Now.Here.This. Cast Recording, Eden Espinosa's Look Around Among December's Finest CD Releases
Also reviewed: Chaplin, Leap of Faith cast albums and discs from Godspell's Morgan James, and Telly Leung.
Now.Here.This. (Original Cast Recording) (Ghostlight Records)
The folks who established the benchmark for metatheatrics in musical theater with [title of show] followed up with this tuner that examines the metaphysical side of life. It's an extremely personal piece in which the creator/performers – Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff and Jeff Bowen – dive candidly and poignantly into tales from their carefree childhoods, angst ridden teenage years, and then, the neurotic period of young adulthood and beyond. Bowen's tunes are an ear-pleasing lot, particularly when he aims at mid-70s pop sounds (the time the gang was growing up) and he manages to fuse wit, snark, and genuine emotion in his lyrics with surprising alacrity. Expect to be charmed by this one time and time again.
Espinosa (Wicked) mines the world of modern musical theater to grand effect on this nine-track debut solo album that brims with a unique contemporary feel that's apparent as soon as she launches into one of the numbers she's delivered on Broadway and beyond Stephen Schwartz's "I'm Not That Girl" (from Wicked, natch). Other selections include "Petrified" (from Boy George's Taboo), "I Miss the Mountains" (from the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal) and even "With You" (from the short-lived tuner Ghost). Espinosa brings both gentleness and power to these and other selections, all of which have been shrewdly and pleasingly arranged by Joseph Abate to accentuate the tunes' pop music roots.
Morgan James - Live From Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola (Epic Records)
This live recording of a tribute concert to Nina Simone that James (Godspell) offered at the club at Jazz at Lincoln Center zings with both the vocal intensity and surging feelings that listeners associate with the late, great singing legend. James doesn't mimic her subject, but rather channels her essence and style as she brings such songs as "Little Girl Blue" and "My Man's Gone Now" vividly to life. The disc includes her dialogue between numbers, which marvelously contextualizes them, and it's an album that may make some who are unfamiliar with Simone's body of work seek some of her original recordings out, even as it establishes James as a Broadway performer with a terrific talent for solo work.
Chaplin: The Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (Sony Masterworks)
Cast recordings can often make so-so shows sound like something special, but not this one, which puts the inadequacies of composer/lyricist Christopher Curtis' score for this musical about silent film legend Charlie Chaplin into sharp and even painful relief. For starters, the portentous "All Fall Down" and the initially pleasing music hall number "Look at All the People" are both reprised in variations to a maddening extent. Further the disc reveals how little the show's winning star, Rob McClure (an Avenue Q veteran), is given to deliver musically. What you're left with is a couple of decent numbers for Jenn Colella (High Fidelity), who plays Chaplin's nemesis, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, but her tracks aren't enough to redeem this album.
Leap of Faith: The Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (Ghostlight Records)
A dynamically charismatic performance from four-time Tony Award nominee Raul Esparza (Company) shines brightly on this cast album for a musical that had an oh-so-brief run on Broadway last spring. Alan Menken (Newsies) provides some pretty fair gospel and country western melodies and Glenn Slater (Sister Act) has written lyrics that have an occasional zinger, but their work never rises to the level of Esparza's warm and also ickily oily performance as a con artist tent revival preacher. There are also some swell performances from Jessica Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert), as a prickly sheriff who's smitten by the preacher, Kendra Kassebaum (Wicked), as his pragmatic sister, and Kecia Lewis-Evans (The Drowsy Chaperone), as the woman who keeps his books and leads his choir, but ultimately, it's not enough to elevate this rather pedestrian tuner.
Much like the tongue-in-cheek thriller Bat-Boy, this off-Broadway tuner mashes up rock, pop, and rap with a Broadway vernacular as it explains why a group of dinosaurs in a theoretically well-controlled and contained environment run amok and start devouring humankind. Composer Marshall Pailet's ambitious tunes don't always squarely hit the mark, but there is an energy and verve to the music that proves infectious, particularly when the likes of Lysistrata Jones vets Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Alex Wyse, along with Shelley Thomas (Brooklyn), are delivering the songs with winking aplomb.
Jerome Kern: The Land Where the Good Songs Go (PS Classics)
This utterly beguiling two disc concept recording for a show devised by David Loud brings some of Jerome Kern's best-loved melodies ("A Fine Romance" and "All the Things You Are") together some delightful rarities like "The Subway Express," which is a joyous paean to a couple meeting and falling in love underneath the streets of Manhattan. A top notch ensemble – Kate Baldwin (Giant), Heidi Blickenstaff (Now.Here.This.), Rebecca Luker (Mary Poppins), Philip Chaffin (King David), Graham Rowat (LoveMusik), and Matthew Scott (Jersey Boys) – has been gathered for this album that demonstrates the timelessness of Kern's and his collaborating lyricists' achievements. And if anyone needs any convincing beyond the music itself, they should just read through the fascinating and insightful essay from none other than Stephen Sondheim that comes with the set.
Black Manhattan, Vol. 2 (New World Records)
The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, under the direction of Rick Benjamin, turns the clock back to a time when syncopated rhythms were part of a musical phenomenon sweeping the nation and the world. Aside from Eubie Blake, whose music is heard in the Shuffle Along overture that opens this consistently appealing album, the only other writer whose name you might recognize today is Bert Williams – the African-American performer who gained fame by performing in blackface for folks like Florenz Ziegfeld and whose signature song "Nobody" is included. These more famous men's work is heard alongside a host of pieces by equally talented tunesmiths whose names and songs (like "Down in Honky Tonky Town" and "Pine Apple Rag Song") are now long forgotten. What makes the disc so enjoyable is that these tracks, and the others, are just as infectious as Blake's and Williams' or even chestnuts from the King of Ragtime – Scott Joplin.
Cousins: The Songs of Beck and May (CDBaby)
Songwriters Jordan Beck and Jonathan May aren't easy to categorize – particularly with the dozen diverse tunes they've assembled on this concurrently amusing and touching CD. At times, their work has a comic verve that brings to mind the work of Randy Newman and at other points, the heartfelt emotions they pour into both melody and words proves incredibly touching (particularly in the lullaby-like "Song of a Child"). There's even a point when they demonstrate felicity with a hard rock-like number. Look forward to hearing more from this pair of gifted cousins.
Telly Leung - I'll Cover You (Yellow Sound)
For this solo album, Godspell's Leung turns to hits from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel and Katy Perry, as well as Broadway songwriters like Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim, to showcase his deft ability to mine a song's emotional core. And when his vocals – by turns exultant, gossamer, and impassioned – combine with Gary Adler's always intriguing arrangements, the result can be exceptional, like when Madonna's hit "Papa Don't Preach" morphs into a Latin-infused number that makes a case for the song being a plea for the acceptance of a man's gayness.