Editor's note: Welcome to the first of what will be a monthly column dedicated to reviews and discussions of theatrical recordings: original cast recordings, solo records by theater and cabaret greats and anything else we think fits. The Music Men is written by James McQuillen, a locally well known music director and arranger, and Jay Gardner, an actor and vocalist. Together, they run the Front Line Cabaret series, one of several local organizations reviving the art of cabaret.
Each installment (look for it on the last Wednesday of the month) will have reviews of original cast recordings from Broadway, off-Broadway and of course, anything with a local connection. Sometimes James and Jay will offer a discussion, or we'll have an interview with a vocalist or cabaret artist.
For the first column, the guys look at three recordings released in February: The new Broadway revival of The Color Purple starring Jennifer Hudson, the Encores! Off-Center revival of William Finn's A New Brain, and Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Life from the Cafe Carlyle, a show that the Tony-winning Scottish actor will bring to Dallas in June. We also have thoughts on an album that went under the radar in 2015, of Lea DeLaria singing David Bowie songs. That was released last June, and for obvious reasons, has new relevance.
We hope you'll read, listen and engage.
The Color Purple
2015 Broadway Cast Recording
Released Feb. 12, 2016
It can be argued that the British do revivals of American plays and musicals better than Americans themselves. One only has to think of the Royal National Theater's 1993 production of Carousel or the current transfer from London's Young Vic of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge to see the kind of innovation currently being accomplished across the pond.
The work of British director John Doyle is no exception. In 2005 he brought his dramatically scaled down production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd to Broadway and followed that up the following season with a production of Sondheim's Company that brought refreshing clarity and emotion to a show considered by many to be cold and distant.
Based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the Warner Brothers/Amblin Entertainment film, John Doyle's revival of The Color Purple comes to Broadway from London's Menier Chocolate Factory, a tiny fringe theater in Southwark, London.
The original 2005 Broadway run was conceived on a grand scale that often threatened to smother the intimate story at its center. Ten years later, John Doyle has taken the material and scaled it back, putting the emphasis on the struggle of the three women at the center of the story and allowing the audience to focus on the music and narrative. The resulting cast album is bursting with joy, passion, and unbridled energy.
There are superb performances from the entire cast. The ensemble is led by a Greek Chorus of Church Ladies (Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson and Rema Webb) who blow the roof off with their amazing vocals. Joaquina Kalukango is stunning as Nettie, and Danielle Brooks, co-star of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, brings real energy and fire to the role of Sofia. Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson is all sex appeal and amazing vocals as Shug Avery.
Cynthia Erivo, who originated the role of Celie at the Menier Chocolate Factory, gives a breakout performance. She seems to navigate her way through the role with inspired ease. Her Celie is a calm, grounded observer commenting on the world around her. Even on the recording, one gets a sense of her quiet dignity. Not until late in the second act, during the song "I'm Here", does she open up with vocals that match Celie's transformation from a cowed, battered wife to a strong, self-reliant woman. Across the board, this is a recording brimming with soulful energy, joy and passion.
The only reservation I have isn't with the recording, per se, but with the material. All too often it seems as though the songs have barely gotten started before they abruptly end, leaving the listener guessing as to where Celie, Sofia and Shug are on their respective inner journeys. It may not seem so in the theater, but on the recording, one is given the impression that the show has been left incomplete, as though the song writing team of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Steven Bray have left much of the material underdeveloped. As a result, listeners might be hard-pressed to follow the plot based in the cast recording alone. More to the point, one might be left wondering if the best material ended up in the recycling bin.
— Jay Gardner
House of David
by Lea DeLaria
Badbutch, Inc/Ghostlight Records
Released June 23, 2015
In her newest recording, the singer, actress (Orange Is the New Black, On the Town at New York’s Public Theater) and GLBT activist Lea DeLaria gives us jazz-flavored reinterpretations of David Bowie songs. DeLaria refers to Bowie as “THE defining singer-songwriter of the latter part of the 20th century,” and the songs she chooses certainly help to make that case, especially in a post-Bowie world. Featuring material released by Bowie over the course of 12 years (1971-1983) this isn’t a “greatest hits” album, but rather a “most interesting stories” album.
Whether big hits (“Fame,” “Space Oddity”) or arguably less-famous songs (“Rebel Rebel,” “Boys Keep Swinging”), DeLaria and her musicians (led by Kevin Hays) show us Bowie’s lyric genius first, while embracing multiple musical styles through the course of the album. As someone whose massive voice can blow out the back wall of a theater, DeLaria’s vocals remain generally simple and direct, and Hays’s arrangements are (of course) very different, and often slower, than the Bowie originals.
The result is that we are taken in by the extraordinary lyrics and stories in the material. One could argue with the wide diversity of musical styles on the recording—bebop to elevator music to Upper East Side cabaret to ’70s TV show theme song—but maybe that’s simply an acknowledgment of Bowie’s continuous invention and re-invention of himself and thus his writing. After listening to House of David, I was left with greater respect for both Bowie’s exceptional writing and DeLaria’s massive gifts as a singer and storyteller.
— James McQuillen
Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Live at the Cafe Carlyle
Yellow Sound Label
Released Feb. 5, 2016
Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs is coming to Dallas for two shows, 7 and 9:30 p.m. June 24, 2016, at City Performance Hall, presented by AT&T Performing Arts Center. Purchase tickets here.
A traditional view of cabaret involves the Great American Songbook performed in an elegant, intimate setting. One is reminded of Andrea Marcovicci, Steve Ross or the late, great Bobby Short.
In the 21st century, a younger generation is bringing a downtown sensibility to cabaret that looks past the standards to R&B, country, blues, pop and rock ’n’ roll with Justin Vivian Bond, Lady Rizo and Bridget Everett leading the charge.
On his new CD, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, the Tony Award winner and star of CBS' The Good Wife has put together a collection of songs that turns the traditional view of cabaret on its head. Backed by music director, Lance Horne, cellist Eleanor Norton and drummer Chris Jago, and recorded at the most venerated of all New York cabaret rooms, The Cafe Carlyle, Cumming performs an eclectic mix of contemporary pop (Annie Lennox's Why, Billy Joel's Goodnight, Saigon, and a mashup of Someone Like You, The Edge of Glory and Firework), musical theater (The Threepenny Opera and The Visit), French chanson (Complainte de la Butte) and a song from his native Scotland (Mother Glasgow). In between, Cumming tells deeply personal stories about his abusive relationship with his father, an intense May/December romance, and dinner with Liza Minnelli.
The hallmark of all great cabaret artists is a willingness to be open in a very intimate and direct way. Cumming does this with a relaxed ease that is surprisingly refreshing. There are no regrets and his devilish, tongue-in-cheek humor keeps this recording from being dark and brooding. His choice of material pushes the genre of cabaret forward.
His vulnerability embraces it.
— J. G.
A New Brain
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center Cast Recording
Released Feb. 5, 2016
The Encores! Off-Center series at City Center, under the artistic direction of Jeanine Tesori, presents very limited runs of landmark off-Broadway musicals, just as the Encores series does with Broadway musicals. Their production of William Finn’s semi-autobiographical A New Brain was, along with their Little Shop of Horrors, one of THE New York theatrical events of 2015. This 2-CD recording of Finn’s brilliant score includes about 15 minutes of music not on the 1998 recording of the Lincoln Center production, and features some new orchestral bits (the haunting blip-blip-blip of a heart monitor in “Heart and Music”) and some new vocal arrangements by Jason Robert Brown.
Jonathan Groff is very likable and charming as Gordon, Ana Gasteyer is zany and loving as Gordon’s mother, and Aaron Lazar is a very heroic Roger. And therein lies the problem.
It’s all very clean, likable and safe.
The actors often lack guts and grit and tension in their performances. Is it their ages? Groff and Gasteyer feel a little young for these roles. Is it that we have a hard time believing a man of Groff’s age can feel the professional and personal angst that Gordon feels, even as he stares at Death’s door?
Is it that it’s a recording of a production with a very short run and rehearsal period? Is it simply the fact that it’s a studio audio recording of a stage production that was meant to be experienced—seen, heard, felt, sensed? The atmosphere of the recording is very sterile. You can almost see the actors in their booths—headphones on, singing very carefully into their carefully-calibrated microphones before their performances are very carefully mixed and mastered. The same goes for the orchestra led by Chris Fenwick: they sound too mixed; almost canned at times.
Has recording technology become so advanced that it has ceased to do us any true favors? (I do think the answer is “Yes!”) Or is the passionate, joyful, gritty recording of the 1998 Lincoln Center production such a touchstone for so many of us that any other recording automatically pales in comparison, even if that comparison is unintentional?
— J. M.
» James McQuillen is an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. In addition to producing Front Line Cabaret, he's the music director and arranger of Diana Sheehan's latest cabaret, Diana Sheehan Sings: The Jerome Kern Songbook at WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. After that he'll serve as the music director of Godspell at Missouri Western University, directed by former Dallas actor/teacher and SMU MFA grad Tee Quillin.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater and cabaret, and was seen in the Dallas Opera's Great Scott in 2015. He is currently taking time out of his schedule to start a business selling his handmade pottery, which can be seen here.
» James and Jay's Front Line Cabaret is currently producing Catherine Johnson in Down That Road at WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival in Addison, with performances in the Stone Cottage at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m. Friday, March 4 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 6. See our special section covering Out of the Loop here. Look for an announcement of Front Line's first event after Loop coming soon.