The Memory Show focuses on a Jewish Mother and Daughter (they aren’t given names) as the former (Catherine Cox) begins to enter a downward spiral of dementia while her estranged daughter (Leslie Kritzer) moves in to take care of her. Flashing between past and present and drawing on the painful episodes, especially those involving husband/father Ira, that informed their family life together, this show and score are anything but happy.

Redler and Cooper have written a challenging if not always accessible score. The show opens with “Who’s the President of the United States?” a song that points to Mother’s quickly unraveling mind, but a tune that I doubt will be entering anyone's cabaret repertoire anytime soon. Much of the music (orchestrated simply for piano, reeds, violin, and cello) is consistent with its unsettling content, making for a score that is both complex and dissonant. (Redler’s music most evokes the musical theater vocabulary of Polly Pen’s Bed and Sofa, another discordant chamber piece). As Mother’s condition deteriorates, the tone between the two women turns angry and confrontational; this is not music to fall asleep to. What the songs tend to lack in melody, they make up for in character development. Daughter’s humorous opening song “Single Jewish Female Seeks Man” is in a more traditional musical theater vein and most of her songs feel like complete numbers whereas Mother’s songs tend to ramble, a reflection of her broken mind. I’ll leave it to others to decide if they want to listen to the strange “You and Me Toilet” in which Daughter sings about having to “clean up” after her mother. Stunning, though, is the show’s final song, the Jewish-inflected “Lullaby” with Daughter comforting Mother with the words “Sha, sha, sha.” The main challenge with the score is that because things, plot-wise, simply become worse and worse, much of the score sounds frustratingly alike: depressing, angry, sad, and uncomfortable.

What is perhaps most compelling about the recording are its two stars, vet Catherine Cox and Broadway belter Leslie Kritzer. Both offer solid, moving, and touching performances and Kritzer gets the chance to show off her delightfully rangy voice on several numbers.

The Memory Show isn’t for everyone and some listeners will surely find its content and/or its music hard going. But for those folks who want to hear a new direction in musical theater, this cast album does a nice job of capturing a challenging show on disc.

REVIEW: Tamar of the River - Original Cast Recording

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Frequently, “new musical theatre” conjures up images of a pop/rock-influenced score, or a pastiche show emulating the music of an earlier, perhaps more prosperous time on Broadway. Adventurous and risk-taking scores are more rare. Tamar of the River is one of those unique scores that successfully goes beyond the boundaries of Times Square -- and beyond the boundaries of Western cultures -- for its influences. Marisa Michelson and Joshua H. Cohen have written a beautiful score that pulls from a wealth of different traditions. The 2014 world premiere recording gives us the opportunity to experience this short-lived off-Broadway show. It is challenging yet accessible; unified and whole, but with clear elements. The final effort shows off a fresh approach to musical theatre, inspiring to listeners even after several listens.

REVIEW: Christine Pedi's GOOD TO MAMA

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Any musical theater lover out there worth his or her salt is sure to know multi-talented singer/actress/comedian Christine Pedi from her many years in the Forbidden Broadway franchise where she hilariously impersonated such legends from Elaine Stritch to Liza Minnelli. Her wonderfully over-the-top caricatures made her a true MVP in Forbidden Broadway’s many incarnations, but for some of us, the question remained: just who was the real Christine Pedi behind all those voices?