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.
This month it's all Jay, who reviews the new recording from Betty Buckley and the cast recordings of Pretty Filthy and Jasper in Deadland. James McQuillen will return to the column next month, with several new Broadway cast recordings.
Released April 7, 2017
Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley’s career triumphs include Broadway, television and film, notably with this year’s hit Split. In recent years she has become an in-demand cabaret artist who is redefining not only what it means to be an interpreter of song, but the art of cabaret itself.
Her most recent collaboration with multi-Grammy winner Christian Jacob, titled Story Songs, is an eclectic collection of songs encompassing American musical theater, country, folk, rock and top 40. It is a combination of two live concerts Buckley presented first at Joe’s Pub in New York City and then at the Sergerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.
Standard Broadway fare is represented by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s poignant and strikingly current “You’ve Got to be Taught” and Kurt Weill’s haunting “September Song.” A nod is given to the classic singer-songwriters with Leonard Cohen’s timeless “Bird on a Wire” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and to 90s and 80s rock with Radiohead’s “High and Dry” and Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.”
Buckley tips her hat to her Fort Worth roots with her ethereal rendition of “Prayer in Open D” by Emmylou Harris and “Too Many Memories,” a song written by her childhood friend, the late Stephen Bruton.
Not to be left out, Jason Robert Brown is represented by the songs “Another Life” from his musical The Bridges of Madison County and the song “Cassandra” written for a musical still in development.
A highlight of the album is the song “Old Flame,” written for Buckley by Joe Iconis which tells the story of a woman who is determined to kill the man who’s done her wrong if only Google had given her the correct address.
Buckley ends the two-CD collection with a performance of “I’m Still Here,” the iconic Stephen Sondheim song which she performed at the London concert presentation of Follies in celebration of Sondheim’s 85th birthday.
Buckley’s thoughtful interpretations and Jacobs’ masterful playing complement each other beautifully. The selection of songs is well considered, mixing as it does classic Broadway, deeply personal songs and music from the Contemporary American Songbook. But the atmospheric quality that pervades the album lends a sameness to the material that is hard to shake even when one is a huge Betty Buckley fan as I am. I’m left wishing the arrangements offered more variety and varying of tempos. As it stands, I can appreciate Ms. Buckley’s interpretive skills and Mr. Jacob’s playing, but this is a recording I don’t see myself seeking out for repeated listenings.
— Jay Gardner
Original Cast Recording
Released Dec. 2, 2016
Creating theater based on eye-witness interviews, newspaper headlines, and other primary sources is nothing new. During the Great Depression The Federal Theater Project, remembered for its now legendary performance of Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, produced a series of plays called The Living Newspaper which dramatized current events as they were being reported in New York City’s daily newspapers. The Laramie Project, an examination of the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, grew out of a series of interviews conducted by members of the Tectonic Theater Project under Artistic Director Moises Kaufman. The musical Working, an adaptation of a Studs Terkel novel that investigates the meaning of work for people from all walks of life, combined monologues with songs written by a variety of songwriters including James Taylor, Micki Grant and Stephen Schwartz.
The Civilians theater company follows this tradition of investigative theater. In 2013 they created Mr. Burns: a post-electric play which has had widespread success at regional theaters across the country. In early 2015 they unveiled the musical Pretty Filthy with songs written by Michael Friedman and based on interviews conducted with people working in the adult film industry, both in front of and behind the camera.
Sadly, Pretty Filthy, which could have been an intriguing examination of a taboo subject, seems to be at odds with what story it wants tell and how it wants to tell that story. Too often it seems the kernel of a good idea isn’t taken far enough in its development.
To their credit, a concerted effort is made to portray the people behind the industry. “What if I Like It” is a sort of establishing song in which potential adult film actors dream of a certain kind of stardom one can achieve as an adult film star and tell us that working in the porn industry would be better than earning “$7.20 an hour working the weekend shift at Hardee’s.”
In “Impossible Girls” an agent speaks of the various young women he represents. Some spend the money they earn from working in front of the camera while others invest their money or pay their way through grad school.
“Becky and Bobby and Taylor and Dick” examines the confusion encountered by Becky and Bobby, a couple in their private life, whose on-screen personae have rendered them unable to discern who they are to each other both sexually and emotionally.
But there are other songs that go in a completely different direction. “Squirting 101,” “Waiting for Wood” and “Fuck the World”…well, you can just imagine.
Musically, composer Michael Friedman has chosen to take a lighter approach with many of the songs. He casts them in a stereotypically broad off-off Broadway musical revue style—think When Pigs Fly or I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change—which undercuts the seriousness of the subject matter. At times the writing is inspired, as in the song “Beautiful,” but too often one wishes that Mr. Friedman had taken the musical ideas further.
There are some nice performances from the cast. Alyse Alan Louis and Steve Rosen are standouts and Luba Mason, familiar to fans of The Will Rogers Follies and Jekyll and Hyde, gives a surprisingly sensitive performance.
At the end of the day, what could be a thought-provoking investigation into a taboo subject comes off as crass with brief glimmers of inspiration. As I listened to this cast recording I was reminded of the current Broadway production of Come from Away which celebrates the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, who opened their hearts and homes to 7,000 stranded airline passengers when, on Sept. 11, 2001, 38 commercial airliners were grounded as a result of the World Trade Center Attacks. That show, to quote Ben Brantley in the New York Times, “is a celebration of heroic hospitality under extraordinary pressure.” Its authors never mention Sept. 11 or the World Trade Center, choosing instead to focus on the selflessness of the Newfoundlanders. Would that such a choice had been made with Pretty Filthy.
Jasper in Deadland
Original Cast Recording
Released May 13, 2016
When I first saw the title Jasper in Deadland I immediately assumed this would be a show set in the Wild West with a country and western-tinged score and lots of twangy-sounding chorus boys.
Boy was I mistaken!
In actuality, it turns out to be a retelling of the Orpheus myth with music and lyrics by up-and-coming composer Ryan Scott Oliver and a book by actor and director Hunter Foster. Matt Doyle stars as the title character.
For those of you who might not remember your Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Orpheus legend is your typical boy gets girl, body loses girl, boy gets girl again, boy loses girl again after which there is much grieving and sad songs played on a Lyre.
Oliver and Foster have updated the story to depict the underworld as a big city, circa 2014. The zombie-esque spirits of the dead have iPhones to go with their various head wounds, missing limbs and track marks. Jasper, your typical angsty, skinny-jeans-wearing teen, decides it would be a good idea to go cliff diving (You can’t make this stuff up.) with his BFF Agnes who is secretly in Love with him. Agnes is killed while attempting a dive and disappears into the underworld. Of course, Jasper follows.
The underworld is run by a combination Donald Trump/Ted Turner schemer named Mr. Lethe who wants to market his magic bottled water “that makes you feel good” not only to the residents of the underworld but also to the folks who live in the land of the living. Other villains include the aforementioned Cerberus and a couple of Norse gods thrown in for comic relief.
There is also a good-hearted underworld tour guide named Gretchen who takes a liking to our friend Jasper, thus creating a love triangle between her, Jasper and Agnes.
As you might have guessed, a lot of soul searching takes place, Jasper fights a battle with Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog, love is declared between Jasper and Agnes and good wins out over the evil Mr. Lethe.
It goes without saying that the premise leaves a lot to be desired and begs the question, “is a musical set in a fantasy world a good idea to begin with?” I’m thinking of shows like Starmites or Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland. Both had lofty goals and short runs. Ryan Scott Oliver is a talented composer. He lets the music move the plot forward rather than stopping the action for a self-contained this-is-how-I-feel-about-this-moment number. More often than not, many of the songs seem like really good first drafts that never manage to rise above the absurd premise. The result is an overly earnest score that is at times inventive but leaves you wondering whether it’s supposed to be a serious allegory or a tongue-in-cheek farce.
I hate to say it, but Jasper in Deadland is a dud.
» The Music Men runs on the first Wednesday of the month on TheaterJones (except this month, as it's on the first Friday). 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.
- February: The Falsettos revival, and Brad Simmons sings Simon and Garfunkel
- March: Jay reveals his favorite theater podcasts, and James crushes on the 2014 cast recording of Here Lies Love
- April: The OCRs for Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Freaky Friday the Musical and recordings from Amanda McBroom and Karen Mason