ON THE RECORD: A Gentleman's Guide, Les MisÚrables, Billy Porter and More
By Steven Suskin
This week's column discusses the cast recordings of A Gentleman's Guide, Les Misérables, Murder for Two, Privates on Parade and Billy Porter's solo CD "Billy's Back on Broadway," as well as Christine Ebersole's "Strings Attached."
It is time, once more, to catch up with a clutch of recent theatrical CDs. The current group is led by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder [Ghostlight], which has been entrancing audiences since it opened in November at the Walter Kerr. This stylish entertainment stars Bryce Pinkham as a distant relative to a titled family in Edwardian England, with Jefferson Mays playing the eight D'Ysquith relatives who stand in Monty's way to title and fortune (and whom he unceremoniously bumps off).
If this sounds like that jolly old Alec Guinness movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets," there is a reason. Both are based on the same source, the 1907 novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal" by Roy Horniman. (My understanding is that Freedman & Lutvak were hired by producers who controlled the adaptation rights to the screenplay, but said producers at some point decided to switch songwriters. Freedman & Lutvak retained their score, removed copyrighted material created for the film version, and went ahead with characters and complications existing in the original, public-domain novel.)
A Gentleman's Guide originated at Hartford Stage in October 2012, directed by that regional's artistic director, Darko Tresnjak. On the heels of good reviews — including an outright rave from the New York Times — the show was remounted in March at the Old Globe in San Diego, and with a virtually all new cast (other than Mays and heroine Lisa O'Hare) and opened at the Walter Kerr as the first important new musical of the current season. While the 2014 Tony Award nominations will not be announced until April 29, A Gentleman's Guide can be seen as a prime contender for a clutch of nods.
Likely to be battling the aforementioned Mays in the Best Actor category is Ramin Karimloo, Broadway's newest Jean Valjean in the just-opened revival of Les Misérables at the Imperial. Timed to accompany the opening was the U.S. release of Les Misérables Live!: Dream the Dream. As it turns out, this is not the new Broadway cast album; this is the 2010 "25th Anniversary Production" album. (It does not feature Karimloo, who appeared in the 25th Anniversary Concert but not the 25th Anniversary tour). The present recording — with John Owen-Jones as Valjean and Earl Carpenter as Javert — does, though, reflect the revised version used in the current Broadway engagement, as directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Also included are the new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke, with additional charts by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker. (That's the billing on the recording; the trio are equally credited at the Imperial.)
There are three dozen or so cast albums of Les Misérables and no, I have not assiduously tracked them all down. Presumably, there will be yet another with Karimloo and the current Broadway cast. That said, this 2010 recording is presumably of great interest to fans of the show, as the production was carefully reconceived by Cameron Mackintosh for current-day conditions and audiences.
Also on the cast album pile is Murder for Two [Ghostlight], the two-character minimusical that premiered at Second Stage last July and is presently at New World Stages. The gimmick: One actor (Brett Ryback) investigates the murder, another (Jeff Blumenkranz) plays all the suspects and they both play the piano. Music and lyrics come from Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, and the show was directed by Scott Schwartz. (His father, that Wicked songwriter Stephen, provides a liner note. He likes it.) What you get can be described as zany and madcap; it is certainly an unconventional musical comedy. Murder for Two doesn't quite compare with Douglas J. Cohen's No Way to Treat a Lady, but then that 1987 Off-Broadway murder-mystery musical had four actors and an adeptly accomplished score.
Not from Broadway but of note is the CD release of the 1977 musical comedy Privates on Parade [Stage Door Records]. This Royal Shakespeare Company production opened in Stratford and transferred to the Aldwych, winning both the Laurence Olivier and Ivor Novello Awards. Denis Quilley and Nigel Hawthorne starred in this fictional tale of an all-male troupe touring Singapore and Malaysia (the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, they call it, or SADUSEA), based on the wartime adventures of playwright/librettist Peter Nichols. (Nichols remains best known for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg). The music is by Denis King.
Privates, with its cross-dressing hero, was controversial at the time and quite celebrated. It came to the Long Wharf in New Haven in 1979, with Jim Dale in the main role; was filmed in 1982, with Quilley and John Cleese; and reached New York in 1989, with Dale again playing the role at the Roundabout (back when it was on Union Square), and with future Tony winners Donna Murphy and Gregory Jbara in the cast. The show was revived in London by Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse in 2001, and just recently returned to the West End as the first production of the Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre, starring Simon Russell Beale. And now, belatedly, the original RSC cast album has finally found its way to CD.
Another new Broadway album — though not a cast recording — is Billy's Back on Broadway [Concord]. Billy being Billy Porter, who copped last year's Best Actor in a Musical Tony Award for Kinky Boots. Porter has long been recognized, in limited circles, as an exciting theatre vocalist; his performance as Lola finally brought him mainstream notice. Hence, Billy's Back on Broadway, and he is back in style.
Porter seems to have had an open hand at selecting songs, personnel, sculpting arrangements (mostly with Rob Mounsey) and more. As it turns out, his musical taste matches his talent. We get ten tracks, mostly show tunes including two Styne, two Sondheim, and one Loesser, one Loewe and one Lauper. Lauper not only provides "I'm Not My Father's Son," from Kinky Boots; she joins Porter as vocalist on a very nice duet combining "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "Get Happy."
As I prepared to store away the CDs I've been unable to get to, I figured I should at least listen to a track or two of Christine Ebersole's "Strings Attached" [Motema Birdland], which was released last Thanksgiving and thus is already old. And I couldn't stop listening. Ebersole's latest, which features the jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein (who also wrote the piano/violin/bass arrangements and produced the CD), is pure delight.
The star of Grey Gardens and other entertainments gives us fourteen songs, including a couple by Gershwin (led by "Shall We Dance"), a couple by Mercer, and single selections by Styne, Rodger & Hart, Porter and others. There are also assorted standards like "Am I Blue," "After You've Gone," and "I'll Be Seeing You," that are swell to hear. I never gave a second thought to "Something There" — yes, that's from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's Beauty and the Beast — but it sounds brightly breezy here.
Having missed "Strings Attached" in 2013, I naturally enough wasn't able to include it in last year's holiday gift column. But it belongs on the list, and I promise that in the future I will listen to Ebersole albums in a more timely fashion.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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