Three from Broadway Records

I have to say I’m really excited by the high number of cast recordings that have emerged this season, from Broadway, off-Broadway and the Encores! season. If rumors of a Leap of Faith cast album are true, we’ll have recorded accounts of all Tony-nominated Best Musicals and Musical Revivals, among others. In the midst of this busy season, a brand label has emerged on the scene. Broadway Records is making its first foray into the cast recording world with three releases of note: two original Broadway cast albums and a star replacement EP. All three are beautifully produced and handsomely packaged, with color photographs. The two full cast albums contain lyrics, synopses and essays from the creators.

Bonnie & Clyde didn’t do much for me in the theatre, but it makes for a surprisingly entertaining listen. I still feel that Wildhorn’s music was the least of that show’s problems. Don Black’s lyrics remain a mixed bag, but that is buoyed by some wonderful performances especially the four principals. Laura Osnes’ performance of “How About a Dance?” is worth the price of the record. Some numbers are duds (including the act two opener “Made in America”), but for the most part the cast album makes a better case for the show than the show itself! In fact, separating the score from that terrible libretto is probably the best way to experience Bonnie & Clyde. Included is a bonus track of the cut song about Clyde’s impotency, “This Never Happened Before” (just be warned, it’s one that cannot be unheard).

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has ended its run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, but that shouldn’t stop you from hearing the third and final Finch, Nick Jonas, on this new 5 track EP. I am only familiar with Mr. Jonas from what I had seen of the Les Miserables anniversary concert, where his performance as Marius was strained with pop mannerisms and was rather uncomfortable to watch. However,  his performance as Finch on record is a far cry from that; Jonas is affable and sings delightfully. He sounds much more at ease when not trying to do that straight-tone pop thing they expect of the kids these days. The tracks include “How to Succeed,” “The Company Way” (with Rob Bartlett), “Rosemary” (with Rose Hemingway), “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man.”

“So give them Lysistrata, and I wish them lots of luck.” So Carmen Bernstein sings in Curtains. She’s not far off the mark, as far as musicalizing Aristophanes’ bawdily enterprising heroine is concerned. There was the 1961 musical The Happiest Girl in the World, which combined Offenbach’s music with Yip Harburg’s lyrics, that lasted 97 performances. Then there was the much-reviled play-with-music adaptation of the play in 1972 starring Melina Mercouri. And while it had some ardent admirers, including Ben Brantley, Lysistrata Jones wasn’t long for the Broadway stage.  I missed seeing Lyssie Jones but the early closing of the show allowed the producers to make this original cast album which will no doubt give this show a cult following post-Broadway. This adaptation involves a perpetually losing college basketball team, and the head cheerleader (the dynamite Patti Murin) withholding sex from the players until they win a game. The score (by Lewis Flinn) is rather tuneful, engaging and at times just fun (and occasionally some of librettist Douglas Carter Beane’s work shines through). Included is a bonus track of the show’s inspirational “Hold On” sung by Jennifer Holliday with the cast.

With these three marvelous releases, I look forward to hearing what Broadway Records has to offer in the future. (Crossing fingers for an EP of Victoria Clark’s Sally in Follies).

“Bonnie & Clyde”

Odds are if you mention the name Frank Wildhorn to a die-hard theatre fan, you’re going to be met with a rather impassioned opinion. While not a critical darling, the composer of Jekyll & Hyde, continues to bring new shows to Broadway with what appears to be continually diminishing returns. I am familiar with some of Wildhorn’s scores, but have not had the opportunity to see one onstage until his most recent, Bonnie & Clyde,  a spirited re-telling of the infamous duo famous for their murderous string of robberies in the 1930s South, and were also considered something akin to folk heroes as well.

While Mr. Wildhorn takes the brunt of criticism for his shows, as his is the *name* that is most associated and marketed with them, it’s not necessarily his fault that this new musical doesn’t really work. In fact, I think his problem is more in the selection of his librettists and lyricists (though I do enjoy The Scarlet Pimpernel). In this case, Mr. Wildhorn is dealing with a libretto (by Ivan Menchell) that contains a dramatically inert first act, in which the audience faces 75 minutes of pure exposition. The number that should serve as the first act finale appears in the beginning of act 2. The songs don’t have clear motivation, and there are often times when I wondered why a character was even singing. The lyrics (by Don Black) are mundane and don’t reveal very much about character. There are songs that range from the abysmal (“Made in America”) to the unnecessary (“When I Drive”) to the familiar (“You Love Who You Love,” a sort of Southern homage to “In His Eyes” from Jekyll & Hyde). The eleven o’clock number is “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad,” which speaks to the cliched nature of the lyrics in general.

This is even more disappointing than I would have expected because the show’s leads are absolutely terrific, especially the two leading ladies. Jeremy Jordan does what he can with Clyde, but it’s an insurmountable challenge to make him even remotely sympathetic as he’s written like a petulant schoolboy and all attempts at sympathy fail to counterbalance his life of crime. (Excuses that his actions were the product of the Depression don’t interest me; even if that were the case Barrow’s actions were met with a consequence that is unsurprising). He has a strong voice, though he pushes a bit much. Even better is his leading lady, the ravishing Laura Osnes, who radiates star quality from her entrance to exit. She sings beautifully, acts with a compelling sincerity and is on top of all her multiple talents, a visual knockout.

Making a warm, winning Broadway debut is Claybourne Elder, who first caught my attention off-Broadway in Road Show, as Clyde’s brother Buck. Playing his wife Blanche, arguably the most fascinating character in the entire story, is Melissa Van Der Schyff. At a post-show talk back, I discovered that Ms. Van Der Schyff had avoided the film through the show’s genesis, which made it all the more interesting how like her Oscar-winning counterpart in the film (Estelle Parsons), Van Der Schyff walks away with the show.

Louis Hobson sings well as a the police officer in love with Bonnie, but the role as written seems just like all the other unrequited love stories we’ve seenThe musical also features a strong ensemble, most notably the hilarious Marissa McGowan who gets some of the biggest, most unexpected laughs of the entire show with a bit part in a hair salon.

There isn’t much in the way of choreography, but Jeff Calhoun has staged the musical well creating some interesting stage pictures, with the assistance of costume and set designer Tobin Ost, whose multifaceted unit set is one of the most inspired aspects of the musical. Ost’s period costume designs evoke the feel of the time and place, but also manages to recreate iconic clothes seen in images of the outlaws. But you really shouldn’t leave a musical humming the sets.