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 Cast Album Confidential. 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 listens to the original cast recordings of the Broadway musicals Hadestown and Beetlejuice, plus the revival of Oklahoma!, and a new album by Broadway star Ramin Karimloo.
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Sing It Again Records
Released July 26
In a season uncomfortably packed with overtly commercial theater, i.e. jukebox musicals (Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, The Cher Show, Head Over Heels) and movies turned into musicals (Pretty Woman, Tootsie) Hadestown has emerged as an exciting, uniquely creative and original musical. (Did I mention that it managed to avoid closing, unlike a few shows I’ve already mentioned?) It gives one hope for those new and exciting shows that might not otherwise see the lights of Broadway without the success of a show like Hadestown.
The show’s composer, lyricist and book writer, Anaïs Mitchell, hails from Vermont, where the retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth was born in a small community theater in 2006. A concept album was released in 2010. Once director Rachel Chavkin came on board, the show was reworked and subsequent productions were mounted at the New York Theater Workshop, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and the National Theatre of Great Britain before moving to Broadway and winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, for its phenomenally successful production.
The Original Broadway Cast Album is the show’s second following a live recording made of the off-Broadway incarnation. The score gives the ancient myth a jazzy, New Orleans vibe. The brilliant orchestrations by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose paint a world that is equal parts Dixie Land, blues and jazz.
The characters of the ancient myth exist in this bluesy world. Eurydice, played by a brilliant Eva Noblezada, is a practical, independent young woman capable of taking care of herself. Orpheus, played with sweet innocence by Reeve Carney, is a dreamy singer/songwriter. Persephone, the wife of Hades and a lady who loves a party and an adult beverage, is played with fire and razor-sharp vocals by Amber Gray. Hades, played with appropriate menace by Patrick Page (can we talk about that voice?) rules the Underworld, which he has transformed into a factory staffed by workers who have sold their souls to Hades in return for safety and security. The Three Fates, portrayed by Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad, are the show’s Greek Chorus, checking in with the characters when they’re about to make decisions that will affect their lives.
All of the performances are perfection, particularly Andre DeShields (Broadway’s original Wiz), who gives an otherworldly performance as Hermes, and Amber Grey, whose energy and unique voice set her apart from every other actress on Broadway.
Anaïs Mitchell is the mastermind, along with director Rachel Chavkin, of this unique world. Owing perhaps to the fact that she doesn’t live in the land of musical theater, Mitchell has created a soundscape that perfectly reflects the contrast between Summer and Winter, the world “on top” and the world “six feet below.” “Haunting” is a word that most frequently comes to mind. Mitchell’s lyrics give a nod to the poetry of Orpheus’ songs, often assigning them the title of Chant or Epic. The score falls in line with a group of unique theater pieces that include Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and The Band’s Visit, which stretch the genre by pushing it out of its comfort zone and defiantly refusing to let it back in. Hadestown comes as a breath of fresh air in a season stuffed full of nondescript, pop-infused scores and diva song catalogues. Did I mention that most of the new musicals that opened in the 2018-2019 season have closed? Hadestown is still going strong.
2019 Broadway Revival Cast Recording
Released Aug. 29, 2019
If you are expecting the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1943 musical Oklahoma! to be the same old awe, shucks-gingham-dresses-and- cowboy-boots revival we’ve seen over and over… and over again, you have another thing coming. This isn’t your mother’s revival of Oklahoma! This revival doesn’t even want to meet your mother.
Director Daniel Fish has taken a fresh, almost avant-garde approach to material that more often than not seems chicken-fried, old-fashioned and boring. He does what his colleague Bartlett Sher did with revivals of South Pacific and The King and I at Lincoln Center and what Nicholas Hytner did with his production of Carousel at the National Theater in London (which later also played Lincoln Center). Fish removes the cotton candy-fluff — or are they cobwebs? — thereby giving Laurie, Curley and the rest of the gang a much darker and disturbing world through which to navigate. The result is a leaner, meaner show with a dramatic climax that will leave you equal parts disturbed, confused and intrigued, as if you opened Laurie’s box social hamper to find something both familiar and foreign.
Don’t expect the accompanying cast album to be any different. In this incarnation, a first-rate bluegrass band has replaced the pit orchestra. It puts one in mind of a West Texas, or Oklahoma, dance hall band. Electric guitars, banjos and a steel guitar are prominent in this new orchestration penned by Daniel Kluger. The overture has been cut all together as have most of the ballet sequences. In perhaps the biggest change, the re-envisioned Dream Ballet now opens the second act with a shrieking, wailing, electric guitar solo of “Out of My Dreams.” Think Jimi Hendrix playing the National Anthem. Don’t expect Robert Russell Bennett’s version — you’re not going to get it.
The 12-person cast seems as avant-garde as Mr. Fish’s vision of the show. Damon Daunno plays Curley as a crooning, swaggering kid barely old enough to shave. He is hardly the ruggedly handsome, romantic cowboy type you’d expect. Rebecca Naomi Jones’ Laurie displays brains and savvy know-how, turning “Many a New Day” into a power-belted personal manifesto that is anything but sweet and ladylike. Mary Testa as Aunt Eller would be dream casting in any production of Oklahoma! And she doesn’t disappoint. But the brightest star in a very strong cast is Ali Stroker, who’s historic Tony Award-winning performance as Ado Annie shines and sparkles with exuberant energy and enthusiasm. Her performance of “I Cain’t Say No” is a master class in musical theater vocalism and storytelling through song. No doubt about it, Miss Stroker gives a breakout performance.
This version of Oklahoma! won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially if you like the gingham dresses and the ballet sequences. But the theater isn’t a museum. The same goes for musical theater. The fact that a 76-year-old war horse can stand up to this kind of re-interpretation says a lot for the strength of the writing. It’s definitely worth checking out. If you don’t like it, at least respect the effort.
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released June 7, 2019
A musical based on a wildly successful film is usually produced with an aim toward making money.
I get that.
Broadway is for-profit theater, after all. Why wouldn’t you hedge your bets on name recognition and nostalgia?
Sometimes it works, but more often it doesn’t. Disney has had stunning success adapting its films into stage musicals. But shows like Big and High Fidelity were total flops. And can we discuss those film-to-stage adaptations that live on specifically because they were epic flops? I’m thinking of Rachel Lilly Rosenbloom (which never actually made it to opening night), Dance of the Vampires, Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark (more like Turn Off the Light), and perhaps the most infamous flop in Broadway history, Carrie: The Musical.
Beetlejuice is the latest film-to-stage adaption to materialize on the Great White Way (see what I did there?). With music and lyrics by Australian singer/songwriter/actor/comedian Eddie Perfect and a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King (Brown and King wrote Gutenberg! The Musical!), the stage version of Tim Burton’s 1988 movie is fast-paced, loud, and glittery. The score is what you might expect from a Broadway musical of this type — lots of opportunities for high belting, one of the characters performs a rap for no reason, at some point a reggae beat appears, and in the middle of it all, you might get a ballad… if you’re lucky. There are also lots of secondary characters and subplots making the show attractive to high schools and community theaters.
Beetlejuice ticks off all of these boxes in quick succession. It also doesn’t want you to be bored. One up-tempo song after another goes flying by, lickety-split. The overly chatty lyrics zoom along so quickly it makes one dizzy just trying to catch them all. (Is this Hamilton?) In the end, it all sound pretty much the same. I also found it hard to hear the voices. There is an odd imbalance between the singers and the orchestra, resulting in the voices being drowned out on a regular basis. I wonder if this was a misstep in post-production.
All that being said, there are some standout performances. Alex Brightman plays the title role with the same energy and fearless vocalism that he deployed for his role as Dewey in School of Rock. Hopefully, his gravely Michael Keaton-as-Beetlejuice imitation doesn’t start taking a toll on his voice.
Sophia Anne Caruso makes quite a splash as the unhappy Lydia. Caruso’s singing is first-rate and she invests the unhappy young girl with all the yearning and mournfulness you’d expect from a teenager playing the Goth card for all she’s worth.
Leslie Kritzer gives a tour-de-force performance as Delia that is all spectacular vocals and perfect comic timing. Having seen her live on stage I will never understand why she doesn’t hold a place in the top tier of Broadway’s leading ladies. Maybe if she’d had a couple of good breaks early on — I’m thinking of a cancelled Broadway transfer of Funny Girl from The Papermill Playhouse — we’d be seeing Ms. Kritzer winning Tony Awards rather than some other ladies I could mention.
I wouldn’t call this a bad score, and it doesn’t seem to be a bad show, per se, but it has obviously been created to put butts in seats and make money on the road. Build a musical with all the requisite ticket-selling elements and they will come! That’s fine. Making money isn’t a bad thing, but it would be nice if the powers that be had worked a little harder at making a good, coherent show rather than a cash cow.
From Now On
Release Aug. 2, 2019
Ramin Karimloo, the Iranian-born, Toronto-raised singer-actor, enjoys a career most in the business would give their eye teeth to have.
He made his West End debut as Marius Pontmercy in Les Misérables, later moving into the lead role of Jean Valjean. He has played the title character in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera as well as its concert version live-streamed to cinemas worldwide from The Royal Albert Hall. On Broadway he received a Tony nomination for his performance as Valjean in the second revival of Les Misérables, he was featured in the review The Prince ff Broadway and played a pivotal character in the stage version of Anastasia. Karimloo also maintains a busy concert schedule, regularly touring England and the United States.
From Now On is his first full-length recording since his debut CD Human Heart appeared in 2013. The recording features the musical equivalent of a who’s-who of contemporary Broadway showtunes. Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman, The Last Five Years, Hamilton, Rent, Chess, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Bridges of Madison County and the upcoming Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill are all represented with varying degrees of success. As much as I want to love this album, there are some moments that leave me scratching my head.
As the play list would attest, Karimloo’s target audience would be young, enthusiastic, musical-loving theater nerds. I totally get it, but songs like “Waving Through a Window” (Dear Evan Hansen), “You’ll Be Back” (Hamilton), “What You Own” (Rent), “Let It Go” (Frozen) and “Wicked Little Town” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) seem to be at odds with Karimloo’s résumé and leading man good looks. (Have you seen his Instagram?) Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that the songs are too closely associated with the shows from which they come, at least for the time being. As I was listening, I kept trying, without much success, to picture Karimloo as an awkward 16-year-old, or George the Third, or Elsa. I certainly can’t see him as an East German genderqueer punk performance artist.
His star shines brightest in “Anthem” from Chess (a role he played last year at The Kennedy Center), “From Now On” from The Greatest Showman (wouldn’t you love to see him in the Danny Burstein role in Moulin Rouge on Broadway?) and “It All Fades Away” from The Bridges of Madison County (another role I’d love to see him play). I sure wish the other tracks not this album displayed this same level of discernment.
All that aside, the real star of this recording can be found in Karimloo’s fearless, high-flying vocals. Rarely have I heard a male musical theater performer with such power and range throughout his entire voice. It is a thrilling sound overflowing with exuberant energy. Karimloo says he has no formal training. but I find that very hard to believe.
The arrangements, at least in a few of the numbers (again with that discernment!), are worth a mention. They are given a cool neo-bluegrass vibe thanks to Karimloo’s five-piece band which lends its Mumford and Sons sensibility to the tracks “It All Fades Away,” “Let It Go,” “Mary Jane” and “I Will Always Love You.”
Don’t get me wrong. This album contains a lot worth listening to. Karimloo’s vocals are reason enough. I just wish the emphasis had been placed on interesting songs sung by an interesting, freakishly talented leading man. I get that he wants to widen his audience base, but a large part of this album seems to pander, and the talented Mr. Karimloo is better than that.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in the Dallas area. He has performed with The Dallas Opera, The Dallas Symphony and The Dallas Theater Center. He is currently a professor at Collin College where he teaches song interpretation and commercial voice. His ceramic work can be seen here.
» Cast Album Confidential now runs on the first Friday 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
- June: The cast albums of The Cher Show and Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, plus new albums from Ben Platt and Meow Meow