Album Reviews: Renée Fleming – Broadway & The Quentin Dentin Show

Two new music releases – Renée Fleming tackles Broadway classics in style, and The Quentin Dentin Show releases its cast recording

“Life is what you want it to be”

No matter what you think of Renée Fleming, you can’t accuse her of resting on her laurels. At this point in her career, she could well be taking the easy route but this decade alone has seen her tackle Broadway (most recently receiving a Tony nomination for Carousel) for the first time and release an album that featured interpretations of three Björk songs. Her newest release cleaves closer to musical theatre though, and Broadway is available now from Decca Classics. Continue reading “Album Reviews: Renée Fleming – Broadway & The Quentin Dentin Show”

Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”


What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble.

Branagh is clearly invested in giving us an in-depth look into M Poirot’s psyche but by allowing him to dominate the narrative so, he neglects to pay the many other characters the attention they need for us to fully invest in the emotional stakes of each of their situations. For that’s a rather important aspect here and one that would keep the storytelling much more engaging, well before the finale finally grabs our attention. As it is, it all ends up rather dull, glamorous window-dressing in pointlessly ugly CGI settings, narrative clarity sacrificed for tricksy camera angles.

Photos: Allstar/20th Century Fox



Album Reviews: Marisha Wallace – Soul Holiday / Leslie Odom Jr – Simply Christmas (Deluxe Edition)

“Drive the dark of doubt away”

By all accounts, Marisha Wallace has had quite the couple of weeks. Taking over as Effie White in Dreamgirls, delivering a cracking performance on the Strictly results show and somehow finding the time to fit in two solo concerts to support the launch of her debut album Soul Holiday. I was otherwise occupied on Sunday but I have been able to listen to the album and it is a delightfully warm and happy collection, destined to put smiles on faces this Christmas.

As the title suggests, the dominant mood is a soulful one and it is one which reinvigorates this familiar material with a fresh spirit. Festive standards like ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’ shimmer with new feeling, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ somehow becomes more glorious, and a subtle take on ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ with British jazz pianist Ross Stanley is a truly beautiful affair, deeply heartfelt throughout.
Just edging it as a highlight is the hymn ‘Joyful Joyful’, made famous (to my generation at least) from the finale of Sister Act 2. Roof-raising and raucous, it imbues much of what you imagine Wallace’s personality to be in all its exuberance and, well, joy! And if the inclusion of Dreamgirls‘ ‘I Am Changing’ feels a little cheeky, this new arrangement makes it more than worthwhile, an extra little stocking filler to what is already a substantial gift.
And piggybacking onto the end of this review, it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr has re-released his own festive album from last year – Simply Christmas. It was one of my favourite Christmas albums of last year (review here) and now features four new songs. A delicate duet on ‘Edelweiss’ with his wife Nicolette Robinson (a performer in her own right) is really lovely, as is ‘Christmas’ from The Who’s Tommy, and there’s also new versions of ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Waltz’. That said, the album remains completely worth it for the slinkiness of his outrageously smooth ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.

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.

Festive review: Leslie Odom Jr / Megan Hilty / Eyles & Gould / All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride

“Its simple truth speaks volumes in a world where hatred rages”

Following on from the re-release of his self-titled album earlier this year, Leslie Odom Jr gives us another opportunity to sink into his world of soulful jazz with an album of reinterpreted holiday classics in Simply Christmas on S-Curve Records. And I do mean sink into like the most comfortable sofa you can imagine, in front of a log fire and drinking a nice cup of Charbonnel and Walker, for this is rich and luxurious stuff – as evidenced halfway into opening track ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ when a softly funky breakdown envelops you in its warmth like a marshmallow on top of that hot chocolate.
Dangerously seductive in Hamilton, Odom Jr will lose precisely zero fans here with this lush yet restrained style. Arrangements are kept simple, allowing heartfelt vocals to imbue tracks like ‘The First Noel’ and ‘The Christmas Song’ with renewed life. Equally, the piano and vocal improvs in ‘My Favourite Things’ keep things utterly fresh without losing sight of the overall vision of the record. The gentle guitar accompaniment to The Carpenters’ ‘Merry Christmas Darling’ is a thing of loveliness and Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s new festive standard ‘Winter Song’ blooms gorgeously under the treatment. 
Also taking a jazz-influenced approach to Christmas is Megan Hilty on A Merry Little Christmas. And hugely successful it is too, from the chirpy swing of opening one-two ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year / Skating’ to Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’, the live jazz quartet accompaniment brings a real authenticity and integrity to the record. Broadway is well represented with achingly lovely versions of White Christmas’ ‘Count Your Blessings’ and the gorgeous ‘A Place Called Home’ from Alan Menken’s A Christmas Carol sitting alongside the delicate ‘Bless Us All’ from the Muppets’ version of the same story, making for another recommended holiday collection.
Closer to home, British composing duo Rob Eyles and Robert Gould have released a Christmas single entitled ‘The Image of a Child’ with the guys at Auburn Jam Music in aid of Cancer Research UK. Featuring the vocal talents of Sabrina Aloueche, Adam Bayjou, Kieran Brown, Rob Houchen, Carolyn Maitland, Kayleigh McKnight, Michael Rees and Emily Tierney, plus an ensemble of Guildford School Of Acting students, the track feels like a cousin to the likes of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ as its a stirring choral number with reflective lyrics – well worth the download.

And rounding off this collection of potential stocking fillers (if you can stuff a stocking with a download that is…) is the DVD release of All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride, which premiered on BBC4 last Christmas. Though ostensibly sounding like ideal fodder for enemies of the Beeb in being a wordless, presenter-less 2 hours of a sleigh ride involving foreigners, it’s actually something much more thoughtful and contemplative than you might imagine. Filmed 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian region of Karasjok, it follows the path of an ancient postal route used by the Sami people, indigenous to northern Scandinavia, for whom reindeer herding is still a way of life. It is beautifully shot, revealing snow-covered scenery that barely seems real in the winter sunshine and through information-filled captions, giving insight into the traditions of this area and also the realities of living here. Hypnotically compelling and unexpectedly effective.

Round-up of summer album reviews

To cover the holiday period, you may have noticed an album review or three – here’s a round-up of them, including my top ten.

Recommended titles
Close To You – Bacharach Reimagined (2016 Original London Cast Recording)
Hamilton (2015 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Kelli O’Hara – Always 
Leslie Odom Jr – Leslie Odom Jr 
Matt Doyle – Uncontrolled
Samantha Barks – Samantha Barks
Thérèse Raquin (2014 Original London Cast Recording)
The Last Five Years (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
The Scottsboro Boys (2014 Original London Cast Recording)
Waitress (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

And the rest!
Alison Jiear – Inspirational
Allegro (2009 First Complete Recording)
An American Victory (2016 Concept Album)
Annie (1995 London Studio Cast Recording)
Annie (2014 Film Cast)
Bad Girls (2007 Original London Cast)
Billy Porter – At The Corner of Broadway and Soul
Billy Porter – Billy’s Back On Broadway
Brian Stokes Mitchell – Simply Broadway
Bright Star (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Bring It On: The Musical (2012 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Caroline Sheen – Raise the Curtain 
Cheyenne Jackson – I’m Blue, Skies
Cheyenne Jackson – Renaissance
Cool Rider (Original Studio Recording)
Departure Lounge (Original London Cast Recording)
Elf the Musical (2015 Original London Cast Recording)
From Here To Eternity (2014 Live Cast Recording)
Funny Girl (2016 London Cast Recording)
Ghost The Musical (Original London Cast Recording)
In The Heights (2008 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Jane Krakowski – The Laziest Gal in Town
John Owen-Jones – Unmasked 
Kimberley Walsh – Centre Stage
Kinky Boots (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Kristin Chenoweth – Coming Home 
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (2014 Cast Recording)
Lord of the Rings (2008 Original London Cast Recording)
Louise Dearman – Here Comes The Sun 
Louise Dearman – You and I 
Love Birds (Original Edinburgh Cast Recording)
Mamma Mia (Original Cast Recording 1999)
Mrs Henderson Presents (Original London Cast Recording)
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Oliver Tompsett –Sentimental Heart
Our First Mistake – The Songs of Kerrigan and Lowdermilk
Out Of Context: The Songs Of Michael Patrick Walker
Patti LuPone – Far Away Places
Patti LuPone – Matters of the Heart
Prodigy (Original Cast Recording)
Promises, Promises (2010 New Broadway Cast Recording)
Rebecca Caine – Leading Ladies 
Renée Elise Goldsberry – Beautiful EP 
Richard Beadle – Songs 
Ruthie Henshall – The Ruthie Henshall Album
Sally Ann Triplett – Anything Goes
She Loves Me (1994 London Cast Recording)
She Loves Me (2016 Broadway Cast Recording)
Stephen Ward (2013 Original Cast Recording)
Shuffle Along, Or…
The Bodyguard – The Musical (World Premiere Cast Recording)
The Color Purple (2006 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
The Color Purple (2015 Broadway Revival Cast Recording)
The Fix (1997 Original London Cast)
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (2012 New Broadway Cast Recording)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012 Broadway Cast Recording)
Thirteen Stories Down – The Songs of Jonathan Reid Gealt
Tony Yazbeck – The Floor Above Me
Tuck Everlasting (2016 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2011 Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015 Original London Cast Recording)
Xanadu (2007 Original Broadway Cast)

CD Review: Leslie Odom Jr – Leslie Odom Jr (2016)

“Who can say what dreams are?”
Leslie Odom Jr first released his self-titled debut album in 2014 but he opted to re-release it in June 2016 switching out three of the tracks for four new ones – quite why he didn’t just record a new album I’m not sure, but there you have it. It was certainly well-timed in any case, coming hard on Odom’s victory in the Best Actor in a Musical Tony award category for his iconic role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton
Perhaps deliberately, this 10-track album eschews Lin-Manuel Miranda’s striking musical masterpiece to instead mark out Odom’s own territory as a performer. Thus the collection flows with a contemporary jazz feel that is ideally suited to the warm cadences and tender elasticity of his vocal, which is pretty much joyous throughout, feeling as it does, as if it is on the precipice of seducing you (just wait ‘til you hear him croon in Portuguese…).
The album’s highlight is an incandescent take on Vincent Youmans’ ‘I Know That You Know’ from Hit the Deck, driving chords underscoring an arrangement that flirts with both R’n’B and jazz and yet would feel right at home on Radio 1 right now, the fierce outro from jazz pianist ELEW is just magnificent. Elsewhere, the gently relaxed but still pacey stroll through ‘Autumn Leaves’ is another stand out moment. 
What’s most impressive across the whole collection though is how the effective the jazz treatment is – nothing feels too forced, but when you’re talking of the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein (Flower Drum Song’s ‘Love Look Away’), Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening’s The Guilty Ones’), and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley (Willy Wonka’s ‘Cheer Up Charlie’), it’s no mean feat to remain respectful while reimagining so thoroughly.

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 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