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Monday, 16 November 2020

REVIEW: Laura Benanti – Self Titled Album

God, I miss slow dancing with my Parisian lover on a candlelit balcony after a few too many Merlots… And now you can too!
Perhaps it’s the jazz classics, or the wistful orchestration, but Laura Benanti’s self-titled debut album makes me feel nostalgic. It’s a wonderfully cohesive collection of jazzified contemporary numbers and humorous takes on timeless melodies, which Benanti traverses effortlessly. The Tony Award winner herself says of it; ‘You could put it on at a dinner party or listen to it in the bath. It could speak to so many different possible moments’, and I couldn’t put it better myself (though it’s my job to try). 

The album opens with a Rufus Wainright cover, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, which admittedly I’d never heard before. It sets the tone of the album wonderfully, with instrumentals that sound straight out of Midnight in Paris… or Ratatouille (which isn’t a bad thing, believe me.). The album is punctuated with these quintessential jazz and swing arrangements which would indeed accompany both dinner parties and baths. 

At risk of targeting a very specific audience, which, to a degree it does, these movie-worthy melodies are interrupted by covers of the likes of Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. I use the word interrupted purposefully, as two of the three forays into pop don’t particularly hit the mark for me. This isn’t to say that they aren’t sung beautifully, but compared to songs like Go Slow, where I couldn’t imagine anyone else’s voice doing more justice to them than Benanti’s, the cover of Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved strangely reminded me of the opening to an Evanescence ballad; make of that what you will. I know I said the album made me feel nostalgic, but I didn’t mean for my emo phase. However, the swing version of The Jonas Brother’s come-back hit Sucker was arguably one of my favourites on the record, so perhaps it’s more testament to Benanti and Gil Goldstein’s (arrangement) mastery of swing and jazz than a disappointing misadventure into 21st Century pop. 

Friday, 6 November 2020

REVIEW: Mary Poppins: Live at the Prince Edward Theatre, 2020 Cast Recording

Live albums of any genre always pack an extra punch, and musical cast recordings are no exception. Cameron Mackintosh seems particularly fond of this approach, with both the Miss Saigon revival and Les Miserables Staged Concert immortalised in this way. Now, Mary Poppins joins the lineup, and right from the off the album delivers pure magic. An amalgamation of several of PL Travers’ stories, it’s a refreshing take on a screen-to-stage adaptation, and proves that there is always room for fresh ideas.

The combination of the original Sherman Brothers’ music, and the works of British Musical Theatre pairing George Stiles and Anthony Drewe results in a perfect score. The opening sequence (Prologue / Chim Chim Cher-ee / Cherry Tree Lane / The Perfect Nanny) is bursting with nostalgia but also finds its own identity, rather than replicating previous productions. In fact, that tends to be the theme for the entire album, which is decorated with new songs, orchestrations, harmonies, lyrics and dance breaks. It’s such a treat to hear a large orchestra nowadays, particularly when shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables (the concert being an exception) have scaled back over the years, and new shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie use just five or six pieces. For this production, William David Brohn’s orchestrations are pure joy.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

REVIEW: Mascherato the Musical Original Studio Cast Recording

You’d be forgiven if you listened to ‘Mascherato: The Musical’ and assumed it was already a full-scale, polished, Broadway musical.

But it’s not.

In 2015 ‘Mascherato' was conceived by Michael Elderkin (book by James Willett) and workshopped two years later exhibiting a show which had blossomed into this stunning album; recorded with a twenty-two piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios it features a cast almost as impressive as the score itself!

In the heart of 18th century Venice we meet Luca and Elena, and follow as they fall in love against the backdrop of the thriving carnival. However, the pair are torn apart as Venice sinks into war against the Ottoman Empire. When the conflict finally ends, and the empire proves victorious, the two lovers must fight against fate to be reunited.

There is enough dialogue between the tracks to weave you through the Venetian streets with the array of characters Elderkin and Willett have assembled; so vivid and varied are the people who populate the story, it’s as if we’ve fallen upon an Ashman/Menken masterpiece that never was - though it stands clearly on its own two feet as new and intensely visual.

Friday, 12 June 2020

REVIEW: It’s Not Really the Apocalypse, Concept Album

Much like the characters in the story, I was a bit lost, a little confused, and left wishing things had turned out differently. 

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Michael A. Grant’s first foray into musical writing, I did, it just didn’t live up to its own expectations. As a self-described ‘tongue-in-cheek take on the classic end-of-the-world plot’ there’s nothing much tongue-in-cheek about it. As the character’s wake from a ‘Four-Day Bender’ (the opening number) they realise that they are the only people left on earth, so they pack up, move to a farm, and… well, that’s it really. Instead of poking fun at the genre, the plot, lyrics and characters rather insert themselves into an underwhelming version of it. The story lacked scarcity, and by that I mean I was never worried for the characters because they seem to have everything they need all the time, in spite of the literal end of the world. This includes a fully functioning farm, all the petrol they’d need for a non-stop, eye-test to Durham, and enough surplus to even have a picnic at the beach. The only problem they seem to have is that sometimes they don’t get along, which also isn’t a hugely fleshed out plot point. All of these narrative choices would have really hit the mark if there were some witticisms about the ‘Ex Machina’ style luck that characters in apocalypse stories often have. Unfortunately, that was lacking, which meant I was left waiting for the lyrical tongue to find its way into any cheek. Perhaps Deadpool has given me too high expectations of this style of writing, but I can’t help feeling Apocalypse wasn’t sure what point it was trying to make about the genre anyway. 

A lot of these forthcomings stem from (as far as I can tell) a first attempt at lyricism. It seems Grant has placed more emphasis on making the songs rhyme rather than pushing the story, which means, if you listen from start to finish in one sitting, the songs begin to feel samey. What is abundantly clear, however, is that this is not Grant’s first attempt at instrumentals, and maybe this is really why I felt underwhelmed by the lyrics in comparison. The Overture is wonderful; it’s interesting and fun, and really sets the tone for what you’d expect of a rag-time tongue-in-cheek apocalypse musical. Throughout, the pianists, Andrew Hopkins and Christopher Fossey, do wonderful justice to Grant’s playful score, and one can only wonder what he would be able to do with a more fleshed out orchestra. 

The instrumental makes it clear that Grant has an obvious ear for comedy and tone, which means the show has a lot of potential should he want to develop it further. I must admit that having visuals or dialogue would probably go a long way to filling in the gaps that are missing, and in letting the writer’s comedy truly shine through, outside of the constricts of rhythm and rhyme. I also firmly believe this show would be a big hit as a short and intimate fringe piece. It just has a relatively long way to go to really hit the tongue-in-cheek nail on the head. 

You can download my favourite track, ‘I Never Did Expect That It Would End Like This’, for free on Michael A. Grant’s website if you want a little taste of the apocalypse. There is a huge amount of potential in the show so I would recommend keeping an eye on it should it be developed further. 

Review by Anna Smith 

Rating: ★

Monday, 2 September 2019

ALBUM REVIEW: Ramin Karimloo, 'From Now On'

Iranian-born Canadian singer and actor Ramin Karimloo has become one of the best-known talents in the world of Musical Theatre, building a CV of impressive productions worldwide. He made his West End debut at 26, making history as the youngest Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, and then reprised that role for both the 25th Anniversary concert, and the sequel musical Love Never Dies. Broadway credits include Les Mis (Tony Award nomination), Anastasia and Chess at the Kennedy Centre.

The theme of this record is reflection, and each track fits the brief perfectly. Karimloo turned 40 last year, and it is clear that this milestone prompted him to look at his journey thus far. A broad spectrum of work is covered here, with songs from The Bridges of Madison County, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Dear Evan Hansen, Chess and The Bodyguard.

From Now On is the second full-length album from Karimloo, and covers a series of Musical Theatre and film favourites with his “Broadgrass” band, adding an unusual folk twist to these classics, with instruments like banjo, and fiddle. Perhaps the most different from the original is Frozen’s Let It Go, which would not feel out of place on a folk album, rather than an all-singing, all-dancing Disney cast recording.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

REVIEW: Eden Espinosa’s Revelation

Eden Espinosa is well known in the theatre community as one of the most celebrated “Elphabas,” having been part of the Broadway, San Francisco, and Los Angeles productions of the acclaimed musical Wicked. Espinosa’s latest album, Revelation,is comprised of all original material and Eden has written eight of the ten tracks herself. Although this may be her first experience writing music, she clearly has a talent for telling provoking stories through her songs.

I would be hard pressed to describe the genre in which Revelationfalls. The album has a unique sound that is a combination of pop, rock, and soul, with elements that are reminiscent of the music of the 80’s and 90’s. The style suits her voice perfectly and shows her versatility as a performer. At no time while I was listening to the album did I think that this was a musical theatre voice trying to fit itself into an ill-fitting, cookie cutter pop style. 
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