Listening to musicals in the car
Traveling to and from Houston frequently in the past month has allowed me to catch up on some relatively new musicals while driving Texas 71 and Interstate 10.
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” The most entertaining cast album from this fresh batch of CDs turns out to be from the show that won the Tony Award for Best Musical. (That correlation is not always the case.) Smart, funny and polished, this show about the British class system and a series of murders in a high-toned family can brighten an afternoon without the attendant visuals. The cast — including former Austinite and Tony Award nominee Laura Worsham — is uniformly adept. Despite the intricacy of the plot, the parade of loves and murders is crystal clear on the first listen. But why stop with one?
“The Bridges of Madison County.” In some ways, the most ambitious of set, this adaptation of the Robert James Waller bestseller attempts to hit all the emotional high and low notes of the novel. Its pedigree is only improved by Marsha Norman’s book and Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeously orchestrated score. (It won Tonys for score and orchestrations.) No telling from this lovely recording why it lasted only four months on Broadway — find theatrical reviews elsewhere — but a touring production has been announced for 2015. The intensity of the treatment of intimate feelings is enough to make me want to see that tour.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” Those who know the great songwriter mostly from her “Tapestry” period will be delighted to hear her earlier pop hits, written with husband Gerry Goffin — recently deceased — plus those by their colleagues Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann (and others in snippets). Even without much insight into their personal entanglements, one hears the evolution of pop music along with the characters who have written the songs. Tony winner Jessie Mueller is indeed transcendent as King, but the whole project is a full few steps above the usual jukebox musical. I’d see it.
“If/Then.” Man, is this album a muddle if you don’t know the premise well. The story, set in contemporary New York City, is split between two potential narratives in the lives of one set of friends. The soaring, burbling score gives the snappy cast and, especially, above-the-title star Idina Menzel, the opportunity to sing their hearts out. Yet, because the subject is often the radical digressions in modern relationships, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for any of the characters. Now, that could change for a skeptical audience member like myself with the right production. The CD does not encourage me to find out.
“Murder for Two.” This two-hander mock murder mystery is all over the place. Two performers, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback, play dozens of roles, as well as the piano accompaniment in a musical that’s about as stripped down as it could be. Unlike “Gentleman’s Guide,” it is not easy to follow the mystery where everyone is a suspect from the recording alone, and not always pleasant to hear. One must give due respect to the actors who switch voices frequently and earn no respite along the way. Other than that …
“Tennessee Williams: Words and Music.” Alison Fraser has put together a sort of jazz cabaret act matching incendiary versions of American standards and other songs with excerpts from Tennessee Williams’ prose. This concept, in itself, is not compelling enough to hold the listener to the CD for long. Yet Fraser manages to make something fresh of “San Antonio Rose,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “St. Louis Blues,” no easy task. She is at her speaking best interpreting Williams’ haunting “Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen.” It would likely be a treat to see two-time Tony Award nominee Fraser performing this live in the right setting.
“Puss N Boots.” True story: When I popped this disc into the player, I worried how anyone this side of British pantomime could make a full musical out of this dandyish children’s tale. The recording’s first number, “Leaving London,” was built on smooth harmonies — folksy with a country inflection. The second, “Bull Rider,” seemed out of place, but lovely, lyrical. Perhaps the creators were going for a low-key Paul Sills’ Story Theater fairy tale adaptation. By the time I got to “Twilight” and “Sex Degrees of Separation,” I figured out that this was no musical at all, but an act called Puss N Boots, consisting of Sasha Dobson, Norah Jones and Catherine Popper. Their new album is “No Fools, No Fun.” Although it landed in the wrong CD pile, I was charmed nonetheless.