This month James takes a break (he's the new music director at Casa Mañana, which opens Evita this weekend), and Jay reviews solo albums from Broadway stars Kyle Riabko and Mandy Gonzalez.
Richard Rodgers Reimagined
Released Oct. 27, 2017
There was a time when Broadway musicals were expected to generate hit tunes. Songs by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter were often recorded and released prior to a shows Broadway opening. Rosemary Clooney had a hit with “Hey There” from The Pajama Game. “The Lady is a Tramp” was written for the musical Babes In Arms but became a signature tune for Frank Sinatra. You can’t discuss Ella Fitzgerald without mentioning her definitive rendition of “Mack the Knife,” a song that began life in The Three Penny Opera. In other words, the Broadway Musical WAS popular song, now referred to collectively as the Great American Songbook. But that all began to change in the early ‘60s with the arrival of Elvis, The Beatles and the rise of the singer/songwriter. The Hit Parade relied less and less on the latest musical comedy to populate its Top Ten Lists.
What a treat, then, to discover Kyle Riabko’s new recording Richard Rodgers Reimagined. At the age of 17 this Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native had already released his first solo album and had toured with B.B. King, James Brown, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, and Jason Mraz among others. He also replaced Jonathan Groff in the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening and Gavin Creel in the Broadway revival of Hair. Riabko then went on to create a review of the music of Burt Bacharach titled Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined which had its world premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop and was subsequently produced at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and in the West End.
Richard Rodgers Reimagined features songs produced from Rodgers’ collaborations with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. Riabko succeeds brilliantly in breaking free from our preconceived ideas of how these songs SHOULD sound (am I the only one who listened to the Original Cast Recordings of South Pacific and The Sound of Music over and over again as a child?) and manages to breathe fresh life into music we all know and love. Riabko approaches the material with a very hip twenty-first century sensibility, all the while preserving the integrity of the songs. In this talented artist’s hands, “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’,” which opens the album, becomes sly and swaggering. “This Nearly Was Mine” is quietly intense and contemplative, “The Lady Is a Tramp” has a peppy bounce and a guitar riff that recalls Django Reinhardt. The swing of a ukulele lends “Some Enchanted Evening” an unexpected whimsy. In “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Riabko finds a slow R&B groove that puts maximum emphasis in Lorenz Hart’s brilliant lyrics.
At the age of 30, Kyle Riabko is quickly establishing himself as a talented vocalist and musical arranger adept at reinterpreting classic songs with a contemporary urban sensibility. The fact that the songs can stand up to such reinterpretations speaks to their timelessness as well as Mr. Riabko’s talent. I look forward to his next project.
East West Records
Released Oct. 20, 2017
For many actor/singers, a debut album serves several purposes. It connects an artist with their fan base, it provides a showcase for an artist’s versatility and it connects the artist with both up-and-comers as well as established songwriters. A debut album can focus on an artist’s strengths or it can inadvertently spotlight potential weaknesses and despite the best of intentions it can raise a red flag when the artists talent would tell us otherwise.
Mandy Gonzalez, currently appearing as Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway company of Hamilton, made a name for herself in the original Broadway cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights. She went on to star as Elphaba in the Broadway company of Wicked and currently has a recurring role on ABC’s thriller Quantico playing Agent Susan Coombs.
Her newly released debut album Fearless feature some heavy hitting songwriting talent.
The title track was written for the album by Lin-Manuel Miranda and was inspired by Gonzalez’s parents, who fell in love as pen pals while her father served in Vietnam. Country music star Jennifer Nettles penned the ballad “Life Is Sweet” in which Gonzalez is joined by her In the Heights co-star Christopher Jackson. Tom Kitt, composer of Next to Normal and If/Then, provides the song “Everyday.” Gonzalez concludes the recording with a new recording of “Breathe,” the song she sang when appearing as Nina in In the Heights.
Miss Gonzalez is obviously an incredibly talented vocalist. Her varied career and the awards she has received attest to this, but this debut does little to show any versatility. This recording consists of only seven tracks, most of which feature a lot of American Idol-esque power belting and little else. This would be fine except that it lends all the songs a sameness despite the talent of Ms. Gonzalez and that of the various writers. “Smile,” written by In the Heights orchestrator Bill Sherman, offers Gonzalez the opportunity to explore a softer, more intimate side of her singing, but this is the exception. I hazard to guess there is a more versatile artist hiding behind the power belt and pop-inflected songs. I hope we get to see her in a subsequent solo recording.
» The Music Men runs on the first Wednesday of the month on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» James McQuillen, an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist, is the Music Director for Casa Mañana in Fort Worth.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater, opera and cabaret. He also makes 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
- May: Betty Buckley's Story Songs, and ast recordings of Pretty Filthy and Jasper in Deadland
- June: Broadway cast recordings of The Great Comet, Hello, Dolly!, In Transit, Amelie, War Paint; and Dreamgirls in London
- July: The cast recordings of Broadway recordings: Bandstand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Groundhog Day and Anastasia.
- August: Jay Gardner on his experience at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference
- September: No column
- October: The early Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical adapted from Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; plus Orfeh and Andy Karl live at Feinstein's/54 Below, and Jessica Molaskey does Joni Mitchell songs