Cast Albums Blog

REVIEW: The Fortress of Solitude - Original Cast Recording

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I've had The Fortress of Solitude cast album on my phone for a week and I can't stop listening to it. Michael Friedman has given us one of those scores that offers new delights on each visit, brought to life through fantastic performances by Adam Chanler-Berat, Kyle Beltran, Kevin Mambo, André De Shields, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and the rest of the cast.

The musical (with music and lyrics by Friedman and a book by Itamar Moses, based on Jonathan Lethem's novel of the same title) played the Dallas Theater Center and The Public Theater in 2014, earning mixed-to-positive reviews, with the majority of the criticism pointed at the musical's inability to wrestle the entirety of the sprawling source novel into a coherent stage narrative. Detailing the stories of two friends growing up and growing apart in Gowanus, Brooklyn, in the 1970s and '80s, the show is at once a memory play, a science fiction story, and a meditation on the politics of race, religion, gentrification, and probably a dozen other things. That hardly matters for the cast recording, produced by Dean Sharenow and Kurt Deutsch in the style we've come to expect from Friedman's scores: presented like a pop album, with discrete songs and minimal dialogue.

This approach foregrounds the strengths of Friedman's score, which lovingly draws on popular music genres from the 70s and 80s, with a focus on soul but including important forays into folk, punk, hip-hop, and new wave. Friedman's use of pastiche places the Fortress score in the same category as Dreamgirls and Follies, deftly orienting the listener to the time, place, and social world of each song without overtly calling up specific songs (with a couple of specific exceptions). The orchestrations, by John Clancy and Matt Beck, are evocative of the classic songs that form the DNA of this score, while cleverly linking the sounds across genres to allow for a couple of brilliant musical collages like "The One I Remember" and "High High High School" that bring these different sounds into dialogue with each other. Music director Kimberly Grigsby dexterously keeps it all sounding of a piece.

This is Friedman's most ambitious score to date, and if it falters at times, it does so only occasionally. (My only real disappointment in the score is Rebecca Naomi Jones's second-act solo, "Something," which seems to favor narrative necessity over musical invention.) The opening sequence, which includes a "Prelude" to establish the looking-back frame of the show and a brilliant mélange of song-fragments called "The One I Remember," introducing characters, relationships, setting, and themes like a Brooklyn-based answer to "Tradition."

The relatively no-frills CD packaging (designed by Kirstin Huber) includes a fold-out insert with a short essay from Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, a synopsis of the show, and a handful of production photos. A link is provided to a webpage with complete lyrics and additional photos. On the strength of this album, one suspects that years from now musical theater fans will be scratching their heads, wondering why it didn't have a longer life beyond The Public. Perhaps on the strength of this album, it will.

REVIEW: On the Town - New Broadway Cast Recording

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Holding the new 2014 Broadway cast recording of the 1944 musical On the Town in your hands, the first thing you notice is just how weighty it is. Two discs and a substantial booklet with lyrics, short essays, and eye-popping photos from the stage production, all enveloped in a handsomely designed sleeve. This isn’t just another cast recording, but a classic of the American musical theater made tangible.

When this new production of On the Town opened on Broadway this past fall, it earned well-deserved raves. Sharply sung, acted, and danced by a talented cast and perfectly directed by John Rando, this was a production of On the Town worth catching, in marked contrast to the last and short-lived Broadway revival produced by the Public Theater in 1998.

On the Town is a musical with an uneven recording history. An album of the show’s selections featuring various members of the original cast was made by Decca in 1944, but it was hardly complete. In 1960, some of the show’s original cast members, including lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green who wrote for themselves the juicy roles of Claire and Ozzie, recorded what was then called the “First Full Length Recording,” but even with over an hour’s playing time, parts of the score (mainly dance music) were either omitted or truncated. Jay Records, which has made its mark in the cast recording industry by producing complete versions of classic musicals offered a two-disc version of the show in 1995, but it was a studio recording. This latest release, then, has the true distinction of being the first complete recording of a stage production of On The Town. With an hour and a half of music, it’s a musical theater lover’s delight.

The plot of On the Town is pure silliness. Three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York want to find some dames and have a good time before they have to report back for duty. Even 70 years later—“where has the time all gone to?” as one of the lyrics puts it—the show holds up remarkably well due to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s witty lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s smashing, instantly memorable score chockful of hits including “New York, New York,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “I Can Cook Too.” The three sailors, as performed by Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves, and Jay Armstrong Johnson (the strongest of the bunch) are very good and sound great, if a bit unmemorable in their roles. Rather, the standouts in this recording are the women and all that gorgeous Bernstein dance music.

First, the ladies. Elizabeth Stanley makes for a kooky Claire with her magnificent soprano voice and perfect sense of comic timing, while Alysha Umphress scats and belts her way through her big numbers “I Can Cook Too” and “Come Up to My Place.” Both offer unique takes on their characters and are delightful on disc. The recording's other woman of note is mugging comedian Jackie Hoffman who does double duty here as Madame Dilly, hilariously traveling through the various vocal octaves in “Carnegie Hall Pavane” and camping it up as a variety of lounge singers in Act Two.

But with an hour and half of music at our disposal, the true star here is Bernstein’s score full of rapturous extended dance music. A large orchestra of 34 members—if only current shows had so many players—moves through the score with flair and finesse, confidently and artfully conducted by James Moore. Getting to experience the show in this complete fashion reminds the listener that On the Town while full of songs that have become staples of the American musical thaeter, is much more than that; rather, Bernstein’s sophisticated skill as a composer-- he was barely twenty-five when he wrote this--is already on display here drawing on the worlds of classical music, jazz, and musical theater in ways that were original in 1944 and remain so today. (Throughout the score you can hear the beginnings of New York’s musical hustle and bustle dissonance, which will fully blossom thirteen years later in West Side Story.)

The stage production has sadly been struggling at the box office in recent months and it’s unclear as to how much longer it will run. This outstanding recording, carefully and handsomely produced by PS Classics, though, will ensure that this production will not be forgotten any time soon.

REVIEW: Side Show - 2014 Broadway Revival Cast

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For those of us who grew up with the 1997 original cast recording of the cult musical Side Show, the rich score by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell combined with the Tony-nominated performances of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner left us wondering how this fascinating show about real-life Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton could have failed. Now, seventeen years later, Side Show has been reborn and rethought for a new generation under the watchful direction of film director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls). While this revival played as short a run on Broadway as did its original incarnation—perhaps Siamese twins just can’t find an audience—the winning musicality of this new cast recording reinforces just why this show has so many adoring fans.

The two albums of course can’t help but call out for comparison, but such a task is made rather difficult as the 2014 version is more “revisal” than “revival.” There are eleven new songs, many changed lyrics to old numbers, and a great deal of musical tinkering. Is this a better show than its predecessor? Hard to say. Some of the new numbers like “Very Well Connected” and a long flashback sequence that gives the twins some new backstory aren’t particularly memorable. (An exception is a gorgeous song for Harry Houdini of all people who teaches the girls how to live “All in the Mind,” beautifully performed by Javier Ignacio.) The girls get some wonderfully fun new performance numbers including “Typical Girls Next Door” and “Stuck on You” as they go from freak show hicks to dazzling stars of the stage, a progression that is sharply musically orchestrated by Harold Wheeler (who performed similar duties for the 1997 production).

Of course the pressing question on everyone’s mind is, how do new headliners Emily Padgett (Daisy) and Erin Davie (Violet) compare with their predecessors (Skinner and Ripley, respectively)? The new duo are as compelling on disc as they were on stage, movingly inhabiting the lives of these physically united sisters complete with the score’s trademark scintillating vocal arrangements. They are indeed a winning pair of performers, yet if there is a criticism to be made, and not one for which Padgett or Davie are at fault, the two actresses, unlike their predecessors, often sound quite alike. While this makes for gorgeous harmonies between the two, they at times lack the thrilling quality of contrast that Skinner and Ripley brought to their roles on the original album.

While’s there’s no question that Padgett and Davie are the stars of this Side Show, what’s pleasantly surprising is just how rich the supporting cast is; in fact, it’s their performances which really make this album a must have. David St. Louis is mesmerizing as Jake, the African American freak show performer who’s in love with Violet. He hits it out of the park with his two big solos “The Devil You Know” and “You Should Be Loved.” Equally stellar is Ryan Silverman as producer Terry Connor who wants to make the girls into stars. He shines throughout the score but his “Private Conversation” is truly a highlight. Even individual chorus members are given their chance in the spotlight as each “freak” is much more individuated in this production than in the original.

While the 1997 version of Side Show won’t lose its place of honor anytime soon, this new recording is a must for fans of the musical, capturing some great performers interpreting a plethora of new material that makes this revival truly into a brand-new show worth listening to.

REVIEW: Anika Larsen's Sing You to Sleep

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In the liner notes to her new album Sing You to Sleep, Anika Larsen tells listeners that they can “play this album on shuffle, but if you play it in order, you’ll find the songs get slower as they go along.” Larsen’s right about the speed of the songs; but the album, a pleasing mix of easy listening, pop, and musical theater standards, also gets better as it goes on, becoming more honest, emotionally naked, and truthful with each track.

While not a household name, Larsen has made an impressive career on Broadway (All Shook Up, Xanadu, Avenue Q) and can be currently seen in Beautiful, a musical for which she received a Tony nomination for best featured actress. To many fans she is known for her rangy belt, but this album of tender and sensitively interpreted tunes shows off a different, warmer side to her voice. To appreciate this though, one has to get past the first two tracks on the album, a rather uninspired version of the Gershwins’ “Summertime” and a jazz-inflected, but awkwardly arranged “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. After that, the album quiets down with arrangements by David Cook that are both lovely and refreshingly simple. Larsen offers up a great take on Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me” and a gorgeous new cover of one of musical theater’s most overlooked songs “Sleepy Man” from The Robber Bridegroom. Eschewing pop phrasing and vocal tricks, Larsen trusts in the lyrics of her well-chosen playlist and sings with heart, not with flash.

Adding to the album are some nice backup vocals from Kenita Miller (who shared the stage with Larsen in Xanadu) and a perfectly harmonized duet with current Beautiful co-star Jessie Mueller on James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Pared down to their essentials, well-known songs like the plaintive “Fields of Gold” by Sting and a haunting version of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” sound completely fresh as if we’re hearing them for the first time. Larsen's moving rendition of Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" closes the disc.

All in all, Larsen’s album is a great listen. Perhaps its title Sing You to Sleep is a bit unfortunate, though, because while the album’s relaxing feel might be great for bedtime, it’s definitely a recording that you’ll want to stay awake for.

REVIEW: Stars of David - World Premiere Cast Recording

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On the surface, Stars of David sounds like a cynical cash-grab show: a small-cast revue based on journalist Abigail Pogrebin’s 2005 collection of interviews with prominent Jewish Americans sounds like it was designed to tour the Jewish Community Centers of this country ad infinitum. Whether it was any good or not would have almost no bearing on whether Jewish grandparents would buy tickets by the bushel. So, I was surprised and delighted when I saw the show in its off-Broadway incarnation last year to discover that the show was also entertaining and at times moving. Now, a year later, Yellow Sound Label has released a “World Premiere Recording” featuring the off-Broadway cast (Janet Metz, Alan Schmuckler, Aaron Serotsky, and Donna Vivino) plus three performers from the world-premiere production at the Philadelphia Theater Company, Alex Brightman, Joanna Glushak, and Brad Oscar.