As it was at the overture and shall be at the exit music, bliss without end. Amen.

Theatre Aficionado at Large

Tag: Anika Larsen

‘Beautiful’ on LP

81-NypgJeaL._SL1500_ Since the long-playing record went out of vogue, very few contemporary cast recordings have been released on vinyl, the most notable being the original Broadway cast recording of The Drowsy Chaperone and the 2009 revival of Hair. These came courtesy of Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records, who also issued a limited vinyl edition of Beautiful, the hit bio-musical about Carole King currently playing the Sondheim Theatre. These three releases, while conceived as collector’s souvenirs, were in essence leading a return to form, as more musicals seem to be taking part in the current vinyl renaissance.

I’ve never been without a record player in my life, and I listen to LPs whenever I can. My very first cast album was the London My Fair Lady gatefold from Columbia. I was that nerdy child rummaging through boxes at second-hand bookshops and flea markets, picking out the Golden Age records that would start my life-long love of show music. (Spoiler alert: I am still that nerdy child). It’s different from popping on a CD or downloading an album from iTunes. Newer digital technologies are great for convenience, but the act of putting a record on a turntable, lifting a needle to the surface and waiting through those brief pops and crackles for the sound to pour out is a much more visceral, immersive experience. Plus, there’s the added pleasure of looking at the record sleeve and its artwork, allowing for greater appreciation of show logos and designs.

I don’t think Beautiful itself is a particularly great musical, but it is quite entertaining, especially thanks to its leading players. The show chronicles the early life and career of legend Carole King, her collaborator/husband (Gerry Goffin) and friends (songwriting team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) through the late 50s and 60s, up to her Carnegie Hall debut in 1971. The story is told in a rote fashion, with most of the song cues feeling like elaborate setups for a bizarre game of Name That Tune. The first act spends much of its time showing King and co. at work in the Brill Building, surprising the audience with an “I bet you didn’t know she wrote this one” attitude. The second act focuses on King finding her own voice as a singer-songwriter, though I think the musical ends just as Carole King’s life starts to get really interesting.

What Beautiful had going for it – and this is the most important element of all – was its leading lady Jessie Mueller, who was a sensational doppelgänger for King. I’ve seen Ms. Mueller in almost everything she’s done since arriving in New York (with the exception of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) and she continues to astonish me. Her voice is one of the modern wonders of contemporary musical theatre, seemingly able to sing any role in any tessitura. Onstage and off, Mueller radiates warmth, charm and pluck. (She’s also my choice for a Broadway revival of Funny Girl. In the meanwhile, I look forward to her return in Waitress).

But Mueller was not headlining a solo show. There’s also the delicious pairing of Spector and Larsen as King’s close friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. They are spectacularly warm, funny second bananas who should be headlining a separate Mann-Weil musical. (Billed as “The Carole King Musical,” Beautiful uses just a little too much of their tune-stack). However, Beautiful is even more enjoyable on second viewing. I went back to see it one more time before Mueller departed, and the issues I had were less problematic to me.

While I have my reservations about Beautiful the musical, Beautiful the cast album is a treasure.  Capturing the best of the show (its songs and performances), it plays quite well on disc, though I am more inclined to revisit Mueller, Spector and Larsen’s contributions than the slavish recreations of ’60s pop hits. As someone who hasn’t taken to the jukebox musical trend, I’m surprised how often I listen to the album, especially Mueller’s dynamic performance of the title song.

The idea to release Beautiful on LP came from marketing whiz Rick Miramontez over at O&M. Many of these were given out as voter swag to members of the various awards groups, ostensibly to capitalize on the nostalgia factor of Carole King among Baby Boomers. The vinyl release also went on sale at the theatre and from Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight’s website. It has since been made available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The CD release liner notes (with lyrics) have been beautifully repurposed for the gatefold interior, as well as the individual record sleeves.

Having purchased Beautiful from iTunes, and being quite aware of how it sounded on my iPhone, I was unprepared for the record experience. Mueller’s voice has considerable warmth, but somehow she sounds even warmer here. I stopped what I was doing to hear her sing those first lines of “So Far Away,” and immediately picked up the needle so I could hear it again. Mueller’s voice was made for vinyl. Plus, the LP release comes with a digital download card, so you’ll have the cast recording for your on-the-go needs.

This release was meant as a sort of novelty to cash-in on the show’s nostalgia. However, it seems to have come at a perfect time: sales of vinyls are up (as are sales of turntables). Sh-K-Boom has also released The Last Five Years film soundtrack as a 2-LP. Other musicals (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, School of Rock, If/Then) have released their Broadway cast albums released in the LP format. Word is Hamilton‘s best-selling and brilliant cast recording will be released on vinyl some time in 2016. Plus Masterworks Broadway has teamed up with Analog Spark to reissue some of their classic cast albums. I hope this is an encouraging sign of what’s to come because #yesrecords (and because I require the original Broadway cast recording of The Bridges of Madison County on vinyl).

"Avenue Q" Rises Again

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the final preview of the current Off-Broadway transfer of the Tony-winning smash hit Avenue Q was my first time ever seeing the show. There was really no excuse for my not having seen it before, as its been around for six and a half years. But sometimes even the good ones fall through the cracks – I didn’t see Hairspray until its penultimate performance. Anyway, this little musical that could, which famously upset juggernaut blockbuster Wicked for the 2004 Best Musical Tony, played 2,534 performances at the John Golden Theatre and closed up shop on September 13.

However, in the best closing notice coup since Roger Berlind announced the revival of Kiss Me Kate would remain open after 9/11, producer Kevin McCollum stunned all in the audience and onstage with the news that the show would reopen at New World Stages the following month. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook, et al, it’s stunning that they were able to keep this secret so airtight.

But now the show, a Sesame Street style spoof on post-collegiate life in NY, has reopened at New World Stages 3, comprised of many Avenue Q alumni from the Broadway run and national tour. So while I don’t have much perspective of how the show played on Broadway, but I can’t help but feel that the more intimate the space the better. (I entered the Golden for the first time two weeks ago, and it felt even a trifle too big for even Oleanna and it’s one of the smallest Broadway houses).

So how did I miss this show? Well, I’ll admit. I get very excited for an original cast and try to see a show when it’s fresh and new. My first experiences on Broadway involved tired companies of juggernaut musicals that felt more like death warmed over than exciting live theatre (Miss Saigon and Cats). It wasn’t until my 3rd experience, with the revival of the aforementioned Kiss Me Kate (and its original cast), that I felt this post-show rush that can be best described as floating ten feet in the air. Ever since, I’m wary of any production once the originals leave – particularly in a musical.

Well, I am sorry I waited for so long. The show is what it is – a ribald, irreverent but timely pastiche. Its explorations of life in New York City aren’t exactly going to erase your memories of Company, but the creators use the familiar techniques employed by children’s shows to create an endearingly satiric portrait of adulthood. So instead of learning our ABCs and 123s, we are treated to such Tony-winning musical gems (courtesy of Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez) as “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” and “Schadenfreude.” There are the instructional animated films, the requisite marginally older & wiser humans, and inevitably the life lessons (“There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “For Now”). What truly impressed me was the strength of the Tony-winning book by Jeff Whitty, which is much sharper in focus than many of the other self-referential musicals that have come after Avenue Q.

The engaging cast is comprised of Q alums, many of whom were involved in the final Broadway company. Seth Rettberg leads the charge as Princeton & Rod and illuminates the stage with offbeat charm. I can’t decide which is funnier: his delivery of “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada” or the ensemble’s outrageous pregnant pause that greets it. Sassy beltress Anika Larsen as Kate Monster & Lucy T. Slut is a petite powerhouse, with an especially showstopping delivery of “Special.” Cullen R. Titmas scores big as Trekkie Monster and Nicky. Nicholas Kohn and the irrepressible Sala Iwamatsu comprise the incongruous couple of Brian and Christmas Eve.

However, for whatever reason, my favorite is Maggie Lakis, who mostly provides silent support as an extra puppeteer but scores the biggest laughs of the evening as one of the Bad Idea Bears. Whenever Ms. Lakis is onstage, I couldn’t help but watch her. Not that she steals focus, mind you. She is just that fascinating a presence in a unsung performance ripe with humor and stagecraft.

There were two unexpectedly personal moments for me in the show. One was Princeton’s opening “What Do You Do With a BA in English?” I actually picked up one of those some years back and am still asking myself that question on a regular basis. The other, and one a bit more poignant, was “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” a reflective moment where the ensemble contemplates what were arguably the best years of their lives. I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Jimmy mid-song and said “That was my weekend.” I was at my alma mater for an alumni weekend reception hosted by the Theatre Arts department, my other area of study (talk about a win-win…)

While greeting old friends and faculty, I had the chance to mingle with bright, optimistic and engaged theatre students who were anywhere from five to eight years younger than I am now. (I’m 26). In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago, but we (Roxie and myself) started pondering when did we get so old, and why do these kids look so young? In the six years since the show opened (and closed and reopened), life for the post-bachelor’s student has grown increasingly more difficult and how strange that most of the themes pertaining to the show are still relevant to most of the people I know under the age of 30. This show got me thinking about myself, where I’m going and what I am doing with myself. And all they had to do was use puppets. Not many shows have that sort of effect on me, the most recent I can think of being the short-lived Reasons to Be Pretty.

Kudos to the house staff at New World Stages, who go the extra mile to make sure that there are no cell phone interruptions during the show. (Including reminding someone in the press about the NYC statute against cell phone use inside a theatre). This was also my first experience with the in-seat drink service, something in which I might partake should I go back again (which, yes, I am already considering). Though, I wondered during the audience collection if alcohol was a factor in inspiring an audience member down front to throw a Nutri Grain bar at the cast…

The move to off-Broadway was surprising, but it makes sense. The show is built for intimacy, and it is more cost effective for the producers to run it in a 499 seat house outside of Broadway. (And apparently The 39 Steps may follow suit…? Who knew?) It’s also nice to see that the show is becoming a theatrical institution for the city. As long as there are fresh-faced college grads tackling the world head on, there will always be a place for Avenue Q. Especially in New York.

Posted on October 21, 2009 at 10:05 pm.
A place where I can rant and rave about theatre,
theatre history, plus books, film and anything
else that strikes me as entertaining, interesting
or important. Feel free to chime in. If you'd like
me to have a look at your show or have any
interest in advertising, feel free to contact me. Membership
director of the Independent Theater Bloggers Association.

Photo by Kari Geltemeyer

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2016

2/11 - The King and I

2/12 - Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

2/14 - Cabin in the Sky (Encores!)

2/16 - Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

2/19 - She Loves Me (first preview)

2/21 - Translations (Oxford Arts Space)

2/22 - The Secret Garden (MCP Concert)

2/28 - Anna Netrebko in Recital (Met Opera)

2/28 - Kate Baldwin & Friends: Welcome to My Party (Sheen Center)

3/9 - She Loves Me

3/11 - Noises Off

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

4/3 - 1776 (Encores!)

4/4 - The Light in the Piazza (10th Anniversary Reunion Concert)

4/25 - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

4/28 - Dido and Aeneas (City Center)

5/15 - Do I Hear a Waltz? (City Center Encores!)

5/25 - The Robber Bridegroom

6/3 - The Color Purple

6/8 - Bright Star

6/13 - Lettice and Lovage (Acting Company Benefit)

6/26 - The King and I

7/23 - Shuffle Along

10/24 - Sunday in the Park with George (City Center Encores! Gala)

10/29 - Kelli O'Hara at Carnegie Hall

11/9 - Guillaume Tell (Met Opera)

11/23 - Half a Sixpence (West End)

11/24 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/25 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

11/28 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/29 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

12/12 - Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Gala)

12/14 - In Transit

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2015

1/1 - Beautiful

1/8 - Honeymoon in Vegas

1/12 - A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration (92nd Street Y)

1/15 - On the Town

1/25 - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Paper Mill Playhouse, opening night)

1/28 - The Merry Widow (Met Opera)

1/30 - The Elephant Man

2/6 - Lady, Be Good! (Encores!)

2/13 - The Screen (Taksu Theatre Company)

2/19 - You Can't Take It With You

2/27 - The Lion

3/1 - John and Jen

3/3 - Craig Ferguson: Hot & Grumpy Tour

3/8 - The Audience (opening night)

3/12 - The King and I (first preview)

3/17 - Hand to God

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

3/22 - Paint Your Wagon (Encores!)

3/25 - Cabaret

3/26 - The Visit (first preview)

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 1

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 2

4/8 - Gigi (opening night)

4/9 - Rhiannon Giddens at Town Hall

4/21 - Gypsy (West End)

4/22 - Wicked (West End)

4/22 - The Audience (West End)

4/23 - The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

4/24 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (West End)

4/25 - Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)

4/25 - Matilda (West End)

4/27 - Sweeney Todd (Tooting Arts Club)

4/28 - Follies (Royal Albert Hall)

4/28 - Gypsy (West End)

5/10 - Zorba (Encores!)

5/26 - The Visit

6/2 - On the Twentieth Century

6/9 - The King and I

6/14 - The Visit

7/2 - Little Shop of Horrors (Encores!)

9/21 - Hollywood Arms (Merkin Hall Reading)

10/4 - Dames at Sea

10/14 - King Charles III

10/16 - The Pirates of Penzance (Collegiate Chorale)

10/27 - Spring Awakening

11/2 - Kate Baldwin: Sing Pretty and Don't Fall Down (Keen Company Benefit)

11/17 - Songbird

11/25 - Gypsy (West End)

11/28 - Gypsy (West End, closing)

11/30 - The Winter's Tale (West End)

12/1 - Kinky Boots (West End)

Miscellaneous Links

Newsodrome - Theatre News

Blog Directory & Search engine Blogged.com Add to Technorati Favorites

Archives

Kevin on Twitter