Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Now on Broadway:
The Band's Visit & Once on This Island
Reviews by Rob Lester

There's an accent on humanity and life-affirming sweetness, too, in two musicals currently on Broadway which have just released cast recordings. And, speaking of accents, or should I say speaking with accents, some of their charm comes from the decidedly pronounced inflections employed by the actor-singers that become part of the musicality of the scores, along with the evocative sounds in the melodies and instrumentation.


Ghostlight Records

Moving from Off-Broadway to the 90-year-old Ethel Barrymore Theatre with most of its cast intact, The Band's Visit brings the listener on a vicarious voyage where cultures don't clash, but complement and stimulate each other. Moreover, it's just as much about the individuals. Not splashy, not transparently commercial, it may seem at times like the aural equivalent of sketches or pastel washes—pleasing enough, but one might feel somewhat unsatisfied if longing for a large-scale painting with bolder, brighter colors. But subtle and pocket-size personal approaches have their rewards. Indeed there's often—to invoke the name of one reprised song title herein—"Something Different." In this case, "different" is worthy of appreciation, as another option in the palette of colors or to please the palate when it comes to musical taste buds.

From the mood-setting and locale-setting opening instrumental, we are gently led, floating on clouds, into the Middle East where we meet two groups of people who accidentally meet each other. The unintentional crossing paths happens via a convenient early plot twist (not musicalized except in after-the-fact explanation): a musical group from Egypt has ended up in the wrong town in Israel for their gig. They were supposed to go to a town with a similar-sounding name and thus, when asking for bus tickets to one, end up in the other and are stuck there for the night. They luck out with friendly people who take them in. Each group is the other's captive audience and we are theirs as almost all the action takes place during that mistaken visit. Characters open up to each other, warts/weaknesses and all, and endear us to them, their attitudes and foibles recognizable enough for us to identify. And while there is some glib, self-deprecating humor, much works in a more low-key, gentle manner. Those thinking that musical theatre needs to be big and razzley-dazzley will have to look (and listen) elsewhere.

Katrina Lenk as a down-to-earth woman with a cafe and a big heart gets some of the most engaging material in composer-lyricist David Yazbek's score, with both brash attitude and warmth. The recording brings out her sharp comic timing when mocking life in the slow lane, leading the sarcastic "Welcome to Nowhere" and a clear-eyed, clear-voiced "It Is What It Is." Disarmingly effective in showing the character's more openly emotional ways is her performance of the memory piece, name-dropping "Omar Sharif," the Egyptian-born actor. Her voice in this number is hypnotic as is the recollection she spins, carried along by "the jasmine wind" she sings of. It's a self-contained, self-explanatory piece; other songs require some familiarity with the plot to fully appreciate. (There's a concise synopsis for those who don't know the show or the same-named 2007 movie it is based on, but certainly the basic characterizations of others come through in pieces that are elaborations of feelings rather than plot-advancing episodes.)

With voicings both human and instrumental, crisply projected are one or two major personality elements for each person: the confident, counsel-giving lothario, and the fumbling, inexperienced younger fellow he shares romancing tips with; a devoted romantic pining for his sweetheart to call; a troubled father who croons a lullabye. The instrumentation featuring ethnic-specific instruments like the oud anchor the score in its geography without overkill or risking inaccessibility. A few purely instrumental tracks solidify that impact.

Tony Shalhoub as the conductor is a major character, but has minimal singing (and it's the selection not in English). Still, in context, it's impactful in its understated way. "Understated" is something to appreciate in the case of The Band's Visit's tracks. Ari'el Stachel's advice on how to "melt the ice" (as opposed to breaking it) in "Haled's Song About Love" comes off as eloquent, a smooth skating excursion on such ice, satisfyingly showing sensitivity when macho bravado might have made for a breezy, easy-mark target. But where some shows might go for the too brash or too broad, this one surprises with a quieter, tender moment, crystallized exquisitely with "Answer Me" with a brief but rapturous section of vocal harmonies.

The songwriter shares CD producing credit with Dean Sharenow, music coordinator/ recording studio mixer/master man/ music co-supervisor—sharing that last job with Andrea Grody who plays keyboards in the nine-person orchestra and did some of the arrangements. While this taste of an attractive score may not fully satisfy in a grand banquet kind of style or be as cathartic as some more blatantly dramatic emotional trips, The Band's Visit is a nice place to visit musically, and I increasingly appreciated each return trip.


Broadway Records

Welcome back to the Caribbean. As rich and vibrant as ever, once Once on This Island's cascades of music and storytelling take hold, hold onto your hats and hearts, because it's hard to resist the pull of the swirl of this whirlpool. It's the third recording of the score, following the original Broadway 1990 production and a later London mounting, and this one is dense with detail and delights, serving the work of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist/bookwriter Lynn Ahrens very well indeed. Like its current neighbor on Broadway, The Band's Visit, which opened the same day this show began its previews (November 9, 2017), this band's keyboardist is its music director (that's Alvin Hough, Jr.). Instrumental and wordless vocal sounds weave through the frequently employed narration/explanations, rolled out as both spoken and sung, sometimes in crisp unison, making it more palatable on repeat listenings.

Those looking for differences in this rethought presentation directed by the creative Michael Arden may find the new one more assertive and naked in confrontational segments, other moments more delicate, with emphasis on vocal complexities in reharmonized group numbers. Two of the four key gods are cast in gender-switched choices, lending additional variety. (Male actor-singer Alex Newell leading the vow that "Mama Will Provide" is feisty without sounding campy; visuals in the photo-filled booklet show him in full female dress, looking every inch the formidable earth mother. The exciting Merle Dandridge as Papa Ge, the antagonist controlling the destinies of death, is no slouch in presence either.)

Also interestingly, in addition to the five-member band and sounds of more than twice as many traditional instruments, sounds played on "found objects" such as percussion on piping, a plastic bin, and bottles, representing trash washed up on shore in the hurricane, provide a prominent plot turn. But the recording doesn't resemble a noise-fest one might hear on a street corner or subway platform by wannabe entertainers with more energy than musical talent and restraint. Things blend together. And the committed cast dives into its ensemble and solo work, with the proceedings rarely risking overdrive or cacophony. The latter part of "Pray," for example, strikes my ears as too much/too soon in terms of forceful volume thundering through what might feel belabored in repetition.

While there are chances for most members of the 20-member cast to shine, much here is ensemble work, and that tapestry is a textbook example of how dynamic that can be as a kinetic communal success. The distinct varieties in tones and vocal qualities enrich the whole so that the mesh never becomes mush. The sense of community is especially strong, with the message being perhaps an Antilles version of the literal lesson that "it takes a village" to teach lessons and help young people. The young person in this case is teenaged Ti Moune, as we witness her naive determination and disappointment, which are both supported and challenged. In this ingenue role, Hailey Kilgore is refreshingly radiant, never edging toward being cloying, although she somehow does not project a presence that dominates the goings-on. Her "Waiting for Life" here and there strays into strident territory, but is nevertheless convincingly involved.

Lea Salonga, as always, is an especially welcome and graceful presence, and one wishes her character of Erzulie had more to do, but her big moment to shine, leading the song that talks about each person being valued as "part of 'The Human Heart'" is a major highlight that is a slam-dunk in delivering its message. Her legato sounds when crooning are creamy compensation. I can't help but wonder if they were tempted to write a new song for her. Also welcome is the very centered characterization by Kenita R. Miller as the human mama. Among male standouts, strong, deep-voiced Phillip Boykin and Quentin Earl Darrington (the Coalhouse of the writing team's Ragtime revival) are potent participants. As Daniel, the man Ti Moune devotedly cares for and falls for, silky-voiced Isaac Powell is a pleasure to listen to. The alternates who effectively play the little girl, Mia Mia Williamson and Emerson Davis, are allowed to divide the role for the recording. Nice decision!

It was announced this week that there will be a national tour of Once on This Island next year. For now, it reigns on the island of Manhattan on Broadway and, on the 14th of this month, in a free presentation of some material at the East 86th Street Barnes & Noble store, a place where those of us who still relish having physical copies of cast albums can shop for them and flip through them (or for them, as fans). The event is a celebration of the CD release which is, notably, the 100th release on Broadway Records, a celebration-worthy landmark in itself to be sure. Congratulations to its president/ executive album producer Van Dean and a shout-out, too, to graphic designer Robbie Rozelle who has made so many of their booklets so attractive. Here's to the next 100!

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