Thursday, July 31, 2014

Original Cast Recordings: 'Beautiful,' 'Bullets Over Broadway,' 'If/Then,' 'Here Lies Love'

More of today’s musicals are going the jukebox route, using existing songs by one or more artists to build a show around. The results range widely, as several current cast recordings demonstrate: from Carole King’s catalog of ‘60s and ‘70s hits in Beautiful to the slew of mainly obscure songs from the ‘20s in Bullets Over Broadway. To be sure, there are still original scores done on and off Broadway, like the Idina Menzel vehicle If/Then and David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s dance-club show about Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love.

But if one is looking for originality in these stage musicals, look elsewhere than these four CDs: neither If/Then nor Here Lies Love has memorable songs to go with the semi-clever concept. And one’s tolerance for Beautiful is based on one’s love for Carole King’s songs, while Bullets Over Broadway’s pastiche of 90-plus year-old tunes works better onstage, where it's paired with Susan Stroman’s witty choreography.

Beautiful (Ghostlight Records) comes off schizophrenic onstage, unwilling to commit to dramatizing King’s own story: instead of concentrating on King’s solo career, which begins with 1970’s seminal Tapestry, the musical meanders through the ‘60s pop world, giving King and partner-husband Garry Goffin’s friendly rivals, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, inordinate stage time, including several of their own tunes. But Beautiful’s assembly-line parade of hits is certainly worthy, and on disc, its desperation to please its baby-boomer audience with recognizable hits rather than create a compelling story musical is less noticeable. 

And what hits there are: 7 Number Ones and 5 Top Tens that run the gamut from “The Locomotion” to “It’s Too Late,” with “You’ve Got a Friend” and “I Feel the Earth Move” thrown into the beguiling mix. The singers are reasonable facsimiles with personalities of their own, and Jessie Mueller’s Carole—too often on
the sideline while others hog the spotlight—has a lofty voice that keeps her front and center.

Bullets Over Broadway (Masterworks Broadway), based on Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 comedy film, is crammed with 1920s standards cleverly orchestrated by Greg Kelly, who’s also penned new lyrics that refer to the plot and characters. (The Broadway production is closing on August 24.) Missing Susan Stroman’s original choreography and direction, the score—from rousing curtain-raiser “Tiger Rag” to giddy closer “Yes, We Have No Bananas”—stumbles, and the talented onstage cast is rendered mostly inert when audio-only. 

Nick Cordero, who has comic menace as hitman-turned-playwright Cheech, has a tap-dance number, “T’aint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” that's a highlight live but not on disc, while old pros Karen Ziemba and Brooks Ashmanskas provide needed daffiness in “There’s a New Day Comin’” and “Let’s Misbehave.” Then there's Marin Mazzie, whose vocal elegance on “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle” quashes nagging memories of Dianne Wiest’s Oscar-winning turn as acting diva Helen Sinclair, while our amiably goofy hero, Zach Braff, battles his way through “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Listening to Bullets on CD is like closing your eyes while your favorite Woody movie is on. 

If/Then (Masterworks Broadway) has a heroine, Elizabeth—a thirty-something back in New York after her divorce—who (depending on the path she takes) is either Liz, glasses-wearing city planner who falls in love with Josh, a soldier just returned from Iraq; or Beth, unemployed activist sans glasses, who begins seeing old college boyfriend Lucas. The musical rotely toggling between Liz and Beth is dragged down by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s antiseptic—and interchangeable—tunes. 

Lackluster music and superficial exploration of Liz/Beth make If/Then completely forgettable, except for its leading lady, Idina Menzel, who deserves better original musicals than If/Then, or Rent, or even Wicked. Although saddled with strident, same-sounding songs, Menzel—pro that she is—takes off into the stratosphere with some of them, even turning a limp attempt at a showstopper, “Always Starting Over,” into something resembling an emotional climax. Even on CD, Menzel’s fierce artistry comes through, almost making If/Then sound like a real musical. 

Here Lies Love (Nonesuch), a colossally lightweight affair, relies too much on gimmickry for its metaphor of corrupting power finishing off the Marcos regime in the Philippines. Its paltry idea—that, since Imelda enjoyed clubbing as Philippine first lady, so the show inhabits a club atmosphere for its 90-minute length—is reflected in the music. 

David Byrne’s and Fatboy Slim’s singleminded songs are remarkably repetitive, with the partial exceptions of the soaring title song, whose chorus apes the “oh oh oh” bridge of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “The Fabulous One,” a spirited anthem for Marcos’ political opponent (and anti-Marcos martyr) Benigno Aquino, which has some of the spiky wit and rhythmic vigor of the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music peak. But the rest, smothered by Slim’s relentless beats, are shrill and paper-thin, however well sung by the energetic cast.

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