Editor's Note: Since 2016, TheaterJones has run occasional musical theater and vocal album reviews by Jay Gardner and James McQuillen, under the column header "The Music Men." Beginning with this column, that becomes the singular The Music Man. Look for monthly reviews of theatrical recordings by Gardner, whose bio you can read at the end of this column.
In this month's column, Gardner looks at the original cast recordings of the Broadway musicals The Cher Show and Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, plus recordings by Tony winner Ben Platt, and Meow Meow with Thomas Lauderdale.
The Cher Show
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released April 12, 2019
As the title suggests, The Cher Show concerns itself with the 50-plus year career of the pop music icon known simply as Cher. One of the latest jukebox musicals to grace a Broadway stage recounts the rollercoaster rise of its subject from shy flower child to eternally reigning Pop Diva. Her music, her husbands, and her fabulous clothes all take center stage along with the Pop Music Diva herself. Well, not the REAL Cher, but a representation of Cher.
In fact, three representations of Cher as embodied by Broadway newcomer Micaela Diamond as Babe Cher, Teal Wicks as Lady Cher and Stephanie J. Block as Star Cher. Babe is shy, Lady is tough, and Star is Bad Ass. All three show different sides of the real Cher, belting their faces off in the process.
The men in Cher’s life are here, too. Sonny Bono, Greg Allman and Rob Camilletti are portrayed by Garrod Spector, Matthew Hydzik and Michael Compayano, respectively. Bob Mackie, whose costume designs made Cher a Fashion Icon, is played by Michael Berresse. (The real Bob Mackie designed the almost 700, yes, SEVEN HUNDRED, costumes featured in the two and a half hour show — and won a Tony Award for it.)
The songs are here. LOTS of songs. Some are classics like “I Got You, Babe,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” and “The Beat Goes On.” A few, like “Heart of Stone,” “All I Ever Need Is You.” and “I Found Someone,” are lesser known. Still others represent the later hits like “Believe” and “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Music Director Andrew Resnick keeps the show moving at a snappy clip. Even the ballads move along.
This album will be a must-have for fans of Cher and her music. It also makes you appreciate her longevity in a business that capitalizes on what’s hot NOW. The performances from the men and women are all first-rate, as well as the band. If you’re looking for subtly this isn’t the place to find it. But if you want a cast album that makes you dance and sing along at the top of your lungs, this is it.
Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released March 22, 2019
The songs! The songs! The songs!
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations may be the latest show to join the ever-expanding list of Broadway jukebox musicals, but its biggest strength is a stellar catalogue of classic R&B hits. “The Way You Do The Thing You Do,” “In The Still of the Night,” “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “War,” “Just My Imagination,” “What Becomes of a Broken Heart” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” all embody the classic Detroit Motown sound which was grittier than the Four Seasons and more urban than the Beach Boys. You could say they had more in common with The Rolling Stones, whose sound grew out of their love of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino.
The musical follows the journey of The Temptations from their beginnings in the streets of Detroit, Mich., to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Along the way they scored 42 top ten hits with 14 of those reaching number one. Behind the scenes, personal and professional conflicts threatened to tear the group apart. Add to that the political unrest of the 1960’s and you have a show.
If the formula seems familiar, you would be correct. The show’s director, Des McAnuﬀ, and choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, took a similar approach with the highly successful bio/jukebox musical Jersey Boys.
The resulting Original Cast Album is fast-paced and energetic. The musical performances delivered by Derrick Baskin, James Harkness, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes are first-rate, as is the entire cast. The music direction by Kenny Seymour is exemplary. I only wish that the dialogue that connects the songs (the book is by playwright Dominque Morisseau) and moves the story forward weren’t so excruciatingly melodramatic. I’m sure it plays well in the theater but on this recording, it threatens to sink the ship.
That notwithstanding, this is a really good recording that’s going leave you tapping your toes and snapping your fingers.
Meow Meow with Thomas Lauderdale
Released March 22, 2019
What makes a diva a DIVA? Could it be that she’s demanding, deliciously glamorous, and demands attention wherever she goes, or is she the type who perseveres in the face of adversity even when her world seems to be falling apart.
The enigmatic performer known only as Meow Meow fits this second definition to a T. Her live shows are a mix of sophisticated glamour, slapstick and improv. Onstage, Meow Meow exists in a world where nothing happens as planned. Meow Meow is never at fault. All abuse is heaped upon Meow Meow by the music director, or the stage manager or the sound engineer or even the audience. If the assembled throng fail to show enough enthusiasm upon Meow Meow’s first entrance, she will make that entrance AGAIN, prompting the audience to cheer and applaud louder than before. When a phalanx of chorus boys fail to materialize, she enlists a group of men from the audience to come onstage and lift her into the air as she sings a Weimar-era song….in German. For her grand finale, she tells us, a trapeze was supposed to lift her high into the air. That having failed to materialize, she chooses instead to crowd surf above the audience’s head, whether they want her to or not.
In the midst of all the zany humor Meow Meow can suddenly shifts gears, moving the audience with a song both tragic and heartfelt. This is the magic of her live shows. That same magic is present on her latest album, Hotel Amour, recorded with Thomas Lauderdale, founding member of the Portland-based ensemble Pink Martini.
Lauderdale and Meow Meow have been performing and writing together for the past 12 years and a few of their songs are featured on the album. They are infused with Meow Meow’s signature Weimar-era Kabarett sensibility and Pink Martini’s international flair. (Meow Meow sings in French, German, and even Mandarin on this recording, just as she does in her live shows.)
The recording is also chock-full of celebrity guests. Meow Meow is joined by Rufus Wainwright for an up-tempo French language version of “What’s the Point of Love (À quoi ça sert l’amour).” Barry Humphries, more popularly known as his alter ego Dame Edna Everage, duets with Meow Meow on a song from 1930, entitled “Mausi, süß warst Du heute Nacht (Mousie, How Sweet You Were Tonight).” The Von Trapps — yes, THOSE Von Trapps — join Meow Meow for a very effective less-is-more reading of “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.” “Sans toi,” perhaps the most exciting track on the album, was penned by the late Michel Legrand and features the man himself at the piano.
The album is a mix of light and dark; joy and heartbreak. It conjures the theater ghosts that Meow Meow says she loves to channel in her live performances in London, Paris and other cities. In her interviews she has been quoted as saying she likes the history of things. She likes to see where things come from. This beautifully rendered album shows us were Meow Meow is coming from and it’s a place we all need to visit.
Sing to Me Instead
Release March 29, 2019
Ben Platt first caught the public’s attention for his quirky performance as Benji Applebaum in the Pitch Perfect franchise as well as his Broadway debut as a replacement Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon. But it was in 2016 that his star shot into the stratosphere. His starring role in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen won him the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, making him Broadway’s current “It Boy.” Since then he has performed on the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, recorded a mashup with Lin-Manuel Miranda and will soon make his TV drama debut in the series The Politician.
In the meantime, Platt has just released his first solo CD. Instead of recording a slew of currently popular Broadway show tunes or an album of songs by Pasek and Paul, the writing team behind Dear Evan Hansen (which would have made a lot of sense), Platt has opted for a play list of original songs written by Platt himself and a team of songwriters.
Sing to Me Instead, the resulting album, alternates between peppy, pop-rock toe tappers and angsty, emotionally yearning ballads, and while the album is beautifully produced with no sign of the dreaded Autotune, the recording suffers from a lack of variety. One song sounds much like the next, and there doesn’t seem to be an emotional arc to the album other than your typical twenty-something anxiety toward life, love and hope for the future. Platt has already covered this ground in Dear Evan Hansen, so one feels rather disappointed at having more of the same on this album.
I would like to say that Platt has taken this opportunity to show his fans a wider variety of vocal colors than we heard in Dear Evan Hansen. Sadly, has chosen to take more of a powerhouse approach, eschewing subtly in favor of muscle, throwing out high notes as though he’s lobbing grenades at an ever-advancing army of Phantom-crooning bari-tenors. It would have been nice to hear more versatility from Platt. Instead, we get lots of powerful high notes in songs long on angst but short on substance.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in opera, musical theater and cabaret. He regularly performs with the Dallas Opera Chorus and teaches Musical Theater Performance and Commercial Voice at Collin College. An accomplished ceramic artist, Jay teaches throwing and hand building at The Craft Guild of Dallas. His ceramic work can be seen here.
» The Music Man now runs on the third Wednesday of the month on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments.
- 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
- November: Solo albums from Broadway vets Kyle Riabko and Mandy Gonzalez
- The Music Men recap their favorite listens of 2017
- March: The Band's Visit, and revivals of Once On This Island and Working
- October: New recordings by Betty Buckley, Marissa Mulder, and Joe Iconis and George Salazar
- December: Jay Gardner's thoughts on solo recordings, and his favorite cast recording of 2018
- January: Reviews of solo albums from Heather Headley, Sutton Foster, and Melissa Errico; and a starry benefit album for families separated at the U.S./Mexico border
- March: The new London revival of Sondheim's Company; and Encores! revival of Songs for a New World