Editor's note: Welcome to our 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, vocalist and potter. Together, they run the Front Line Cabaret series. Gardner will perform his cabaret "Coward and Cole in Words and Music: The Songs of Noel Coward and Cole Porter" on April 20 in the Sammons Cabaret series at Sammons Center for the Arts.
This month, we have reviews of cast recordings of Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Freaky Friday, and new albums from Karen Mason and Amanda McBroom.
Dear Evan Hansen
Broadway Cast Recording
Released February 17, 2017
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are having one hell of a year.
These two wunderkinds met as theater majors at the University of Michigan and saw their first collaboration, Edges, produced while still undergraduates.In 2007, barely a year out of school, the two won the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award which honors and recognizes emerging theater artists. Since that time, Pasek and Paul have written A Christmas Story, The Musical (Tony Nomination), Dogfight (Richard Rodgers Award), and James and the Giant Peach.
But since the first of the year, their stock has risen remarkably fast. On Jan. 8, their work on the film La La Land won them a Golden Globe for Best Original Song quickly followed in late February by the Academy Award. That would be plenty for most 30-year-olds but these two also have a hot new musical running on Broadway.
Dear Evan Hansen, which opened in early December, has quickly become one of the hottest tickets in New York City and judging from the original cast album, it’s easy to see why. Pasek and Paul have created a deeply moving, pop-inflected rollercoaster ride of a score that dips, turns and soars with pulsating energy and emotion. Instead of musicalizing the entire story as so many young writing teams do, Pasek and Paul seem to have repeatedly asked themselves, “Is this moment so important that it has to be sung?”
The result is a score and, subsequently, an original cast album of refreshing urgency and vitality. As an audience, we bear witness to the challenges faced by these characters as they struggle to make sense of life altering events while at the same time desperately trying to connect with one another.
At the center of the brilliant eight-member cast is the magnetic Ben Platt in what is undoubtedly a breakout role. He gives a deeply emotional, focused and beautifully sung performance. Rachel Bay Jones is heartrending as his mother Heidi. Laura Dreyfuss and Jennifer Laura Thompson give beautifully rendered performances as do Mike Faist, Michael Park, Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland. Music director and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire is largely responsible for the score’s pulse and energy. He lets the music soar when the story calls for it but he also pulls back and gives room to breath in more intimate moments.
Is it safe to assume that Pasek and Paul have officially arrived? They have, after all, just won the two major awards I mentioned earlier (and they are frontrunners for the Tony this year). Dear Evan Hansen displays a level of musical maturity and dramatic structure that seems more pronounced than in their earlier work. They seem to be relying less on catchy melodies, overly clever (read: busy) musical figures and slang-filled lyrics which can date a piece almost before it has premiered. Having found success at such an early age, one has to wonder if it has been difficult developing as writers while constantly in the spotlight. If Dear Evan Hansen is any indication, they seem to be handling that spotlight just fine.
— Jay Gardner
Come From Away
Broadway Cast Recording
Released March 10, 2017
A 9/11 musical sounds like a terrible idea. But that is exactly what Irene Sankoff and David Hein have written.
Come From Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Newfoundland when on September 11, 2001, 38 commercial planes from all over the world were grounded as a result of the attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center. A town of only 7,000 residents, Gander’s population nearly doubled in the course of an hour-and-a-half.
The musical tells the story of how the townspeople of Gander welcomed those stranded travelers with open arms and hearts, of how the town quickly mobilized converting schools, churches and the Salvation Army Hall into make-shift shelters. When those shelters were full, Gander residents took the stranded passengers into their homes. The local school bus drivers suspended a strike so that the stranded passengers could be transported from their grounded planes. Pharmacies filled prescriptions free of charge. Dining halls were set up, phone banks were installed so that passengers could contact loved ones and televisions in community centers were left on twenty-four hours a day so that Gander’s sudden influx of guests could get news of what was happening in the outside world.
At the end of a very long and emotionally wrought five days, many of the “plane people” tried to give the locals money as thanks for taking care of them. The Ganderites refused the cash saying, “You’d have done the same for us.”
Come From Away is a brilliantly constructed show that tells its story without resorting to satire or cheap gimmicks. The plot rushes past expertly sung songs and is told by its 12-member cast who switch characters and accents at breakneck speed. Both Newfoundlanders and their visitors are conveyed in clearly defined, idiosyncratic detail. Any storyline that might run the risk of being too sickeningly sweet is tempered by lingering prejudices, notably regarding Muslims and the deaths of loved ones caught up in the tragedy taking place in New York City.
The material maintains an air of urgency without becoming maudlin or sickeningly sweet. Stand-out performances come from Broadway veterans Jenn Colella, Chad Kimball and Rodney Hicks. Ian Eisendrath’s arrangements and musical direction capture the flavor of Newfoundland folk music that has its roots in the Scottish and Irish immigrants who settled on the island.
In the end, Come From Away reminds us of our humanity, our empathy and our capacity for kindness, gentility and the acceptance of others.
It's About Time
Released March 1, 2017
Broadway and cabaret star Karen Mason’s latest collection of songs is called It’s About Time. Her singing is, of course, wonderful. Her voice has a warmth and maturity that is deeply engaging — very listenable in the highest sense of the word. Of course, she chose plenty of musical theatre for the album. Her version of “Finding Wonderland” from her latest Broadway venture — Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland — is more thoughtful and complex than her performance on the cast recording. Her “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and the pairing of “Somewhere/The Impossible Dream” are terrific. Inspired by her recent role in Chasing Rainbows at Goodspeed, there are three songs associated with Judy Garland: “The Man That Got Away,” “Over the Rainbow” and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” — all incredibly well-sung.
Along with the various Broadway songs and standards (there are 14 tracks altogether), there are two particularly interesting "bonus tracks." The first is a version of “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom, accompanied by Billy Goldenburg (Ballroom’s composer), a demo for a new version of the show. The second is the great Gershwin song “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” which she sings with a piano recording from 1989, made by her former collaborator and music director Brian Lasser, who died in 1992. It’s obviously very emotional for her.
The CD feels a little random on first listen — a lot of different kinds of songs and different arrangements all mixed up on one CD. With time, though, it all makes more sense. I get the idea that what Ms. Mason is showing us who she really is: a little bit of standards, a little bit of new material (the album’s title track is lovely; see video above), and a lot of Broadway. Moreover, the songs as a whole seem to tell us to trust the process of time as the future unfolds. Good advice for today!
— James McQuillen
Gecko Records/LML Music
Released February 2017
Singer and songwriter Amanda McBroom is most famous for writing “The Rose.” You may have heard Betty Buckley sing her devastating song “Dreaming,” or heard “Portrait” in a production of A…My Name Is Alice. Like those, the songs on this album are snapshots of women in times of growth and transition. Produced by Fred Mollin (producer for Jimmy Webb and Kris Kristoferson, among many others), the album was recorded in Nashville, and you can definitely hear a “country” quality in the arrangements. There’s beautiful guitar playing all through the album, and the simplicity and directness of the best classic country music obviously was a great inspiration.
Here, Ms. McBroom re-records “The Rose,” but in a duet with Vince Gill, who she refers to as one of her most favorite singers. Julie Gold’s “Southbound Train,” a real gem of a song, is a highlight of the album. Three songs by Ms. McBroom and the terrific songwriter Michele Brourman — “Old Love,” “Yarnell Hill,” “Hope Floats” — are featured, with Ms. Brourman playing piano. All three are genuinely compelling stories, especially “Old Love” and “Yarnell Hill.” “The Last Thing On My Mind” and “12th of Never” are thoughtful re-interpretations of those classics. Her original song “Voices That Come Through the Wall” is a moving story of a family who won’t communicate.
One might wish for a little more vitality in some of the performances, but Ms. McBroom’s singing is warm, direct, and beautiful. I hope the most compelling of these songs continue to have a life far past this very good recording.
— J. M.
Studio Cast Recording
Walt Disney Records
Released March 17, 2017
Cast recordings are funny things. On the one hand, the whole point of their creation is that they’re a representation of a production — a literal and figurative record. On the other hand, they’re only a representation. For me, the cast recording of Freaky Friday is a very good representation, but one that definitely falls short of what the full experience must be.
Don’t get me wrong. Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton are absolutely terrific. Their singing, whether together or separately, is top-notch. Emma Hunton, whose previous Broadway credits are Spring Awakening and Next to Normal, is charming and delightful as the daughter Ellie, the daughter. But Heidi Blickenstaff (of [title of show], The Little Mermaid and Something Rotten (among other Broadway shows) is outrageously good as Katherine, the mother. Her singing just gets better and better, and she’s in prime form on this CD. Funny, soulful and bold, I can’t wait to see what she does next.
There are some wonderful songs from Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, Pulitzer Prize-winners for Next to Normal. The tone of the score is very different from N2N, more like their musical Bring It On in some ways. “Busted” is a fun yet strangely surprising song of a mother’s and daughter’s secrets revealed. “Oh, Biology” gives voice to Ellie’s internal battle between her young heart and adult brain. Katherine’s “What You Got” and “Parents Lie” are given glorious performances by Ms. Blickenstaff — especially “Parents Lie.” Jason Gotay sings the heck out of “Go,” a song that seems ripe for a life in the Disney parks. Some songs don’t seem to be cut from the same cloth as the rest of the score — especially “Vows” and “Women and Sandwiches” — but I can only assume that, seen in context, that is less of an issue.
The show is not currently headed to Broadway, but has been playing regional theatres (Signature Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse) and will have upcoming productions at the Cleveland Playhouse in April/May and the Alley Theatre in June. Houston not being that far away, I’m looking forward to seeing it and having the full experience. It’ll be worth battling the Houston traffic just to hear Heidi Blickenstaff.
— J. M.
» The Music Men runs on the first Wednesday of the month on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» James McQuillen is an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. He produces Front Line Cabaret with Gardner, and is teaching this fall at Binghampton University in Binghampton, New York.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater and cabaret. He is currently taking time out of his schedule to start a business selling his handmade pottery, which can be seen here.
- February: The Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the Encores! Off-Center revival of William Finn's A New Brain, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Life from the Cafe Carlyle, and an album of Lea DeLaria singing David Bowie songs.
- March: New York City Center Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good; the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof; the Public Theater's 2015 premiere of John Michael LaChiusa's First Daughter Suite; and the latest from British cabaret great Barb Jungr.
- July: Cast recordings of Bright Star, the revival of She Loves Me, Cheyenne Jackson's solo album Renaissance, and Benjamin Scheuer's Songs from the Lion.
- August: James and Jay discuss some of their favorite things, including the cast recording they each first fell in love with.
- September: James and Jay discuss the year of Hamilton
- October: Reviews of new albums by Kristin Chenoweth, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Diana Sheehan and cast recordings of Disaster! and The Robber Bridegroom.
- December: New releases from Carmen Cusack, Leslie Odom Jr., Charles Busch, Barb Jungr and John McDaniel, and Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp.