Sunday, 2 August 2015

CD Review: Saturday Night (Original London Cast)

“I guess the man means more than the means"

For a still-living composer, Stephen Sondheim’s back catalogue has been mercilessly picked over and bastardised for many a cabaret and compilation show – a consequence perhaps of the chequered history of many of his shows as well as his increasing and enduring popularity over time. So even though a show like Saturday Night, written in 1954 yet not receiving its first production until 1997, remains something of an obscurity, many of its songs have become familiar due to inclusion elsewhere.

It would have been Sondheim’s debut production and in many ways, one can see the rawness of this composer. For one, there’s a gentleness to it, a romantic sense of fun that is very much atypical for a man much better known for his cynical view on the world. And for another, there’s a more direct tunefulness, the music lacking the complexity that has characterised his oeuvre but in all honesty, not much the worse for it.

CD Review: Follies (2011 New Broadway Cast Recording)

“I wanted something when I came here 30 years ago but I forgot to write it down”

Is Follies a show you can really just listen to? Many clearly agree but having got through this double-disc cast recording of Eric Schaeffer’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s show from 2011, I’m not sure enough of it really translates on record. This is quite possibly coloured by the fact that I saw it for the first time earlier this year in a most fun semi-staged concert version at the Royal Albert Hall and memories are that are still strong.

So the interplay of past and present, the ghostly presence of the showgirls and the younger selves of the central foursome, doesn’t really come across. This recording tries to address that by including lengthy passages of scene-setting dialogue but without that initial familiarity with the material, it’s hard to see how much it would really help – plus there’s something moving in the sight of a group of veteran actors given such agency on a stage, it should definitely be produced more, difficult or no.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

CD Review: Sunday in the Park with George (2006 London Cast Recording)

“Everyone gets along with him, that’s the problem with him”

In listening to cast recordings, one can get struck wondering who are they for. For fans obviously, those who saw the show or those who weren’t able to make it along and as a legacy of those productions deemed worthy enough. But what about casual listeners, those simply dipping a toe into the world of musical theatre, could one honestly recommend the complexity of Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George?

Perhaps not, but that’s not to say it isn’t an excellent thing. Some call this show one of Sondheim’s more accessible but I’m not convinced - its pointillist nature and time-jump format are inventive but still challenging and the inclusion of passages of dialogue – something Sondheim recordings often do – are as much of a hindrance as a help, they add to a fuller understanding of the story but also have an alienating effect – I was banned from listening to this out loud in the flat!

CD Review: Company (1996 London Cast Recording)

“It's things like using force together,
Shouting till you're hoarse together,
Getting a divorce together"

Sam Mendes’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company was a big success at the Donmar Warehouse in 1995 and subsequently transferred to the Albery Theatre (now the Noël Coward). A recording of the show can be found in full on YouTube at the moment but I restrained myself to just listening to the cast recording, which I have to say was something of a disappointment in the end despite seeming promising.

It’s quite an odd thing to listen to, often frustratingly inconsistent as in the normally reliable Anna Francolini’s ‘Another Hundred People’ in which a broad Noo Yoik accent fades in and out in a most distracting manner. Sophie Thompson battles gamely with ‘Getting Married Today’ but without the assured brilliance of her acting to complement it, the vocal alone doesn’t really pass muster.

Friday, 31 July 2015

CD Review: Godspell (New Broadway Cast Recording 2011)

“Learnin' every line and every last commandment
May not help you but it couldn't hurt"

Of course Crazy Eyes has a beautifully soulful voice, of course she does. In all honesty, I wasn’t much enjoying my listen of the New Broadway Cast Recording of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell until I got to the luxuriously chilled version of ‘By My Side’ when I suddenly took notice and realised that I recognised the name of the singer Uzo Aduba. She is now much more famous due to her award-winning role in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black but back in 2011, she was part of the cast of this production at Circle in the Square Theatre.

The cast recording is a very full one, featuring the 16 tracks of the show plus a (frankly unnecessary) bonus rendition of ‘Beautiful City’ by Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik and an acoustic rendition of ‘Learn Your Lessons Well’. Michael Holland’s new arrangements certainly make their stamp on the songs, stripping them back to a near-hippyish vibe but wedded as I am to my early 90s version of the soundtrack, I do find it hard to really appreciate them as they’re just so different.

CD Review: Godspell (1993 Studio Cast)


“See ya later I'm going to the front of the thee-AY-ter"

Full disclosure, I’ve been listening to this version of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell for more years than I care to remember and before anyone really knew what luminaries many of these performers would become – Clive Rowe, Ruthie Henshall, John Barrowman…though perhaps we’ll skip past Darren Day. Using the composer’s original arrangements and conducted by himself, it is perhaps a tad traditional for the taste of some but for me, it hit the marks from top to bottom. 

Henshall going full-on Mae West in a vampy ‘Turn Back O Man’, Elisabeth Sastre and Jacqueline Dankworth complementing each other well in a beautifully harmonised ‘By My Side’, Day and Glyn Kerslake’s amusing romp through ‘All For The Best’, it’s all highly slick and professional. The air of reverence is strong throughout, mark Paul Manuel leading ‘All Good Gifts’ or Dankworth’s ‘Day By Day’ for example, classically done almost note for note from the sheet music.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

CD Review: The Kissing Dance or She Stoops To Conquer (2008 Cast)

"The sage shall play the knave tonight,
The maid shall misbehave tonight"

Howard Goodall's fruitful relationship with the National Youth Music Theatre has long been a mutually beneficial one and it was they who premiered The Kissing-Dance, his musical adaptation of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer back in 1998. What is truly remarkable is just who happened to be in that year-group - Sheridan Smith, Gina Beck, Simon Thomas, Alex Hassell, Michael Jibson...the list goes on. And 10 years on, they gathered once again to record Howard Goodall's score.

The show received its professional premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2011 and in a neat twist, saw Gina Beck reprise the very same role of the headstrong Kate Hardcastle and Ian Virgo also return to the cast but graduating from scallywag Tony Lumpkin to impecunious but irresistible Charles Marlow. And having that familiarity with the score meant it was a delight to go back and delve into its melodic wonderment once again. It is recognisably Goodall to be sure but with a distinct pastoral bent to it which has a pleasingly differentiating effect.

Review: Bakkhai, Almeida

"I am somewhat...supernatural"

What is most fascinating about the way that the Almeida Greeks season is unfolding is that it is as interested in interrogating storytelling as much as stories. As with Aeschylus' Oresteia and now Euripides' Bakkhai, we're being presented with striking new versions of these familiar tales which simultaneously make a case for why they have endured into a third millennium rather than complacently assuming they will just speak to modern audiences regardless.

Robert Icke incisively opened up the domestic and legal ramifications of the House of Atreus in forensic detail. And now Anne Carson, following her version of Antigone for Ivo van Hove, and director James Macdonald position their Bakkhai deep in the recesses of folk memory, a guttural song passed from generation to generation with its cautionary tale of the consequences of leading society to defy convention. It is sure to be divisive but I have to say that I found it endlessly interesting.

CD Review: Closer to Heaven (Original Cast Recording)


“Give me hope
Give me all your love" 

Everything is better with Frances Barber in it, it’s kind of a mantra for life. The Union Theatre’s recent production of Closer to Heaven shifted its entire allocation of tickets before it had even started but I wonder if that would have been the case if people had had a sneak preview of it. Despite its hard-working cast, it didn’t quite hit all the bases that would have warranted a sell-out success from after press night but you can’t begrudge them for that, the producers clearly tapped into a desire to see the show revived. 

Its original run at the Arts Theatre was not a runaway hit, being curtailed after lacklustre sales (blamed in part on 9/11 affecting tourism) but an original cast recording of the soundtrack, featuring studio versions of the songs, was released, helping the show to maintain and even build on its cult status. And listening to the album, you can see why people were keen for it to return. Shorn of most of Jonathan Harvey’s lumpen book, the focus falls squarely on the cracking score by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe and the real depth of feeling that the cast bring to the material.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

CD Review: Songs for a New World (1996 Original Cast)

“I'll give you hope to bring out all the life inside you ”

Haven't got a huge amount more to say about Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World as the recent St James' Theatre production is still looming fresh in the mind. This recording from the original production 20 years ago is well-accomplished though and certainly has more of that authentic New York feel to it that characterises so much of his early work.

Brooks Ashmanskas, Andréa Burns, Jessica Molaskey and Ty Taylor are the awesome foursome here - Molaskey the real stand-out as her character gets the lion's share of the vividly memorable songs - the witty Surabaya-Santa, the almost slapstick comedy of Just One Step and the elegiac beauty of Stars and the Moon, probably the show's best known break-out hit.

CD Review: Parade (Original London Cast 2007)

“Call for justice! We need justice!
Beat the bastard! Kill the bum!"

Based on historical events from the turn of the last century in Atlanta, Georgia, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade has been something of a slow-burning theatrical success – its original 1998 Broadway run criminally short, ending way before it won 2 Tonys, but later tours and overseas productions cementing its reputation as a sterling piece of new musical theatre. In the UK, Southwark Playhouse had a grand production in 2011 but 2007 saw the Donmar deliver a work of small-scale genius which was captured in its entirety on this double-disc recording.

Perhaps not the most likely of subjects for a piece of musical theatre, the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank - Bertie Carvel in the role here - for the rape and murder of a 13 year old employee Mary Phagan benefits hugely from the musical treatment. The trial caused a big media sensation in the US and forced an examination of the (not so) latent anti-Semitism in this southern state offering a wide range of opportunities to explore musical styles, estimably executed by Thomas Murray’s 9-strong band playing David Cullen’s new orchestrations. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

CD Review: The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

“We had such hopes..."

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Phantom of the Opera decamped to the Royal Albert Hall for 3 performances, the highlights of which were spliced together to give a full CD/DVD release package which contains as full a rendering of the entire score as it currently available. Maybe it was a rush job though as the sound quality on this CD really isn’t good enough for it to be genuinely recommendable, even for a live recording. 

I also had mixed feelings about the production itself. I just can’t get on with Sierra Boggess’ voice, her soprano voice always erring to the too shrill for my liking and the vibrato she employs has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Christine isn’t the strongest-written of roles at the best of times and Boggess just feels too emotionally vapid to be the inspiration of such all-conquering adoration as she is served with in this story.