REVIEW: Renascence - Original Off-Broadway Cast

Recording CoverRenascence sounds like a risky proposition on paper: a biographical musical about a poet, utilizing the subject's poems as lyrics, with a score by a first-time composer. Surprisingly, joyfully, composer Carmel Dean (better known as a Broadway music director) has created a beautiful album from the poems of Edna St. Vincent Milay, aided in no small part by a fabulous cast led by Broadway's current Elphaba, Hannah Corneau in the role of Vincent (as we're told she's called).

While most poetry sounds awkward when set to music, Milay's writing sits more readily on melody thanks in part to her reliance on poetic forms based in strict meters and rhyme. What's more, Dean's settings sound like actual show music – of the contemporary variety, to be sure, but unquestionably music intended for the theater and not the concert hall.

How it all worked in telling the story of Milay's early life is anybody's guess, for as produced by Michael Croiter, Dean, and librettist/co-director Dick Scanlan, the album offers no hints. Without dialogue, the disc plays like a song cycle. You'll have to take the word of the (beautiful and thorough) liner notes to understand how the songs might have fit into a narrative. That's not a problem, per se, and may in fact be an advantage if they didn't fit in as well as one might hoped they did.

The score has been orchestrated for an eight-piece chamber orchestra by Michael Starobin. The strings-and-reeds (plus piano, keyboard and french horn) sound, familiar from a million off-Broadway musicals from the 90s through today, supports the singers well, but many of these songs call out for a fuller orchestral treatment, or at least some different textures.

With this collection of singers, though, it nearly doesn't matter. Mikaela Bennett, who first came to my attention stopping the show in the Encores production of The Golden Apple (and is currently winning raves in the Chicago Lyric Opera production of West Side Story) calls to mind a young Audra McDonald in her role as Norma. Katie Thompson brings warmth and grounding as the matriarch of the Milay family. And Corneau treads the line between pop and legit inflections to create a unique and powerful sound.

The album builds to a twenty-minute, full-cast production number of the poem that lends the show its name. It's ambitious and sprawling and wonderful, which is to say it's a microcosm of the whole album. Anyone with an interest in our newest generation of musical theater writers and performers should readily embrace Renascence. It's surely the kind of album that will reward repeated close listens, and I for one can't wait to dive in.


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