Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Three cast recordings
Reviews by Rob Lester

Ghostlight Records

Writing strong material for strong women characters is hardly something new for Michael John LaChiusa, whose past musicals include First Lady Suite, First Daughter Suite, Bernarda Alba, Marie Christine, and Queen of the Mist. He has continued on the path with his latest, the engaging The Gardens of Anuncia for which he wrote the accessible, varied-toned songs and the book. The project reunited him with orchestrator Michael Starobin–who brings his usual palette of rich emotional colors to the music–and frequent collaborator and friend Graciela Daniele. She directed and co-choreographed (with Alex Sanchez) the piece, which is based on her own early life and family members who influenced her.

Included in the cast are two veterans of earlier LaChiusa shows, Eden Espinosa and Mary Testa, who play, respectively, the mother and grandmother of the character inspired by Ms. Daniele, here named Anuncia, a role split between Kalyn West (in the character's young years) and Priscilla Lopez (in the present day, tending her beloved garden and ghosts of the past). The cast recording of the recent production at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater evidences their invested portrayals of contrasting and complementary characters and voices, as memories and dug-in perspectives are presented. Andréa Burns adds her rich voice to the potent congregation, performing the role of an aunt, another assertive but caring family member.

Those new to the musical but not new to the long, distinguished Daniele career should be advised not to look for a strict biographical musical or glimpses of her professional projects. This memory play is inspired by her early life in Argentina.

Inspiration for appreciating and participating in the arts comes with the standout numbers "Listen to the Music" and "Dance While You Can," both reprised. While often poignant and tender, The Gardens of Anuncia is not all wistful warm and cozy nostalgia. Not all recollected events are pleasant ones, and characters are often blunt in their opinions, down to earth rather than saint-like. There's some pain and woe revealed in the histories of marital relationships and references to the mother being entangled in resistance to the political regime. One especially surprising but welcome instance of comic relief comes with Tally Sessions as a daffy deer spouting puns and quips. Enrique Acevedo completes the cast, ably playing a variety of roles, including the grandfather whose death is addressed with unsentimental stoicism by Mary Testa, denying that she'll "Miss the Man."

With the lovely and vibrant orchestrations, the artful and compelling score takes us floating on graceful rides, with plenty of reality checks to bring us down to earth. There's a pervasive sense of carpe diem and the necessity of taking the bitter with the sweet of life and making peace with the past to achieve some serenity and closure. The cast recording of The Gardens of Anuncia presents a well-handled score of distinction and delights.

RBIC Music Group

I won't merely whisper my admiration for the recording of Whisper Darkly–I'll whole-heartedly shout its praises. Delivered with dazzling panache, its savvy pastiche numbers capture and embrace the 1920s speakeasy setting with cynical dark shadows lurking in the frothy festivities. A digital release from the new RBIC Music Group label, the polished concept album of the project subtitled The Electro-Swing Musical sparkles and pops in the plot songs and diegetic numbers for its nightclub performer characters.

The talented cast members sing with flair and oomph, strutting and sashaying as familiar showbiz "types": the practical and demanding proprietress of the venue (Aléyna Watters), the innocent and insecure newbie (Keri René Fuller), the top banana entertainer (Brad Oscar), and the peppy chorines. Alli Mauzey and Claybourne Elder stand out in group numbers with bite. Add some more serious personal struggles spotlighted in songs (Howard McGillin as the maitre d' singing of "Love in the Shadows" and Kayla Davion as a performer facing racial prejudice), sexual tension, and a police raid and you have far more than just a jazzy, jaunty holiday.

The old-school stylings are filtered through modern music's zing with some caffeinated beats and the wizardry of technology. The songs–some with an edge, some merely frisky and fizzy (or so they seem at first)–are first-rate fits for the ambiance and period. Andrew Gerle's deliciously catchy melodies fully satisfy. And three cheers for his carefully crafted words. (A couple of numbers have lyrics co-credited to DJ Salisbury, who wrote the book and conceived the project).

Especially impressive: the many rhymes packed into the lines, with internal rhymes and sometimes triple rhymes zipping by. Here are examples: From "The Top Dog Strut": "I deserve the meaty bone/ Ice cream cone/ All my own./ Free to live life unafraid/ Lemonade In the shade/ Lying in a pile of dough/ No Joe Schmo/ Best in Show." From "Paris says Yes": "Freedom like a hug/ Freedom like a drug/ I get a hand instead of panned / Or swept under the rug./ Freedom on the stage/ Freedom on the page/ I shook my fan in Le Matin/ And now I'm all the rage." From "The Spouse of Ill Repute": "Well, marry him and you'll be knowin'/ That money came from gigoloin'/ And all them oats that he's been sowin'/ Spell a habit like to keep on growin'." (The digital booklet provides all the words and a plot synopsis.)

Accompaniment is by a terrific 11-member band directed by songwriter Gerle, who is on keyboards and did the arrangements and electronic production with PiSk (aka engineer Roberto Costa). Whisper Darkly had an Equity workshop in Florida in the recent past and, judging by the strong potential shown via this recording, its future is anything but dark.

Center Stage Records

An intriguing, intense original musical, Figaro, set in Italy, is drenched in drama and danger. The well-cast world premiere recording has among its seven-member cast the show's songwriter, Ashley Jana, who co-created it and co-wrote the dialogue (a fair amount of which is heard) with director Will Nunziata. A mysterious and melancholy feel to the beginning pulled me into its world, reminding me of hauntingly languid and lush (and, soon, lusty) musical moments of epic Frank Wildhorn musicals.

Some instrumentals have a cinematic feel rather than a theatrical one. And it all works quite well in establishing its atmosphere. Emotions are big. There's impressively grand and grandiose singing, with passion and yearning, while other numbers are more on the wistful side.

Miss Jana deftly inhabits the role of the lover/stage partner of Figaro's title character, a charismatic magician–a man who is tricky in more ways than one. Appropriately, Mauricio Martinez is a leading man radiating star quality and a fiery persona. Into their midst comes the protagonist, Sienna, played by Cayleigh Capaldi, seeking to fulfill her dream of becoming a singer. (But things get complicated.) Also held in Figaro's web are a kind backstage assistant (Jayke Workman) and two children–siblings who are orphans. Singing disarmingly and with real beauty and purity as the kids are Lily Bell Morgan and Benjamin Pajak (the boy who made such an impact on New York theatregoers recently in The Music Man and Oliver!). Their appearances are major highlights for charm and engendering sympathy. In an admirably earnest performance, T. Oliver Reid completes the cast as Sienna's father.

Boasting 27 tracks that vary in length from less than a minute to more than six minutes, the Figaro recording is quite the epic saga. Episodes include Sienna's expression of her desire for a new kind of life, her father's worried search for her, a heated lovers' quarrel, Figaro's boastful description of his talents, and the children sharing their backstory of being given away by their mother, and a death. Some musical scenarios are more captivating and convincing than others. Adherence to true rhymes is inconsistent. Although the story is set in the mid-1800s, a few language choices stick out as jarringly contemporary. On the plus side, the story is full of twists and turns that aren't too predictable and one can be swept away by the unabashedly big moments and searing emotions that adult cast members go for. They have the vocal chops to handle them, and throw themselves into the bravura acting. And certainly the two young singing actors' affecting, sweet material touches the heart in a refreshingly gentle way.

A fully staged production of this musical is in the works for the West End, to be directed by co-creator Will Nunziata, set to work his magic on this tale of a musician and those upon whom he casts a spell.