CD Review: Mamma Mia (Original Cast Recording 1999)

“It’s the best I can do”

It’s easy to be dismissive about Mamma Mia and all it has wrought in revitalising the jukebox musical as a form but the numbers don’t lie. 17 years and counting in the West End, the 8th longest running show on Broadway (it occupies the same position on the UK ranking at the moment too), a wildly successful film adaptation that became the highest grossing musical ever…it’s impressive stuff.

And listening to the Original Cast Recording from 1999, subsequently re-released with bonus tracks for the 5th anniversary, I’d say it’s fairly easy to see why it has endured so long. For all you may mock Catherine Johnson’s book, which hangs oh so lightly on a varied selection of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ iconic music for ABBA, it actually does interesting things with it, in telling its own story rather relying on the songs themselves (I’m looking at you Jersey Boys…!)

So to say you’re better off listening to ABBA’s greatest hits is to miss the point. As light as the plot may be in its girl-wants-father-to-walk-her-down-the-aisle-but-finds-there’s-three-potential-candidates frothiness but there’s something genuinely tender in hearing ‘Chiquitita’ repurposed for two friends comforting a third, maternal lament ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ actually sung between mother and daughter, the stag v hens vivacity of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’.

And yes, they sound different to the originals, of course they do with a full orchestra and chorus to back them up, not to mention the lack of Swedish accents. This recording is a little blessed too in having the film’s soundtrack with its interesting casting choices to easily surpass, but that’s not to take away from the delightful vocals of Louise Plowright, Jenny Galloway, and Siobhán McCarthy as the leading trio, the latter’s Donna a fabulous leading lady from heartbreak to happiness.

Plowright’s cougarish ways enliven ‘Does Your Mother Know’ no end and Galloway’s equally predatory stance toward Nic Colicos’ Bill in ‘Take A Chance on Me’ is a delight. Lisa Stokke’s Sophie, the bride-to-be is charm personified and in keeping with the show’s female-friendly ethos, her intended – Andrew Langtree’s Sky – is somewhat sidelined. For me, ‘Our Last Summer’ has always been one of my favourite ABBA songs and remains so here, ruefully sung by former rocker Harry, an appealing Paul Clarkson, and McCarthy with a gentle loveliness that seems to stand in for the show as a whole.

Album Review: The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

“We had such hopes…”

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Phantom of the Opera decamped to the Royal Albert Hall for 3 performances, the highlights of which were spliced together to give a full CD/DVD release package which contains as full a rendering of the entire score as it currently available. Maybe it was a rush job though as the sound quality on this CD really isn’t good enough for it to be genuinely recommendable, even for a live recording. 

I also had mixed feelings about the production itself. I just can’t get on with Sierra Boggess’ voice, her soprano voice always erring to the too shrill for my liking and the vibrato she employs has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Christine isn’t the strongest-written of roles at the best of times and Boggess just feels too emotionally vapid to be the inspiration of such all-conquering adoration as she is served with in this story. Continue reading “Album Review: The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall”

CD Review: Songs from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

“Now there’s lots o’ things you gotta know”

A sneaky thing this. What might ostensibly look like a cast recording for the Open Air Theatre’s production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is actually a record “inspired” by said production, featuring vocals from three of its stars – Alex Gaumond, Sam O’Rourke and Laura Pitt-Pulford. What’s more, and what I find hardest to take, is the music and company backing vocals were actually recorded back in 1995! The lead vocals were done in May of this year, so well before the production had started, and with that knowledge it is hard not to feel a little cheated.

For once you know this Frankenstein nature, it’s hard to forget it. As the vocals work beautifully with the The National Symphony Orchestra’s playing, and rise up with the company of supporting vocalists, the fact remains that there is 20 years between them. Not that you’d notice, the stitching together has been done seamlessly and the CD as a whole really does sound good. And the songs are such classics that it is easy to get swept off your feet to ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’, ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’ and ‘We Gotta Make It Through The Winter’ amongst many many others. Continue reading “CD Review: Songs from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”

Album Review: Betty Blue Eyes Official London Cast Recording

“He has magic fingers”

Before it came to an untimely end, the cast of Betty Blue Eyes were able to put down their vocals for an official live cast recording which provides something of a legacy for this Stiles + Drewe show. I went to see the show two times – reviews here and here – and loved it on each occasion as a fine exponent of a truly British new musical, but I have to admit I didn’t race to buy the soundtrack when it was first released. Part of it was due to the free taster CD that was released with the Evening Standard one Friday afternoon which meant I already had just under half the songs and though I enjoyed listening to it a couple of times, it was not one to which I returned.

Though I found it to be musically a very strong show, for some reason it doesn’t quite come across as well on the recording. Whether it was the lack of accompanying visuals to up the ante or the fact that I’d seen the show quite recently, the joy I got from watching the show didn’t quite translate into the listening experience I thought it would be. In its entirety, I found it to be so retro-infused and nostalgic as to almost be too much to listen to in one go, it doesn’t quite hit the same spot although there are moments of individual brilliance in some of the songs. Continue reading “Album Review: Betty Blue Eyes Official London Cast Recording”

Re-review: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello

“Pig! No pig!”

Not too much to say about revisiting Betty Blue Eyes as most everything I wanted to say was covered in my original review, and although I’m sad to say there was no Liza at this performance, I was joined by someone even better! I really enjoy watching shows I love with people experiencing them for the first time and seeing what they respond to and I was pleased to hear Aunty Jean chuckling away next to me for most of the show. But it was also interesting to see that there were sections I’d forgotten (one of the dangers of having an album sampler rather than the whole show I think) and how my emotional reactions differed: ‘Magic Fingers’ brought proper tears down my cheek and being somewhat prepared, I was able to look a bit more at the pig without being too freaked out đŸ˜‰

Aside from the replacement of the lightsabers with paint brushes in ‘Painting By Heart’, I can’t say I noticed any significant changes since the preview I saw. I can’t even really say that I thought the cast looked more comfortable or polished onstage as they were in pretty good shape when I saw them. There’s still the slight feeling that a couple of the roles could be sung by stronger voices, but I would wager that it would rob the show of much of its quirky charm. Continue reading “Re-review: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello”

Review: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello

“Another little victory for little England”

With a book by Ron Cowen + Daniel Lipman, adapted from the story of the film A Private Function by Alan Bennett + Malcolm Mowbray and with a score by George Stiles + Anthony Drewe and marking a rare excursion back into producing from Cameron Mackintosh, Betty Blue Eyes is a new musical at the Novello Theatre with a lot of names credited on the poster! Set in Shepardsford, a Yorkshire town in 1947 at the height of post-war austerity (and previews, which this was, are being sold at austerity prices!), the plot follows Gilbert Chilvers a chiropodist and his frustrated wife Joyce, chafing under the restrictions of the time and who yearns to be accepted into the higher echelon of society where she believes they belong. They are not having much joy until they happen upon a secret plot by the town council to hold a feast for this elite in honour of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s impending marriage at which an illegally kept pig will be the star of the banquet. So, this being a comedy, they steal the pig.

But it is about something more too, over and above the farcical shenanigans with Betty the pig, especially in the more reflective first half. This is a society struggling to come to terms with the enduring impact of the Second World War, the melancholy ‘Magic Fingers’ in particular looking at the wives left behind, as rationing hits hard, threatening to dampen the spirit of those just trying to carry on living in hard times yet still nurturing their own dreams and ambitions. And this is where Stiles + Drewe’s score comes into its own, suffused with a beautiful warmth: it really is stuffed full of tunes, their comical songs are deliciously witty whilst advancing the story, there’s simple but affecting emotion in the balladry and more than once, I found myself just swaying along with a grin on my face (and not just because Liza Minnelli was just a couple of seats away from us). It all has that kind of nostalgic feel that makes for easy recognition and it is a score I wanted to hear again from the moment the show finished. Continue reading “Review: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello”