Cast Albums Blog

Author Archive:  itsdlevy

REVIEW: Ride the Cyclone - World Premiere Cast Recording

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When I saw Ride the Cyclone off-Broadway in 2016, I came away mostly impressed with the stylish visuals achieved through an excellent collaboration among designers and director. The musical spotlighted the teenage victims of a fatal rollercoaster accident, with a touch of mystery added by the presence of a Jane Doe victim found decapitated and unidentifiable. The show at its best was a neo-vaudevillian concept revue about the meaning of mortality, but at times it felt weighed down by the inertia built into the format where you can count the number of bodies on stage and calculate how many songs are likely left in the evening.

Five years later, revisiting the show as a purely aural experience through its World Premiere Cast Recording, the strengths of the score are more palpable, but they don't fully outshine its weaknesses either.

The album, released digitally without liner notes, seems to downplay the plot of the show. (At least at one stage, the dead were competing for the privilege of being revived. If that element remains in the show today, there's no real trace of it on the album.) There is some narration in the voice of Karnak, a fortune-telling carnival machine, played here by co-writer Jacob Richmond. But these tracks are better at setting the tone of morbid black humor than clarifying story points.

This may be a feature, not a bug: the show is more interested in metaphor than plot. You see, life is a ride, and for some of us, that ride may be cut short. These teenagers come from Uranium City, a highway town in Saskatchewan dominated by nuclear industry, giving us a pun-as-foreshadowing about half-lives being their whole lives.

But as much as the show dabbles in metaphor, it also is intereted in metaphysics. What happens when we die? Does it matter how we lived? Can our interior lives be fulfilling even if what's visible to the rest of the world seems less so?

Dead characters by definition can't grow or change, so the songs are burdened with inertia -- a lot of "I Am" songs in a row starts to feel more like a cabaret or senior showcase than a dramatic piece. Capturing the concept of a concept musical on record is a challenge, and the producers of this album (primarily cowriter Brooke Maxwell, credited above a bevy of co- and Executive producers) did not quite meet that challenge.

And yet, the album has a lot to recommend it. The score is a patchwork of genres, from the '70s popera reminiscent of Paul Williams that infuses "The Uranium Suite" to Miley Cyrus-style "What The World Needs" and on, dabbling in chanson, Euro-hip-hop, folk, EDM, prog rock, art song and so forth. Maxwell and Richmond ably skip from genre to genre, blending various pastiches into a coherent score. The songs, for the most part, are a lot of fun! (Although they may work better on shuffle so the first character you spend time with isn't the horrible mean girl played by Tiffany Tatreau.) And the cast -- all of whom have done the show on stage in at least one of its incarnations -- are uniformly excellent.

To my ears, though, the real star of this album is the orchestration by Maxwell (who also served as music director and conductor and sings two trunk songs included as bonus tracks). Maxwell manages to extract so many different sounds from twelve musicians, each new genre sounding as full and authentic as necessary.

There was a moment when this show felt like it was about to be the next big thing, with a rave in the New York Times and a powerful producer raising money for its next step. This album makes it clear why members of the theatrical establishment wanted to invest in the work -- and also why they made the wise decision to continue to develop the piece with regional productions after off-Broadway. Whether this album closes the book on Ride the Cyclone or begins its next chapter, I hope we hear more from Maxwell and Richmond before too long.

REVIEW: The Liz Swados Project

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Liz Swados was the kind of artist not easily categorized. When she died (in January, 2016), the headline of her New York Times obituary remembered her as "Creator of Socially Conscious Musicals." Although "creator" has become an over-applied term in our current moment, it is certainly apt for her: composer and lyricist, writer, director, choreographer, memoirist, filmmaker and teacher.

While none of her projects ever really penetrated pop culture consciousness to become part of the canon, Swados's impact might best be measured by the influence she had on the generation that learned from her, and by that measure, she was a giant. The presence of a number of notable writers performing on this album, including Dave Malloy, Taylor Mac, Shaina Taub, The Bengsons, Michael R. Jackson, Grace McLean, and in a poignant posthumously released track, Michael Friedman, speaks volumes about Swados's standing among her colleagues.

The Liz Swados Project offers audiences a taste of what Swados had to offer, a survey course that will surely inspire more than a few to sign up for further study. A songwriter of remarkable range, the selections here range from vaudevillian musical comedy (such as "The Red Queen" from Alice in Concert, performed with aplomb by Mac) to free verse ("Song of a Child Prostitute" from Runaways, essayed by Sophia Ann Caruso, who sang the song in the recent Encores! Off-Center production) to experimental performance ("Bird Lament," recorded by Swados herself).

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REVIEW: Linda Lavin – Love Notes

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Although Linda Lavin has been singing for as long as she's been acting – her Broadway debut was in the ensemble of A Family Affair, and shortly thereafter she introduced the most memorable songs in The Mad Show and It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman – I suspect most of us think of her as an actor who sings than a singer qua singer. Her voice has always been more distinctive than distinguished, but her ability to put across a number is elevated by superb acting chops and comedic ability. That said, this album is a jazz record, not a cabaret act, so expect something closer to Ella Fitzgerald (minus the scatting) than Julie Wilson.

Releasing a jazz rectial disc at age 82 might have taken some chutzpah, but that is a quality Lavin has never lacked. Benefitting from collaboration with Billy Stritch (producer, pianist, and on one track, duet partner), the chutzpah pays off. Look, I grew up watching Alice in reruns, and at a moment in history where everything is terrifying, a recording of my tv mom singing standards is a welcome security blanket when we most need one.

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REVIEW: The Michael Friedman Collection

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When Michael Friedman died at age 41 from HIV/AIDS complications, the entire musical theater community was struck speechless. Beyond the real, human loss of a beloved man felled by a disease that should be treatable, there was the sense that an artist had been cut off right on the verge of coming into his prime. Despite some justly lauded achievements such as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Love's Labour's Lost, and Fortress of Solitude (all three produced by New York's Public Theater), he never quite broke through to the top echelon of creators.

Beyond his affiliation with The Public Theater, Friedman's other artist home was The Civilians, a company interested in "the intersection between the theatrical and the real." Much of their work is research-based and often verbatim, meaning the words spoken and sung by their characters are exact (or lightly edited) transcripts of interviews the artists conducted with real people. Gone Missing, Friedman's first cast recording, was the product of such a process.

When Friedman died, The Civilians (led by artistic director and frequent Friedman collaborator Steve Cosson) teamed up with Ghostlight Records to preserve his work through a long-term program of recording studio cast albums of nine of his previously unrecorded scores. Dubbed The Michael Friedman Collection, the project kicked off with three releases in October, 2019: The Abominables, The Great Immensity and This Beautiful City.

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REVIEW: Broadway & Beyond – Marin Mazzie & Jason Daniely Live at Feinstein\'s/54 Below

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Let's start with the obvious: the quality of Broadway & Beyond – Marin Mazzie & Jason Danieley Live at Feinstein's/54 Below is likely irrelevant to most of the people who will buy a copy, at least on its initial release. As a recording of the last concert these married Broadway stars gave before Marin died from ovarian cancer at age 57, the album (which, thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign, will also be released as a video) makes a meaningful keepsake for fans.

That it just so happens to capture an absolutely gorgeous performance is gravy. The album was recorded June 1, 2017, slightly more than two years after Marin's diagnosis, but there's absolutely no sign of illness or weakness in her singing. (Jason sounds great too.) Backed by a three-piece band (musical director Joseph Thalken on piano, Pete Donovan on bass, and Rich Rosensweig on drums), the couple present highlights from their careers, starting with a medley of standards that had been incorporated into the avant garde production of The Trojan Women on which they met and including songs from The King and I, South Pacific, Kiss Me, Kate, The Full Monty, Curtains, The Visit, Ragtime, and even My Favorite Broadway: The Love Songs. You'll also hear a couple of familiar cuts from the first album they cut together, Opposite You, and for an encore, the song they danced to at their wedding, "Our Love Is Here To Stay."

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