Album Review: Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers

“I have dreamed what a joy you’ll be”

Who knew that exploring the soul of Richard Rodgers would reveal a Lauryn Hill sample and a guest rap from upcoming Bronx rapper Zaire Park? And that’s just on ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ alone. But that’s exactly what you find on Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers, a project co-produced and co-curated by Billy Porter, the Tony Award-winning Broadway actor and musician.
With lyricists Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart, legendary composer Richard Rodgers redefined the American musical theatre with now-classic musicals like Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and The King and I. And now Porter pays tribute to his legacy by reinterpreting his songbook with an entirely more contemporary soulful bent. In his own words, “I like to think of this as the Richard Rodgers version of the Hamilton Mixtapes.” 
To undertake such a task, Porter has dipped into his enviable contact list to produce Broadway royalty (and Hamilton alumni) like Renée Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson and Leslie Odom Jr. and music stars like Deborah Cox and india.arie. And the result is something really quite special. Musically, it has something of the air of the excellent Verve Remixed project, with its entirely respectful but boldly forward-thinking approach.
So the aforementioned ‘Bewitched’ becomes a sparkling piece of contemporary r’n’b in Ledisi’s assured performance, and Porter imbues ‘Lady is a Tramp’ with a funkily laidback charm, both augmented by smooth rhymes from Zaire Park. And there’s a strong vein of neo-soul – paying its dues to the titans of soul as well as Mr Rodgers – in the gorgeous work from Deborah Cox on ‘This Nearly was Mine’ and Renée Elise Goldsberry and Christopher Jackson on ‘If I Loved You’ (taking it to places Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins could only dream of!)
The main strength of the album is how much fun it is, a real sense of the joy of song – no matter the style of music – pervading from start to finish. From Leslie Odom Jr. sliding through ‘My Romance’, to Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry’s sinuous take on ‘With a Song in My Heart’ to Patina Miller’s inspirational wonder on ‘I Have Dreamed’, this is a fearless, fun and fresh collection that just might bring a whole new audience to the Great American Songbook.

2017 Oscars – pre-ceremony thoughts

“For whatever reason, he spared a hamster”

When you see as much theatre as I do, it can be difficult to keep up to date with cinematic releases – if I have a night off, I rarely want to spend it in a dark room… – but I have tried my best this year to see at least some of the Oscar-nominated films, so that I can chip in once they’ve been distributed in a way that will doubtless cause some controversy or other.
Arrival – I absolutely adored this and am a little surprised it didn’t figure higher in some of the bigger prizes, Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent and restrained direction, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s beautifully elegiac score, Bradford Young’s cinematography evoking all the potential of worlds beyond our ken. And of course Amy Adams, deeply moving as the linguistics professor whose life is opened up by her encounters with alien beings who just want to talk. 
Elle – Huppert finally gets her first Academy Award nomination after a 40 year long career of extraordinary creative daring and depth (and making a mockery of the studio politics-spawned narratives that mark several successful campaigns #poorLeo,Viola Davis being long-overdue…). Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is undoubtedly a challenging watch but powerful with it, Huppert’s instinctively cerebral approach completely rethinking conventional rape survivor storytelling.
Fences – Denzel Washington’s recreation of his Tony-winning Broadway production of August Wilson’s classic play is, perhaps, predictably theatrical in a way which means it never really makes the most in the change of medium. It feels like a play being remounted on film, an excellent play which results in a very good film, but not quite adventurous enough. Washington is superb as Viola Davis who is deservedly the front-runner for gold, but one day soon we’re going to have to talk about category fraud as just like Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl last year, this ain’t a supporting role.
Jackie – clever but a little dry and not quite as gripping as I wanted. I was also very distracted by the faces that kept popping up (Deborah Findlay, Penny Downie, David Caves?!)

La La Land – we build them up, we tear them down. Had I seen La La Land pre-hype, I might have loved it. In the end, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about – it was an enjoyable film for me but not a particularly memorable one and in the context of the other films in the midst, one of the weaker entries. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are thoroughly charming but also feather-light.
Hidden Figures – some have critised the glossiness of Hidden Figures but for me, this is what is long overdue, these kind of stories getting this kind of Hollywood treatment. The frankly amazing story of African-American women’s contributions to NASA and the space race shines under director Theodore Melfi’s hands and in the understated performances of Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, gain real power and the exposure they most certainly deserve.
Lion – weepy but good.
Loving – a little bit disappointing if I’m truly honest. Ruth Negga is spectacular, achingly eloquent with a script that doesn’t give her the hugest amount to say as one half of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving whose struggle for recognition changed the law. But the film as a whole doesn’t quite have the emotional engagement that I wanted and un fact, the most powerful moment – and the one that actually made me cry – was the epilogue in which his fate was revealed.
Moonlight – the biggest threat to La La Land’s domination tonight is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, the kind of film to inspire the worst outpourings of white prvilege you ever did see – a film about black gay sexuality? Whoever could want to see such a thing or think it award-worthy? Well a hell of a lot of people actually, especially when it is done as artfully and tenderly as this, split into three, this is fiercely proud film-making (from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) and full of sensational performances, not least Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris (who shot her scenes in 3 days!)
Moana – one of Disney’s better recent efforts, pleasingly girl-positive storytelling and songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda – what more could you want?!

CD Review: In The Heights (2008 Original Broadway Cast Recording)

“Reports of my fame

Are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated cuz I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean”
The massive success of Hamilton didn’t come as too much of a surprise to those of us who saw and loved In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s preceding show which took Broadway by storm in 2008 and lit up the Southwark Playhouse in 2014 before transferring to the King’s Cross Theatre in 2015 where it continues to delight audiences with its heady mixture of sensual heat and community spirit – and its ideal listening in the middle of a roasting summer.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’ book may not be the most dramatically exciting – the story is set over 3 days in a heatwave in the Dominican-American neighbourhood of Washington Heights in New York – but for me, that’s why it works so well. It’s a genuine ensemble piece and the beauty of the show is that we get a snapshot of so many peoples’ lives and how they all intersect during both everyday moments and more crucial ones.

If the story beats aren’t as strong as you might like, the hypnotically varied but Latin-accented beats of Miranda’s score are undeniable as a series of character studies, as portraits of developing relationships, as expressions of communal emotions, hell, as just seriously catchy pieces of music. The sinuous rhythms and singalong choruses of the title track and ‘Carnaval del Barrio’ just worm their way into your head with their easy musicality and hip-swaying charm that makes you seriously consider salsa lessons. 
The two key romantic liaisons of the show also shine through on this recording – Miranda’s hugely likeable rapping Usnavi slots perfectly into the role of narrator while he negotiates his feelings for Karen Olivo’s spirited Vanessa, and Mandy Gonzalez’s Nina – the emotional route into the show for audiences as the one character who has left the ‘hood and is now coming back – and Christopher Jackson’s Benny have the more conventional love-against-the-odds story but it’s no less heartfelt.
And you get striking support from the excellent Andréa Burns as feisty hairdresser Daniela, Priscilla Lopez as Nina’s mother Camila whose ‘Enough’ is a standout moment, and Olga Merediz’s Abuela Claudia, the kindly matriarch of the community with such a vital role to play in everyone’s life. The cumulative effect of the score is hugely seductive and one which stands up magnificently even if you haven’t seen the show and of course, it is fascinating to see the way Miranda explores his musical identity and capabilities with Hamilton still to come on the horizon. 

CD Review: Hamilton (2015 Original Broadway Cast Recording)

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known”

I can understand why people might be feeling a little Hamilton-ed out with more than 12 months to go until it opens at the Victoria Palace and no let up in the hugely successful Broadway run, even as the original cast members are beginning to scatter. I even sometimes think I feel that way myself but the minute I pop the cast recording on to listen to a song or 3 or even the whole damn thing because I can’t resist, I am swept up once again in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius.
Part of this comes from the care and attention that was put into creating the Official Broadway Cast Recording, multiple recording sessions over several days were put in with The Roots on production duties, ensuring the layered complexity of every aspect of the score was preserved on record. And it is densely packed, it needs, nay demands, multiple listens to unpack not just the lyrical content but also the musicality, the richness of the orchestrations and how detailed they are.
And at a good 2 and a half hours, there’s a lot of it. These days I tend to skip to my favourite tracks – today they’re Renée Elise Goldsberry’s life-changingly good ‘Satisfied’ which I’ll happily argue is one of the finest moments ever in musical theatre in the way it shifts perspective to tell Angelica Schuyler’s version of events, and the family moment of ‘Take A Break’ as Philippa Soo’s Eliza, Anthony Ramos’ Philip and Angelica try to convince Miranda’s Hamilton to, well, take a break with some gorgeous harmonising and highly amusing beatboxing.
But ‘Wait For It’ is amazing, ‘Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story’ is almost unbearably moving, ‘Non-Stop’ at once conventional musical theatre and unconventionally brilliant…the list goes on. And why does it all work so well? If we knew the answer to that we wouldn’t have to sit through half the sub-standard musicals that we do. The alchemical magic in the mixture of contemporary music styles like rap and hip-hop with musical theatre tropes is key, so too is the dynamic range of the music and the emotion it holds within – you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you gasp along with every twist and turn, you can’t help but care so much and that I think is the key factor to Hamilton’s success.

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: Hamilton, Richard Rodgers Theatre

“I’m crossing the ocean and I just can’t wait”
Where to begin? Could anyone have expected the phenomenal success of Hamilton? Turning into the biggest Broadway hit of an age, accepting invitations to the White House, reinventing day queue culture, being the subject of made-up scandals, winning Grammys, all while radically challenging traditional notions of musical theatre. The build up of such hype has been thrilling to see but also poses questions like ‘could it really possibly be that good?’. And ‘how on earth does one get tickets for find out for oneself?’.
In short, the answers are yes and by booking months ahead in my case. I deliberately hadn’t listened to the original cast recording when it was released as I wanted to experience it for the first time on stage and knowing full well that I would get to see it one way or another, I also denied myself any of the multifarious online offerings so that the first I saw of Hamilton would be as the curtain rose at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. And I have to say the anticipation and delayed gratification was completely worth it – that said, I’ve struggled to write about the show in a satisfactory way (“I will never be satisfied…”) so treat this as an outpouring rather than a review.
Miranda’s blend of musical styles may be familiar to those who have seen In the Heights but here he takes it even further, transplanting this utterly contemporary approach to music onto a historical narrative and thoroughly invigorating them both with an amazing sense of alchemy. So the story of the founding fathers creating the United States, with specific reference to the meteoric rise of Alexander Hamilton from inauspicious beginnings, takes place in a sung-through mixture of contemporary R&B, hip-hop, jazz and blues, as well as a keen sense for a Broadway melody.
Its pretty much impossible to adequately describe how Hamilton made me feel, I mean I get goosebumps even now just thinking about it and how much I loved it and how excited I felt when watching it. And I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly why. I could point to the moment when Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Angelica lets loose a stunning torrent of conflicted heartfelt emotion in ‘Satisfied’, or the gorgeous harmonies as she and her sister Eliza (Philippa Soo) try to persuade Alexander to take some downtime in ‘Take a Break’ (my two standout musical moments)
Or Leslie Odom Jr’s smooth ‘Wait For It’ (which feels for anything as if it could have been on Rihanna’s latest album) or the striking arrival of ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ (that bass line…work!) or the sheer magnificence of ‘Non-Stop’ and its gathering together of so many diverse musical themes into a thunderclap of an Act 1 closer. You get the idea, I pretty much loved it all, its such a densely packed score that it benefits from repeated listens, almost requires it in fact, and each time a new favourite emerges, especially having had a certain few tracks on repeat.
I had Javier Muñoz on for an indisposed Miranda as the zealous Hamilton and he was just on fire, giving us all the shades of a man from nation-building hero and father (I am undone…swoon!) to wife-cheating disappointment, Daveed Diggs’ is highly engaging as Lafayette and Jefferson as is Okieriete Onaodowan’s as Mulligan and Madison. And I was pleased to have caught Jonathan Groff in one of his last performances as King George III, a minor but attention-grabbing role. And in case it wasn’t clear, Phillipa Soo and the extraordinary Renée Elise Goldsberry are both fantastic, whether beat-boxing, rapping or singing their hearts out.
Creatively it just rocks too. David Korin’s expansive set design is just awesome, lit stunningly by Howell Binkley and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography sparkles with its infusion of contemporary movement that elevates it into something truly beautiful in all the interrupted shapes it makes. And I’ve not even touched on the brilliant nature of the show’s diversity and what that actually means for an audience in a country where racial relations remain such a hot button topic but also for a traditional theatrical culture that could never have predicted Hamilton’s success.
The fact that people are breaking down the doors to see this show might easily be written off as hype, as a knee-jerk reaction for people wanting to see the next new big thing without actually having to think about what they’re choosing. But no matter the reasons for that lucky few getting through that door, the reality of them seeing people of colour playing historical figures, who have most likely never been represented as anything but lily-white, marks something that one desperately hopes marks something of a cultural shift or at least the beginnings of one. Naive perhaps, but that’s the joy of Hamilton, it makes you believe that that change is possible. 
Being in an audience that vocal, that inspired by what they were seeing onstage was a genuinely tremendous moment in my entire theatregoing life, and then you get that ending! Pretty much damn near perfect both as a piece of storytelling and an indictment of the way society tells its history, again you can only imagine the impact this might have far beyond the Richard Rodgers Theatre. And whilst I’m glad that plans to bring Hamilton over to the West End seem to be moving full steam ahead, I’m even more glad that I got the Broadway experience which complemented the whole thing. This cast is amazing, this show is amazing – I’m helpless, I’m satisfied.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 29th January 2017, at the moment…
 

CD Review: Scott Alan Live

“And there it is…”
 
For a composer who hasn’t had a major show on over here, Scott Alan inspires an amazing amount of evangelical joy from his fans. This has come from a series of albums and concerts in which his songwriting has been showcased by a wide-ranging collection of Broadway and West End stars, culminating in a rapturously received residency at the St James Theatre a couple of months ago. I like his work, having previously reviewed a couple of his albums, but I haven’t been as ecstatic as some about it so I thought I’d go back to the ones I hadn’t listened to. 
 
His double album Live offers reworkings of many of his songs and mixes things up further by retaining many of his frequent collaborators but letting them loose on different songs, even switching up genders on some of them. It’s a great move – Natalie Weiss smashes the joyful ‘I’m A Star’, Laura Osnes wraps her delicate voice beautifully around ‘Now’ and Jeremy Jordan is charming as ever on ‘Please Don’t Let Me Go’ and that’s all in the opening five songs. The slightly indulgent length of the album means we don’t always maintain such intense quality over both discs plus bonus tracks.

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