Album Review: Annaleigh Ashford – Lost in the Stars: Live at 54 Below

“The little dark star in the wind down there”

Though she’s yet to pop her head over this side of the ocean, I’m pretty sure Annaleigh Ashford is an absolute darling. It’s part of the legacy of playing Lauren in Kinky Boots I think, such a lovable part and what I’ve seen and heard of her since has only confirmed that for me. Her acclaimed cabaret performances also won over new audiences, resulted in a live recording of Lost in the Stars: Live at 54 Below being released late last year.
Supported by the superb musicianship of Will Van Dyke and The Whiskey 5, Ashford is an effortlessly delightful performer, whether ripping through the vocal splendour of Dreamgirls‘ ‘One Night Only’ or a Donna Summer medley, nodding to Studio 54’s illustrious past. There’s actually a lot of pop on here, The Everly Brothers’ ‘Love Hurts’, Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ mixed with Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ 
Live recordings always have to tread a careful path of replicating the atmosphere of a live show whilst acknowledging that not everything will always translate. Such it is with an audience participation version of Alanis Morissette’s ‘Hand In My Pocket’ which doubtless was great fun to be part of, but which quickly loses its charm here. And as lovely her solo trip through Wicked’s ‘For Good’ is, it feels like a muted mis-step so late in the programme.
But I’m just being picky, for when Ashford is good, she is just superb. The medley of Sondheim’s ‘Another Hundred People’ and Elton John’s ‘Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters’ is tenderly perfect, the treatment of ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ with an interpolation of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ is exquisite, and Kurt Weill’s delicate ‘Lost in the Stars’ is a subtle yet impassioned ending. Someone cast her in something in the UK please (or bring over her Sunday in the Park with George with the delectable Jake Gyllenhaal).

Album Review: Laura Benanti – In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention – Live At 54 Below

“She speaks in sorry sentences
Miraculous repentances”

Appearances may be deceptive but the force of personality that Laura Benanti brings to all her work, whether tweeting or tearing up the Broadway stage, makes me think that she’s just a top human. Witty and irreverent on the one, committed and forceful on the other – either way round, she’s a one for forging her own path.

And that’s in evidence on the song selection for her 54 Below cabaret show In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention. From showtunes to the showgirl herself Lana Del Rey, rewritten classics to self-penned ditties, it’s undoubtedly an eclectic mix but one that is held together by the huge warmth that Benanti exudes, whether in performance or in the (frankly hilarious) patter where she proudly details her flops.

So she shines on that del Rey medley of ‘Starry Eyed’ and ‘Video Games’ just as much as on Maury Yeston’s ‘Unusual Way’; a relatively straight ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore’ (from Gigi) is just as charismatic as the inimitable version of ‘On the Street Where You Live’ which has been tailored for the occasion. Benanti’s personality really does shine through at every opportunity and thus makes this a rare cabaret album which you’ll want to listen to every minute of.

Album Review: Marin Mazzie – Make Your Own Kind of Music, Live at 54 Below

“Love, soft as an easy chair”
Music, soft as easy listening. That’s the somewhat surprising turn of events on Marin Mazzie’s album Make Your Own Kind of Music, recorded live at her cabaret show at 54 Below. Performers often use cabaret turns to show off a more personal side to their musical influences, blending them with crowd-pleasing excerpts from the shows for which they have become well known. But here, Mazzie sticks with the former, taking us through a trip along her childhood listening to the radio.
Glancing at the playlist is an eye-opener in itself, Barry Manilow and The Partridge Family alongside standards like ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’. And in the best tradition of the top tier of musical theatre performers, Mazzie completely makes it work, delving deep into her well of interpretative skill to transform most, if not all of this music out of any perceived naffness into something interesting, engaging, even stirring.
Joseph Thalken’s accomplished musical direction and astute arrangements (along with drummer Larry Lelli) play a large part in this, setting the mood for Mazzie to straddle the worlds of musical theatre and pop radio. And the incorporation of a fair bit of patter gives us the characterful reasoning behind many of the songs’ inclusion. You might be a little disappointed not to get the music you know Mazzie for but when she sings ‘Evergreen’ as purely as she does here, you’ll soon forget any sadness.

Album Review: 9 to 5 (2009 Original Broadway Cast Recording)

“You got dreams he’ll never take away”

Upstairs at the Gatehouse will soon be hosting the London fringe premiere of 9 to 5 and with a neat serendipity, Megan Hilty is coming over to the UK for a short run of shows at the Hippodrome in September, Hilty having played Doralee – the role made famous by Dolly Parton – in the 2009 Broadway production. Plus, Alison Janney was in the cast too, so how could you not want to fill your life with her would-be future-Dameness via the Original Broadway Cast Recording.
An adaptation of the film by Patricia Resnick from her own screenplay, Dolly Parton’s score combined original songs with a smattering of tracks from her extensive back catalogue. But where, say, Cyndi Lauper managed to adapt her song-writing to the world of musical theatre in Kinky Boots whilst maintaining much of her character, Parton loses a little something in her journey. The songs here are perfectly serviceable but ultimately quite bland, especially shorn of any visuals.
That’s not to take away from Hilty’s work (excellent on tracks like ‘Backwoods Barbie’) or Janney’s general magnificence (best displayed on the persuasive ‘Around Here’) but the overall feel is just lacking in the kind of fun that characterises the musical. It is undoubtedly frothy entertainment but a number like ‘Heart to Hart’ (which was a showstopper in the hands of Bonnie Langford in the UK touring production) sinks like a soufflé without an effervescent performance to sell it.
Some cast recordings take on a life on their own on record and others remain frozen – a representation of what happened onstage but capturing little of its vitality. Much of the charm of 9 to 5 comes with the amount of irreverent, knowing fun which a director and cast can infuse it, thus undercutting the slightly trying-too-hard nature of the writing. So I remain in great anticipation for the forthcoming fringe production in Highgate but can’t really recommend this album for you.

The complete 71st Tony nominations

Best play
A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath
Indecent by Paula Vogel
Oslo by JT Rogers
Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Best musical
Come from Away
Dear Evan Hansen
Groundhog Day the Musical
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Best book of a musical
Come from Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Dear Evan Hansen by Steven Levenson
Groundhog Day the Musical by Danny Rubin
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 by Dave Malloy
Continue reading “The complete 71st Tony nominations”

Review: She Loves Me, Studio 54 via BroadwayHD

“They all come here just for the mood”

It’s nice to know that you have good karma, sometimes at least, as I came very close to seeing She Loves Me on my last flying visit to Broadway, opting for Waitress instead at the last minute. So it was most gratifying to hear that She Loves Me was to become the first ever Broadway show to be live-streamed on BroadwayHD, following in the footsteps of the hugely successful NTLive enterprise (and that the show would be available for the following seven days on catch-up, making up for the time difference).
The merits (or otherwise) of live-streaming have long been debated and will likely continue to be so for years to come as circular arguments go round and round. But as long as you accept that no, a recording will never be as good as the live thing and yes, it is an amazing thing to have accessibility increased in this way, it seems to me that everyone is a winner, especially with a show on a limited engagement like She Loves Me, which closes at Studio 54 on 10th July. Speaking of which, you’ve only got until 7th July to catch it on BroadwayHD.
For the show itself, part of Roundabout’s 50th anniversary season, it is a near-perfect music-box of a production. Based on Miklós László’s play Parfumerie which has been remade more than once as films The Shop Around The Corner, In The Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail, Joe Masterhoff’s book pits warring Budapest shop employees Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash against each other, little knowing that they are corresponding anonymously through a lonely hearts column – will they get together in the end? What do you think?!
Much of the joy of She Loves Me comes in Jerry Bock’s effervescent score (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) which fizzes and pops in all the right places, evoking a classic age of musical theatre and one which is perfectly delivered by the rainbow-brightness of Laura Benanti’s pure soprano (such a rarity to hear a legit soprano role) and the gentlemanly charm of Zachary Levi, whose rendition of the title song is just joyous. They bicker with brio and disagree with real dynamism and make an ideal match who truly light up the stage (and screen!).
But Scott Ellis’ production is no one-couple-show, it is also blessed with a superlative supporting turn from Jane Krakowski as fellow shopworker Ilona, smitten by the dastardly Kodaly (a dapper Gavin Creel doing well to mask his general loveliness) and who demonstrates that she’s more flexible in her 40s than many of us will ever be in our entire lifetime. Peter Bartlett’s Head Waiter gets an eye-catching dance turn pre-interval, Nicholas Barasch’s appealing delivery boy Arpad shines immediately post-interval – it really is a wonderfully democratic show.
David Rockwell’s picture-book of a set looks like a dream, Warren Carlyle’s choreography sparkles like snowflakes, and Paul Gemignani’s musical direction keeps the whole thing sound peachy, it really is a superb production. And credit to David Horn who directed the live-stream, for capturing so much of what makes the show work. I welcome the arrival of Broadway on the live-streaming stage and look forward to hearing what else we might be able to see soon without having to cross the ocean. 

70th Tony Award winners

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play 
Frank Langella – The Father as Andre – WINNER
Gabriel Byrne – Long Day’s Journey into Night as James Tyrone
Jeff Daniels – Blackbird as Ray
Tim Pigott-Smith – King Charles III as Charles
Mark Strong – A View from the Bridge as Eddie Carbone

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Jessica Lange – Long Day’s Journey into Night as Mary Tyrone – WINNER
Laurie Metcalf – Misery as Annie Wilkes
Lupita Nyong’o – Eclipsed as The Girl
Sophie Okonedo – The Crucible as Elizabeth Proctor
Michelle Williams – Blackbird as Una Spencer

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical 
Leslie Odom, Jr. – Hamilton as Aaron Burr – WINNER
Alex Brightman – School of Rock as Dewey Finn
Danny Burstein – Fiddler on the Roof as Tevye
Zachary Levi – She Loves Me as Georg Nowack
Lin-Manuel Miranda – Hamilton as Alexander Hamilton Continue reading “70th Tony Award winners”

70th Tony nominations

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play
Frank Langella, The Father 
Gabriel Byrne, Long Day’s Journey into Night 
Jeff Daniels, Blackbird 
Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III 
Mark Strong, A View from the Bridge

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play
Jessica Lange, Long Day’s Journey into Night 
Laurie Metcalf, Misery 
Lupita Nyong’o, Eclipsed 
Sophie Okonedo, The Crucible
Michelle Williams, Blackbird

Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical
Leslie Odom, Jr, Hamilton
Alex Brightman, School of Rock
Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof 
Zachary Levi, She Loves Me
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical
Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
Laura Benanti, She Loves Me
Carmen Cusack, Bright Star 
Jessie Mueller, Waitress
Phillipa Soo, Hamilton

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play
Reed Birney, The Humans 
Bill Camp, The Crucible 
David Furr, Noises Off 
Richard Goulding, King Charles III 
Michael Shannon, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play
Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans 
Pascale Armand, Eclipsed 
Megan Hilty, Noises Off 
Andrea Martin, Dotty Otley
Saycon Sengbloh, Eclipsed

Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Brandon Victor Dixon, Shuffle Along 
Christopher Fitzgerald, Waitress
Jonathan Groff, Hamilton
Christopher Jackson, Hamilton

Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple 
Jane Krakowski, She Loves Me
Jennifer Simard, Disaster! 
Adrienne Warren, Shuffle Along

Review: Waitress, Brooks Atkinson Theatre

“She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie”
Hailed as the first Broadway musical with an all-female top-line creative team – music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Diane Paulus – Waitress marks something of a watershed moment. And even if it based on a film, that film was also written by a woman, the late Adrienne Shelly. One might wish for a slightly more substantial slice of something to take that credit but it’s still a rather lovely thing, not least for the slices of pie available to buy in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Its saving grace is a superb leading performance from Jessie Mueller as Jenna, a waitress at Joe’s Pie Diner somewhere in the South in a town off of Highway 27. Married and pregnant, and not particularly happy about either, her dreams of opening her own pie shop (she bakes all 27 varieties on offer herself) seem increasingly far away. Until that is, a baking contest in a nearby county opens a window of opportunity, as does an affair with her unexpectedly handsome gynaecologist.
There’s something a little disquieting about Jenna’s tale, staying with such an unapologetically brutish husband seems inexplicable and the ethical implications of shagging her doctor are swept under the carpet, but Mueller imbues her with real flour-dusted charm, her gorgeous voice perfectly suited to Bareilles’ introspective songs with the climactic ‘She Used To Be Mine’ proving simply stellar. But the characters around her are too often reduced to caricatures, their performances elevating the material where possible but not always getting the full rise. 
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 1st January 2017