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 Christmas recordings from Ana Gasteyer and John Barrowman.
Sugar & Booze
Henry's Girl Records
Released Oct. 25
The Saturday Night Live alum has given us a recording that mixes holiday classics with snappy original songs and a clever surprise or two. Ms. Gasteyer’s killer vocals backed by a first-rate jazz combo have been wrapped in sassy wrapping paper and a shiny gold bow making this THE Christmas album to play throughout the holiday season.
Did I mention there are snappy original songs? In addition to the title song, other tracks such as “Nothing Rhymes with Christmas,” “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again,” “Secret Santa” (featuring SNL alum Maya Rudolph), “Blue Black Friday,” and “The Merriest” all reveal a playful sense of humor and a toe-tapping beat. Who says there are no new and fun Christmas songs?
Since you mentioned Christmas songs, I can assure you that the classics sprinkled throughout the play list have all been treated with the same freshness afforded the new material. In every case Ms. Gasteyer has chosen to take a quick and breezy tempo giving the classics a catchy samba beat that evokes Tito Puente, Desi Arnaz and fantasy cocktail parties at Holly Golightly’s upper East Side apartment. “The Man with the Bag,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Let it snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” “Have Your Self A Merry Little Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride” have a swing that would have made the band leader at New York City’s Copacabana proud.
Ms. Gasteyer also includes some wonderful surprises. “You’re A Mean one, Mr. Grinch” is a crowd pleaser thanks to Ms. Gasteyer’s humorous characterization. A nod is made to our Jewish brothers and sisters in the bouncy Hanukkah tune “In the Market for a Miracle.” “The Spiritual Children Go Where I Send Thee” evokes lots of religious fervor without descending into parody. It’s possibly the most interesting and impressive track on the recording.
Without a doubt, Ms. Gasteyer’s formidable vocal chops form the centerpiece of this wonderfully considered, arranged and produced album (did you know she played Elphaba in the Broadway company of Wicked? It’s true!) Sugar & Booze should be on everyone’s play list this holiday season. It’s light, it’s peppy and it’s bursting with bawdy, boozy holiday fun!
A Fabulous Christmas
Released Dec. 6
If you follow West End theatre you probably know the name John Barrowman. This eternally youthful singing actor has played lead roles in Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, Anything Goes and La Cage aux Folles.
If you follow the world of sci-fi then you know Mr. Barrowman from his role as Captain Jack Harkness on Dr. Who, it’s subsequent spin off Torchwood and the TV series Arrow.
If You’re still at a loss, chances are you saw Mr. Barrowman playing the Lead Stormtrooper in the Springtime for Hitler sequence in the film of The Producers.
If you’re still unclear as to where you might have seen him, don’t beat yourself up. Mr. Barrowman’s career is based mainly in England – he was born in Scotland and raised in the U.S. – where he has a huge following.
He also has released several albums over the years. I wish I could say that his latest recording, John Barrowman: A Fabulous Christmas, lives up to its title. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing offensive about this album but a quick glance at the track list reveals the same old war horses you’ll find on every other Christmas album. That would be fine if the arrangements shed new light on the material or if Mr. Barrowman’s interpretations offered a unique viewpoint. Unfortunately, his take on the material offers nothing fresh.
There are moments of interest. The Puppini Sisters make an appearance on “Happy Holidays” and British actress and television presenter Emily Atack is heard on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” but that’s about it.
Unfortunately, those moments are not enough to set this recording apart from the virtual avalanche of classic Christmas albums that make a reappearance every year. Mr. Barrowman is a talented actor and philanthropist, but I suspect this one will end up in the Christmas bargain bin with other similarly unremarkable holiday CDs.
» 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 runs monthly 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
- October: Cast recordings of Hadestown, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, and Beetlejuice; and a solo record by Ramin Karimloo