Cast Albums Blog

Month Archive:  August 2016

REVIEW: Two Cities - Original London Cast

Recording Cover

It was the best of shows, it was the worst of shows. The appeal of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities as source material for a musical isn’t difficult to fathom: it can easily be presented as a sweeping romance with an epic historical backdrop, there’s plenty of room for spectacle, and the story can accommodate a large chorus. It’s also a familiar title, and (like Les Misérables for the French) everybody knows the most famous lines, and has at least some idea of the basic plot. It’s been adapted for the musical stage several times – at least four musicals, plus a couple of operas – but (unlike Les Misérables) it’s never become a major stage hit.

This particular adaptation, titled simply Two Cities, opened at London’s Palace Theatre in 1969, and it has two headline attractions: music by Jeff Wayne, who went on to compose the score for the War of the Worlds concept album, and Edward Woodward making a (relatively) rare musical appearance as Sydney Carton. They’re both worth your attention; as for the show itself, it received a decidedly mixed critical response, and based on the material on this album, it’s not at all difficult to see why.

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REVIEW: New solo discs from Cheyenne Jackson and Jose Llana

Recording Cover

This summer, two of Broadway's leading men released new recital discs capturing studio versions of recent concert set lists: Jose Llana's Altitude, based on his Lincoln Center American Songbook concert of last year, and Cheyenne Jackson's Renaissance, adapted from the "Music of the Mad Men Era" pops concert he's performed with a number of different orchestras.

Llana's album is largely a career retrospective, featuring songs from On the Town, Saturn Returns (aka Myths and Hymns), The King and I, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Here Lies Love, with a few additional songs from both Broadway and the world of pop. The songs from On the Town ("Lonely Town") and Saturn Returns ("Icarus," "Hero and Leander," and the title number) are particularly welcome, as neither production resulted in original cast albums and the material highlights what Llana does best: sensitive singing right at the border of art song and pop.

The King and I numbers suffer the most from the cabaret-sized band (piano, bass, drums, guitar, and woodwinds), with his medley of "We Kiss in a Shadow / I Have Dreamed" sounding particularly square coming after two Saturn Returns numbers. (This transition was smoother on stage, which benefitted from applause and patter to break up the numbers.) The inclusion of "A Puzzlement," which he sang during his two terms as a replacement King in the recent Lincoln Center revival, is a nice idea but it similarly falls flat.

The Here Lies Love numbers are better served by the band, and it's a particular treat to hear Llana sing "Child of the Philippines" (which belonged to his character's rival, played by Conrad Ricamora, in the show) with guest star (and co-star from both Here Lies Love and The King and I) Ruthie Ann Miles. Pop songs from the catalogs of Ed Sheeran ("Thinking Out Loud") and Billy Joel ("Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)") fit comfortably in with the show tunes, and "She Is More" from AnnMarie Milazzo's stage version of Pretty Dead Girl will send you Googling for more information about this work-in-progress.

align=left With Cheyenne Jackson's matinee idol looks and confident baritone, it was only a matter of time before he dove deep into the pre-rock and roll music of the 1950s. With Renaissance, he proves all our suspicions true, definitively demonstrating that should the Rat Pack reform tomorrow, he should be first in line. Beginning with a boldly stated "Feeling Good," you would never know these beefy orchestrations were actually reduced (quite skillfully, by John Baxindine) from the symphonic charts Jackson used on tour. Of course, reduced is a relative term, and the 22 pieces here sound fantastic.

The front half of the album stays firmly in the swing lane, mixing vintage hits with the more recent "Americano" (from the Brian Setzer Orchestra's 2000 swing revival album Vavoom!). Jackson is joined by a close harmony trio on the smokey "Angel Eyes" and the playful "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," and his costar from 30 Rock, Jane Krakowski, makes a fine (and appropriately subdued) partner on "Somethin' Stupid."

Halfway through the album, where "Side B" would start had this been a genuine product of the era it celebrates, the tone takes a turn away from the era with Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You." Jackson sings the number well, accompanied by Ted Firth on piano, but it jars as an interloper from another period. Unfortunately, it marks a turn as the rest of the album focuses on 1970s pop and soul (with one jump back to the 50s and one new tune penned by Jackson and Michael Feinstein). While it's hard to complain about any particular track or performance, because they are all lovely in the aggregate, the shift in tone is palpable and uneasy. It feels curmudgeonly to be disappointed that we didn't get a full disc of "Mad Men Era" tunes (and then another disc of 70's music), but the failure to cohere after such a strong start diminishes the collective result.