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Take-Home Musicals

As of this writing, cast albums of most of the recently ended season’s new musicals, revivals, and “revisals” have been or are very soon to be released. So, for the benefit of those who are planning to acquire some or all of the recordings, here in no particular order is my review rundown. Still to come is Sony’s cast album of the ersatz Gershwin tuner Nice Work if You Can Get It, but since that’s one of the worst shows to be seen on Broadway in years (despite multiple Tony nominations), it doesn’t rate more than a terse dismissal here. And I’m not even going to mention Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, because it’s not really a musical 😉

Queen of the Mist
(Razor & Tie)
Thank heaven for this recording of what is, hands down, the best of the new musicals to have opened in New York this season. The reason you may not have heard of it is that the Transport Group production was presented for only a brief, limited run Off-Broadway — even as the company made the disastrous decision to move another of its shows, Lysistrata Jones, to Broadway, where it closed quicker than you can say “Why?” Queen of the Mist, the based-in-truth story of the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, is vastly superior to LJ in terms of quality, intelligence, and heart, and its ravishing score by Michael John LaChiusa represents that superbly talented composer-lyricist at his most melodic and accessible. The recording is sparked by the jewel-like performances of a top-drawer company of singing actors, with the great Mary Testa in the central role.

Lysistrata Jones
(Broadway Records)
The good news is that the score of this show, by Lewis Flinn (music and lyrics), is highly entertaining and very catchy overall; I haven’t been able to get the hook of one song, “You Go Your Way,” out of my head since the first time I heard it live in the theater. Since the cast album preserves the songs but not Douglas Carter Beane’s sophomoric book — a nonsensical update of the classic Greek anti-war play Lysistrata, with modern day cheerleaders and basketball players as the characters — the CD is far more satisfying than the show as a whole, so much so that anyone who hears it may wonder why LJ flopped so resoundingly when it transferred to Broadway (see above).

Bonnie & Clyde
(Broadway Records)
Here’s another case where the score (music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black) is much better than the book. To say that this is, in fact, Wildhorn’s best score is faint praise as far as it goes, considering the rest of his output; but the B&C songs are very entertaining in their own right, and well suited to this musical based on the lives and crimes of the infamous Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. My only reservation is that some of the numbers don’t really move the action forward or comment on the characters in any significant way, but even that’s less of an issue on CD than in the theater. So give a listen and enjoy the performances of Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan as the eponymous duo, not to mention Claybourne Elder and Melissa Van Der Schyff as Clyde’s brother and sister-in-law, Buck and Blanche Barrow.

The Alan Menken-Jack Feldman songs that have been retained from the 1992 film version — most notably “Carrying the Banner,” “Santa Fe,” “King of New York,” and “Seize the Day” — are the best ones in the Broadway adaptation, while the new songs that have been written by that same team to pad the score range from mediocre to worse. The show would almost certainly not be the hit it has become without the off-the-charts charismatic, thrillingly well sung performance of newly minted Broadway star Jeremy Jordan as Jack Kelly. The cuts on the album that feature Jordan and/or the young men who play his fellow newsies are so entertaining as to make you forget the songs for the tiresome characters of the evil Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett) and Katherine (Kara Lindsay), Jack’s love interest, both of whom have been poorly written by book author Harvey Fierstein and unconvincingly musicalized by Menken and Feldman.

Ghost: The Musical
(Surfdog Records)
This show was far more involving than I ever dreamed it would be, but that’s because of the power of the original story (adapted from the 1990 film written by Bruce Joel Rubin) and some really cool special effects. The score, by Dave Steward, Glen Ballard, and Rubin, is the most negligible part of the enterprise, adding virtually nothing to the story; the lyrics are clunky, while the music is easily forgettable pop. (Yes, the melody that accompanies the awkward title phrase of the song “Here Right Now” does stick in the ear and mind, but that’s mostly because it’s repeated so often.) The Surfdog recording actually features the cast of the London production, which preceded Broadway, but the two main leads are the same: Richard Fleeshman as Sam and Caissie Levy as Molly. Not that it really matters, with a score as unexciting and generic as this one.

(Sony Masterworks)
Here is the best in a very weak field of new Broadway musicals, and like the others, it’s not entirely new. Once is based on the 2006 film of the same title. Its tune stack includes songs from the movie — such as the beautiful, Oscar-winning ballad “Falling Slowly” — and other pre-existing songs, which is why the score was not deemed eligible for a Tony award. But new or not, this is an affecting tale of a going-nowhere Dublin musician (played by Steve Kazee) who’s motivated to get his emotional shit together and kick-start his career by a Czech immigrant (played by Cristin Milioti) who has her own set of baggage. It’s a bittersweet, almost-love story made special by some interesting character quirks and several excellent songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who played the Guy and the Girl in the film.

In the theater, enjoyment of this new production of the beloved Stephen Schwarts musical based on the gospel according to Saint Matthew was hampered somewhat by over-busy, aggressive staging and the fact that Hunter Parrish, in the role of Jesus, seemed vocally taxed when he had to sing high and loud. On the album, the staging is obviously not an issue, and Parrish sounds great throughout — not only in his gorgeous, definitive singing of the sweet-sad ballad “Beautiful City” but also in the more vigorous sections of the score. Further pluses are terrific new orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Michael Holland and a super-talented ensemble, with special nods to Wallace Smith as Judas, Telly Leung for his sweet rendition of “All Good Gifts,” and Uzo Aduba for her powerful performance of “By My Side.”

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess
(PS Classics)
There’s no reason whatsoever to purchase this 2-CD recording of the ludicrously titled, inept rewrite of Porgy and Bess that’s currently plaguing Broadway, especially not when there are at least half a dozen other recordings that present the opera complete or in highlights form with singers who can handle the music as written and with the original orchestrations and arrangements intact. Even the one aspect of this revisal that might have been expected to make the project worthwhile, the presence of Audra McDonald in the role of Bess, turns out not to, because the score has been so horrendously rejiggered and McDonald has opted to sing much of it in a very weird way as part and parcel of her wrong-headed reconception of an iconic character. When, for example McDonald and Norm Lewis (as Porgy) sing what’s written in the immortal duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” it sounds great; when they chop up the phrasing and generally over-interpret the music, it sounds awful. Pass.

(PS Classics)
This wonderfully well produced album — another two-disc set — goes a long way toward balancing PS Classics’ issue of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which should never have been preserved on disc (except, arguably, as a document of what not to do in reworking a classic). The Kennedy Center production of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical Follies was a solid, respectful revival, not a botched “revisal,” with vivid performances by Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, and Ron Raines in the leads, spot-on character work by Elaine Paige, Terri White, Jayne Houdyshell, et al., and a full orchestra reveling in Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations. The recording is a worthy addition to your library even if you own the essential-but-truncated original Broadway cast album and the more-than-complete, two-disc set of the fabulous Paper Mill Playhouse production.