Connecticut Critics Circle member Dave Rosenberg reviews the original cast recordings from last year’s Broadway season.
“A Bronx Tale” (Ghostlight) is so flavorsome you can practically taste the cannoli and smell the salami. Based on the nostalgic solo play and subsequent film by Chazz Palminteri, who also wrote the musical’s libretto, it tells a naturalistic tale of Calogero, a boy who witnesses a murder. True to the neighborhood code, he doesn’t rat, endearing himself to the killer but creating a gulf of loyalty between his upstanding, hard-working father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) and the more glamorous Sonny (the incandescent Nick Cordero). On one hand is Lorenzo’s gentle “Look to Your Heart”; on the other is Sonny’s brash “Roll ‘Em.”
The score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) is part doo-wop danceable, part Frankie Valli, part Broadway. Although the trajectory of this romanticized gangster-with-a-good-heart story is predictable, the score’s energy is vigorous. The CD is a worthy substitute for the show, incorporating dialogue that steers the plot into a “West Side Story” conflict between Italians and blacks as the grown-up Calogero – a charismatic Bobby Conte Thornton — falls for Jane (Ariana DeBose). Like the show itself, the CD is middle-of-the-road, landing somewhere between inspirational and conventional, ending with the hymn-like “The Choices We Make.”
“Anastasia” (Broadway Records), which began at Hartford Stage, is “Les Miz” combined with Disney’s “Cinderella.” Beginning with the bouncy, “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” in which two conmen, Dmitry and Vlad, scheme to find a woman who could pass for the eponymous heroine, the Tsar’s daughter, a possible survivor of the royal family’s assassination. Though the story of a surviving Anastasia has been debunked, the book by Terrence McNally lands in the “is she / isn’t-she” camp, supported by Stephen Flaherty’s tuneful music and Lynn Ahrens’ expert lyrics.
Five numbers featured in the 1997 full-length animated film have been appropriated for the stage, including the lilting “Once Upon a December” and the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” which sends the audience into ecstasy. Others run the gamut from the jaunty “Paris Holds the Key” to the “Fiddler”-like “Stay I Pray You.” All suit this conventional work, with its mixture of light and dark. (More darkness might have helped.)
As Anya, Christy Altomare fills the ingénue role with freshness, joining with stalwart Derek Klena as Dmitry in the romantic “In a Crowd of Thousands.” As the Dowager Empress, the mighty Mary Beth Peil brings genuine drama to “Close the Door,” while Caroline O’Connor is her Sophie Tuckerish best in the dippy “Land of Yesterday” (rhymes with “grand Imperial heyday”) and “The Countess and the Common Man” with John Bolton as Vlad. Straddling operetta and musical comedy the striking Ramin Karimloo, late of “Les Miz,” is the revolutionary Gleb, the show’s most complex – and neglected — character. He brings class to an album for the non-discriminating.
“Bandstand” (Broadway Records) is a musical musical, with tunes not only its heartbeat and salvation but its essence. It’s also a salute to the post-World War II era, concentrating on returning damaged soldiers who form a band that exists on blues, ballads and swing. In the background, Donny (Corey Cott), one of those vets, seeks out the widow of his best Army buddy and subsequently falls in love with her.
Doubling as a tip-top dance album (Andy Blankenbuehler won a Tony for his choreography), its strength lies in its instrumentals. The onstage actors are actually playing instruments, creating a certain verisimilitude to Richard Oberacker’s 40s music. (Oberacker also co-wrote the book and penned the incessant rhyming lyrics with Robert Taylor.) The score is more idiosyncratic than memorable, although “Who I Was,” as sung by the glowing Laura Osnes is a lovely ballad and “First Steps First” is likely to remind listeners of those old MGM tuners. Cott is a forceful Donny, the ambitious pianist/conductor, nowhere more effective than in the driving “Right This Way” (“You can bet we intend to stay”). The wonderful Beth Leavel, though not given enough to do, acts the hell out of “Everything Happens.”
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Masterworks Broadway), based on the novel by Roald Dahl, caters to cravings for sweets, imagination, family sentiment and general silliness. (No, there are no toilet jokes.) With a score mostly by the “Hairspray” team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, it has only occasional interest for adults. For that, thank the antic Jackie Hoffman whose “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” is a not-too-sly dig at a current political figure (“We sit at our computer all night long / We pour ourselves a drink / And then we tweet before we think”).
Otherwise, it’s a lively, singable, Broadway score with many highlights like “It Must Be Believed to be Seen” the German flavored “More of Him to Love,” the operatic “When Veronica Says,” the nostalgic “If Your Father Were Here” and the Gilbert and Sullivan pastische, “Strike That, Reverse It,” where Christian Borle’s Willy Wonka is at his loopy best. He follows that with the gorgeous “Pure Imagination” from the film (along with other movie numbers by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley: “The Candy Man,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “The Oompa Loompa Song” which rhymes “shook” with “schnook”). Borle, unleashed, reaches his potential with his soaring “The View From Here.”
“Come From Away” (The Musical Company) tells the amazing, feel-good story of Newfoundlanders who welcomed 38 planes grounded on 9/11 when U.S. airspace was closed, effectively doubling the population of Gander and nearby communities. With a book, music and lyrics by Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the show gets off to a rousing start with “Welcome to the Rock.” Although the CD booklet lacks printed lyrics, a plethora of spoken narration makes the plot explicit. The score, following the province’s traditions, has Celtic and Scottish folk roots that find their deepest expressions in “I Am Here,” the hoedownish “Heave Away” and the melodic “Prayer.” It’s a frisky though repetitious score with lots of sound-alike numbers.
The album captures the fears and confusions of passengers as well the generosity of Newfoundlanders faced with having to house, feed and clothe strangers from strange lands. New friendships are made and romance blossoms as creeds, colors, religions and life styles are accepted and lauded, transcending a Tower of Babel languages and accents. Most of the numbers are group efforts, with the cast playing multiple roles, emphasizing that “Come From Away” demonstrates the power of community. It touches a nerve.
“Dear Evan Hansen” (Atlantic Records) is a miraculous blend of style and substance. Dovetailing the sensitive libretto by Steven Levenson with the energetic music and the apt lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Tony-winning musical contrasts adolescent insecurity with parental angst. Eight characters encompass the intimacy of specific family dynamics. Evan, a latchkey student, has to deal not only with his own insecurities but the lack of parental supervision, driving him into the protective arms of another family, even if he has to lie to get there. Serious ethical questions are raised by his actions.
Ben Platt is Evan, in a sensational performance. His voice scaling from tenor to falsetto Platt is yearning in “Waving Through a Window” (“I try to speak but no one hears”) lyrical in “For Forever” (“We let the world pass by for forever”), romantic in “If I Could Tell Her” (“We’re a million worlds apart”) and touching in “Word Fail” (“Will I just keep on running away from what’s true?”). Rachel Bay Jones is a marvel as Evan’s mother, her next-to-closing “So Big / So Small” bound to draw tears.
Although the CD can not, of course, repeat the stage show’s social media graphics, the album still suggests the pluses and minuses of young people who interact via electronics instead of face-to-face. The CD is more than a souvenir: it’s an exciting, well-engineered talisman of current times.
“Groundhog Day” (Masterworks Broadway) pits the sincerity of Punxsutawney, Pa. vs. the cynicism of weatherman Phil Connors (“Punxsutawney is a little town with a heart” vs. “There’s nothing more depressing than Small own U.S.A.”). With a book by Danny Rubin, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the CD amusingly captures the musical’s battle between self and society. Based on the terrific Bill Murphy film, it tells the story of Phil’s being trapped in repetitive days, plunging him into the forest of immaturity until he learns how to live, love and emerge as a responsible, tolerant adult.
The score, ranging from hoedown (“Nobody Cares”) to swing (“Philandering”) to anthems (“There Will Be Sun”), is more eclectic than steadfast, climaxing in the powerful “Seeing You” More stylish are the lyrics with their clever rhyming (“ineffectual, metrosexual, pseudointellectual, existential”). Andy Karl’s Phil is a singular creation, neurotic yet appealing. Barrett Doss is a strong Rita, the woman who finally catches the brass ring, with Rebecca Faulkenberry (her “Playing Nancy” is incisive) and John Sanders (his “Night Will Come” is lovely) also impressive. The CD is vigorous without being essential except for those who saw and enjoyed the likable stage show.
“Hello, Dolly!” (Masterworks Broadway) has always built its reputation on its stars, among them Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman who all kept the original going for five-plus years. Now it’s Bette Midler’s chance (although the great Donna Murphy fills in on occasion). The erstwhile “Bathhouse Bette” (so named for her nights entertaining at New York’s Continental Baths) is both campy and poignant as the “woman who arranges things.”
One of the CD’s merits is Midler’s unique phrasing and interjections. Start with her opening number, “I Put My Hand In” for intonations no one else might or would dare do, eliding the pause between “things” and “like” or emphasizing “push” or the added “my, my.” Even more is a self-aware amusement added to a sense of secrecy, as if Midler is privately commenting on the very definition of joy. Then there’s David Hyde Pierce’s playing with his Yonkers accent: “Goinsney” for “Guernsey,” “toin” for “turn.” The added “Penny in My Pocket,” cut from the original, is still unnecessary, but Pierce does it with panache.
Michael Stewart’s libretto comes through with all its humor and, of course, Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics are paragons of a musical comedy score. Among its virtues is the opportunity given supporting characters, here limned with perfection by Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin and Taylor Trensch. “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Ribbons Down My Back,” Before the Parade Passes By,” “It Only Takes a Moment” and, of course, the title song. The world may be imperfect; “Hello, Dolly” is not.
“War Paint” (Ghostlight) pits beauty mega-merchants Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) against Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone). The main problem is Doug Wright’s libretto, where the two queens don’t meet until the last scene, robbing the show of open conflict. On the album, the score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) has a Broadway sound, a compendium of typical and familiar rhythms. The opening (“Behind the Red Door”) introduces Arden as if she were a Ziegfeld girl returning to the stage. Her bitter rival, Rubinstein is next, Polish accent and all, with “Back on Top” extolling her own products and putting the shiv to her family (“My sons don’t call / My husband cheats / Now they can pay their own receipts / I’m back on top!”).
The women do have a side-by-side duet in the lyrical “If I’d Been a Man,” in which they bemoan what they perceive as their second-class status (“What man has half the balls that I have?”). Which leads to an overload of complications and a diminishment of interest.
It’s all too much and, although it’s good to have Ebersole and LuPone back, the album can’t make up for the show’s lack of drive. Still, for every empty “Dinosaurs,” there’s the lovely “Pink”; for every clichéd “Fire and Ice,” there’s the mysterious “Beauty in the World,” sung together by Ebersole and LuPone, reminding listeners that stars really are celestial.