Cast Albums Blog

REVIEW: Life of an Actress: The Musical - Soundtrack

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It's always a little suspicious when a film's soundtrack gets a wider release or more notice than the film itself. Suffice it to say, I had never heard of the 2014 film Life of an Actress when I received my review copy of the soundtrack. Normally, between that the even more glaring red flag of a film that was written, composed, directed, and produced by the same person -- Paul Chau, a former banker whose only previous artistic credits of note were a previous documentary film of the same name and producer billing on a couple of revivals -- I wouldn't even bother. But with a cast including Orfeh, Taylor Louderman, and Allison Case, I figured it was worth giving the album the benefit of the doubt.

How much you'll enjoy this soundtrack depends entirely on how much you're able to let some great performances carry you past other shortcomings: pleasant but undistinguished music set with leaden lyrics (sample: "I want to be an accountant / that's my dream / the first in my family / with a college degree"), and a four piece, synthesizer-heavy band that would sound cheap in a tiny off-Broadway setting. (The band is particularly egregious given how far forward in the mix it is, with its single violin often overpowering the singers.)

Maybe this is the kind of album that coheres a bit more once you've seen the film, but I can find no trace of it existing beyond single screenings in New York and Los Angeles last year. The project's website speaks of an in-development stage version, and you've got to admire Paul Chau's pluck, if not his talent.

REVIEW: Two's Company - Original Cast

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Sony’s Masterworks Broadway continues their mission to remaster and rerelease cast albums that have long been out of print, and typically long forgotten. Their most recent release is Two’s Company, a 1952 revue starring Bette Davis. The remastered album features songs mostly by Vernon Duke - Sheldon Harnick contributed a song - with lyrics by Ogden Nash and Sammy Cahn. Jerome Robbins handled the choreography for the original production, which was directed by Jules Dassin.

The show today is perhaps best known - if known at all - for its problematic run. While in out of town previews, Bette Davis collapsed on stage. Further previews in Pittsburgh were met with tepid responses, and its opening on Broadway was delayed because of Davis’s health. The show ran for 90 performances on Broadway; it was not a critical success, but was an audience-pleaser. Davis later required surgery, and it was decided to close the show since she was no longer able to star in it.

Never heard of Two’s Company before? Neither had I. The album itself is pleasant, but not the most memorable. The sensibilities of the early 1950s differ vastly from today, and that’s clear after listening to it. There are dated references and trendy musical styles that don’t hold the same appeal today. Yet it is a nice album for a dreary afternoon, guaranteed to brighten the room a bit.

After a well-orchestrated overture (the album has great charts by Don Walker and Clare Grundman), the show starts with an ensemble number “Theatre Is a Lady.” It’s charming, if mildly offensive by today’s standards (with lines like “The theatre is a lady, and we want her in the mood tonight” and instructions on how to woo her). It’s a typical Broadway revue opening number, talking about the spectacular performance to come.

Just how spectacular remains to be seen; it’s not completely evident on the recording. The ballad “It Just Occurred To Me” is the earwormiest track, with the vibe of a 1930s jazz standard; this song should make a revival in cabaret settings. Other songs show the age of the show: “A Man’s Home” is Harnick’s tribute his new home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; “Esther” draws from the Rumba and Latin music craze from the post-war era; “Purple Rose” is a long parody of a country-western song, with Davis comedically twisting words to fit the rhyme scheme (“no offer of betrayal had been made to this fe-may-l”); “Roll Along, Sadie” is about fictional prostitute Sadie Thompson (created by W. Somerset Maugham, portrayed by Gloria Swanson on the silver screen), a name all but forgotten today.

As for the singing, well, star Bette Davis is not a singer. She admitted as much, telling the New York Times “It’s a funny, weird kind of bass, F above middle C to the one below middle C.” Fortunately, she is not featured on every song. She has that speak-song style of singing, and her raspy voice without seeing her act is a disconnect that is hard to move past. Hiram Sherman sounds good, in a role that won him a Tony award. The ensemble is vibrant, if, again, old-fashioned by today’s standards.

Two’s Company is likely only to find a home on the virtual shelf of the most prolific collector, but we should all be thankful that Sony is rereleasing this album (and others in their vault). They help paint a fuller picture of the Golden Era of Broadway, reminding us that not everything was a smash hit with an innovative, integrated score. Releases such as this are a reminder that not every show is memorable, no matter how enjoyable the score may be and no matter how popular the stars of the show are. It is being released digitally and CD-on-demand, so we know that Sony likely isn’t losing much money on this project. Which is good, because if it were a loss for the company, the project wouldn’t continue, and we would miss out on songs like “It Just Occurred To Me” and other hidden gems.

REVIEW: On the Twentieth Century - 2015 Broadway Cast

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There are two words that sum up why the new Broadway cast recording of On the Twentieth Century is a welcome new release: Kristin Chenoweth. As Lily Garland, the scene-stealing comic soprano diva, Chenoweth, in a role she was born to play, tears up the stage and this recording of the 1978 musical in its first-ever Broadway revival. Whether happily chewing on scenery or casting off high notes as effortlessly as breathing, Chenoweth is the main reason why this frothy revival works.

The original cast recording of On the Twentieth Century has always held a special spot in my playlist. The show itself is rarely produced as it requires fairly elaborate staging, but its Tony Award-winning 1930s-inspired pastiche score by Cy Coleman and Betty Comden and Adolph Green is a treasure trove of hummable melodies, and the original cast was top-notch and included John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Kevin Kline, and Imogene Coca who put their indelible stamps on their roles.

The show is pure madcap fun and takes place on a train (named the 20th Century) on its 16-hour journey from Chicago to New York as down-on-his-luck theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe (a wonderfully voiced Peter Gallagher) tries to woo back his former star, Lily Garland (Chenoweth), so that he can finally score another theatrical success. Throw in Garland’s vainglorious lover Bruce Granit (the hilarious Andy Karl) and a wacky religious nut (played by Mary Louise Wilson) and the stage is set for hijinks.

The laugh-out-loud mayhem that transpires on stage is less well captured on disc; rather the star of this two-disc recording (the original recording was just a single disc) is the gorgeous score. Lily is given one vocally pyrotechnical number after another and Chenoweth delivers the goods and then some. From "Veronique" where we see how Lily develops from her hilariously humble beginnings as Mildred Plotka to the star she is now to "Never" in which she channels all of her hatred for Oscar into stratospheric trills, Coleman's operetta-infused songs are simply delightful.

While I could go on and on about Chenoweth, her co-stars more than hold their own. Gallagher, woefully passed over for a Tony nomination for his performance here, is outstanding in his many numbers especially his opening "I Rise Again" and the show’s big love duet "Our Private World." Mark Linn-Baker and Michael McGrath are Jaffe’s bumbling sidekicks and sing well in silly numbers like "Five Zeros." As Letitia Primrose, the crazy religious fanatic on the train, Mary Louise Wilson is kooky enough, but pales in comparison with the part’s original creator Imogene Coca.

Despite the superb talent assembled for this production, the double-cd length of this recording is a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful to have the show’s previously unrecorded music such as the funny "Indian Maiden’s Lament," various reprises, and some new extended dance music (arranged by David Krane) but with so much extra space, there are also long tracks of non-underscored dialogue, which despite providing some plot, come off like excerpts from a dull radio play. (Comden and Green won the Tony for best book for a musical, but it’s not their sharpest work.)

The biggest disappointment with this recording and production is the lamentably small orchestra (here arranged by Larry Hochman). With only 13 musicians in the pit, the orchestra size falls far short of the original production’s 20-plus members that featured a fuller string section and a harp to boot. Some shows can withstand such instrumental downsizing, but Coleman’s rich, lush score is sorely diminished and for those who know the original, the sound here often sounds thin. Indeed the show’s dazzling and witty overture, one of my personal favorites as it’s made to mimic a train picking up speed, underwhelms here, its fun ending with train toots and clanging bells now masked and overshadowed by the overly busy sound of the show's tap dancing porters.

When all is said and done, it is nice to have another recording of this neglected classic, and especially to have a permanent record of Chenoweth’s showstopping performance. Great singing aside, though, the original cast recording won’t be leaving my playlist any time soon.

REVIEW: Fun Home - Original Broadway Cast

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It’s pretty rare for a cast recording to get an update; sometimes it happens when a major new star takes over a show like Pearl Bailey and the all-black company in Hello, Dolly! or Vanessa Williams in Kiss of the Spider Woman, but a new Broadway recording for this season’s critically acclaimed Fun Home? That was a surprise. PS Classics recorded the autobiographical memory show, based on the graphic novel by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her coming of age and her relationship with her closeted gay father, shortly after its lauded 2013 off-Broadway run at the Public Theater. With a terrific score by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (lyrics), Fun Home was rightly hailed as one of the best new musicals in recent years and quickly went on to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014.

Despite the serious thematics of the piece, the musical, whose story seamlessly moves between past and present, found its way to Broadway this season (now staged in the round). With its complex use of underscoring and its richness of melody, the score is most evocative of Tesori’s other wonderful musical Violet and is perhaps her best work since that show. The original recording of Fun Home was wonderful, so why the new version, you might be asking? Is it much different from what preceded it, and for those who own the 2013 recording, do you need this?

The new album isn’t so much new as expanded. It includes several extended passages of dialogue that are quite affecting and help flesh out the story a bit more for the listener. A minor new song “Party Dress” has been added to the score while “Al for Short” for Small Alison has since been cut from the show. The new recording recycles some tracks from the first release but also features some new cast members. Tony-nominated Emily Skeggs has taken over as Medium Alison and scores big with her number “Changing My Major.” The other key players (all of them also Tony-nominated) remain equally strong. Sydney Lucas shines as Small Alison (especially in “Ring of Keys”) and Judy Kuhn is simply devastating in “Days and Days.” Beth Malone and Michael Cerveris are both outstanding as adult Alison and Bruce, and offer heart-wrenching performances, resulting in a recording that packs a real emotional wallop by its conclusion.

While it’s nice to have a recording that captures the Broadway incarnation of this show, the changes are, in the scope of things, so minimal that only “completists” who already own the off-Broadway recording will feel the need to buy this new version. But for folks who haven’t yet added this show to their collection, the new Broadway version of Fun Home is a must-have.

REVIEW: Marin Mazzie: Make Your Own Kind of Music - Live at 54 Below

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For years, when you polled Broadway fans for their choices of singers they wished would record a solo album, Marin Mazzie's name would always top that list. Thanks to the good people at Broadway Records, the wait is over, and once you hear Make Your Own Kind of Music, recorded live at 54 Below, I'm sure you'll agree it was worth the wait.

The album, recorded in live in February, 2015, takes us on a musical journey through Marin's childhood, starting with a few numbers she recalls from her parents' record collection ("Come On-A My House," sexier than Rosemary Clooney ever imagined it, "That's All," and a Sammy Davis, Jr.-inspired "Begin the Beguine," the set's only show tune). From there, it's all '70s, from the Partridge Family to Barry Manilow, and Mazzie manages to avoid camp to give us knock-out renditions of each and every song.

Her sincere love for these songs pays off, elevating the material high above our fuzzy AM-radio memories. Yes, she even rescues "Midnight at the Oasis" from the kitschy punchline it's been for decades, with help from a subdued arrangement by Dan Lipton. The pairing of her voice and the music of the 1970s Adult Contemporary charts turns out to be such a perfect pairing, this album will make you want to stop what you're doing and write a Carly Simon jukebox musical for Ms. Mazzie. Just wait until you hear her phenomenal "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be."

The album preserves just enough of the show's patter for us to understand Mazzie's fondness for these songs (and for the hairbrush she sang into and otherwise played with in her teenage years) without ever overwhelming the music. Music director Joseph Thalken keeps the band in the sweet spot between pop and cabaret, helping the songs feel fresh and theatrical without ever straying too far from the versions Mazzie fell in love with way back when. Thalken also provided about half the arrangements, along with Larry Lelli (who also plays drums on the album), Pete Donovan (the album's bassist), Ted Firth, and Lipton. Thalken, Lelli, Donovan, and guitarist Nate Brown also prove to be capable backup singers when called upon.

This album is clearly a labor of love, and it shines through in every aspect, from the hand-lettered logo by Olivia Cook gracing the photo-rich package design by Robbie Rozelle (with gorgeous performance photos by Nathan Johnson) to the crystal-clear production and mixing by Aaron Ankrum. Much has been written about what a gift 54 Below has been to the New York cabaret community, but not enough has been said about how grateful we should all be for the Live at 54 Below series from Broadway Records. In an era when the economics of putting out albums of any type make the music business a perilous proposition, their commitment to capturing so many of this venue's best shows deserves its own standing ovation.