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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.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

REVIEW: Les Miserables: The Staged Concert, CD & DVD

In a time when COVID-19 didn’t exist, and we had no idea of the chaos coming our way, the West End was host to the behemoth concert version of the world’s longest running musical, Les Miserables. Whilst the Queen’s (now Sondheim) underwent a huge renovation, Les Mis popped next door to the Gielgud for it’s sell-out 16 week run, with Cameron Mackintosh assembling the crème de la crème of the show’s alumni.

This semi-staged production features a company of over 65, with cast and orchestra sitting on a huge barricade-like structure. At the top of the show, the lighting rigs are floating just above the stage, to then unfold throughout the overture. The combination of lighting, design and automation deliver constant drama, and it really is thrilling to watch.

Alfie Boe returns to the role of Valjean following performances in the West End and Broadway productions. Whilst his classical voice is undeniably impressive, it doesn’t thrill in the same way as that of his musical theatre colleagues. It’s a crying shame that John Owen-Jones is overlooked in this release, especially as he played Valjean for almost fifty percent of performances at the Gielgud due to Boe’s frequent illness. Jones appears on the 2010 cast album, but in this mammoth production and setting, bonus tracks of Valjean’s Soliloquy, Who Am I?, Bring Him Home and One Day More would be most welcome.

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: ★

Thursday, 29 November 2018

REVIEW: The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Two-time Grammy winner Imogen Heap has released The Music of Harry Potter and Cursed Child album based on the Tony and Olivier award winning play. While it is rare for albums to be made for straight plays, music plays a large role in Cursed Child, underscoring much of the action and scene changes. The musicality adds to the magical feeling of the piece and gives it a unique sense of fluidity. While quite different from the John Williams score used in the movies, Imogen Heap’s selections fit seamlessly into the Harry Potter universe. The new sound mirrors the new Wizarding World explored on stage and even die-hard Harry Potter fans won’t be able to find fault.

The over 100 musical moments from the play have been condensed to 79 minutes that fit into four musical suites, each representing one of Cursed Child’s four acts. In this unique structure, each suite can stand on its own, with a distinctive musical feel and arc. However, listening to them all together is a truly magical experience. The feelings of each act are translated impeccably into the song selections and it is a real emotional journey to listen to the album as a whole.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: New Broadway Cast Recording of GIGI, starring Vanessa Hudgens

This week’s album review is of the cast recording of the 2015 revival production of Gigi, the musical, adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Eric D. Schaeffer – starring Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi, Corey Cott as Gaston, Howard McGillin as Honoré and Victoria Clark as Mamita. The production closed on June 21st 2015 but the soundtrack is still available to purchase.

Based on the 1944 novella by Colette, Gigi was first adapted for the Broadway stage by Anita Loos in 1951, with an unknown Audrey Hepburn in the title role. My understanding of Gigi is that it is a tale of “high-end grooming and prostitution” which is supposed to be very French; by this I mean very sexual yet classy, Parisian in its feel and driven by a real je ne said quoi. This soundtrack is missing all of the above. It sounds asexual, über American and carries no real spark or joie de vivre.  If anything, it’s demonstrably un-sexy, which was a real disappointment to me.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: Something Rotten! original cast recording

Something Rotten is one big comedic ode to 16th Century performance, centred around William Shakespeare. It’s fun and playful; filled with intelligent comedic writing that isn’t too outrageous and strikes the balance between musical brilliance and entertainment perfectly. 

There’s nothing offensive that might upset you, Something Rotten is tame; free of foul language and adult topics, so it’s suitable for kids and adults alike.


ALBUM REVIEW: Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the debut album from Will Barratt

Will Barratt is launching his debut album of self-penned songs, ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’. Featuring 14 original songs written by Will over the past 15 years, the album includes a song co-written and performed with Nadim Naaman, plus a solo and a duet from Rebecca Trehearn.

“If you like songs with a flavour of musical theatre, you’ll like this… but this is more than musicals. Great original tunes and great performances. I really enjoyed it!” – John Owen-Jones

Friday, 24 July 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: Original Studio cast recording of Cool Rider

Cool Rider, the lesser known sequel to the ever popular Grease, follows the relationship of unconventional lovers Stephanie Zinone, a Pink Lady, and Michael, an English transfer student. After the musical played a successful one night only concert in January 2014, it transferred to The Duchess Theatre where it played for one week. Unsurprisingly, it's not the most well known musical ever to grace the West End, but its surprisingly large and extremely supportive following  helped to ensure that Cool Rider was immortalised in musical theatre history by backing a kickstarter to help fund a studio recording. 

ALBUM REVIEW: The Original Broadway cast recording of Finding Neverland

Inspired by the 2004 film of the same name, Finding Neverland, follows the Scottish author J.M Barrie as he creates his most famous work, Peter Pan. 
The music, written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, evokes a sense of awe and wonderment throughout the album. Although some rock inspired tracks do feel a little out of keeping with the period in which the musical is set, they also help to create an exciting vibe and adds an unexpected element of edginess to a story which on paper seems a little bit dry. 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: World premier cast recording of The Bodyguard the Musical, starring Alexandra Burke

I have not seen The Bodyguard film, however, my understanding of it is that it’s fundamentally a love story between international superstar Rachel Marron (played by Whitney Houston), and her bodyguard (Kevin Costner).

It almost goes without saying that Whitney Houston is one of the strongest female vocalists in her genre, but I must preface this review with a warning to anyone who chooses to purchase this soundtrack. Do NOT compare The Bodyguard’s leading lady Alexandra Burke to Whitney Houston, or the entire soundtrack will do nothing but underwhelm and disappoint you…


Friday, 5 July 2013

Momentous Musicals: Album Review

Momentous Musicals premiered at the Wimbledon theatre in mid 2012 and will be returning to the theatre again this month prior to a UK Tour. The show brings together the musical talent of Gareth Gates (who headlines the event), Rachael Wooding, Daniel Boys, Emma Williams and Jonathan Ansell. 
The CD starts off with the wonderful Rachael Wooding singing One Night Only, what a fantastic opening for the recording. Rachael has a lovely tone to her voice with great power behind it and she sings the song with so much umph! The moment I listened to this track I was drawn in immediately by the brilliant orchestration at the start, a similar moment happened when I listened to Mein Hier sung by Emma Williams. Rachael has an amazing energy in her voice and just by listening to the recording you can tell it would have been a brilliant opening to the show. 
After the high energy opening track we then get to hear the wonderful Daniel Boys sing Maria, such breathtaking control in his voice. It’s beautiful to listen to and you really get drawn into his vocals, even though you’re just listening to it you can really feel the emotion through the vocals. 
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