Cast Albums Blog
REVIEW: Sondheim Unplugged, volumes 1 and 2
It’s immense. The first two volumes of Phil Geoffrey Bond’s Sondheim Unplugged series – a third double album is set to be released this summer – between them include no fewer than eighty-six tracks, and since there are a handful of medleys that’s a grand total of ninety-one songs, drawn from just about every corner of Stephen Sondheim's catalogue. They’re sung by a dazzling group of Broadway actors and cabaret artists, and, as in the cabaret series that inspired these recordings, the accompaniment is a solo piano rather than a band. That could very easily be a recipe for something excruciatingly self-indulgent, but it’s the absolute opposite: the focus is very firmly on the music and the lyrics, and the stellar cast of singers do a mostly superb job of getting to the heart of their songs.
And having said that, my favourite things in these two collections are all at the more light-hearted end of the Sondheim canon. Kate Loprest offers an absolutely delightful grown-up rendition of Let Me Entertain You, the peerless Karen Mason has entirely too much fun with Dick Tracy’s Live Alone And Like It, and Sally Mayes has a splendid time finding every last scrap of innuendo in Can That Boy Foxtrot?
If you’re looking for meatier material, though, there’s plenty here. Donna Vivino does a particularly lovely job with Merrily We Roll Along’s Like It Was. There’s a thoughtful take on Evening Primrose’s I Remember from cabaret singer Lina Koutrakos. Lisa Sabin makes Dawn, from the unproduced movie musical Singing Out Loud, into a surprising highlight. It’s always a pleasure to hear Dee Hoty sing Could I Leave You?. Sally Mayes (again) turns Send In The Clowns into a full-on torch song, and shows why almost nobody does this sort of thing better than she does. And the second volume closes with a movingly fragile Goodbye For Now from Sarah Rice.
It's fun, too, to hear Danielle Ferland – Red Riding Hood in the original Broadway cast of Into The Woods – throw herself into a thoroughly lascivious take on the Wolf’s Hello, Little Girl, and to hear Annie Golden singing Unworthy Of Your Love more than thirty years after she introduced the song in the original off-Broadway production of Assassins. And there’s something very moving indeed about hearing Jim Walton sing Merrily We Roll Along’s Our Time forty years after he played the role on Broadway.
There’s an occasional misstep, because in a collection this size nobody is going to love absolutely everything; for me, Alton Fitzgerald White’s medley of Someone Is Waiting and Pretty Woman is overly tricksy, and the shift from a rather lugubrious reading of the former song to an overly jazzy arrangement of the latter does no favours for either song or for Mr. White. And while it’s understandable that Bond attempts to give us something from every Sondheim show, some songs – Someone In A Tree, for example – strenuously resist being sung out of context as a cabaret piece.
Still, these are two essential collections. So much is so good that every Sondheim fan should want to own these albums. The songs and singers are peerless, Joseph Goodrich’s piano accompaniment is flawless throughout, and for the most part Bond’s stripped-back approach allows both the songs and the singers to shine.
REVIEW: Ride the Cyclone - World Premiere Cast Recording
When I saw Ride the Cyclone off-Broadway in 2016, I came away mostly impressed with the stylish visuals achieved through an excellent collaboration among designers and director. The musical spotlighted the teenage victims of a fatal rollercoaster accident, with a touch of mystery added by the presence of a Jane Doe victim found decapitated and unidentifiable. The show at its best was a neo-vaudevillian concept revue about the meaning of mortality, but at times it felt weighed down by the inertia built into the format where you can count the number of bodies on stage and calculate how many songs are likely left in the evening.
Five years later, revisiting the show as a purely aural experience through its World Premiere Cast Recording, the strengths of the score are more palpable, but they don't fully outshine its weaknesses either.
REVIEW: Lea Salonga: Live In Concert With The Sydney Symphony Orchestra
A long time ago – thirty-one-and-a-half years ago, to be exact – I saw the original London production of Miss Saigon at the first Saturday matinee after press night (no of course you can’t believe I’m that old). The show’s worldwide search for a star had been a significant element of the pre-opening publicity; cynical student that I was, I thought nobody could possibly live up to that level of hype - until Lea Salonga started singing I’d Give My Life For You, when the combination of her flawless voice and the astonishing intensity she brought to the song made my mouth drop open.
She’s a much bigger name now than she was then, but – whatever issues you may have with the show itself, or with other aspects of the original production’s casting – her London debut was one of the great star-making performances, and her subsequent transfer to Broadway in the role, coupled with her voice work in Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan, propelled her into a major international career – hence this concert, filmed in Sydney (as opposed to Manila, London, or New York, the cities where she made her name) in November 2019, and subsequently screened in the USA by PBS and released as a record album by Broadway Records.
REVIEW: If The Fates Allow: A Hadestown Holiday Album
“Oh, my love, we’ve had our share of tears /
Oh, my friends, we’ve had our hopes and fears /
Oh, my friends, it’s been a long hard year /
But now it’s Christmas /
Yes, it’s Christmas /
Thank God it’s Christmas”
Those are the poignant lyrics that open If The Fates Allow: A Hadestown Holiday Album, released by Broadway Records on November 20, 2020. This song, originally by Queen, here superbly arranged and orchestrated by Todd Sickafoose, is the anthem we all so sorely need this year. By the end of the track, I was tearing up, and happy that I broke my no holiday music before December 1 rule. In a tumultuous year of ups and, let’s face it, mostly downs, If The Fates Allow: A Hadestown Holiday Album is a balm for the soul.
REVIEW: Anyone Can Whistle - 2020 Studio Cast
They began recording it in 1997, and it's finally being released next week. If, like me, you've been waiting for JAY's complete studio recording of Anyone Can Whistle for over two decades, you may find it a little difficult to believe you finally have a copy of it in your hands. No need to pinch yourself – yes it's real, and yes, it's really good.
It has a lot to live up to. The show's now-legendary original Broadway cast recording, made the day after the Broadway production closed after a run of just twelve previews and nine performances, is one of those albums that makes you wonder how a show could possibly have failed to find an audience. As heard on that recording, Stephen Sondheim's songs for the show sound dazzlingly original, and they're given warmly characterful (if not always flawlessly sung) performances by the production's trio of stars – Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick, and Harry Guardino, none of whom had previously appeared in a Broadway musical.