Sunday, December 8, 2013

TOP TEN MUSICAL THEATRE ALBUMS OF 2013

The end of 2013 has arrived... so, of course, this list had to happen. This wasn't an easy decision... so many cast albums and musical theatre based albums were released this year, and so many were terrific. Finding a top ten out of all of the albums I bought this year was quite the task, but I've reached a list I'm satisfied with.

Disclaimers: Some of the albums on this list are interchangeable in terms of their order. Also, this list is not strictly limited to cast albums. Anything musical theatre themed is eligible.

So, without further ado, let's begin with number ten...

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Album Review: NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is a new musical that, when described, sounds like one of the most bizarre shows ever. Categorized as an 'electro pop opera', this site-specific theatre piece based on Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace is performed in a cabaret where an unknown cast of actors perform the story around the tables of guests while they enjoy a meal consisting of popular Russian food and drink. Composer Dave Malloy wrote this two-hour opera, but don't expect typical opera fare from this music. In fact, don't expect to have heard anything quite like this before. Ever.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Album Review: LIZZIE (Original Studio Cast Recording)

This album's been a long time coming, having been delayed for release a few months ago for unexplained reasons. But Lizzie, a concept recording of a new rock musical retelling of famous murderess Lizzie Borden, is finally here. The question is: Was it worth the wait?

I've always been wary of musicals that take historical subject matter and set it to anachronistic modern music. Some musicals do it well, such as Pasek and Paul's Dogfight which had a contemporary pop score that still paid homage to the 1960s era of the story. Lizzie, conversely, makes no effort to harken back musically to the 1800s, but rather presents us with a full-on heavy rock-and-roll score by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens. And it commits so fully to this that it really, really works. I went into this album with trepidation, but emerged with a huge grin on my face. Lizzie is campy, creepy, fun, and thunderously rockin'.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Album Review: FIRST DATE

To paraphrase lyrics from the show: "It's only a first impression; I could be totally wrong. But... this show doesn't seem to be very good."

First Date, the new musical comedy currently running on Broadway and featuring stars Krysta Rodriguez and Zachary Levi in the lead roles, is one of those shows that has completely divided critics and audiences. Critics have generally slammed the show, with a few exceptions, while audiences have been going crazy over it.

I'm going to assume that this is a show you really have to see to appreciate, because nothing that audiences seem to be so excited over comes across on this recording, produced by the great new Yellow Sound Label. All this recording amounts to is a bunch forgettable pop-rock songs filled with try-hard comedy consisting of clich├ęs and stereotypes. Again, this is only going off the recording. This is by no means an immortalization of the entire show, so I'm sure those of us who have only heard the album are missing something. I have no doubt that this show is as funny and enjoyable as audiences are saying. But if it was the intention of this album to capture that spirit, it hasn't quite succeeded.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Album Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS (2013 OFF-BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)

The Last Five Years is pretty much a cult phenomenon. This modest yet heartfelt little two-hander musical by composer Jason Robert Brown made a splash when it initially opened Off-Broadway in 2001 featuring the then-unknown Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott in breakthrough performances. And, while the show wasn't really a huge critical success, the show obtained a huge following due to its breathtaking contemporary pop-rock score. And here we are, with an Off-Broadway revival produced at Second Stage over 12 years later featuring two new up-and-coming talents: Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe. Plus, the icing on the cake: Jason Robert Brown himself as director. So, how is this new cast recording?


Well, I'll put it this way: Do not expect this album to replace the original cast recording with Butz and Scott. It simply doesn't. But is it an excellent companion, especially for fans of the show? Oh god yes.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Album Review: AARON TVEIT - THE RADIO IN MY HEAD (LIVE AT 54 BELOW)

Aaron Tveit is the Justin Bieber of Broadway, and I mean that in the best possible way.

To many, he's the heartthrob of the Great White Way, climbing to fame after he thrilled audiences in the emotionally exhausting rock musical Next to Normal... but he really became known when he appeared as Enjolras in the film adaptation of Les Miserables. With boyish good looks, a killer charm, and a tenor voice you could listen to endlessly, people love him... and it's not hard to see why.

This album, a record of Tveit's concert at Broadway's popular cabaret nightclub 54 Below, just happened to be released at the exact same time as Laura Benanti's 54 Below album, both produced by the wonderful Broadway Records ( I review Benanti's album here).  And with Ms. Benanti's stunning and brilliantly fun recording getting so much buzz, I truly hope Tveit's album gets just as much.

Album Review: LAURA BENANTI - IN CONSTANT SEARCH OF THE RIGHT KIND OF ATTENTION (LIVE AT 54 BELOW)

54 Below is a wonderful thing. This relatively new Broadway cabaret club has, in its short time of existence, attracted some of musical theatre's most exciting and biggest talents to perform small concert engagements. But don't go to these concerts expecting a full-on musical theatre show... often, 54 Below gives these stars the venue to perform music we'd otherwise never hear out of them, with perhaps a mere sprinkling of tunes out of the musical theatre cannon.

For those of us who live such a great distance away from New York City, the up-and-coming label Broadway Records has taken the liberty of immortalizing some of the best and most exciting of these concerts for the rest of the world to hear. Current recordings include concerts by Norbert Leo Butz, Patti LuPone, Christiane Noll, Aaron Tveit, and Andrea McArdle... but easily one of the most anticipated releases was of Laura Benanti's concert. It's here now. And to say it doesn't disappoint would be a severe understatement.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Album Review: HANDS ON A HARDBODY

This ain't your typical musical theatre score. Hands on a Hardbody, the short-lived Broadway musical by Phish band member Trey Anastasio and lyricist Amanda Green, has been beautifully immortalized on a terrific recording by Sh-K-Boom Records that will make you wonder why this heartfelt, bare-bones little show didn't last longer on the Great White Way.

Perhaps Broadway isn't as welcoming of something different as it should be. There's no glitz of flash in this show, nor any in the score. The music, a tough-as-nails blues, folk, country, and rock score, sounds more like a playlist for a road trip through the American South than anything you'd ever hear on a Broadway stage... though, I have no doubt that was what Anastasio and Green were going for. It gets the head nodding and the toes tapping, that's for sure.

Monday, August 19, 2013

List: My Top 10 Contemporary Musical Theatre Cast Albums

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a lot of cast albums. Like, a lot. Some of them haven't been listened to more than once or twice, or at all in fact... but they're part of the collection, so I keep them around. However, there are a number of cast recordings I revisit quite frequently. I'll be scanning my iPod, have an "Oh yeah! That one!" moment, and give it another listen. Based on the suggestion of a reader, I took some time to sit down and narrow down/order up a list of my Top 10 favourites. Realize that, as new cast albums emerge and my taste potentially changes (you never know!) this list may change. All I know now is that it hasn't changed for a very long while, and so I feel comfortable presenting you now with my Top 10 Contemporary Musical Theatre Albums. Let's start at 10 and work our way up to 1, shall we?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Album Review: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA



If you've read my review of the original cast recording for Floyd Collins, it'll come as no surprise to you that I'm a huge fan of Adam Guettel. I firmly believe he's one of the greatest post-Sondheim composers. But something else inspired me to write a review of The Light in the Piazza. I just came back from a production at the world famous Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario and it simply left me speechless. Never has a musical moved me so deeply and purely. I've owned and listened to the cast album for a long time, but that was my first live encounter with the show. Hence why I feel compelled to review this recording.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Album Review: FEBRUARY HOUSE



What a pleasant surprise.

How do I find so many obscure musicals? I go to the iTunes Store and type in 'cast' to the search bar... 90% of the albums are musical cast recordings. I then browse through and pay attention to albums that catch my eye. That's how I discovered February House, a new musical with a score by Gabriel Kahane.

Who is Gabriel Kahane, you may ask? Don't worry, I had no idea either. It turns out that February House is one of Kahane's first forays into musical theatre. He's a young up and coming composer... further inspection found that much of his music is an appealing and quite beautiful combination of contemporary pop and classical sensibilities. You might almost classify his work as 'art songs'.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Album Review: PIPPIN

One of my earliest exposures to musical theatre was Pippin. When I was just a little kid, and my obsession with musicals was just beginning, I'd ransack my local library to find cast recordings of musicals I'd never heard of before. Some of them went over my head... such as Stephen Sondheim's Assassins and the original recording of Night of the Hunter. But one day, I discovered a VHS tape of the filmed production of Pippin starring William Katt, Chita Rivera, and the incomparable Ben Vereen (It also just so happened to be filmed in my hometown of Hamilton, at the theatre in which I now work). I watched it, and fell in love.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Album Review: KINKY BOOTS

I thought I was going to hate this album. Granted, I know next to nothing about the show, but so many factors made it seem like it wouldn't be my thing. Sure, Kinky Boots has been receiving rave reviews on Broadway and has the most nominations of any show at this year's Tony Awards... but I don't usually go for the big, flashy commercial shows (Which Kinky Boots totally is). Also, I was, admittedly ignorantly, turned off by the fact that Cyndi Lauper wrote the score. I've never been a fan of Lauper's work, and rock artists don't generally have a good track record of producing great scores for the theatre. So really, everything was in place for me to hate this cast recording.

I don't think I've ever been so wrong.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Album Review: FLOYD COLLINS

As I've stated, this blog isn't just for reviews of the latest cast albums... I'm also going to be reaching back into the realm of the old and/or obscure. And thus, I bring you Floyd Collins. Floyd Collins, based on the true story of a Kentucky caver who became trapped in a sand cave for weeks and was turned into a media sensation, is one of those "how the hell could that possibly work as a musical?" musicals. But composer/lyricist Adam Guettel and librettist Tina Landau found a way. In fact, they created one of the single greatest contemporary musicals of the past 20 years.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Album Review: GIANT




 
 
 
I've heard it said that Michael John LaChiusa is one of those composers you either love or hate. I have to disagree, simply because I confess that while I don't hate LaChiusa's work, I'm not enamoured with it either... I fall on this weird middle ground. Having heard Little Fish, Bernarda Alba, and See What I Wanna See, the main feeling I've emerged with is appreciation. They've never moved me, nor had me reaching for the replay button, but I simply couldn't deny their general excellence.
 
 
LaChiusa's work is not for the faint of heart. If you're a fan of composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber, you're probably not going to like LaChiusa's work. It's rich, complex, smart music to be sure, but often arrhythmic and written in unconventional structure. Hardly a verse-chorus type song in sight and many tunes aren't what you'd call catchy (though they are very memorable). His latest musical Giant, based on the Edna Ferber novel, follows Bick and Leslie, a newly married couple and one in which Bick must decide between his love for Leslie and his love for his 'country' of Texas. It's difficult to summarize the story as it is, true to the title, quite giant. Luckily, not only is this score excellent, but I do believe LaChiusa has found the hit he's been working ever so hard for.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Album Review: DOGFIGHT


I can't think of a better way to kick off this blog than by reviewing Dogfight, the new cast album featuring the original Second Stage cast. Dogfight, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duchan, is the new chamber musical based on the 1991 film of the same name starring River Phoenix and Lilli Taylor... and knowing what the film is about makes you wonder how the hell it could possibly work as a musical.

It's 1963, the day before The Kennedy Assassination and the day before a bunch of Marines get shipped off. A particular group of Marines, featuring 'The Three Bees' (Birdlace, Bernstein, and Boland), decide to let loose for their final night in the country by hosting an unspeakably cruel contest called the "dogfight", in which each Marine bets on who can find the ugliest possible woman to bring to a party as their date... and the guy with the ugliest date wins the pot. The thing is, none of these girls know what the true nature of the party is, and hopefully never will. Eddie Birdlace, one of the Three Bees, finds Rose Fenny working in a diner in town. Rose, a sensitive and awkward introvert, falls for Birdlace's charm and she eventually gets coaxed into attending the party. But when Rose finds out what's really going on and leaves the party heartbroken and humiliated, Birdlace soon chases her down and an unlikely love story evolves.

Welcome!

Welcome to The Cast Album Review! I'm Michael Kras, an actor, playwright, director, singer, and HUGE fan of musical theatre. I live in Canada, so my access to New York and Broadway is limited enough that a lot of my exposure to new musical theatre comes from my collection of cast albums. As I write this, I have over 130 albums... Broadway and Off-Broadway, new and old, original cast and revival cast, concept albums, you name it. And I thought, "What better way to make even stronger use of these albums than to ring in my thoughts on some of them? I'll mostly be reviewing new albums as they come out but, in lulls, I'll jump back into my collection and review one of the older ones. Check back often, and I hope you enjoy!